Paternity Leave? More Like Paternity Left Out

Policies are Dad-Friendly but Few Czech Men Opt to Stay at Home

By Madeleine Overturf

On a Tuesday in September, Jiri Novak, 36, took his son one-year-old son Ben to a swimming class in Podebrady, a small town 31 miles east of Prague. Novak, a stay-at-home dad and catering executive, knew there wouldn’t be have many fellow fathers at the children’s pool, but he wasn’t prepared for what came next. When he went to change into his swim trunks, the swimming teacher stopped him. “At the moment, we don’t have a changing room for men,” she explained. Novak waited patiently until all the mothers were finished before he could take his turn.

Photo by More Good Foundation

A father and his son paint together at daycare. Photo courtesy of More Good Foundation

Novak’s experience as a dad is far from uncommon in the Central European country of 10.2 million people where stay-at-home dads are as rare as tropical birds in the arctic. Preschool doors are engraved with the words “materska skola,” which literally translate to “Motherly school.” Children’s items are marketed only towards mothers. Changing rooms at restaurants are never marked for families, just for mothers. Activities offered for parents and toddlers are always advertised for a mother and her child. At the same time, the Czech Republic prides itself on having the most dad-friendly parental leave policies in the former Eastern Bloc.

According to the Czech Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, six months after the birth of a child, either parent can stay at home for up to four years for maternity or paternity leave, their jobs saved for them, or the equivalent of their former position, when they return. Employees receive 70 percent of their monthly wage for seven months. Payment for the self employed depends on how much they were paying into a social-security-style fund. In addition, the parent who takes leave receives 273,600 crowns per child, ($13,740) spread out monthly for two to four years.

When parents do go back to work their child is guaranteed a spot in public preschool from age three, although currently overcrowding at nurseries is so severe that this has been problematic. With such progressive benefits, the Czech Republic seems to be securing itself a spot alongside Sweden and Norway as one of the most family-focused countries in Europe. However, last year only 5,100 men took paternity leave, compared to over 300,000 women according to the Czech Statistical Office.

In the 10 years since joint parental leave was introduced, the number of men applying for paternity leave has only increased by three percent, despite 94 percent of Czechs saying they viewed stay-at-home fathers as “totally normal,” in a poll conducted by the League of Open Men, a fathers’ rights group

Photo by Stacy Benton

A father cares for his newborn through paternity leave. Photo courtesy of Stacy Benton

“Ten years ago men on parental leave were viewed as somehow strange or weak or unable to find a good job,” Lukas Talpa, project manager for the League of Open Men, said. “Luckily that changed, but it is still developing over time.” Hindering that development, according to experts, is a stagnant view of gender roles combined with pay inequities. Despite many Czechs wanting family life to be more equitable, in the face of such obstacles the rise of the Czech stay-at-home dad might be a slow climb.

“There is this persevering collective mindset that presumes parenthood is predominately a thing for women to deal with,” Jiri Pehe, former political advisor to ex-president Vaclav Havel and director of New York University in Prague, said. Pehe split stay-at-home duties with his American wife before his now eight-year-old daughter began attending school full time.

According to Czech fathers’ rights groups, the mother-knows-best mentality was reinforced during the communist era. It was only women who were given financial support and typically three years off of work when they had a child. Of course all of Europe has government-supported care packages for new families that do not exist in the United States. In the case of the Czech Republic, however, the maternity packages completely defined the way a family operated. Whereas Scandinavian countries mandate paternity leave of two months off after the birth of a baby, Czech fathers were not expected to rear their children.

Vaclav Koron, 45, a Czech film critic and a part-time stay-at-home father recalls when he was attending a university class in 1989. When the psychology class covered parental involvement, his classmates openly mocked the idea. “They laughed at my dream,” he said.

“This system of social engineering–which in some places could move things forward–was used to cement this patriarchal logic,” Pehe articulated. “After the fall of communism, society has become a lot more flexible, but this patriarchal opinion survives.”

