20 March 2018
Shared parental leave – it has been introduced now and is here to stay until someone comes up with a better way of reconciling work, parenthood and the chance for a greater degree of shared participation by parents in the first year of a child's life. But in amongst the pragmatic naysayers who point out that the levels of statutory pay are too low for the idea to be attractive in some families, there are some whose objections don't in my view stand up to much scrutiny. One of these is a woman I heard on Radio 4 last week expressing the view that making use of shared parental leave would not be possible for a breastfeeding mother. The woman was speaking on behalf of an organisation that supports women who stay at home to care for their children. These women make a perfectly valid choice of which I make no criticism, but to suggest that it is the only choice available to breastfeeding women is not borne out by experience and is not a useful contribution to the debate on breastfeeding (which has hit the headlines this week for other reasons). Women are already bombarded with mixed messages on how best to feed their babies. There is no need for them to think that their choice about when to return to work has to be determined by whether or not they wish to breastfeed and for how long. If they want to they can do both simultaneously – I did just that with all three of my children, for whom I continued to express milk long after returning to my day job as a solicitor. All that is needed at home is a functioning freezer. All that is needed in the handbag/briefcase/rucksack is a breast pump (not necessary in all cases) and some sterilised receptacles that will keep expressed milk cold on the journey home. Women can use some formula milk alongside breastmilk if that works better for them. Perhaps most important is a workplace with a supportive employer who is willing to provide the woman with a private space in which to express milk and short breaks in which to do so. A fridge is ideal but not absolutely required. There is no actual legal obligation on the employer to provide any of these, but as ACAS's helpful guide on the subject points out, a thoughtless rejection of a request for breaks and privacy in order to breastfeed could lead to a sex discrimination claim. Perhaps more importantly for employers, providing simple facilities and a supportive approach could keep a talented woman in a job in which she might otherwise feel unable to continue. Shared parental leave could make a real difference to the expectation that child rearing in the early years is solely women's work. Let us not put up arguments that will unnecessarily undermine its potential. For further information please follow this link.