On freedom, parenting and prison.

The things you forget…

Here’s another thing I didn’t anticipate when I gave up work for six months.  After a while, you forget what Monday morning is like for everyone else.  You forget what weekends are for.  You forget how working for someone else, to their agenda, can grind you down.  All these things I used to know, but I’ve lost them in the gap between the rigid parental responsibilities I have, and the freedom to structure my day however I want.

I used to work in the Probation Service, and one of the functions of that organisation is to make people who have been convicted of a crime serve punishments in the community – community service work, or education classes, drug treatment courses, anger management courses, electronic tags etc.  Prison is the obvious alternative to this community-based punishment and there is a perennial argument about the relative merits of community based punishments versus incarceration.

One of the most seductive ideas I heard in relation to this was the fact that prison is easy to cope with, because it is a total paradigm shift.  Once you are over the initial shock of being locked up and deprived of your freedoms, you (as a highly adaptable animal) will cope.  The old stresses and routines of your outside life are completely removed, replaced with highly regimented routines into which you settle. Prison replaces your life totally.

But contrast this with a community-based punishment, which interrupts your life consistently, but does not replace it totally.  You have your daily life to lead, but with extra responsibilities – you have to spend 300 hours doing community work on your weekends, you have night-courses to attend, you might have to wear an electronic tag and be at certain places at certain times.  This is hard.  Its is a restriction of freedom which requires some resilience to cope with, whereas prison removes the concept of freedom from your life so totally that you don’t even need to worry about it.

Being a full time, stay at home parent is like being in prison in that the paradigm shift is total.  Being the working parent is like being given a community punishment – you have to fit in the child-rearing stuff around your normal life.

introducing a child in to the world also has an effect on your personal freedom. Now I’m in “prison” I’ve forgotten how hard it can feel to fit in the extra child-caring commitments in to a regular day.  My wife gets up and goes to work, and in just 8 weeks I’ve forgotten what that does to you.  Adjusting to being a full time parent is not without it’s challenges, but once your kid is past 3 months, the days aren’t hard at all.

Plans for Dads to be allowed 12 months parental leave – good news, but I have some questions…

The government is reaching agreement on allowing parents almost total flexibility over who takes the mat/pat leave for the first year of a child’s life.

This is great news, and sensible, and something I’ve argued for in a past post.

But:

It came in the same week as the Tories announced a desire to see maternity rights lessened in the civil service (currently the exemplar employer when it comes to flexible maternity practices).  A new policy is only as good as its uptake – it will only become widespread if some employers embrace this, pick up the baton and start to make it normal.  When people find out I’m taking 6 months off they are usually pleased and surprised, and I like to think over time people will become less surprised (and maybe even stop using the phrase “full-time dad” – I’m always full-time, y’know?)   But what hope for that if the state’s own employees are prevented from accessing these paternity benefits?

And the deal is not quite done yet due to arguments within the cabinet about “effect on business”.  The same number of people will be off work – so is this an admission/assumption that men are more important than women in business?    How do you feel about that?

(I never buy the ‘effect on business’ argument anyway.  We’re in a recession, with a ton of people desperate for jobs.  An employer doesn’t need to pay their staff in the second 6 months of mat leave anyway – so they can just use the money they’re saving on wages to a hire a temp, right?)

But – the big but with this – will employers allow dad’s to do this, or will they play dumb and pretend they don’t have to?  Or will there be veiled threats about job security issued to men who express an interest in this? I met three first time mum’s this week who told me they and their partner tried to split the parental leave in the way I have, but their bloke’s employer just flat refused to give them 6 months off.  They weren’t even allowed to take advantage of the existing provisions for parental leave, never mind these planned extensions.

As far as the law in concerned, an employer has no course to deny a man his legal right to this time off-  it is non-negotiable (well, that’s my reading of the rules on Directgov). However, each of the three mums believed that it was discretionary, and dad’s can only take leave if their employers agree. It seems to me the government has a communication job to do to inform employees of their rights, and employers of their responsibilities…  the law is on our side.