The Czech Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, the government bureau responsible for such parental leave policies and compensation, did not reply to requests for comment on the Czech environment for stay-at-home-fathers.

“Ten years ago men on parental leave were viewed as somehow strange or weak or unable to find a good job.”

But other stay-at-home fathers interviewed for this article echoed Pehe’s view. “There are some social predeterminations that the mother should stay with the kid,” Marek Horak, 37, said. Horak, an architect in Prague, stayed at home with his infant son while living for a short period in the U.S. a few years ago. “When I decided to stay home, my friends thought it was a strange thing. This perception is rooted in my generation.” One reason many fathers give to explain why more of their male friends do not stay home is the financial consequence. There is a 26 percent difference in male and female income in the Czech Republic, the second biggest gap in the 28-country European Union. Furthermore, with the monthly family aid payments barely above minimum wage, it’s a pay cut many families in the Czech Republic cannot afford.

“A number of the government’s family policies and schemes are not well thought out,” Zdena Novotna, gender studies professor at New York University in Prague, said. “If you do not have savings or someone in the family like a spouse supporting you additionally, it is very difficult to survive on parental allowance alone.” Novotna suggests that along with government provided tax breaks for working couples and parents, private employers must play a part in encouraging more fathers to stay at home. She said companies should promote part-time jobs so both parents can work, or better enforce non-discrimination policies towards working mothers and parents.

Novotna’s last point is a definite issue for many potential stay-at-home fathers. The men interviewed for this article stressed that their situation was possible because of a flexible work environment, often self-employment. They pointed out that in some fields a man could be looked down upon for staying at home, therefore affecting his career path. Others point to bosses’ hesitation to support stay- at-home fathers because they don’t want to lose high-ranking team members. Jiri Novak said that when he decided to leave his job, his boss was angry. “Because of the law she had to accept it,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean she wasn’t pissed.”

Adding to men’s hesitation to stay at home is the country’s current pre-school crisis.

Photo from Prague TV

Childcare is the biggest number in the family budget. Photo courtesy of Prague TV

Despite promising each child a spot in a state- preschool, last year over 50,000 children could not be accepted due to overcrowding, according to the Prague Gender Studies Centre. This has forced some families to send their children to private schools that cost up to 25,000 crowns a month, more than double the highest state-provided maternity aid. “The money is a big problem,” Koron said. “Childcare is the biggest number in the family budget.” While he and his wife were able to support themselves by working part time and trading off child duties, he noted that when their daughter Louisa became old enough for preschool, they found the state-provided preschool unacceptable. “It was horrible. There were too many children, too few teachers–everything was bad,” Koron said of his experience.

According to Marek Horak, the preschool crisis is a perfect example of the country’s presumption on how a family should work. “It’s a picture of what the services are,” he said. “They’re not designed for it. They expect someone to stay home until the child is three years old.” Adding to this complication is women’s hesitation to give up their role as caretaker.

In a poll conducted by the League of Open Men, two thirds of women polled said they would not want men to take paternity leave. While League of Open Men manager Lukas Talpa hypothesizes that much of this has to do with money, he admits women fear being seen as a “Raven’s Mother”—someone who flies back to work and abandons her babies when they are far too young. “I think the traditional role of the mother is too deep and they’re afraid they will lose something,” former stay-at-home father Jan Horsak, 31, said. “They want to be emancipated but comfortable.”

Professor Novotna said that without any significant modifications from societal shapers, gender roles will stay stagnant. “The employers and government should set an example for the nation,” she said. “If men are encouraged to take part in fatherhood more, I think the attitude will change.” Many Czech fathers interviewed for this article agreed with Novotna.

“The Czech Republic right now is to some extent like America in the 1950s,” Pehe said. “And just like the USA, the 60s will come.”

Madeline Overturf is in the NYU Tisch Class of 2014. Her hometown is Anchorage, Alaska.

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Categories: Spring 2014 Issue Number 1

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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