The intention to integrate fathers in child care and encourage them to take parental leave is a goal in many countries. It is, however, realized in different ways: as a ”family right“ where parents can personally choose how best to divide the leave between the father and the mother; as an individual right, which can be transferred to the other parent; and as a non-transferable individual right where parental leave both parents need to take is specified in the program.
In Germany, Spain and France, for instance, both parents are allowed to take leave at the same time. In Austria and Belgium, on the other hand, parents can reap the benefits of parental leave only then when it is taken in separate blocks. In contrast to these two systems, parental leave in Hungary and Estonia, two other countries of the European Union, can even be transferred to non-parents such as grandparents.
The duration of parental leave appears to be one of the key differences in the leave systems of the countries of the European Union generally. In Europe, the length of leave has been extended on average from 49 weeks in 1990 to 61 weeks in 2014, with paid months being extended from 30 to 37 weeks over the same period.
The variation between the countries is, however, substantial. Some countries, for example, grant specific leave for fathers: Austria, Slovenia, and the Nordic countries (except Denmark) are those with the longest leave for fathers, namely up to six months. Though most fathers complain about the short duration of their leave, in reality they generally take less than they are entitled to. Most of the time, the deciding factor are the finances.
What is the effect of fathers staying at home?
Presently, only the short-term effects are known: stronger emotional bond to the child or children and more equality in sharing household chores. Long-term effects relating to the life course of the child cannot easily be related casually to the parental leave system.
In the same way, it is not yet clear whether father’s entitlement raises fertility levels, but it is assumed that if policy measures promote equal sharing of domestic tasks there is a better chance for women to realize their intentions to expand the family.
It is frustrating that we cannot find any evidence of the effectiveness of family policies; however, there is a solution: to obtain more knowledge about the decision-making process taking place between the parents. This knowledge should address not only how parents decide to have a child (where a lot of research already exists), but much more how minor issues in everyone’s life influence the decision-making process. For example, what is the role played by the family and friends of the parents or the couple and what is the role of even housing possibilities? And what about imitation—do friends, neighbors and peers at work have children?
To know figures such as the fertility rate or the value system does matter—but the more you use data at the aggregate level, meaning the more you generalize on national level, the less you know about how individuals are driven in their actions in everyday lives.
In consequence, we need to carry out more studies as regards actions and interactions in everyday lives and have a better understanding of the couples and their decision-making processes so that we can better see what really matters.
Source: Olivier Thévenon and Gerda Neyer. 2014 (WP 7), FamiliesandSocieties. Family policies and diversity in Europe: The state-of-the-art regarding fertility, work, care, leave, laws and self-sufficiency