Paternity leave is the next big thing | Here’s why it may not work with Nigerian men

The number of ways that enforced gender roles manifest in our everyday life – from the home to school, to places of worship and work – is too immense to measure. Yet perhaps because measuring is not the antidote to the harm enforced gender roles cause for all people – male, female, and every other iteration of humanness there is – we don’t need a measure. What we need are feelers.

Feelers could tell us why it is that despite years of discussion among those who care about the dynamics of cis-heterosexual marriages – the only kind of marriage we are allowed in Nigeria – very little headway has been made in ensuring equitable leave days for parents.

People talk about maternity leave almost like one will fantasize about the culture of a foreign country about which deep down they hold a prejudiced opinion. They project desire for it but will if given the chance to experience it pull away in disgust.

Men speak about maternity leave often to remind women how much easier they have life, what with all the ‘perks of being a woman,’ that they enjoy.

16 weeks of paid leave after a child sits heavy on your chest, tears through flesh, and shifts bones to come into the world leaving you with battle scars for the rest of your life, sure sounds like a perk.

Labour Act, Chapter 198, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 1990. Since the 2009 Nigerian Labour law, female public- sector employees have been granted 16 weeks of maternity leave at full pay, and two hours off-duty every day once back to work to breastfeed or express breastmilk.

Any human being who went through the experience of childbirth, or even simply studies it closely with empathy not a diminishment of its gravity, will tell you for free that 16 weeks is not nearly enough time to fully heal. 

Yet even were these days enough time to heal, women often find themselves doing everything but resting and recovering.

If they are not taking care of the baby – fully or with help here and there from friends and family – they are taking care of the baby’s daddy who should, in a decent world, be fully responsible for taking care of both mother and child. 

Maternity leave, then, is often a fresh hell for many Nigerian mothers.

Could we free the men?

The Nigerian Labour Act does not recognise paternity leave and makes no such provisions.

Paternity leave is a period of absence from work granted by the employer to a father or taken by oneself from self-employment after or shortly before the birth of his child.

Alternatively, you can think of paternity leave as the rebellious cousin who is doing so well everyone wishes they can have his luck, but is also so morally bent people will rather not even bring him up. 

Nigerian men want to have paternity leave. Nigerian men also do not want to have paternity leave. For some reason, this duality perfectly sits well with many a Nigerian man. We spoke to some to try to unravel it.

Salim Hamdan, 39, Male, is an engineer with NNPC. His wife, 33-year-old Aisha Samunaka, is a teacher with the Kaduna State Ministry of Education. They have 5 kids, and every time she puts to bed she gets her rightful leave from work. Each time, Salim, never fails to mention how lucky it is to be a woman.

“It is a running joke,” he says, even though his wife had not once laughed at the joke, “Of course I understand that weeks off work with pay is not comparable to the pain of childbirth or the stress of raising a child mostly by yourself.” He places an emphasis on the, ‘Mostly by yourself bit,’ because, “I am at work from morning to evening every day, sometimes including weekends.”

“It will be nice,” he says, “to have a couple of weeks off when my wife gives birth so I can help her with some of the child care bit. It is a bonding experience I am saddened to not have.”

A lovely sentiment, if only there is follow-through. There has never been.

Aisha recalls coincidentally giving birth to her 3rd child during Salim’s annual leave. Coincidentally because she wasn’t due for another two weeks, by which time her husband would have resumed work.

“We were both shocked even though we understand that due dates by their nature leave room for 2 weeks before or after,” she says, “I thought, ‘this is it,’ the universe herself delivering this man the opportunity to walk his talk at last. He didn’t.”

Her husband, who is saddened by the missed opportunity to bond with his wife and newly born, made himself scarce. Only coming into the house twice in one week, each time to get fresh clothes and dump dirty ones. He never bothers who washes the dirty clothes, or who makes available the fresh supply, his wife takes care of that, in addition to their baby and young children.

“I had help from family,” she says with a strained smile, “That helps prevent any resentment from building.”

Salim, like many Nigerian men that desire a paternity leave culture in Nigeria, only likes the notion of free days but not the labour involved. It is hardly their fault either.

