Bringing up baby, and mum's the word for dads

Here's looking at you, kid: Social worker Hanson Jeong holds his infant son. Mr Jeong took one week's paternal leave, provided under his award, but then had to shift onto carer's and sick leave.
Photo: Justin Mcmanu

Mario Xuereb
April 13, 2008

WHO would deny a father time to bond with his newborn child without forgoing an income?

Technically speaking, most workplaces.

Female employees can take up to 12 months' unpaid leave after giving birth, but Australia has no legal requirement for any paid parental leave, making it and the US the only OECD countries without a scheme.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, last year only 34% of male employees had access to paid paternity leave as a specific benefit. Access varied widely across industries, job types and income brackets, making it far from universal.

It dropped to 13% for men in hospitality, but was as high as 63% for public servants.

Lower-income earners lost out to higher-waged men, while only one in 10 part-time male workers had paternity leave.

Others missed out because they were self-employed (20%) or had worked in the same job for less than a year (15%).

While maternity leave has had all the attention, there is now a push to pay dads to stay home for a time. The Productivity Commission is examining parental leave and will examine the social benefits and economic costs of various models of maternity and paternity leave, including the role fathers play in child-rearing and how paid leave influences their behaviour.

Gillian Whitehouse, a parental leave researcher at the University of Queensland, thinks men are more likely to take leave if they're paid. Australia should strive for a system of leave with a separate quota for each parent followed by some shared leave.

"If you've just got a period of shared parental leave, the typical pattern is that it's taken by mothers," Professor Whitehouse said. "(The system) needs to encourage fathers to take that leave."

In Norway, six of up to 54 weeks' paid leave is reserved for fathers. If it is not taken, the total amount of leave is reduced.

"It's to encourage fathers to take the leave where typically it's taken by women," Professor Whitehouse said.

Getting men on paternity leave also means paying them.

According to Professor Whitehouse's research, up to 80% of working men in Australia take leave from their jobs after their child's birth.

Nearly all about 88% take ordinary paid leave, dipping into annual leave, sick leave and other entitlements in the absence of paternity leave.

"Few men actually take paternity leave because few actually have access to it," Professor Whitehouse said.

"The evidence is certainly that fathers are much less likely than mothers to take unpaid leave. Only 7% of working fathers in our sample used any unpaid paternity leave."

In the absence of a comprehensive system of paternity leave, most new fathers take a mish-mash of leave to be home while maintaining an income.

Hanson Jeong's partner gave birth to their child in late February. He took one week's paternal leave from his job as a social worker in Melbourne's north, provided under his award, but extended his leave after his partner's complicated delivery.

For Mr Jeong, forced to dip into his carer's and accrued sick leave, time off has been crucial to bond with his son and support his partner after her emergency caesarean.

"We were planning a natural birth (but) everything went wrong. She was in trauma because of that and I needed to be there to support her."

"(She was) grieving over what she had wanted, but at the same time, I was bonding with the kid."

Five weeks later, Mr Jeong has returned to his job part-time, an option afforded by working in a white-collar and female-dominated workplace. "My co-workers are all mums," he said.

There are fewer options for blue-collar and self-employed men, who have the lowest access to paid paternity leave (if any), and lower access to other forms of leave than white-collar fathers.

Health professionals say fathers should be around long enough to settle into their new family role.

Mr Jeong said that was longer than one week for him.

"At first he was just a baby he wasn't my baby.

"It was only after a week or so that I had a chance to interact and be able to say that that's my son. So I wonder about men who don't have any paternity leave where is the chance of bonding for those guys?"

Fathers around the world

■ AUSTRALIA: There is no legal requirement for paid paternity leave, though about one-third of working men get some form of paid paternity leave from their employers. The average duration is 14 days.

NORWAY: Men in paid work for six of the past 10 months can share up to 44 weeks' leave at full-pay with the child's mother. Six weeks are reserved for the father. Paid out of social security and employee/employer contributions.

NEW ZEALAND: Mothers and fathers who have been in jobs for six months can split 14 weeks' leave while being paid up to 90% of the average weekly wage, about $NZ390 ($A330). The government foots the bill.

BRITAIN: Two weeks' paid leave is available to men with weekly earnings of more than 87 ($A184) who have worked for the same employer for 26 weeks. Men get the lesser out of 112 a week or 90% of their average weekly earnings. Paid out of social security.