During the last fortnight not one but three UK national newspapers have published articles about a new social trend apparently sweeping the country: working mothers taking ‘teen-ternity leave’ to be physically, mentally and emotionally present for older children as they make their way through adolescent traumas, peer pressure and exam stresses.
In The Observer, Barbara Ellen asserted that ‘teen-ternity leave’ is “increasingly a thing”, and asked whether it is “just another way to make mothers feel guilty”. The Daily Mail ran a piece by Sadie Nicholas under a headline claiming that “working mums who quit their jobs to look after their teenage kids is becoming a huge social trend”. In The Independent, Lucy Mangan expressed doubts, but still devoted a column to the subject.
What prompted this mini storm of media activity? Two high-profile mothers (one a TV presenter, one a senior director from the retail sector) quitting their jobs to spend more time with their teenagers, a couple of Daily Mail case studies of ‘ordinary’ mothers doing the same, and a discussion about the concept on Loose Women.
Hey presto: a new buzzword is born…and with it another opportunity to casually airbrush fathers out of the public narrative on parenthood and work-life balance.
What does the evidence tell us?
For those who prefer their social trends evidence-based rather than celebrity-driven, latest official data show that it is fathers, rather than mothers, who reduce their working commitments as their children progress through adolescence.
Mothers’ participation in paid work increases as their children get older. When their youngest child is aged 0-2, 69.1% of UK mothers are in paid work. By youngest child-age 16 to 18, that percentage rises to 83.3%. At youngest-child-age 3–4, 30% of mothers work full-time; by youngest child-age 11–15, 44.7% do so; and by child-age 16–18, 45.3%.
By contrast, fathers’ participation in paid work reduces. When their youngest child is aged 0-2, 95.1% of fathers are in paid work. By youngest child-age 16 to 18, that percentage has fallen to 87.7%. At youngest-child-age 3–4, 82.3% of fathers work full-time; at youngest-child-age 11–15, 79.4% do so; and at youngest-child-age 16–18, 76.7% work full-time (ONS, 2023a).
The percentage of women with dependent children defined as ‘economically inactive’ also falls: from 28.1% when their youngest child is aged 0-2, to 15% at youngest-child-age 16-18. Meanwhile, the percentage of men who are ‘economically inactive’ rises, from 3.2% of those with a youngest dependent child aged 0-2, to 9.8% of those at youngest-child-age 16-18.
Mothers are still more ‘around’ than fathers for their adolescent children, then, but this is less the case than during the children’s earlier years. And fathers, less available earlier on, become more so in the teenage years.
So are UK mothers and fathers taking teen-ternity leave? We don’t know how many working fathers are purposefully taking ‘teen-ternity’ leave to spend more time with their adolescent children – any more than the newspapers peddling ‘teen-ternity’ as a trend know that working mothers do. But the data shows clearly that mothers’ participation in paid work grows, and fathers’ reduces, as children age.
Research has shown that when children are young, mothers’ paid work hours are a strong predictor of fathers’ engagement in caregiving: whether this remains the case later is not known (this is a research gap) but it seems possible. Mothers’ and fathers’ caregiving during their child’s adolescence may well be more equitable than when their children were small.
This is of great interest because our latest research review, also published last week, found plenty of evidence that ‘time with dad’ during adolescence (as well as in childhood) can bring a multitude of benefits.
UK fathers and their teenagers
When fathers spend little time with their teenagers, this is associated with high ‘total difficulties’ and hyperactivity scores, lower happiness levels – and, among boys, with being bullied. Conversely, when teenagers feel close to their father – and around two-thirds do – they score better for life satisfaction and self-esteem, have fewer mental health difficulties and are less likely to ‘self-harm’.
Higher scores in both the amount of time fathers spend with their teenagers and the closeness of their relationship are significantly associated with fewer adolescent risk behaviours (smoking, drinking, drugs and early sex, for example) – and with teenagers’ positive attitudes to school and better grades.
Overall, UK parents’ contributions to earning and caregiving are gendered: fathers are the bigger earners in two-thirds of dual earner households with dependent children and work longer hours, while working mothers do a third more unpaid childcare than working fathers.
Our parental leave system underpins these structural inequalities, positioning fathers clearly as lead breadwinners, and mothers as lead caregivers: mothers get 52 weeks’ maternity leave; employed fathers get two weeks, and self-employed fathers none.
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How refreshing it would be to see journalists focusing on this REAL obstacle to gender equality, rather than an imagined and likely misgendered one; and exploring a social trend that may be hidden in plain sight: fathers quietly slipping off the yoke of patriarchy by reducing their work commitments to spend more time with their teenagers.