26/02/2015 12:35 GMT | Updated 28/04/2015 06:59 BST

Improved Parental Leave: The Way to Have Children and a Career

This week in the Guardian, Helen Russell wrote an article complaining about the high cost of childcare. She said that this stands in the way of women having both children and a career and she praises countries with more generous systems in place for childcare, such as the Nordic nations, noting that women can go back to work sooner and thus continue building their careers. While she's not wrong about exorbitant childcare fees and the pressure they put on parents, I think a larger point is missing from opinion pieces such as hers.

The real issue here is that our society doesn't place any importance on parenting; that's why parents are urged to rush back to work. The work of raising children doesn't seem to be viewed with real respect. If it were, parental leave for working parents would be fully paid, it would last longer, and it would include equal amounts of time for both parents.

Maternity leave in the UK is more generous than many other countries, but it is still relatively paltry. For a woman who takes the full year, she usually gets six weeks at 90% of her salary, 33 weeks at £138.18 per week, and three months of no pay at all, unless her employer has made other arrangements. Meanwhile, paternity leave (which also covers the second parent in same-sex relationships) is a maximum of two weeks, usually with only one week paid for (and up to 26 weeks of additional paid leave if the other parent returns to week, but again at the statutory amount). Many parents simply cannot afford to take the full leave due to the low sums they get. They have no choice but to return to work even if they'd rather have more time with their children. In her article, Russell fails to mention that in the Scandinavian countries she praises, parental leave lasts longer, comes with more money, and includes more time for the second parent.

Also, while good nurseries can be wonderful places for children, it isn't necessarily helpful or healthy to place a ten-week infant or a six-month baby in a crèche. What babies need most at this tender young age is consistent loving care, and even the best crèche doesn't have the staff to provide this at a one-to-one level for each child. But a parent can. Plus, breast milk is undoubtedly the best source of nutrition for babies, and how are you supposed to breastfeed a baby if you're at work and the baby is in a nursery? Yes, employers are technically obliged to provide a space to pump your milk and a fridge for you to store it in, but this doesn't always happen and it isn't always convenient. (I work at a university and as far as I know, there's one breastfeeding room on the entire campus, so women who don't have their own offices need to find a way to leave their work and get across campus to a single room that may be occupied by someone else.)

While it's important to acknowledge that not all parents want to be home with their very young children and that childcare provision does need to be improved, many parents do, and research shows that this is beneficial for the babies and for the parent-child relationship. Having a career is important and necessary, but it isn't all there is at all stages of one's life; taking a year to be home with your child doesn't mean you can't pick up your job and continue to develop your career again. Governments need to acknowledge how essential a strong foundation is for children. Better parental leave would help create that foundation.

If, for example, parents could share two years of fully paid leave however they wanted, children would a good start to life, parents would get the joy of experiencing a precious time in their child's life and would then feel ready to return to their careers, and society as a whole would benefit. We need to recognise how hard and how worthwhile raising children is rather than focusing on how quickly we can get our babies into crèches.