Magesh Nandagopal, a scientist with a central government body, used only 10 days of the 15-day paternity leave that he could have availed when his daughter was born. But four and a half years later, he realizes through his daughter’s experiences that his reluctance to take time off work for his newborn was a result of years of conditioning which begins at a very young age.
Magesh has heard well-meaning people tell his daughter not to play with the boys as they tend to get rowdy - because “boys will be boys”. When she wanted to read a book about racing cars at school, a fellow classmate, a boy as young as four years, snatched it from her saying that it’s a ‘boys’ book’. “Being a father to a girl now, I understand how gender roles are marked from the very beginning and we don’t even realize it. I wish I had taken those five days off as well,” Magesh says.
The Rajya Sabha on Thursday passed the bill extending paid maternity leave from 12 to 26 weeks. And while the move is something to celebrate, that the status quo was maintained on the 15-day paternity leave says plenty about the skewed parenting attitudes prevalent in our society.
Aparna Vedpuri Singh, editor of Women’s Web (a platform for women’s news and stories) says that reform of paternity leave is not seen as priority, and rests on the assumption that child rearing is primarily the mother’s job. “When a father takes paternity leave and stays in with his wife, he is celebrated because he is an exception to the rule,” she says.
Further, men are reluctant to avail the 15-day leave, too. Magesh sees this attitude reflected in his colleagues, many of whom did not avail their paternity leave at all. He adds that even when men do take paternity leave, they are more comfortable in say, running around for supplies and driving down to a pediatrician than doing housework, cleaning the sheets, or managing the baby by themselves.
“Fathers aren’t compelled to partake in the same care-taking roles as mothers are. The idea that they negotiate with how many days they will take off out of the limited fortnight reflects this attitude,” he explains.
But there are exceptions. Bengaluru-based Siddharth Balachandran surpassed the leave clause altogether and became a stay at home father three years ago. While Siddharth and his wife took the decision willingly and mutually, it was met with shock from relatives, friends and colleagues. “They didn’t say it openly to my face but I have enough reason to believe that I may have been the crux of many of their jokes,” he says.
Regressive perceptions about stay-at-home dads being ‘unmanly’ come from women as much as they do from men. Siddharth insists that a 15-day paternity leave is barely enough and reflects the very same patriarchal attitudes. And while the load of pregnancy is greater on women due to child-bearing and nursing, more men are willing to change diapers and prepare milk formulas than the previous generations. However, there is still discomfort in seeing men in these roles.
While attitudes provide a challenge that cannot be overcome with a change in policy alone, Aparna says that a policy can certainly help normalize them. For instance, when women were allowed to take three months of maternity leave, it was a shocker. “But the way that became a norm, so will the six-month extension. And so will an extended paternity leave,” she says.
However, she warns that we must not blindly follow other countries and take into consideration the peculiarities of the Indian family setup as well. Currently, paternity leave can be availed in the six months before or after childbirth. But in many cases, in-laws and parents are willing to help new mothers in the initial months with the child. “So maybe a flexible paternity leave is a good option. That way when the woman wants to go back to work, men can avail their leave and look after the child,” Aparna says.