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Parenthood Isn’t a Barrier to Work, It’s the Other Way Around

Not all parental leave policies are created equal

Anmol Irfan

In May 2021, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) revealed its new parental leave policy, which offers a stunning level of support to women cricketers on the path to motherhood. The board has previously been called out for neglecting the women’s team, but the PCB’s recently-announced changes to parental leave are, so far, only comparable to the likes of Australia and New Zealand in the world of cricket. 

In their policy, the PCB has committed to:

  • Allowing expectant mothers to transfer to a non-playing role in the 12 months ahead of maternity leave
  • A guaranteed 12 months of paid maternity leave
  • A guaranteed contract extension for the following year
  • Medical and physical rehabilitation post-childbirth to help reintegration

The new policy offers male cricketers a guaranteed 30 days of paid paternity leave, too.

Given that parental leave overall is still a debated concept in Pakistan—and indeed in many, more progressive countries the world over—a policy as parent-forward as the one the PCB has put forth stands out. In the US, for example, where gender equality is a much larger topic of conversation, around 85 percent of working parents are still without access to paid parental leave. While the PCB’s new policy is one part of a more holistic attempt to support and amplify women’s cricket, there are growing conversations amongst mental health experts, parent communities and academics on how parental leave can support a healthy work-life balance, healthy parent-child relationships and individual mental health. 

Why is Parental Leave Being Left Behind?

Psychotherapist Dr. Becky Clark believes “the issue of parental leave continues to be controversial for several reasons—mainly, due to continual, deeply-rooted cultural gender roles despite the feminist movement’s progress over the past 30-plus years.” Despite gender equality prevailing in other areas of life, it seems that success in the arena of parental leave has been limited outside of a handful of countries. This struggle may have come from the fact that parental leave is rarely seen in the greater context of mental health, financial security and overall individual success owing to the gender norms that even Westernized societies still cling to.

Rachel Dillin, a mother of two and work-from-home freelance writer from Oklahoma, believes that the lack of progress around this issue also comes from instilled perceptions of parenthood, and its relationship with bringing value into the world. The often strict attitudes around parental leave can make it harder for parents to balance new parenthood, even where leave policies are in place. Dillin shares that she felt pressured to take only six out of the 12 unpaid weeks she had available when she had her first born and was working full-time at a state university.

“I had to use every single bit of my sick leave and vacation time during those six weeks. When I returned [to work], my son was still breastfeeding every two hours around the clock, and I wasn't getting any uninterrupted sleep. I was an absolute disaster. I ended up quitting and leaving the workforce my first day back. The cost of child care would've taken up about three-quarters of my paycheck. It simply wasn't worth it,” she shares. 

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Why We Need to Prioritize Parental Leave

While on face value the parental struggle may seem like it’s only present immediately after a baby is born and in their early months, the implications this causes for the system can last well beyond that. The lack of understanding and sufficient policies around parental leave and childcare cause mothers to incur something called the “motherhood penalty.” Researchers noted that the motherhood penalty is incurred for multiple reasons: The time it takes for a new mother to care for her child full-time, reduced lifetime earnings—which can impact financial independence—employer discrimination against mothers and mothers giving up higher wages for “motherhood-friendly” jobs. Clinical Social Worker Dr. Sue Sugarman points out that when it comes to parents from working class or marginalized backgrounds, these consequences are even more extreme.

“It is not uncommon for parents and families from marginalized and working class communities to work in other settings that are not covered under the US’ Family and Medical Leave Act, [such as] agricultural workers, maids, housekeepers and construction workers. Not having family paid leave affects the social, emotional, economic and familial structures. It’s another obstacle that marginalized and working class families endure, adding to the many stressors that they experience,” she says.

Mental health is often left out of the conversation around parental leave. Countries like Norway—that enforces a 'daddy quota'—have shifted the conversation around parental leave to focus on the importance of the father’s relationship with their children, the importance of father-child bonding and the benefits it provides in a society where men are as equally involved in housework and child care as the women. 

Sociologist and research professor Margunn Bjørnholt points out that the shift in conversation over the years has led to Norwegian society perceiving parenthood differently. 

“Fathers started taking leave and it has probably had an effect in terms of the cultural norms around parenting … in Norway today, it would be very hard to insist on just being the breadwinner and not caring about the children,” says Bjørnholt. 

Dr Sugarman says that while there are conversations about the economic impact of parental leave, “What is not usually seen or taken into consideration is the mental health impact of these decisions.” She adds that this lack of mental health awareness can also directly impact parent-child relationships. “The combination of parental mental health problems and socio-economic disadvantages can have a significant impact on infant development. Research shows that the quality of care an infant receives during their first year of life has a significant impact on a child’s cognitive, emotional, behavioral and motor development.”

As 2022 comes into view and flexible work and work-from-home policies become more common, it remains to be seen whether progressive parental leave policies become the norm in Pakistan, the US or across the global society as a whole. While the Pakistan Cricket Board's approach is encouraging, advocates question just how much we should be celebrating their new policies in a country that is not known for its fair treatment of women. Similarly, Norway's daddy quota is a novel approach and goes some way to restoring the balance of gender roles around parenting, but these are exceptions, not the rule. In conversations regarding fair parental leave, it's important to not glorify these exceptions because they risk limiting further much-needed change. The global pandemic has changed almost every other facet of our social communities. Now, the opportunity is there for it to revolutionize the work-life balance for new parents, too. But that is a change that is only possible when the real issues faced by parents are understood, and the voices of those affected are truly heard. 

Anmol is a Muslim-Pakistani freelance journalist and the Founder of Perspective Magazine, an online platform aimed at amplifying marginalized voices in Pakistan. Her work focuses on global gender justice movements, media diversity and more. She tweets, too: @anmolirfan22

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