Something to celebrate for new fathers in Spain, as paternity leave extended to 16 weeks

The fully paid allowance, which came into force on January 1, is equal to that for mothers and is one of the most generous in Europe for men

Paloma and Victor are expecting their first child this month.
Paloma and Victor are expecting their first child this month.Olmo Calvo

When José was waiting for the birth of his second child, Gonzalo, a colleague from the lab he works in stopped him in the corridor to congratulate him on the impending arrival. “Four weeks of vacation,” he said. “You’re so lucky!”

That another man, who was also a father, should refer to the first month of parenthood as a holiday, struck José, 39, as funny. He is now looking forward to his third child with his partner, Raquel, also 39. Although they already know all about the sleepless nights and dirty diapers, at least they are now entitled to 16 weeks of leave each. As of January 1, 2021, paternity leave and maternity leave will be the same in Spain.

The 16 weeks are 100% paid by the state and non-transferable, which means that if one parent decides not to take the time off, the other parent cannot take advantage of it. Both these factors are fundamental to encouraging fathers to take leave while placing Spain at the forefront of paternity rights. For sociologist Constanza Tobío, it draws a line under the debate. “It conveys the message that fathers have the right and obligation to be a carer, under exactly the same conditions and on the same terms as women,” she says.

I’m amazed it has taken this long. Even as it is, I still think both of us need more time
Expectant mother Paloma

After their third child is born in June, Raquel and José, who live in Màlaga, plan to stagger the leave. After the first six weeks, which the law requires be taken together, one will return to work, while the other cares for the child, then vice versa until the baby can be left in a nursery. However, they understand that first-time parents prefer to spend all 16 weeks together in order to cope with the abrupt change to their lives that a baby inevitably brings.

Paloma del Río and Víctor Vázquez, both 35, are expecting their first child at the end of January and like to remind people at the advertising agency where they work how much time they will be taking off so that it doesn’t take anyone by surprise. “I’m amazed [the new measure] has taken this long,” says Paloma. “But at least it’s here now. I only hope it doesn’t get pulled. Even as it is, I still think both of us need more time.”

Paloma is considering taking a month-long leave of absence on top of the 16 weeks but says it’s a case of waiting and seeing how things pan out. “If the coronavirus pandemic carries on like this, the grandparents will not be able to give us a hand and we do not know if we will continue to work from home.”

Of course, José feels lucky. When his first daughter Alba was born five years ago, he found it hard to leave Raquel alone just two weeks later, particularly as she was still weak after the birth. “I was overwhelmed,” he says. “I wanted to stay and share that experience.”

The length of José’s leave has extended with each child, increasing progressively since 2017. But the fact that women are able to leave their jobs for longer is detrimental to them professionally as it makes them seem less committed to their jobs, according to Tobío. Raquel’s contract was terminated just before she became pregnant with Gonzalo, so she was not able to reenter the labor market until Gonzalo began nursery school. Now, the fact both parents have the same amount of leave means employers are less likely to be swayed by a candidate’s gender when it comes to hiring.

At the cutting edge of Europe

The new entitlement for fathers puts Spain ahead of the rest of Europe, including Nordic countries such as Iceland and Sweden, where paternity leave is 12 weeks and paid at 80% – the total length of leave between both parents does, however, exceed the amount available to Spanish parents, as it usually includes several weeks that are interchangeable between mother and father. “Leave is longer in northern Europe but since it is transferable, it is usually used by women, which is a trap in the end,” says María Pazos, from the Platform for Equal and Non-transferable Birth and Adoption Leave (PPiiNA). Although the PPiiNA pushed for the new measure, it still criticizes several aspects of it, such as the fact that the first six weeks have to be taken simultaneously, and that the remaining 10 weeks will be taken, “on a full-time or part-time basis, subject to agreement” with the fathers’ employers, which means the right of fathers to decide is not guaranteed.

There are other issues, such as the World Health Organization’s recommendation for women to exclusively breastfeed for the first six months, which is challenging if they are only entitled to four months of maternity leave. Sources at the Equality Ministry acknowledge that despite the positive aspects of the new policy, it has not yet been possible to guarantee that raising a family is not detrimental to women professionally. “We need a new formula for care, bringing up children and work,” says a spokesman. “Despite the fact that paternity leave is proving positive among men, women continue to be the ones who most often reduce their working hours for care purposes.” This applies to the care of both children and elderly dependents.

Patricia Merino, author of the book Maternity, Equality and Fraternity, points out that 16 weeks is one of the shortest maternity leaves in the EU while fathers will have one of the longest and best paid leaves on the continent. She believes that this does not solve any of the existing conflicts between being a mother and pursuing a profession. “Women are now going to remain unprotected after their leave,” she says. “Those who have greater financial means will be able to take extra leave, while the rest will have to choose between leaving the labor market to care for their child or coming back to it.”

Sociologist Constanza Tobío also focuses on other short-term leave entitlements where Spain is lagging behind other EU countries. According to Spanish labor law, parents can take time off for a serious illness, but not for a minor illness that would prevent the child from going to school, such as a tummy bug. The sociologist considers that these entitlements should be distributed equally between the genders. This would avoid a return to the default position of mothers being the ones to take the time off and giving up positions of responsibility in the workplace. One possibility would be to create an hour bank of, for example, 25 hours for mothers and another 25 for fathers.

Company pressure

Sociologist Teresa Jurado is concerned that after those six mandatory joint weeks of leave, pressure may be put on men by their employers either to forego the rest of their paternity leave or to take it part time. This possibility could perpetuate the stereotype of the mother as the carer. However, she admits that it is an opportunity for men to take equal responsibility for the care of the child, rather than to act as the mother’s assistant. “To make this work, men must assert their rights in the company,” says Jurado. She also says that there is a shift in upcoming generations. For example, Paloma says that when her mother had her, her father slept in another room so he could get some rest before work. “The difference is huge,” she says. “Now we share chores 50/50. I am struck by the fact that a man is considered a super dad simply because he is taking care of his child just as the mother does.”

Víctor also finds it unfair that his father could only get a few hours off work to meet him in the hospital when he was born. But you don’t have to go back further than 10 years to find similar situations. Víctor’s older sisters keep telling him how lucky he is. They had to manage on their own because their partners had no leave at all. “I would be very upset if I missed that stage,” he says. “Not only am I excited about it, I think it’s also my duty.”

But the couple are under no illusion about how much having a baby is about to change their lives. “People keep doing it so there must be something good about it,” they joke.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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