Text: Maternity leave, extended to 26 weeks, is a progressive step, but we cannot deny that it is gendered in its current formulation. Childcare is not a gendered responsibility, nor are the benefits of having children restricted to one gender. The law stops halfway in its quest to support women and families when it can clearly be made more inclusive and share the costs more equitably. It stands skewed and is unfair to all—the employers, the mothers, the baby, and, most of all, the fathers.

It has overlooked the role of the father in the family, pushing him out of the inner emotional circle, and relegated him to the peripheral role of earner and provider. At the same time, it succumbs to the stereotype of relegating the mother to the role of primary caregiver, which may be a comfortable way of looking at it, because that is our received and embedded bias, but sadly does not have the merit of being true, or, indeed, useful.

Taking care of a baby is a project in itself, requiring both learnability and professionalism—essential skills for the workplace too. It is new for both as parents, and they figure it out by doing it, one step at a time. There are tasks, routines, responsibilities, accountability and deliverables.

In India, most working couples have the support of family and affordable childcare staff. It’s hard work, but the love, joys and memories are incomparable.The skills one learns bring incredible levels of multitasking back to the workplace. Ask any dad who has changed a diaper while on a con-call, or knows that the pureed mash for lunch will be at just the right temperature for the perfect client—the baby. That parent is someone you really want around you in a tricky client meeting—they know how to save the day. They have learnt to please the most demanding and moody client—with changing needs. These skills can be mastered across genders, and the law needs to reflect this reality.

While traditionalists continue to feel that baby care must remain the domain of the mother, we know that both a father and a mother can love their babies, and learn how to look after them well. In most countries that are closer to gender parity at the workplace, lactating mothers comfortably use simple technology such as breast pumps and refrigerators to ensure continuity of feed to the baby while working or going out. Combine this with quality childcare at offices and professional events, and we may even achieve a negotiated balance for both parents and companies. Until we make parenting gender-neutral, capable and qualified women will continue to drop out of the workforce—which is a loss to the corporate sector as well as society.

The only way to think about the care of a new baby is to acknowledge the truth that men have as much of a right to bond with their babies and share in the care as the women, and that family time is an essential part of care and stability. The designation of maternity leave as family leave ticks all the boxes—making the policy gender-neutral, enabling men in care, ensuring women have choice and flexibility in maternity, and that there is no skew in the costs to the corporate sector. Family leave is already established in some countries and works well.

What women in maternity need is flexibility, choice and support, what men need is inclusion and legal frameworks that enable their role as fathers. Clearly, the maternity law is in need of amendment to meet these goals. There are three possible solutions. One is the creation of personal leave, equivalent to maternity leave, and available to all employees regardless of gender. The second is paternity leave, again equivalent to maternity leave, and to be taken mandatorily by the father in succession to the mother’s leave term. Clearly, both of these are suboptimal solutions, and the logical way forward is to subsume all three—personal, maternity and paternity leave—into a single umbrella of family leave that is equitable for all employees and does not skew the cost to company of any one category either by gender, need or age.

Meeta Sengupta is a writer, speaker and adviser on education with a cross country perspective on policy, skills and pedagogies

First Published: Tue, Jul 10 2018. 08 30 AM IST

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