When Jatinder (who goes by one name only) and Aastha were expecting their second child earlier this year, Jatinder decided to take a two-week paternity leave, even if it meant missing out on important conferences. Family, he figured, was his priority.
“I knew I was about to miss an important conference, but being with my wife was priceless,” says the 40-year-old IT manager from London. “During the birth of my first child (who is 10 years old now), I used to travel a lot and my wife Aastha was home alone taking care of him, so this time, I didn’t want to miss any moment. Most importantly, the feeling and experience at the start of a journey together help strengthen the relationship with the newborn.”
Half a world away in Gurugram, software professional Kunal Sharma (name changed on request) echoes a similar sentiment. The 39-year-old became a father for the first time in April in the middle of the lockdown. “During the pregnancy, people told us how kids change everything. I assumed that to be true, but I did not realise it would change how I view work and life,” Sharma says. “It changed how I view benefits at work. As a millennial dad, I am more involved in raising my boy. Work from home (WFH) has given me the flexibility to be 100% involved with my kid. We share the day’s tasks and responsibilities, and are able to spend time with the child,” he says. “As a nuclear family working couple, we don’t have the luxury of large joint family setups… all the more reason that I need time off from work to be with my wife and son. Thankfully, organisations today recognise this need.” Sharma says his company allowed him to extend his 10-day paternity leave to over two months.
Across the world, as the pandemic shows no signs of abating, an increasing number of men are realising that family comes before anything else. The meeting that got cancelled can be rescheduled, the targets achieved later, and tasks that remained incomplete can be taken up another day. But the smell of a newborn, their first smile, the first cry, the first turn on the bed, the first coo, the first time they hold your fingers is something that will never happen again. And they are realising that it is worth putting everything else on hold for. Not only for the lifetime experience it offers, but also to understand and appreciate the role of the mother better and support her in the most testing time of her life—all the more important in the case of nuclear families.
Women have played the role of designated caregivers for millennia, helping men ease into fatherhood, but this is changing now. In a surprising but welcome decision last month, cricketer Virat Kohli announced that he would be leaving the Indian team’s ongoing Australian tour midway to join his wife Anushka Sharma for the birth of their first child in January. The decision divided the cricketing fraternity in the country, earned Kohli both praise and criticism, and reignited the debate over paternity leave in India. Former Pakistan captain Asif Iqbal called it “a progression” and Australian opener David Warner, too, commended the decision. On the other hand, former Indian all-rounder and World Cup-winning captain Kapil Dev said, “Sunil Gavaskar didn’t see his son for many months. It was a different thing… things change. It’s fine, you can afford it. You can buy a plane and go back and come back again in three days… I understand you have passion, but the biggest passion is that he’s having a baby,” Dev said over video conference at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit in November.
According to the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, which was amended in 2017, women employees are entitled to 26 weeks of paid maternity leave. Up to eight of these 26 weeks can be claimed before childbirth. However, in 2017, Rajiv Satav, former Congress MP from Maharashtra, had proposed a Paternity Benefit Bill in Lok Sabha, but to no avail. The bill, which emphasises upon equal parental benefits for both parents, proposes that all workers, including those in the unorganised and private sector, can avail paternity leave of 15 days, extendable up to three months. The bill was proposed as a private member bill in the Parliament.
Globally, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Estonia and Portugal offer the best family-friendly policies among 31 rich countries, according to a 2019 Unicef report. Finland, for example, allows seven months of paid parental leave to both parents, while in Sweden, parents get 480 days of paid leave that can be split between the couple as they wish. Each of them must, however, must take at least 90 days’ leave.
“Paternity leave is a vicious circle in terms of Indian labour laws. It needs time and thoroughness to help fathers who are not able to take one. Every country has specific laws for it and similar to some European nations, it would benefit if equal period of leave is sanctioned to new fathers. I had availed two-week paternity leave during the birth of my son in November 2018 and it was an exhilarating experience. It is a lot of responsibility, mental and physical strain, and even as a father, one goes through a lot of changes. Hence, a significant period of time to recuperate just like a mother could be beneficial. In India, with a changing economic era and exposure to one’s physical being and mental wellness, the role of paternity is being recognised and this is a positive change that needs to be ushered holistically,” says Delhi-based Shiby John. The 34-year-old works as a process consultant in a private multinational corporation in the telecom sector.
John is right, as paternity leave, especially longer leave, helps fathers bond with their children better, helps in the healthy growth of the infant, lowers the risk of postpartum depression in mothers and results in greater gender equality.
Gone are the days when infant-care was treated as only the mother’s responsibility and Srinivas Rao K, director of human resources at data analytics firm SAS India, has felt the change in the air. “Gender equality is a key ingredient of the modern world that requires both parties to take equal responsibility in delivering their duties,” says Rao, whose company offers a two-week paternity leave to male employees. “A father is a symbol of strength, support and a role model in the formative years of a child’s life as much as a mother. At SAS, we conduct sessions by specialists—on effective parenting and challenges of parenthood—for all employees across all levels. Counselling support in dealing with parenthood besides paternity leave and a flexible work policy to enable employees to take a break and be with family on special occasions are a few important steps as part of HR policies,” says Rao.
In the world that is deeply patriarchal by default, gender relations and attitudes have slowly started becoming more fluid. InterGlobe Enterprises, an aviation and hospitality conglomerate, is another company that has understood the need for this change. The company encourages all its male employees to avail five paternity leaves within 30 days of childbirth. “The roles of men and women have become more egalitarian when it comes to jobs, housework or childcare,” says KS Bakshi, group head of HR at the Gurugram-based company. He feels fathers have a significantly different style of parenting from mothers and that difference is imperative in the healthy development of a child. “Both parenting styles balance and equip the future generation with a healthy and experienced approach to life.”
