Just before his son’s birth in 2015, Md. Azim Ud Doula spent a full week at home with his wife, preparing for the delivery. Soon after, the 29-year-old development sector professional had to return to his Patna office, while his wife and baby remained in Kolkata.
“I would go home once a month, and spend two or three days with him,” says Azim, ruefully. “It was only in photographs that I was seeing him grow.” This arrangement continued for six whole months before Azim decided to move his whole family to Patna.
Azim’s is the story of many young dads in India, who want to play a larger part in their children’s lives, but find themselves in a fix because of the societal expectations placed on working men.
And even though we know care work should be equally divided between mums and dads, child care continues to be “women’s work.” Take the Maternity Benefits (Amendment) Act 2016. It has increased the leave period to 26 weeks, and directed workplaces with over 50 employees to provide creche services. But even this hard-won victory (for so many working mums in the organised sector) reinforces the idea that only women should be involved in child care.
That policies just don’t enable fathers to take on care work is also problematic. Attesting to this, 61-year-old consultant Arun Joseph* tells me “I don’t know anybody who has accessed paternity leave. In none of the places that I’ve worked have I ever heard of paternity leave.”
When Joseph’s second daughter was born 17 years ago, there really were no measures in place. “I said I should be entitled to paternity leave, and the lady who headed the organisation I was at said ‘Alright! Give him his paternity leave!’ I took a couple of weeks off, but I took it against my annual leave.”
53-year-old Rajeev Manocha had something similar to share. While working at the Delhi High Court, he took only three or four days off after his child was born. He recalls: “Government service mein mujhe koi benefit nahi mila. Kehte the ki ‘Dikkat hai toh chhutti lele, hum dedete hain’ (I never had any paternity benefits in government service. They would say, ‘If you have a problem, take leave, we’ll oblige you’).” This was standard operating procedure in India. Being an involved father meant doing it on your own time.
There is no blanket policy for fathers working across sectors in India. Thanks to the All India Services (Leave) Rules 1955, at least male government employees are entitled to paternity and child adoption leave. But when it comes to the private sector, leave depends entirely on the employers’ wishes.
Still though, several workplaces offer some pretty commendable paternity leave policies. As of January this year, Deutsche Bank grants employees 6 months paternity leave. And Facebook too is getting things right.
“Facebook has a really generous paternity leave policy,” says Ritesh, who works as a policy programmes head for the mammoth social network. “Globally, a new dad gets 4 months of paternity leave, and you don’t have to take it all at one go.”
According to him, the tech industry seems to be doing better. “Outside of tech it’s mostly unheard of. My friends are surprised and ask ‘Why would you get leave? We had to take time off.’”
The absence of a policy is also the absence of a possibility that dads should take an equal share of child care. When asked if there was stigma attached to this, most dads I spoke with agreed that this was the case.
Here’s what Azim had to say: “Whenever I work at home, or massage my son, or wash clothes, people tend to say things about my wife, like ‘kaisi aurat hai, apne husband ko kaam karati hai’ (What kind of woman makes her husband do this work).”
And Ritesh says: “When I take my son out for a walk every evening, I’m usually the only dad doing that. I met a lady who said her husband wants to do that but he doesn’t come out because he doesn’t see any other dads doing it!”
I also spoke to Satish Raju, 40, and an advertising professional. He heads Guru Media & Entertainment, which recently increased its paternity leave to 15 days. But while dad-time is well-recognised at his workplace, he too had some shocking instances to share: “A male friend of mine was actually asked ‘Is there something wrong with your baby?’ It was out of concern, but it’s harsh to say that only when your baby is unwell you need to be there!“More time with their kids is something dads want but don’t get. For example, since returning to work, Ritesh says he spends two hours looking after his child on weekdays, and four on weekends.
Ankit Dutta*, another development sector professional speaks to me about how much time he is able to spend with his 5-month-old son. For him, weekends are great, “But weekdays I only have 8 p.m. to 12 a.m. Every moment is important, because you see a lot of changes in your kid, and you wouldn’t want to miss those things! But you’re working eight to 10 hours, and you also have to sleep! I would say you need 6 to 8 hours with your kid, of course even this is not enough.”
“There is a bonding process you need to undergo with your family!” Says Raju. “And it’s important to be aware of things, like the shots your baby gets at the hospital and all of that.”
After his own child was born earlier this year, Raju too found he wanted more time off, and is considering reworking his workplace’s paternity leave policy. “I feel I’d like to give my guys one month off. And if they want to extend it, we can look at it, I’m open to that! In advertising, you can work from home too, so something like that can be put in place.”
One of the glaring problems with the Maternity Benefits (Amendment) Act is that it will affect the inflow or retention of women in the workplace. Companies that have to bear the expenses of maternity leave are likely to cut back on the number of women they hire. And this is at a time when the number of working women quitting mid-career is at a high 48%. This is why prioritising paternity benefits in the workplace is important to make sharing child care a reality.
So how do we do it? Iceland has set a unique example with its 3-3-3 policy. It allows for one parent to take leave for first three months, the other parent for the next three months, and the remainder is divided between them, as they see fit.
Commenting on such a policy, Dutta says: “It sounds very exciting, and it makes sense! Even the father should know what the mother goes through. You can’t think that ‘kuchch nahi hota, it’s an easy job’. There’s a lot of things the mother goes through the whole day – so going out would be a good change.”
Azim too favours the idea, but prefers a more long-term parental leave policy. “In the 18 years of a child’s life, the father should be able to take say 2 years of leave – I don’t want to miss my child’s first day of school, parent-teacher meetings, supporting him during his board exams.”
According to him, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done if we’re really aiming for equality when it comes to raising children in India: “It is important to actually make people ready for parenthood. People getting married and becoming parents – are you ready, mentally and physically? Are you investing on changing the perception of fathers? We later on say that children grow up with gender bias, or boys need to be oriented to respect women, but have you done that with their fathers?”
In far too many cases, the answer to most of these questions is a disappointing “no.” But that’s exactly why we need to start changing things. With the maternity benefits bill already in place, the corollary is something similar for fathers. And that’s exactly what MP Rajeev Satav introduced the Paternity Benefit Bill in July last year, during the Monsoon session of the Lok Sabha. Should his Bill be enacted, it could really change the way both childcare and household work is distributed between mothers and fathers across India. And wouldn’t that be a change for the better?