ALEX LAWSON, BUSINESS NEWS EDITOR AT THE EVENING STANDARD, TALKS TO ME ABOUT HIS SHARED PARENTAL LEAVE #phases

[Part of a series of interviews I’m conducting with other professionals taking Shared Parental Leave]

This week, I met up with Alex Lawson, business news editor at the Evening Standard to discuss his experience of taking Shared Parental Leave.

Alex gives a fantastic account of taking SPL with his second child. His description of some hilarious situations you get into as a parent will no doubt resonate with many other parents out there.

Alex’s wife, Anna, is the digital director of The Sunday Times Style - you can also read about things from her perspective in this fantastic article (paywall).

Enjoy folks!
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Basics

What’s your family set-up?


There’s me, my wife Anna, my son Finn who's three and a half, and Lina who was born in August 2018. We live in Notting Hill, which is really helpful as it’s close to work.

What’s your job?

I work at the Evening Standard - a free newspaper that’s nearly 200 years old and is distributed across London to commuters. I've been at the Standard for nearly six years. I work on the business desk in my role as the business news editor, which encompasses everything that you see in the business section from headlines to the pictures, deciding the tone and angle of a story. I’m also the retail correspondent so I write about shops too - everything from Tesco to Sports Direct.

What’s your partner’s job?

Anna is the digital director of The Sunday Times Style Magazine and has been for three years now. It’s also a very busy job; with online content she’s always responding to things as they happen.

How did you structure your Shared Parental Leave?

I took SPL with my second child, Lina. Anna took the first nine months and then I took the final three months.

It’s a big regret that I didn’t take SPL with my first child, Finn. The context seemed a lot different then: Finn was born in 2016, fairly soon after the new SPL rules came in. I'm not even sure if I knew that SPL was an option and, if I did, I'm sure I would have been too terrified to even think about the idea!

At that time, my only experience looking after kids was with my nephews but you don't really understand the realities: 3am wake-ups and bath-time tantrums. I'm sure I would have been too scared thinking about what I do with a baby just to keep it alive!

However, when my second child Lina came along, Anna suggested I take SPL. She asked me if I wanted to do it - I knew some friends who had taken a few months off, which encouraged me to do it too.

Also, given my hours (I typically work from around 6:30am until late afternoon), I had been able to spend a lot of time with Finn in the afternoons and so had experience of looking after him alone and hitting the playgroups scene, although I was still unsure as to what it would be like to do it full time.

Work

Did your employer provide enhanced pay for your Shared Parental Leave?

No.

Had anyone else in your team/company taken SPL before you?

No, I don’t think so.

Did you feel that SPL was encouraged informally within your employer?

My bosses were all very supportive, which was fantastic. They’re parents too, which does seem to help. It was a bit tricky with HR, but this was just because no one had taken SPL before at the company, so it did take a bit of time to get the paperwork sorted.

Were your colleagues supportive of your decision to take SPL?

Yes, they were great, especially as it came at a busy time. I found it interesting that there's not much knowledge generally about what SPL actually is; a lot of people thought I was going off for a few weeks immediately following the birth of our child to look after a new born baby. I had to explain that Lina was nine months old and so the scenario was very different to when a mother goes off on maternity leave.

How was your return to work; was it daunting?

I returned from my SPL in August, which is typically a slow time for business news. That made the return hard in one sense, but in another sense it gave me some time to ease back into things. That said, when you're dealing with breaking news every day, it's never that calm! There’s definitely similarities in being buffeted by babies and breaking news.

My colleagues were very receptive when I came back and were very interested in the experience that I’d had.

If changing firms, would a prospective different employer’s parental leave policy affect your decision about moving company?

I think a good SPL policy is something that a company should have. I would have definitely looked at it if time was rolled back and I was considering having kids.

Does having a good SPL policy give you a better impression of a company?

Yes.

Employees want to be treated fairly and with respect. Some employers underestimate what a big deal this is. Unless you're in that day-to-day of childcare - constantly washing bottles and changing nappies - you don't understand how intense it can be. And, even if you’ve been through it, there’s always the parental memory wipe which seems to block out the worst of it within a couple of years.

It is such an important time in employees’ lives so just small changes towards a better SPL policy can actually make a huge difference.

