The link between Parental Leave and Maternal Mental Health
2020. For many, this will be a year they want to forget; a year of lockdowns, restrictions, cancelled plans and cancelled Christmases. But, for me, this was the year I fell pregnant and gave birth to our first daughter, Sienna – living out pregnancy, childbirth and the first months of her life in lockdown.
Having a ‘Covid baby’ has presented its challenges; stopping at park benches in the freezing cold to breastfeed, not experiencing the physical support of family and friends during the exhausting first few weeks of her life and our baby missing out on newborn cuddles with our families. But although there have been tears, meltdowns and sleepless nights, I’ve also loved these months and have been lucky enough to have felt in good mental health throughout this period. This, however, is in no small part down to the fact my husband has been at home, both for support and to split the care of our daughter.
This week is Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week and, as I navigate life as a new working mum, it’s a good time to reflect on the division of labour when it comes to childcare and how vital this is to a new mother’s mental health. And we really can’t talk about maternal mental health without talking about shared parental leave.
Post-natal depression affects between 9% – 21% of new mothers in the UK1. This is often put down to hormonal changes (which frankly is still very much guesswork as so few studies have been done in this area), but what is often glazed over is the fact that many new mothers are left on their own to care for the baby, whilst fathers return to work after two to three weeks of paternity leave. For many, the sleep deprivation is still very real at that stage (a known contributory cause of mental illness) and being at home, caring for a little human with some quite complex needs, whilst being on your own all day, can really take its toll. To add to this, evidence shows that maternal depression has risen since the pandemic hit at the start of 2020. Hardly a surprise, but still a concerning fact2.
The world has moved on and we have certainly come a long way in terms of the division of childcare in families: the number of stay-at-home fathers has risen over the past fifty years (although the ONS reported in 2017 that just 1.2% of all families have the father as the primary caregiver). This generation of dads will no doubt be much more involved in their children’s lives and will certainly take a more active role in childcare, but we still have a long way to go, both in changing attitudes around the role of the father in childcare and in making shared parental leave for fathers more accessible and societally acceptable.
We have to change our attitudes towards childcare, and we have to demand more from our partners and the companies they work for. When I told people I was returning to work in January after our daughter was born in November, I experienced a lot of raised eyebrows and witnessed the tone of surprise in people’s voices that I was returning to work so soon. But there were no raised eyebrows when my husband returned to work three weeks after our daughter was born. That was simply the expectation: dad returns to work and mum takes care of the baby.
It’s important to stress that I have only been able to return to work at this time because I am in the rare and fortunate position where my husband takes equal responsibility of childcare and we split the working day – he looks after our daughter while I work and vice-versa. We are both lucky that our roles and working situations allow for that flexibility. But I’m imagining a time pre-Covid where, after the standard two- or three-week paternity leave allowance, my husband would be leaving the house at 7.30am, arriving back around 12 hours later; the reality for a large majority of families in the UK.
We have to stop thinking of childcare as woman’s work and we have to make it easier for fathers to take more leave around the early months of a baby’s life; a time where women are most at risk of experiencing post-natal depression. In these early months in particular, the physical and emotional support of a partner is vital. But we don’t value childcare in the way we should. Women’s reward for caring for, educating and raising the next generation is made up of long days alone, on often minimal pay, carrying out a job much harder than any professional role I’ve ever had.
From my experience, it’s rare for men to return to work part-time following their paternity leave. Statistics show that families whose youngest dependent child was aged between three and four years were most likely to have a father working full-time while the mother worked part-time3. Many people, I realised, don’t know what fathers were entitled to or how shared parental leave even works, both legally and within their organisation. Do employers legally have to give fathers longer parental leave if they request it? What level of pay are they entitled to? There are still companies that have a clear maternity leave policy whilst having nothing in place for fathers (leaving fathers forced to take annual leave for two weeks following the birth of their baby or with only statutory pay). What message does that send about who is responsible for the care of children?
Whilst there is such a focus at the moment on improving mental health, both in our societies and in our workplaces, sometimes I believe that we don’t always focus on the right things – it’s great to have education around mental health and support available when people become unwell, but we also have to consider our parental leave policies because it’s hard to see how we can really reduce cases of post-natal depression without making it easier for both parents to be more present at home during this challenging time.
It would be misleading of me to imply that we have been living in a kind of Utopia here where childcare and our working patterns fit together seamlessly. There have been arguments and outbursts caused by stress and a lack of time. It’s still very much a work-in-progress and each day is different; some days it feels like things are going swimmingly and others feel like a complete disaster, but it’s a whole lot easier because we’re in it together.
If you think you may be experiencing post-natal depression, there are people and places that can help – please see a list of resources here.