Gender roles – the thorn in our collective flesh.

Western media swear that Dad Jokes are a universal trait of human males who have sired a child or two and can only lay claim to being cool by tormenting their hapless kids with jokes whose punchlines rarely ever come close to landing. Yet, we read about these dads, or watch them on TV, and we are left knowing that our own ‘cool’ dad is far from that corny thing being performed by Westerners.

The Nigerian cool dad tells a joke or two every now and then. He is free with laughter when he is not stressed. Above all you find him every so often in the kitchen, either cooking, ‘helping’ his wife cook, or observing one of the children do so. That is the peak of coolness for a Nigerian dad.

“He cooks!”

The reason we marvel at these things, even though food is a need of every human being, is because our culture is so stilted and frozen in that askew state into a base of enforced gender roles.

A gender role, also known as a sex role, is a social role encompassing a range of behaviors and attitudes that are generally considered acceptable, appropriate, or desirable for a person based on that person’s biological or perceived sex. Gender roles influence a wide range of human behavior, often including the clothing a person chooses, the profession a person pursues, and the personal relationships a person enters.

wikipedia

It is enforced gender roles that led to a situation where two people will come together, swear to be each other’s pillars of support while they build a life together that could involve bringing other human beings into the world, only for one to sit pretty when a child comes and refuse to lift a finger. 

Why? Because “nurture is innate in women,” “it is a woman’s job to do these things,” and so on and so forth.

It is these things that we think only affect our personal lives – and they do more than that – that trickled all the way into the social psyche to the point we ended up with labour laws that don’t recognise the need for fathers to be with their newborns and raw post-labour wives.

Even were a man to insist on getting days off to be with his wife in this trying time – which 35-year-old writer James Awojide did – he is apt to come to regret it. 

James couldn’t get paid leave not only because of the law but also because the time happened to be a period of increased workload. In the end, he had to just secure unpaid leave. He came to regret the decision.

“My wife is from the North Central,” he says, “Kwara to be specific, so even though we are both Yoruba, there are aspects of their culture that are unique to her people.”

Like how her parents demanded she leave Lagos where they reside few days after giving birth to a healthy baby  girl so she can spend her maternity leave being taken care of by her near and dear, in order to, “hasten healing.”

His protestations that he had just taken unpaid leave to take care of her fell on deaf ears because, “How can a man be the one taking care of a woman?”

She left and stayed away for a month, half of which was his leave and which they could have spent loving each other while she healed.

“I don’t know if paternity leave will work in a culture like this where even when you choose to do something notwithstanding the prevailing attitude you are met with collective resistance – a wall.”

Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t.

In country’s where the law allows men leave days or weeks after their child is born, the data shows a reluctance from these men that Salim will say are, “Very lucky,” to apply for their rightful leave days.

‘A 2011 Boston College study found that about 75% of men took a week or less off from work when their child was born. And other reports have shown that only small numbers of eligible dads take paternity leave even when it’s paid.’ An article on www.parents.com claims.

But who will refuse to take offered paid leave? Why? I will tell you who and why.

The ‘who,’ is any man raised in a cultural atmosphere that prizes strict adherence to gender roles. A man who knows his manliness is predicated on his rejection of any small opening that could potentially begin to bring ideas and attitudes that will make our society more open to different ways of being – to less manliness if you will.

The ‘why,’ is simple. If you don’t allow yourself to go down that dark road of growing egalitarianism the status quo remains safe. And God forbid it be threatened because what Nigerian man wants to be caught dead with a baby tied to his back with a wrapper as he mixes the Garri the house will eat for dinner, while his fresh-out-of-labour wife puts her feet up and let some air tickle her stitches.

There are many other reasons, I don’t doubt. Yet ponder those, and let your mind run its course with whatever else comes to it. 

Begin to ask yourself, “Do I, a Nigerian man, born of a woman not deserve better?” “Is nurturing my spouse and children not the greatest feeling in the world?” 

Then insist to be allowed free days when your wife puts to be and for heaven’s sake use those days to actually support her.

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