Now the Government has moved to give parents or caregivers up to 26 weeks paid parental leave by 2020, the debate has moved on – should both parents or caregivers be given the choice to take that leave at the same time? What’s best for babies and whānau – what are parents telling us they need, and what does the evidence show?
First, let’s take a breath and recognise the extension of paid parental leave for the great leap forward it is – we’ve campaigned for this for several years, as have others (we’re looking at you, Sue Moroney). We’ve welcomed successive Governments’ incremental extensions to paid parental leave.
We’ve done this because supporting parents and caregivers to spend time with their babies is exactly the good idea it seems – it’s recognized globally as providing significant benefits to tamariki, whānau and communities. New mothers experience improved mental and physical health as a result of extended leave, it allows for a stronger parental attachment, leads to higher immunization rates and increases in the length of exclusive breastfeeding.
It’s an investment in the first 1000 days of a child’s life, and it’s a positive indication that as a society, we are starting to acknowledge that parenting – that whānau and communities looking after their young children – is important.
So what about flexibility?
We support it: we work alongside 9 in 10 families in New Zealand, all are different, and all have different needs and ways of raising their young children. Parents and research tell us that more flexibility is positive for them, in helping them bond with their young children. It is really important for an infant to have early secure attachment to its primary caregiver, but it's equally important for there to be a wider healthy environment for the family. There isn’t a single source of truth on what this looks like.
Increasing flexibility for families so they can work out how best to spend time with their babies is positive.
But the current discussion defines ‘flexibility’ as giving parents or caregivers the option to divide the not-yet-legislated 26 weeks paid parental leave between them. This is a narrow view of flexibility, and sells families and children short. As the College of Midwives has rightly said, there are benefits of a main caregiver taking 26 weeks paid parental leave – for example, mums are more likely to breastfeed for longer. Their view is that 13 weeks for a mother and baby to get their breastfeeding established is sometimes not enough. But they too would like to see dads - or whoever is supporting the mum - have more options to spend more time with their babies.
We’d like to see a discussion about how we provide both parents and caregivers with genuine choice to spend time with their new baby. How, as a whole society, we value and support all those who spend time caring for young children. We back more choice for parents, but let’s offer real choices. It shouldn’t be about parents choosing between their child being breastfed for longer, or the dad or caregiver having time to form a bond with their baby. Why not turn our attention to partner’s leave, which still sits at two weeks unpaid leave?
Rose Swindells, one of the mums our team met at the ‘26 for Babies’ event today at Parliament said she would like to see dedicated leave for partners: “The role of the partner or support person is so important. You can’t do it on your own, you need people around you to support you and a supportive society as well. I would hate for women to be in a position where they are pressured to take 13 weeks only. It’s the most important time for babies and families.”
We agree – and as there is now broad agreement across the political spectrum that extending parental leave is positive, let’s discuss how to give families, mums and dads, all caregivers, real choices to do the best for their young children in their first 1000 days.
by Amanda Malu 21 November 2017