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Band of Brothers is a wartime epic that touches on eternity It's time for more men to try shared parental leave


NewsHubWith Christmas coming, my younger daughter and I, the fanatical pacesetters in a whole family of binge-watchers, are deciding whether our number-one rerun for the season will be The West Wing or Band of Brothers. To qualify for the winter spot, the chosen show has be: a) big, b) great and c) full of groovy people. Nice as it would be to have The West Wing remind us that American presidential politics is not necessarily a madhouse after all, we seem to be favouring, at the moment, Band of Brothers , not having seen enough of Damian Lewis lately, except dressed as Henry VIII and treating women badly: not something he is plausible at doing. We have discussed watching Homeland again, but in that one the gorgeous Damian goes missing halfway through, hanged from a crane because the locals think that ginger hair is an insult to the Prophet, or something like that.
Personally, if I were given my choice of long-term Christmas viewing, I would put the 1980 miniseries Shogun back on screen and let it stay there until I croaked, but the women in my family are all too aware that my reasons for loving the show include the opalescent presence of Yoko Shimada. Long ago, in Japan, I did the tea ceremony with her and it was like dancing with Rita Hayworth, slowed down by a thousand times. In Play All , my book about binge-watching, I picked the BBC’s I, Claudius as the possible true ancestor of the box-set-binge phenomenon, but I now think that Shogun was the more likely progenitor. It had everything, including the unprecedented spectacle of Toshiro Mifune being subtle. (Which genius was it who said that “Toshiro Mifune” sounded like “no smoking” in Japanese?)
Whatever: Shogun ’s vast format fed a new hunger and it led us to the satisfaction we can get now only when Joffrey, the nasty boy-king in Game of Thrones , ponces about lethally for months on end before he gets it in the neck. We’d be watching it again this time if we hadn’t only just finished watching it again last time.
But no, it has to be Band of Brothers. You know something is on an epic scale when even a small piece of it breathes open space, which is to say that it touches on eternity. The little scene where Malarkey picks up the laundry parcels for the missing men takes me back to a time when the fathers of my generation were risking their lives. But I never had to explain that to my children because the show explained it better than I could. To have seen at least part of a time when popular entertainment has become so substantial is a great privilege, and I bless it without reserve. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to start dropping hints about how much I’d like to see Westworld.
“It’s not often that government legislation kick-starts a revolution,” Nick Clegg, the then deputy prime minister, wrote in 2014. “Yet our Children and Families Act . does just that.” The act’s most significant policy was shared parental leave (SPL), which allows parents to divide a 50-week allocation of leave however they choose. Finally, here was a system no longer built “on the 1950s assumption that when a child is born, Mum stays home while Dad goes out to work”.
Yet it turns out that the revolution wasn’t kick-started: it was given a very gentle nudge instead. In August, HM Revenue & Customs said in response to a Freedom of Information request that only 3,000 new parents – roughly 4 per cent of eligible couples – were claiming SPL in the first quarter of 2016. The government, despite Clegg’s fanfare, had predicted an equally modest take-up of between 2 and 8 per cent.
Why are the overwhelming majority of dads still choosing to go back to work after one or two weeks and leave mums holding the baby? I puzzled over this during the three months I took off this year to look after our son, John, who was then seven months old, and our daughter, Verette, then two. It was an opportunity to redress the imbalance of responsibility at home; to bond with my baby son; to give my wife, Claire, a chance to get back into her career. There was no reason not to do it.
Yet as I chatted to other new or expectant mothers, my contribution – minor, in the scheme of things: I did not have to put my body through hell, or cope alone with the hardest, early months of babyhood – was often met with amazement and admiration, to Claire’s annoyance (that I should be treated as some paragon of virtue) and my embarrassment. The mums would round on their partners – “What do you think about that?” – who would hem and haw and say it sounded like a great idea and they would definitely consider it next time, depending on various variables, and did you hear that the guy who played R2-D2 just died, and can I get anyone a drink?
A survey commissioned by the Southbank Centre for its Being a Man festival in November suggested some reasons why this might be. Of the fathers who chose not to take SPL, 68 per cent did so for financial reasons and 40 per cent felt that their employer wouldn’t support their request for time off. And many of those who took SPL still feared some negative associations: 51 per cent said that they risked being viewed as “less of a man”.
The financial worries are understandable. SPL includes nine months of statutory pay (£139.58 a week) and while most employers have a maternity package, many give fathers nothing at all on top. So checking your bank account becomes a progressively dispiriting and, I admit, emasculating experience – and in relationships in which the man is the primary breadwinner (I’m not), there’s a disincentive for him to take unpaid, or poorly paid, leave.
However – as pointed out by the Conservative MP Maria Miller at the Being a Man festival – a third of British working mothers are the main breadwinner in their family. “What I find surprising,” she said, “is that you haven’t seen their partners taking parental leave when the financial repercussions won’t have been so acute. It really is down to social pressures.”
Those pressures, I think, manifest themselves not in the pub (masculinity and hands-on fatherhood are no longer seen as mutually exclusive) but in the workplace, where concerns about being considered “less of a man” bleed into worries about career prospects.
I spoke to a father (he did not want to be named) who “had conversations with people in the company that you wouldn’t dream of having with a woman about to go on maternity leave. To have a chat with someone a lot more senior than you who’s saying, ‘You know what, it’s difficult. Maybe you could consider not doing this’ – the power imbalance is very awkward and it makes you feel extremely insecure.

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