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Shared Parental Leave: Clegg's Got it Right for Once

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When I heard last week's Queen's Speech outlining plans to enshrine Nick Clegg's beloved shared parental leave into law, I paused for a moment from putting the fishfingers into the oven to give a little cheer. Despite all the doom-mongerers who insist that allowing men to share maternity leave will further stretch a nation with financial woes, I strongly believe this is good for the UK - not just in terms of a happier family life but for the economy too.

I didn't always feel this way. Back when I had my first child in 2008, I'd have snarled at anyone who suggested I cut short my time at home with baby and hand him over to my husband while I went back to work. I was far too pumped full of cuddly maternal hormones to entertain the idea of returning to the office any sooner than I had to. I'd given birth, I had the breastfeeding apparatus: ergo I should be the one to stay at home. The fact that my husband was only entitled to two weeks' statutory paternity leave seemed to confirm that this was the correct way to go about things.

But hindsight's a wonderful thing and four years on, I wish the painful side of parenting (and there is one) had been more evenly shared between me and my husband. If it had, I firmly believe we'd both be better parents AND be bringing in more money as a household right now.

At the end of my year at home, my job had effectively disappeared and I was so entrenched by now in my role as housewife, I accepted this. It was made easier by the fact my husband had meanwhile been moving up the career ladder. While this was of course a good thing, it also further reinforced our very different roles - me as homemaker and him as breadwinner.

The first rumblings of discontent came when the novelty of endless childcare wore off and the desire for some intellectual stimulation began. I looked to my husband for emotional and practical support only to find him working 12 hours a day and oblivious to my discontent. It wasn't long before isolation and resentment began to drive a wedge into what had previously been a very happy - and equal - relationship.

It was about this time that I read Rebecca Asher's seminal book Shattered, which asks why, in this modern age, the vast majority of parenting still falls predominantly to women. It was pressed into my hand by another grumpy mum, much in the same way Judy Bloom books had been passed around at school.

It was a revelation. It spoke about the fact that, while on maternity leave, women take over responsibility for most of the housework and childcare and that, crucially, this sets a pattern for future family life. If or when the woman returns to work, she carries on shouldering the household chores and liaising with the nursery/childminder while the husband simply carries on with his paid work. Not only does this cause friction, it prevents women from pursuing the calibre of career they might otherwise chase. The book described so accurately how I was feeling, I could have written it myself if I hadn't been so busy wiping bottoms.

Inspired by what I'd read, I decided the time had come to re-enter the world of employment. And that's when it hit me afresh the impact of what I'd done by neglecting my career. I wanted what most mums want - a job with reasonable hours and - dare I say it - possibly only three or four days a week. If I'd stayed in employment, I could have requested this but because I was applying for new jobs, my wish list seemed ludicrous. I typed 'part-time' into several job sites and was routinely directed towards unpaid volunteer positions - not helpful for someone who has to clear £90 a day just to pay for childcare and a travelcard.

Compounding these problems was the resistance I met from my husband when I suggested that if I found a job, he might drop down to four days a week, reducing the nursery bill and allowing him to spend some quality time with his offspring (we'd had another one by now). He grimaced and replied that although he'd love to spend more time with the little darlings, he simply didn't think his company would go for it. Would he at least ask? He would but I shouldn't get my hopes up that it could or would happen.

So why do I believe shared parental leave would have helped solve some, if not all, of these problems? It's not rocket science. Had I returned to work earlier, I'd probably still have had had a job to go back to - one in which I could have negotiated flexible hours. I would now still be climbing the career ladder instead of scrabbling around for something that's going to net me £10 a day.

This has to be good for the economy too. Last November, Home Secretary Theresa May made a speech stating that if we fully used the skills and qualifications of women who are currently out of work, it could deliver economic benefits of £15-21 billion pounds per year. Surely some of this could be used to finance shared parental leave in small businesses?

On my hypothetical return to work, had my husband then taken three months' paternity leave, he'd have experienced full-time childcare and all the hard work that goes into it. We'd have understood each other better and he'd have bonded more easily with our son. In an ideal world, today we'd both be working four days a week, sharing the tasks of bringing up our children and bringing home the bacon.

In fact, like Rebecca Asher, I would even go as far as to advocate the Swedish 'use it or lose it' model where parental leave is lost if it isn't transferred over to the father. This would have stopped me romanticising about my right to take a whole year off and would also mean men have a water-tight excuse for requesting time with their families. I'm not underestimating the importance of breastfeeding but why not cap maternity leave at nine months, leaving the last three months available only if the dad takes it?

All those bleating on about the economy suffering are missing the wider point: that the model of two contented workers with a good work/life balance is bound to be more productive in the long run than a family where the dad faces burn-out trying to provide for his family and the mum gives up trying to further her career and signs on instead.

For the first time since voting Lib Dem, I feel like saying: Well done you, Nick Clegg.

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