Amit Sharma, chief human resources officer at Bengaluru-based automobile manufacturer Volvo Group India, feels a lot of his office managers who take leave for parent-teacher meetings, sports day, exams, kids’ birthdays, etc, and are vocal about it have set the tone for paternal care in the organisation. “Fatherhood is an essential part of parenting for the child to develop a balanced perspective towards life. Earlier, joint families had other members to take care and pitch in during a child’s formative years of development. Today, with both parents working, the child tends to miss out on the complementing energies. Thus, it is critical that both father and mother equally contribute towards parenting, so that the child grows up as a well-balanced personality,” says Sharma. Volvo Group India offers three weeks’ paternity leave to its employees.
With education and employment among women on the rise, equitable parenting will pave the way to help build a more balanced culture around work and family, according to Navin Gurnaney, CEO, Tata Starbucks, which provides 15 working days’ paternity leave to employees. Further, in case of any unfortunate incident where the father becomes the primary caregiver, this leave is extended to 26 weeks. “The conversation around paternity leave and fatherhood is gaining significant ground in India and is linked to better outcomes on nearly every measure of child well-being… the current scenario has changed many unconscious biases towards men. Men take more responsibility in household chores, raise kids and organisations like ours are sensitive and supportive towards these evolving needs,” he says.
In fact, the current work-from-home scenario has been an eye-opener for men. Many have witnessed, for the first time in their lives, the amount of work that goes into running a house. Aarif Aziz, chief human resources officer, Diageo India, says, “Men share the workload of household chores even more than before. When we announced our new family leave policy with maternity leave of 26 weeks, we also enhanced the paternity leave to four weeks. The employee testimonials speak volumes of how such organisational interventions act as an enabler and a catalyst for a better, balanced society.”
Still, it is early days for equal opportunity on the dual fronts of domestic and childcare responsibilities. Naturally then, there is a pressing need to talk about the role of fathers. Capgemini India has taken up the task to sensitise men and empower women to practice equal responsibility sharing at home and work, through its various programmes, listening forums and a platform for leaders and their spouses to share experiences on how they are managing responsibilities in the new normal. “We believe the disrupted gendered social norms, catalysed by Covid-19, will be a positive post-coronavirus lesson. Recently at Capgemini, we conducted a session called A Balancing Act for colleagues and their partners. It saw participation of 180-plus colleagues and their partners across Capgemini locations in India, supported open conversations around the distribution of work, maintaining work-life balance, the importance of ‘me’ time and how the pandemic has challenged gender norms,” says Sarika Naik, chief marketing officer and chairperson for Diversity in India (for Capgemini), a French company that provides consulting, technology, professional and outsourcing services.
A growing number of companies have formulated policies around paternity leave after realising that it’s a business requirement today. They are becoming more family-friendly, as they realise that security, contentment and a better work-life balance can result in better productivity. Companies looking for the best talent have also started offering policies that are favourable to young dads. Last year, Zomato made waves after rolling out a 26-week paternity leave for its employees. This is among the highest duration of paternity leave in India.
“Before my twins were born, I mostly had to balance my work life and free time. But fatherhood has been a life-changing experience. It has brought so many mixed emotions—joy, love, anxiety, fulfillment and responsibility,” says Karan Garg, general manager, commercial excellence, Diageo India, who availed his leave in January 2020. “Fortunately, balancing work and parenthood has been easier than anticipated. My team has been supportive through my journey of parenthood, even giving useful advice to be better prepared. The flexibility of taking one-month parental family leave policy is great in terms of the number of days of leave and the flexibility of when it can be taken. The time I was able to spend with them helped in bonding, being hands-on and enabled me to be an equal parent,” says the 37-year-old.
Microsoft US, too, offers 20 weeks of paid leave for mothers who give birth and 12 weeks of paid parental leave for all other new parents, including those who adopt or take in foster children. OTT platform Netflix offers a parental leave policy of four-eight months, Deloitte US offers new dads 16 weeks of paid leave to male employees.
Most multinational companies have brought in similar policies to India. In 2015, when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg declared in a post that he would be availing a two-month paternity leave, he announced that global employees would receive four months of paid parental leave. “We want to be there for our people at all stages of life, and in particular we strive to be a leading place to work for families,” wrote Lori Matloff Goler, Facebook’s head of human resources, in a Facebook post.
Cap 1: Karan Garg, general manager, commercial excellence, Diageo India, availed paternity leave in January this year. The 37-year-old says the leave helped him be hands-on and enabled him to be an equal parent
Cap 2: (above) Delhi-based Shiby John, who works with an MNC in the telecom sector, availed two-week paternity leave for the birth of his son in November 2018, and found it to be an exhilarating experience
Cap 3: (below) When 40-year-old IT manager Jatinder and Aastha were expecting their second child earlier this year, Jatinder decided to take a two-week paternity leave from work even if it meant missing out on important conferences
Box: Companies that give paternity leave
Netflix Global 4-8 months’ parental leave
Zomato 26 weeks
Microsoft India 6 weeks
Diageo India 4 weeks
Volvo Group India 3 calendar weeks
Tata Starbucks 15 working days
SAS India 2 weeks
InterGlobe Enterprises 5 days within 30 days of childbirth