When shared parental leave was introduced in 2015, it was lauded by then-deputy prime minister Nick Clegg as a “move away from outdated assumptions about the role of fathers”. For too long, workplace policy reinforced the idea that childcare was a woman’s domain. Now, legislation says parents can share the load.

But two years have passed and so far fewer than one in 1,000 employees have used the scheme. Fear of workplace discrimination is a leading barrier. A recent survey found men who took more than two weeks’ paternity leave were subject to ridicule and worried about damaging their careers. Couple this with the fact that women still earn on average 13.9% less than men, and many families simply can’t afford to substitute the father’s wage for £140.98 per week shared parental pay.

But gender parity shouldn’t feel out of reach: Swedish researchers found that when mothers shouldered the lion’s share of childcare in the first year, the relationship was more likely to breakdown. We asked four families to share their childcare approach, and how it worked – or didn’t.

Toan Ravenscroft, 33, business director at M&C Saatchi. He took three months’ shared parental leave to be primary carer for his daughter, Seren

Toan Ravenscroft with his wife, Rhian, and baby, Seren.
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Toan Ravenscroft with his wife, Rhian, and baby, Seren.

I was the first man at my work to take shared parental leave (SPL), and inevitably I had fears about stepping into the unknown. But as well as a progressive SPL policy from my employer (it matched with their maternity leave package), I had many people telling me they wish they’d done it, so I felt reassured I was doing the right thing.

My three months with Seren were empowering – it was a challenge at times but I feel really lucky to have had an opportunity to do it. My wife, Rhian, and I wanted to care for our daughter as equally as possibly, and I while I wouldn’t be so arrogant as to say I understand a mother’s experience now, I have had a glimpse, and that’s benefited mine and Rhian’s relationship 100%.

During my leave I stayed in touch with work via the odd lunch and meeting. At one quarterly update I saw things that I’d been working on stepping up and wondered if I’d be able to fit back in. But by the end I was keen to get back to work, so I returned feeling reinvigorated.

I support a mandatory paternity leave like the three-month “daddy quota” in Sweden, but it depends whether employers could do it. In time I think we’ll see more people take shared parental leave – it just needs to become normalised.

Emma Knewstub, 39, director at Magnificent Stuff, took full maternity leave for all three of her sons, aged nine, eight and two

Emma Knewstub with her husband, Steve, and their three children.
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Emma Knewstub with her husband, Steve, and their three children.

When I had my first son in 2008, my husband and I had the perfect set up: I had a good maternity package from my employer, and Steve ran his own business from home so was on-hand to help. But when I returned to work, I was actually pregnant again, and that didn’t go down well at all.

It was so soon after my first pregnancy that I wasn’t entitled to the same maternity package – only statutory maternity pay. So once I had my second son, I had two babies under two, far less money and Steve’s business had started to struggle – those were dark times. After your first child it’s all very collaborative, but once you have two, everything’s more stressful and it’s much more of a “fight or flight” situation.

After that, I took a part-time job closer to home as a freelance consultant, so when I had my third son, I had no maternity package or statutory pay, just maternity allowance. So I set up my own business while pregnant, working on it during evenings and weekends until I gave birth. Thankfully it did well and Steve and I both work on that full-time now.

I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit and if I hadn’t had children my career would have taken a different trajectory.

Andrew Neidhardt, 33, who works for a local authority, has just finished three months’ shared parental leave to look after his son, Ethan

Andrew Neidhardt with his girlfriend, Cherry, and son, Ethan.
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Andrew Neidhardt with his girlfriend, Cherry, and son, Ethan.

Before I told my employer I was going to be taking shared parental leave, I was a little apprehensive about it. I didn’t know anyone else who had done it, and it felt strange to say I wouldn’t be going in to work for three months. My manager was really supportive, though, and while there were a couple of “you’re mad” comments from colleagues, I actually had a lot more people telling me how lucky I was.

As my girlfriend works from home, we’d expected this idyllic set up where Ethan and I would go swimming or to the park in the morning before the three of us would sit down and have lunch together. In reality, we got under each other’s feet and bickered. Nonetheless, now we both have an understanding of what it’s like to be primary carer, as well as how it feels to go to work and miss out on Ethan, and I can’t see how that is anything but positive for our relationship.

It’s a shame shared parental leave hasn’t been more popular, particularly if fear of workplace discrimination is one of the reasons. I’m sure it differs between industries, but for me I can’t see how taking time off to care for my son will mean I’m overlooked for the next promotion. If anything, I might be perceived more positively – someone who isn’t afraid to go against the grain.

Dave Hornby, 32, freelance blogger, is a stay-at-home dad to his three-year-old daughter, Elle

Dave Hornby with his wife, Hayley, and daughter, Elle.
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Dave Hornby with his wife, Hayley, and daughter, Elle.

When my wife Hayley and I were expecting our daughter, Elle, we knew we wanted one of us to be a stay-at-home parent. At the time, it made sense for it to be me. Hayley was earning more than I was as a freelancer, and while I had just been offered a full-time role, the commute was so long that I would’ve barely seen my daughter.

As a self-employed man, I wasn’t entitled to any parental benefits so when Elle was born, we used our savings to ensure we could both care for her at first, then I became primary carer once Hayley returned to work.

It was a carefully thought-out decision, so there hasn’t been any resentment on either side about our “roles”. There’s the odd disagreement about housework but I’ve been clear from the start that it’s not my sole responsibility, and I think that understanding has helped our relationship. I’m genuinely pleased that our set up allows Hayley to flourish in her career, and my blog, thedadventurer.com, brings in a side income too.

When I’m asked “what do you do?” I tend to waver between saying blogger or stay-at-home dad, because I’m conscious that people may think the latter is emasculating, which isn’t true. We live in a time where a lot of dads would like to be more involved with childcare, but as they’re generally also the breadwinner, they just can’t afford it. More needs to be done to change that.

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