A really important point for me is that in 20 years time I want to mention to the kids that I did SPL and I want them to say “so what dad?” because it’s something commonplace, done by most fathers.

Your SPL / Fun stuff

What was a typical day on SPL like for you?

In terms of childcare arrangements, we kept Finn in nursery two days a week both for continuity for him and to preserve our sanity! I had three days per week with both Finn and Lina and two days per week with just Lina, which was a lovely rhythm.

The typical routine would be doing activity in the morning: we’d often go singing at the library or splashing in the fountains at the V&A or Design Museums. I really appreciated London and all the free things it has to offer.

We would then have a lunch pitstop at home, and head out for a play date or some park life in the afternoon. Lina refused to nap anywhere but in the sling, so often I was clambering about on climbing frames with Finn while trying to keep her asleep strapped to me.

I would try to ask Finn what he would like to do; what I loved was just not having as much pressure on time. Even at the weekends now, life is so busy it’s quite rare that I can say to Finn “what do you want to do?” whether that’s just going to the park or staying at home.

I'm personable, but I wasn’t particularly out to make friends as it was such a short time I just wanted to enjoy the kids. I didn’t find SPL lonely as Finn was at the age where we chatted all day, usually about the plot of Peppa Pig. That said, I’d stolen some of Anna’s mum friends and lobbied my mates to use flexi time to hang out, so we had a great summer full of laughs.

The days alone with Lina were fantastic too - having had six months strapped to her mum when Finn, as a toddler, was dominating the attention, it was great to be able to give her quality time.

We used to go to something called the Chicken Shed Theatre (a free puppet show at our local children’s centre) and enjoyed making the most of daytime life, swimming on a Tuesday afternoon when the pool was really nice and quiet.

Similarly, I was able to go to exhibitions guilt-free with Lina asleep on me in the carrier and do those things that, when you've got a full-on day job, you just can't do.

What activities did you get up to during your SPL?

Anna managed to stockpile some annual leave and so we had a month off together as a family and went on a road trip!

Anna’s family are Italian, so we drove through France and into Italy. Anna’s dad is from a little mountain-top village, which is where we ended up. We packed the kids, travel cots and a bag stuffed with toys into the back of our Peugeot and went to all these wonderful places, which was essentially just displacing the usual hecticness to a nicer location! We were changing nappies in beautiful small beach coves to the horror of nearby tourists. Also, I remember we took the kids to a fort up a steep and windy mountain, both kids were being carried, shouting and grumpy as we got lost inside a labyrinthine castle. Classic parenting.

It was a real privilege to be able to spend this time together. There’s no other way two working parents can engineer that time off together and I’ve seen a few others do it too.


In terms of parenting, was there anything that you felt, as a dad, you couldn't do?

Oh, everything! Anna is a very accomplished parent compared to me.

But seriously, I don't think so. I think I was treated fairly normally, though there were a few comments: I remember a mum coming over to me and saying “You're doing really well!”. Obviously, this was said with the best intentions but it was a little bit condescending.

There is a feeling that you want to prove to yourself. I remember I took the two kids on a day trip to Southend on public transport. It might not sound like the most remarkable trip but when you've got two kids under three it suddenly feels like a massive adventure! I remember going round the aquarium looking at the jellyfish thinking “Wow, we’ve done it!”. Stuck on the Circle Line with Lina bawling on the return journey was less fun.

As a result of taking SPL, did you feel more confident about your own childcare abilities?

Yes, definitely.

There are times when you have an out-of-body moment and you’re in a situation which is completely mad and you think “How am I going to cope with this?!”

The maddest moment I had was one time in a leisure centre, when we were potty training Finn (and carrying a portable toilet seat everywhere). The toilet emergency arose so we had to dash from a bouncy castle to the nearest disabled toilet. I was dealing with Finn when Lina started bum-shuffling to grab a filthy toilet brush, I dived to body block her just as Finn started pulling the red emergency cord saying “what’s this Daddy?”. Grim. I remember thinking, “what on earth am I doing?”, I’m usually grilling CEOs on corporate strategy and now I’m spending my days doing this!

It's really interesting how there's a difference between physical and mental tiredness. Normally after work I’m mentally drained and slump on the sofa, by the time I got the kids in bed I was exhausted but ready to read a book or engage my brain. I found it very satisfying, especially when I felt the kids had had a great day.


