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Laura Keynes: Memo to Clegg. Men don’t give birth so why the same rights to maternity leave?

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There is a reason why new mothers are granted maternity leave: it’s recovery time. Childbirth is a major physical trauma. The whole process of pregnancy, labour, birth, and breastfeeding gives motherhood a special status. It’s different to anything men can experience in relation to a newborn.

Yet Nick Clegg would like to put paternity leave on an equal status with maternity leave, as though there’s nothing men can’t do that women can do when it comes to childbirth; as though the whole business were merely about wanting to take time off to indulge a bit of cuddle time with a newborn.

He has announced plans that fathers employed in the Civil Service will receive the same entitlements to full paternity pay as mothers. According to the Lib Dems, “he wants these changes to pave the way for other public and private sector organisations to follow.” Note the language: “pave the way”.  We’re all supposed to think this is progress, and to see Clegg as a leader, a trailblazer.

In bolstering his political image, Clegg hasn’t stopped to think how this undermines the special status of motherhood. He’d like us all to believe that there is fundamentally no difference between the care a newborn receives from a father as from a mother. This is the ideology behind surrogacy as it denies that pregnancy confers any special status on a woman or primes her to be the baby’s natural caregiver. It’s deeply misogynistic and wrong-headed.

Parenting is certainly a shared responsibility and the view that parenting is solely a ‘woman’s job’ is now outdated, but this ideology goes too far: it takes the view that motherhood as a woman’s job is now ‘outdated’ too, as if there is no difference between parenting and mothering, when mothering and fathering are different but complementary parts of the parenting whole.

Worst of all is Clegg’s reasoning. He says, “evidence shows promoting flexible working patterns like this can help boost employee productivity, loyalty and retention.” So he’s not thinking about what’s best for baby, or best for women, or even best for men. No, he’s thinking about what’s best for the economy – because all human beings are essentially units of production in Cleggland. We have no dignity and worth as mothers or as fathers, but only as economic producers, serving the State.

The Lib Dems have already announced as part of their election manifesto that they’ll grant an extra four weeks paternity leave after the birth of a child, so new dads can get involved during the first few months. The model relies on, and to some extent actually encourages, a situation in which new mothers are seen as isolated units of society, dependent on one person – their partner – for support at this crucial time. Under Lib Dem proposals, the State effectively controls this situation.

In reality, most new mothers have a network of friends, neighbours, and relations to rely on for support in those first few weeks. Full paternity leave, whilst seeming to be family friendly, reduces family life from this community-wide endeavour to the smallest possible unit, with the State able to control who gets access and when, from the outset. Women should be worried, and should be wondering why Clegg and Co aren’t extending what little maternity leave new mothers are granted, in favour of a view of parenting that undermines the special status of mothers.

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Laura Keynes
Laura Keynes
Dr Keynes is a Cambridge-based academic, writer and critic with two very young children. She writes for Standpoint magazine, the Catholic Herald and The Tablet. Find her on twitter @LMKeynes.

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