Raise the question of who should look after the kids, and you enter a minefield of gender roles, household distribution of labour, and parenting styles, with any wrong step potentially fatal.
Arguments such as women have a biological affinity with raising children or that they’re better at it are sure to come up. Alternatively, workplaces aren’t all that flexible when push comes to shove is another argument that men – in particular – might use to shirk their responsibilities when it comes to parenting.
But is it even fair to say they are shirking their responsibilities? Shouldn’t the question of how to share the work of parenting be decided by parents themselves? Or is the ‘freedom of choice’ argument combined with a perceived inevitability of the roles parents play just another shield for avoiding the work that scares a lot of men the most? Does it allow men to avoid the discussion of rights and responsibilities?
After all 74 per cent of working women used work arrangements (flexible hours; permanent part-time) to care for their children compared with 35 per cent of working men.
In light of the Productivity Commission’s recent draft paper Paid Parental Leave: Support for Parents with Newborn Children, Catalyst Australia spoke with four men who are or who have been stay-at-home-Dads.
The themes which came through the strongest were that men want to be actively involved in their children’s lives; that provided financial security and life balance in the family unit as a whole is achieved then men will feel more comfortable with seeking out that involvement; and, having the idea of a stay-at-home-Dad more normalised in this day-and-age makes it easier to ask for work arrangements which allow Dad’s to be more involved in raising their kids.
Justin, 33, works a regular 38-hour week behind the paint counter at Bunnings’ warehouse. His roster is nine days a fortnight which means he often works weekends but has some weekdays off. His partner, Cara, works in a nine-to-five office environment. Justin looks after their two-and-a-half year old daughter Sophie solo for three days each fortnight. On the weekdays when both parents are working Sophie either stays in childcare (two days a week) or with her grandmother. Justin says he and his partner, Cara, miss out on seeing each other a bit because of their working arrangements.
‘I always wanted to look after my kids,’ Justin says. ‘I work with older guys who say to me “We wish we’d done what you are doing.” They can see the relationship I have with Sophie and they just never had that with their own kids so early on.’ He says teaching Sophie the nicknames of the Australian cricket team or how to barrack for Parramatta have been some of the highlights. ‘She thinks Parra’ win every week. They’re the things I’m passionate about and that I want to share with her, so that’s been great.’
Justin says when he first took on responsibility for looking after his daughter on his own he was ‘shit scared.’ ‘I didn’t know what I was going to do all day. But you soon get the hang of it. It’s really not that hard.’
James, 43, was a senior purchasing officer with a mechanical engineering firm when he and his wife had their first daughter, Tillia. After about six months he asked to go from five days down to four so he could look after Tillia while his wife Gail gradually re-entered the workforce.
‘Asking for the time off was easier than I thought. I supervised a team so we had to make some arrangements for the day I wasn’t there and I was still on call, but it worked really well,’ James says.
‘I just wanted to be involved in [Tillia’s] life. My father wasn’t…not because he didn’t want to be. He was running a 4,500ha property on his own so he was always on a tractor or off doing something.’
James worked in England for six years before returning to Australia and says the overseas experience exposed him to paid parental leave in action in the early 90s.
‘A lot of guys still have the breadwinner mentality. But the opportunity [to be a more active parent] is there if you step up and take it. It’s more socially acceptable. And there’s more opportunity in one sense because the labour market is flexible.’
Tony, 48, was an IT contractor in the early 90s when his two children were born. He says a dislike for work combined with a curiosity about these ‘new beings’ in his life led to him working one or two days a week.
‘It was important for me to be involved in that part of my kids’ life. I wanted to know what they do, how they think and act at that age, just get to know them,’ adding that his father wasn’t too involved in his life.
Tony says when he first entered the workforce in the late 1970s women were still relatively new on the scene, apart from secretarial roles.
‘The stereotype is less pronounced now but it’s still real. Looking after the children is still skewed towards the mother.’ He thinks if a couple can ‘somehow work it’ then the father should try to take some time to be at home with the kids. ‘I think it’s a great thing. It’s important to have a mother. And it’s important to have a father. It’s the balance. And it’s great for the whole family.’
He says he knows of fathers who throw their hands up in horror at some of the everyday aspects of looking after kids and who sometimes bury themselves in work.
‘I think it’s a bit caveman-ish to not be able to change a nappy or not know what to do with a wipe. It’s good to know. You have a fuller life and you have more experiences. It adds to the quality of life.’
Jon, 41, and his wife Marie, emigrated from England to Australia with an 11-month old baby and a second on the way and ended up with three children in the space of three-and-a-half years. Now with their children fast approaching their teenage years he says constantly reappraising how the family unit is operating, recognising that there are phases to the family’s evolution, and making choices around this are important to achieving some type of work/life balance.
‘We’ve all been brought up to believe women can do it all and that men can do it all – you can have status, money, family, hobbies. But the reality is you can’t. You have to make choices.’
Jon says he has seen lots of people – men and women – who have sacrificed family to chase the executive career. ‘There’s nothing wrong with that so long as it’s a conscious decision. You can end up with all the trappings but not be happy.’
He says early on in their children’s lives he took up a job because it had the flexibility of allowing him to work intensively for a period and then not at all. He and his wife made a decision to put family first which involved a series of trade-offs – living in a regional centre and earning less money are two but it’s a deliberate trade-off between time and money.
‘In having kids and deciding to spend time being a part of their lives there comes richness. You measure your self-worth in different ways. A healthy, happy family exposes you to different experiences. You won’t have the opportunity to do those things again as a parent of your children. All up, I think spending the time with your kids makes you a nicer person. If you don’t embrace family life it becomes an intrusion. You become angry and aggressive. You are stressed.’
But he also acknowledged that often in the early stages of a new family the reality is that the father feels the pressure of being the ‘breadwinner’.
‘Women have the baby. For them there is a physical change. For men, it’s a life change, but they haven’t gone through the physical aspect of it. I think women often want to stay home.’
He thinks that once the cycle of workforce participation has been broken by women (by taking maternity leave, for example), then women often feel more able to go back to work part-time, or able to resign because they’ve made that break.
‘And so it’s understandable that men often feel they have to go and earn the money and then feel that they need to work harder to protect the family. A lot of the primal urges come through. Then there’s a recognition that men need to earn more. Then there comes a financial logic to maintaining the status quo. And with that comes a separation of duties – women at home, men in the workforce – which can easily just slide along for years for a whole range of reasons in combination.’
In the case of Jon and his wife they came to a point where neither of them was happy with the quality of their life. ‘Separation of duties becomes separation,’ he says.
Jon says the consequence of both partners working is flexibility in the family unit which means they can both play the stay-at-home role or the breadwinner role as the need arises.