Paternity leave isn't just a plus for children's growth

When fathers take an active and supportive role in the first 1 000 days of their child’s life, the long-term economic benefits are significant.

The Labour Laws Amendment Bill, passed in Parliament in late 2017, provides for 10 days of leave for a father or same sex parent not covered by maternity leave.

While this is by no means comprehensive or radical (Sweden offers up to 12 months of paid parental leave), it signals a recognition at the highest policy level that fathers are critical for their children’s healthy development.

This, by extension, has knock-on positive effects.

And in South Africa – where, according to a General Household Survey run by StatsSA, less than 36% children live with their biological fathers* – it is a particularly significant step to recognise the role of fathers at legislative level.

Starting small

The first 1 000 days are the time from conception to the child’s second birthday. In this critical period, "the child develops in response to the environment, particularly in the context of affectionate and responsive interactions with adults. The receptivity or plasticity declines with age, making this period of life most amenable to positive experiences and most vulnerable to stress and adversity," note Dr Tawanda Makusha and Professor Linda Richter in an article in this year’s seminal State of South Africa's Fathers Report**.

Worldwide, there is a recognition of the economic benefits of investing in the first 1 000 days. South Australia prioritised early childhood development following the publication of a PwC report that found improving the quality of early childhood development of disadvantaged children alone would boost the national economy by $13.3 billion to 2050.

Nobel Prize-winning University of Chicago Economics Professor James Heckman, a leading ECD scholar who has spent decades modelling its economic returns, argues that "few (interventions) have the ROI of ECD, which offers a 10% annual rate of return". This model is globally recognised as the Heckman Equation.

Conversely, however, if the opportunity to nurture the child's early development is missed, it can never be regained. And much of this nurturing lies not with teachers, nurses or doctors, but in the hands of caregivers.

Makusha says 10 days of parental leave means that mothers can be provided with emotional and practical support during that time, but that the effects can also be further-reaching.

"It is a very important period for fathers and newborns, as this period presents early opportunities for father-child bonding. This period changes how fathers perceive themselves as men, partners, parents and employees," Makusha says.

A little bigger

The benefits extend beyond the home. Mothers who are supported are also likely to go back to work. Women make up a 51% of SA's population and 45% of its workforce, but traditional roles, such as caregiving, become a mother’s burden, should she be unsupported by an additional caregiver.

There is no evidence to suggest that paternity leave is detrimental to men's economic activity. The Harvard Business Review noted that economists didn’t find "statistically significant differences in pay and future employment prospects between fathers who did and did not take leave."

The New York Times probed the evidence that paid parental leave benefits the economy, noting that "paid leave raises the probability that (parents) return to employment later, and then work more hours and earn higher wages.

"Paid leave does not necessarily help businesses – but it does not seem to hurt them either."

The first 10 days can be a time of self-reflection, re-evaluation of priorities, and most importantly, refocusing on one’s roles as partner and parent. "Ten days' parental leave provides opportunities for fathers to see that their partners and children need them to thrive," says Makusha.

Yet social barriers persist. In the UK, fathers have not been too enthusiastic to take paternity leave. Maria Miller, chair of the women and equalities select committee, was quoted in the FT, saying: "There are many men would love to spend more time raising their children, but they feel unable to because of the impact on their careers and earning ability."

While the evidence suggests otherwise, there is still a strong view, held by some men, that they’ll compromise their careers should they take paternity leave. This is a product of patriarchal and hyper-masculine thinking, and will likely take time and active intervention to dismantle.

Breaking down barriers

Further persuasion of normalising paternity leave and creating a supportive and nurturing environment for children is contained in Heckman's work.

Heckman notes that social returns include a lower crime rate, fewer health crises and increased tax revenue (less money spent on prisons and special education initiatives).

The World Economic Forum has asserted that failing to take measures to ensure healthy early childhood development comes at a "great cost to all of us. A cost measured in poor learning, lower wages, higher unemployment, increased reliance on public assistance and intergenerational cycles of poverty that weigh down economic and social progress for everyone."

Richter and Makusha reveal that men’s engagement during and after pregnancy in low- and middle-income countries signi?cantly improves women’s use of healthcare during pregnancy and after the child is born, and signi?cantly reduce the odds of postpartum depression, which overburdens the public health system. (A recent study shows that in Khayelitsha, as a good indicator of national rates of post-partum depression, 39% of new mothers were clinically depressed.)

"Mothers, especially young mothers, consistently report greater satisfaction in their maternal role when the father of the young child is engaged."

This engagement includes, but is not limited to, being involved in the physical care of the baby: changing nappies, burping the baby after a feed, bathing them. It also involves supporting the mother emotionally as she transitions into her new role.

The simple acts of telling stories and singing to a baby improve their cognitive capacity and provide them with the chance to live a more productive life. Government, through the National Development Plan, has acknowledged the importance of the protection and promotion of the development of children, including during pregnancy.

But promoting and comprehensively supporting the involvement of fathers in the first 1 000 days is lagging. The paternity leave amendment is the first step in a long journey for South Africa to acknowledge and support the role of fathers.

Wessel van den Berg of Sonke Gender Justice notes in the State of South Africa's Fathers report that while the parental leave days are relatively few, the legislative change "establishes a few important principles in the South African labour law framework, including gender-neutral language for parental leave, dedicated leave for adoptive parents and commissioning parents in a surrogacy agreement, and allows for same-sex couples to qualify for parental leave."

For many unemployed fathers or fathers working in the informal sector, supportive frameworks for their role in the first phase of their child’s life are a pipedream. While there are discussions afoot around fathers accessing child support grants more easily, much work needs to be done. Nevertheless, the parenting leave amendment sets a precedent, not only for children and gender equality, but for the issue promoting parenting towards sustainable human development in South Africa.

Beth Amato is a freelance writer specialising in early childhood and human development.

* The survey also noted that 71% of children live with an adult man in the house, many of whom are father figures. There is, alongside legislative recognition of fathering, a growing recognition that 'social fathers' – fathers who are non-biological, but who contribute to the child's livelihood – are just as important and should be recognised for their role by the state and communities.

**The State of South Africa’s Fathers 2018 was published by Sonke Gender Justice and the Human Sciences Research Council and supported by the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Human Development (based at Wits University)

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