Head of PE and Dance and mother of two, Helen explains how shared parental leave worked for her and her husband, also a teacher.

I am currently coming to the end of my second maternity leave, and second experience of Shared Parental Leave (SPL). SPL works by enabling a couple to split up to 50 weeks of leave and up to 37 weeks of pay between them – previously these would only have been available to the mother or primary carer. SPL was introduced in 2015 with the aim of offering more choice and flexibility to new parents. Each partner can take up to 3 ‘blocks’ of leave – these can be taken concurrently or separately.  To give you an idea of how it can be used, this is what we have done this time round (we are both teachers):

April – end of the summer term: my first block of leave while my husband was at work (except for 2 weeks paternity leave when the baby was born, which aren’t included in SPL).

Summer holidays: my first block of work while my husband was also at work – full pay for both of us during this period.

September – end of the Christmas term: my second block of leave while my husband was at work.

Christmas holidays: both of us at work.

January – February half term: return to work for me with my husband taking a block of leave.

We split our leave in a similar way with our first child, enabling both of us to be paid over the summer holidays and with my husband taking a half-term of leave when I went back to work. 

There are many ways parental leave can be used and that there is no ‘right’ way, just the best way for individuals and their families. As a family, we have benefitted hugely from SPL and I would strongly encourage prospective parents to look into it as an option.

Balanced time at home

Not quite balanced for us, as in both cases I have had longer off than my husband, but we both found it invaluable to spend time at home with the baby. We both always wanted to approach parenthood in a balanced way, and for neither of us to fall into the category of the main parent and all that this might involve… booker of doctor’s appointments, sole contact for nursery, buyer of tiny new socks and pants, head chef, washing machine loader and general diary planner. The way that leave is generally taken following the birth of a child often leads to the primary carer taking on these responsibilities during a child’s first months of life, and it being very hard to shake these off following this period.

Shared parental leave was a great solution for us. In my first months of leave with our first child, I hated being asked by my husband where the baby’s socks were kept or if the changing bag needed restocking, and I resented being the holder of all this mundane knowledge. When I went back to work, he had to work it all out and I would find myself asking similar questions, and better understanding his early experience. Being physically absent from the home is a barrier that naturally restricts how closely your finger can be on the pulse in all things baby related, and we both understood this better having had blocks of leave whilst the other was at work.

Our split time at home also enabled both of us to share the joy (and frustration!) that a young baby brings. My husband experienced the first crawls, first steps and, to his pride, first ‘dadada’ words our child spoke, and he didn’t just see these at the weekend – he saw the slow, incremental and exciting build up. He loved reporting the latest developments to me when I got home from work, just as much as I enjoyed hearing about them and receiving photo and video updates whilst at work.

This balanced time at home shaped us as future parents – now, with two young children, no job ‘belongs’ to my husband or to me. He knows what goes in the changing bag and where it is all found. He shares my constant low-level anxiety about the next small person snack and ensures that a crushed bag of mini cheddars or a squashed fruit bar is always at hand. He knows to check when the baby last did a poo, that we have changes of clothes for everyone, that the sling and the buggy and the tiny bike and helmet are both squeezed into the boot of the car. Perhaps I am short-changing my husband and partners in general, but I truly don’t think we would have achieved the balance we have without SPL (or perhaps we would but will many more ‘discussions’ along the way…!).

Smoother return to work

When I returned to work after our first child, all I had to do was get myself up and out of the house – no scary new childcare routines, no cajoling to get through the breakfast-teeth-shoes-coat-nursery-bag-out-the-door-yes-it’s-the-bin-lorry-please-just-sit-down-buckle-up-routine and no rushing home from work to avoid a 10-minute late pick-up fee. This really took the pressure off me and meant I could concentrate on the wrangle of returning to work and finding my rhythm again, while my husband took on the household and childcare responsibilities.

When we were both back at work, we were able to tackle our new routine together and by this point I had much more headspace to dedicate to it and was feeling settled and comfortable being back at work, and my husband had a better understanding of all things baby related.

Understanding each other

Parental leave – from the exploding nappies, to the trimming of miniscule nails, to the long hours spent in front of a newly-weaning baby flopping around in a high-chair – is lovely, but it isn’t easy. My husband gained a greater understanding of this during his leave than he otherwise would have, and I was better at taking over quickly when I got home if I knew he had had a tough day. We were both better at understanding the different challenges of each other’s days and supporting each other. I enjoyed hearing about lengths of naps and consistency of poos, as it meant my husband understood the importance of these small things – and again, it didn’t always or naturally fall to me to be the guardian of all things baby. 

My husband also understood how and why my last few weeks of work before maternity leave were so busy (we are both Heads of Department), and has a better sense of my return to work apprehensions than he otherwise would have done. When I asked him recently how he felt about starting his time off, his comments were rueful and insightful: “I’m a bit worried about my ropey Year 9s. I’ve worked really hard with them this year and they’re in a really good place with me now…not sure what the impact of someone else teaching them for a while will be but I’ll probably have to put a bit of work in with them again when I go back.” Sound familiar?! As well as, “I think I’ll find it a bit isolating with COVID. It would have been nice to be able to take the kids swimming or to gymnastics etc. I’m sure we’ll do loads of lovely walks though…!” And finally, “I think there is an internal job opportunity coming up that I’d like to go for, so I guess I’ll have to keep an eye on my work emails a bit.”

For me, it is so important that he understands these things from a family perspective, but I also know that for him in his role of Head of Department, his experiences during periods of parental leave inform (in the most positive way) the management of his team and those about to go on, or returning from, parental leave. Overall, I think we definitely work better as a team than we would have done without SPL.

Financial

As a teacher couple, SPL has twice enabled me to be paid over the summer holidays when I wouldn’t otherwise have been due to the timing of our children’s births. As teachers, we don’t accrue holiday during maternity/paternity leave, as is common in so many other professions. We don’t have the flexibility to work 4-days a week on our return from leave, using an accrued holiday day each week for childcare while still being paid full-time, or the option to extend our leave beyond the length that would usually be possible by taking holiday accrued over our leave period, so we should not feel bad about being paid over the holidays during periods of parental leave.

I will say it again: we should not feel bad about being paid over the holidays. If it weren’t for SPL, myself and my husband wouldn’t have benefitted from this, and for us it meant that we could afford for the overall length of parental leave to be longer.

Final tips:

If you are considering SPL, here are a few things I wish someone had told me a few years ago:

  • Give yourselves plenty of time to get organised! The paperwork is not straightforward, and it is likely that your school or organisation won’t have done it before, making the overall process slower. Between us, my husband and I have worked across 4 schools in the time that our two children have been born. Two schools had to write SPL policies for us as they did not have anything in place before, and only 1 person that we dealt with directly had previously been through the process from an HR/organisational perspective. 
  • Talking of paperwork…persevere! It is worth getting your head round all those acronyms and dates and rules, I promise! ACAS were a fantastic resource for us and were really helpful when I spoke to them about our first SPL experience.
  • Ask for 2 MATB1 forms from your midwife.  Both organisations need an original copy and usually only one is supplied.
  • Bolster yourself for some questions or reticence from those around you about what you are doing. From, “I’m not quite sure we have to pay you over the summer, but if we do you’ve timed this perfectly!” (to me) to, “This is all quite radical!” (to my husband) we have had a few.

It doesn’t matter what other people think, but it helps to armour yourself a little. You are perfectly entitled to do what you want to do with your leave – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!