Did your bond with your children increase?

Absolutely. I think particularly with Lina. Because Finn was bottle fed, there was always more equality in care from day one. However, because Lina was breastfed, there was a very different experience as she always had to be with Anna day and night. By the time I started my SPL with Lina, there was a real imbalance in who had cared for her, so I actually think we really did grow in terms of our bond through the SPL period.

To be able to look after a kid at nine months old is such a fantastic age. They’ve just started to get on the move, can play games and are very aware but they're also really easygoing as well in terms of having a nap or two during the day… you get a lot back from them at that age.

Did SPL make you a better professional?

I'm used to working on very tight deadlines with things that change under your feet all the time in a high-pressure environment. There's a lot of the same skills being used during SPL.

I think one of the things about SPL is that you have to prepare activities to keep the day going and to keep yourself sane, but you also have to roll with the punches and improvise as there might be times when things don’t go to plan or there’s a random tantrum etc.

I wouldn't necessarily say I’ve learnt how to do my job better, but I think the same skills are applied.

However, since I returned to work, whenever there is a new parent in the office I know what questions to ask them and I’m able to talk about parenting more - I also have a better understanding of what it’s like to come back to work after parental leave. Colleagues also associate you with having taken SPL, which is really nice.

Can you see any reason, other than financial impact, why a dad shouldn't take Shared Parental Leave?

I have heard several Dads say they're worried that their employers don’t understand and about their standing at work if they take SPL. I appreciate that and I was very lucky to have great bosses who supported me. If you didn't have that relationship with your boss, you might feel nervous about asking for SPL.

I would say the important thing is, rather than necessarily taking SPL, try to get some flexibility in your job. I see more and more people who have a day off a week, an afternoon off here and there. That's a very valuable thing.

What would your top tip be for new Dads?

It's an old adage but keep in mind “everything's a phase”. Tantrums are a phase. The desire to throw every single toy down the stairs is a phase. The desire to eat everything, including bits of Lego and/or a bodily part, is a phase. You need to go with it - that includes when you’ve made plans which get kiboshed by a nappy explosion or an inconvenient nap.

Why do you think take-up of Shared Parental Leave is so small?

I'm a business journalist so have taken interest in how big corporates have approached it. I’ve spoken to people about it and the loss of wages is a massive factor - in a lot of families, the man still earns more than the woman. That's a wider cultural issue that we need to address. There’s a lot of factors involved but there needs to be wage equality to make SPL a financially sensible thing to do. It needs to make financial and moral sense.

However, within my own friendship group, almost all the men have now taken Shared Parental Leave or some form of extended leave. I think perhaps in our “liberal metropolitan” circles, where men earn roughly the same as the women, SPL is more commonplace. That’s not the case everywhere in the UK.

Quickfire qs:

What is the longest you've looked after kid/s on your own?

A four day stint with both kids when my wife went abroad. I’m still recovering.

Worst childcare task/job?

At the moment I have a real hatred of having to find toys, which could be anywhere around the house. Finn might want a particular toy and it’s the most important thing in his life at that moment - I find myself scrambling around the house trying to find them!

Best childcare task/job?

I love doing creative things with the kids. The other day, I really enjoyed building a fort made out of crayons from a book we were reading called The Day the Crayons Came Home. We got to the end of the book, saw the fort and thought “let’s make this!”, moments later we were elbow deep in cardboard and Sellotape.

In your view, in each case who would make the better Dad out of:
  • David Beckham or Jonny Wilkinson?
I don't know what Jonny Wilkinson's fatherhood situation is, but Becks is often on telly in the stands at the football with his kids so I’ll go for him.
  • Prince Harry or Prince William?
Prince William’s proven himself... but I would go with Harry, though I wouldn’t necessarily suggest his kids follow his examples in life!
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger or Donald Trump?
It's got to be Arnie! He is the Kindergarten Cop afterall!

Finally, would you recommend SPL to other dads?

Absolutely, yes. I think it's a really rewarding experience. Just forget everything to do with your finances or your job… for your relationship with your kids and the bond that you will build it is irreplaceable... although I probably had a bit more hair when I started!

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© Joe Young / www.dadonspl.co.uk

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