It was a small but significant moment: witnessing my young son Louis roll for the first time. It’s one of those precious memories that I will always have of the early days of his life - something I’m sure every parent will understand
But it’s the kind of first that many working fathers will probably miss if they only take the standard two-week paternity leave. Fortunately, I decided to take Shared Parental Leave (SPL) when Louis arrived in July.
The company I work for, Accenture, has a very progressive SPL policy that allows for a maximum of 32 weeks leave on full pay. I took that full allowance so that my wife Emma and I could share what we see as the joint responsibility of caring for Louis, and be together in our early days as a family. The first year of a child’s life is a wonderful time that goes by so quickly, and being able to play a near full-time role in Louis’ life is great.
It also works on a practical level. Emma can continue to be involved with her boutique marketing agency, ensuring her important client relationships aren’t affected. And since starting my leave in September, we’ve been able to work out feeding and sleeping routines together. I can also provide support when Louis has his vaccinations, which can be slightly traumatic for all concerned!
As well as that first roll, my personal highlights (so far) have included taking Louis swimming and being there for bath time, one of his favourite parts of the day (and also good fun for his parents). I’ve been able to take him to baby-friendly cinema screenings and go on endless walks around Richmond Park, Kew Gardens and along the South Bank because I’ve taken SPL. And I also join Emma’s friends from NCT classes for walks and coffees, many of whom say they wish their husbands had the same opportunity.
Mark and his son Louis. Credit: Mark Smith
It’s important to me that I stay connected to the ‘adult world’ too. So I see friends for a beer or weekday catch-up if they’re around and stay in touch with a few work colleagues so I know what’s going on. I also go running in the morning three days a week to have some ‘me time’. All in all, I’m pretty lucky.
The experience has also taught me a few things: I will never make the mistake now of coming through the door, after what I think has been a hard day at work, and wondering what my wife has been doing all day. When I’m with Louis by myself for the day I realise just how little time you have for yourself. I’m always thinking of things to do next with him, while being amazed at how much laundry someone so little can create.
People have been broadly positive about my decision to take SPL, but there are definitely differences across generations. My peers and friends understand my decision, but a few members of the older generation have found it harder to adjust their perceptions around childcare and the impact it could have on my career.
But the support I’ve had at work – which has come from the leadership down - means I don’t feel it will impact my career at all. And it’s shown me that more employers need to adopt progressive policies that reflect how society is changing. I realise that I’m extremely lucky to have this chance – not all companies are so brave with their approach. If more companies are as committed to SPL as Accenture is, the cultural shift towards sharing parental responsibilities for young children being the norm will happen far more quickly.
What often strikes me about SPL is that people sometimes think I am breaking new ground in the choice that I have made, the impact it will have on my career, and the decision-making Emma and I have gone through. But it’s not new – it’s what women who are expecting a child have always gone through. We’re just piggybacking on that well-travelled path.
SPL is only the next step towards absolute equality in the workplace. Accenture hasn’t really had to devise anything new anyway, as it’s just extending its excellent maternity scheme to men.
Looking after a young child is hard work. It is tiring and it’s not always exciting. But Louis is only a baby once, so work can wait. I’ve really bonded with him and love having proper quality time to do things without having to over-compensate at weekends.
So would I change what I am doing? Not in a million years.
Mark Smith is a managing director at Accenture.