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The Women and Child Development Minister has reportedly said that she would consider paternity leave …only if, once the woman goes back to work after her 26 weeks of leave, we find that men are availing their sick leave for a month to take care of the child.”

With due respect, this is a patently absurd argument – and it annoys me a lot.

Saying that men will be granted paternity leave only once enough of them start taking time off to look after their kids (to somehow “prove” their commitment to parenthood) is like saying women should be allowed to vote only if enough of us show up at voting booths and demonstrate our political engagement. So many people view voting day as a holiday. Should we disenfranchise them too?

Our laws must keep pace with the changing times at the very least, if not create enabling conditions beforehand.

Paternity leave is a no-brainer. A child has two parents and both need to be available for the kid’s unending, ever-growing needs, especially in the early months. Children are a lot of work, babies and young children even more so, and it takes more than one miserable adult to keep them clean, fed, amused, safe and growing.

A photo by Nick Wilkes. unsplash.com/photos/6HrRvNnaz-A

Paternity leave may not be about recovering from childbirth, but it is about bonding, enabling and supporting. If I have to spell it out, it’s about cleaning and wiping and covering and holding and swaddling and feeding and warming and fanning and soothing and massaging and folding and washing and drying, and then some more.

A baby may fall off to sleep in the arms of the mother, but they really don’t care who wipes their butts, and give you enough opportunities to do that. The first year or so is particularly challenging – the child has low immunity, there are a million visits to the paediatrician for routine vaccines and emergencies, some truly nightmarish nights of colic and a whole lot of new, unending tasks that need more than one pair of adult hands.

A fixed number of days must be offered as paternity leave that can be taken as and when the need arises over the period of the first year. And not 15 days or some such – that’s a joke.

Of course, days alone with a kid will not a father make. It is only a part of the problem that can be taken care of by laws. Numerous studies have shown that even when men are offered paternity leave, only a small proportion of them actually take it. A male friend told me he didn’t take his paternity leave because he thought he would be perceived as non-serious about work – that his colleagues would judge him and think he is “chilling” at home. That made me smile. Isn’t that exactly how so many men view women who go on maternity leave?

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But then, I don’t blame him — the early weeks with a baby at home are really a new kind of hell. Nobody sleeps, everybody cries and the house is an out-and-out disaster zone.

The mother would go out and stay out too, if she could.

But the need for fathers to step up is immense — even more so now, as traditional support structures disintegrate and there are no grandmothers or aunts or sisters in law to share the burden; and reliable, consistent and affordable paid help is the stuff of dreams (and even nightmares) in most urban households.

A young father once told me he was “helpless” — his baby “doesn’t respond” to him so he’d much rather “stay out of the way”.

Such gallantry.

Well, maybe your baby doesn’t care about you yet, but please do suck it up and get to work. The more time you spend with the baby, the more the baby will respond to you. If you’re going to be the guy who walks into the house and peeks into the baby’s room only once the baby is asleep, you’re really not giving yourself much of a chance.

This “natural bond” that mothers have? It’s a funny thing. It starts off being natural, but it builds over time – day by day, soiled diaper by soiled diaper, night feeds by night feeds and cuddle by cuddle. We may have an advantage at the start, but let that not be your excuse to not narrow the gap.

While labour and general hormonal upheavals often take care of it for mothers, fathers need time with their babies for their brains to even kick into daddy mode. And it isn’t just about those few early weeks. Parenting is a long-drawn process, unending really — and just like mothers, fathers need to be present and available for their children at all times. Just as employers must notice and make room for a mother’s need for flexibility even after the mandatory maternity leave expires, so should a father’s needs be viewed and treated as one.

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For this to happen, of course, fathers need to view themselves as parents first — or paternity leave will give women yet another baby at home to look after.

“Why would fathers want paternity leave when they can’t wait to leave the house and get away?” asked my very wise friend, only half facetiously. She is the mother of a two-year-old and holds a demanding, full-time job. Her husband is by all accounts, evolved, supportive and “a great father”. He is “always” there for her and the child, like so many fathers around me.

Yet, this is the first crack she’ll make about paternity leave – and I don’t blame her. When it comes to looking after a young child, Indian fathers have been a sore disappointment for generations. Some of them are trying, but it will take time for them to grow into these roles, and for us to let them.

Of course it’s a stereotype, but like all stereotypes, it exists and carries on for a reason.

Perfectly capable men who regularly pull incredible feats at work begin to hem and haw when faced with a small child, looking quite cheated — as if little children come with manuals and they’re the only ones who didn’t get a copy. They talk about how they need to be fully invested in their work and it’s all “for the family” really. Except it isn’t. People like you and I are not people who live a hand-to-mouth existence or hold jobs where a small cut in our salaries will greatly impact our ability to live a decent life. In fact, much of the work done by people like us is to feed our ambitions and the need for recognition than to bring the proverbial bread home. That fathers contribute to families is often a (much-needed) by-product of what they contribute to their own lives. If biology didn’t play its tricks on us, I am sure most women would be perfectly happy switching roles, sacrificing themselves to hold fancy jobs where they could make their own money and be important than be stuck at home doing one thankless task after another.

That women stay at home and take care of children is not because we can’t go out and work, it’s because you won’t stay in — and someone has to.

As more and more fathers begin to call their bosses and say they can’t come for meetings because their child is sick, one day it just might become the new normal, just as it has for the women.

So much of this comes down to the men we choose for ourselves – if we learnt what a challenge motherhood really is and just how much you need a partner, perhaps we’d choose better. And as the undesirable ones get squeezed out of the marriage market, who knows, over time men in general will learn that a woman may date any guy but will only take a certain, “homely” kind back to her parents.

The men will come around – at least I hope they will – but the government has no business sermonizing and making fathers beg for time with their children. It must act as an enabler and a catalyst to social change and not wait for change to happen, measure it and act only once it confirms to its standards.

What a strange and dichotomous government: on one hand, it advocates six months of “exclusive” breastfeeding for newborns and prescribes a million vaccinations, and on the other, it questions the need for fathers to be available at home during the early months of a child’s life. How am I supposed to be exclusively breastfeeding for six months if I also have to cook, clean, wash and generally live for that time too? Who is driving me to the paediatrician’s clinic for routine vaccinations when I’ve only just given birth? What if I have an older child, who needs to be woken up, readied and ferried to and from school?

If the extended family isn’t available, the neighbours aren’t folks you’ve known for generations, paid childcare is unreliable and even absent, and there’s no paternity leave for fathers, where is the urban Indian woman’s village to raise her child?

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Amee Misra’s Stop Licking My Arm and Other Mommy Rants from the First Three Years is now available on the Juggernaut app here.

 

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