David Freed has been a dad for 3 years and is the co-author of Dads Don’t Babysit: towards equal parenting, a new and brilliant book helping partners to share parenting more equally. He has been blogging at Dad’s Turn since he started his Shared Parental Leave and went to working part-time to look after his son.
It’s wonderful to welcome him here with his guest post:
Dads aren’t babysitters, they’re parents’: towards equal parenting
One cold evening in early 2016, my wife and I underwent the biggest change of our lives. Just before 5 pm, my son was born. It was a feeling that’s difficult to describe: exhaustion, excitement and trepidation, as your nurturing and protective instincts kick in. This was a journey we were embarking on together. But shortly after my little bear arrived, I was told I had to leave the hospital without him… My wife, in desperate need of some sleep, was told she had to look after my son for the night, alone. Two and a half years later, I still face this disconnect between the kind of caring and fully responsible dad I want to be, and the dad others expect me to be.
This attitude of placing all the burdens of childcare on mum and telling dad to leave doesn’t make sense, and isn’t fair on mums or dads. Yet it is widespread.
I haven’t met a dad who hasn’t been overrun by goose-bumps and nurturing instinct when taking care of his kids. Attitudes are changing with more mums wanting to share responsibility, and dads wanting to play a more active and equal role in raising their kids. Around 60% of mums and dads want to split parenting responsibility equally, with all parents wanting a better work-life balance for time with their family.
Unsurprisingly, mums who share responsibility for childcare with their partners have better mental health, are more likely to enjoy the time they do spend with their kids, and have a better chance of having a successful career. Dads are shown to have happier, longer and more satisfying lives the more they take on responsibility for looking after their children. Being the ‘lead-parent’ for a while is just awesome, and you can’t make up in life for not getting the chance to do it. A more equally shared responsibility for childcare also has a potentially huge benefit for the economy too. But topping all this is the clear evidence that kids who have a closer relationship with their father are happier, healthier and smarter.
Yet, uptake of parental leave by new dads is hovering at around 2-4% in the UK. That’s over 95% of new dads not taking (or being able to take) a substantial chunk of time to look after their new baby. As the kids get older, dads also spend far less time than mums with their tots and teenagers during the week, and in many cases almost never have sole responsibility for their kids. In our new book we dubbed this gap the ‘Paternity Gap’, the gap between what parents want and what they get in practice.
Why is this paternity gap so big?
A part of the reason is the fact that Shared Parental Leave in the UK isn’t very good. Those countries with better parental leave systems have more involved dads. So parental leave needs to be improved to benefit families and the economy as a whole. But even if parental leave policies are fixed, the limiting expectations from society on both parents persist.
When looking after my toddler during the week, I’m frequently told I’m ‘babysitting’. But for whom? The word ‘babysitting’ means temporarily looking after someone else’s children for them. No-one would tell a mum she’s babysitting her only kid, so why would we say it to the other parent?
The implication is clear, I’m doing my wife a favour by looking after my own kid, because deep down they think she’s the one who’s meant to be looking after him not me. The idea that a dad can babysit his own kid is the tip-of-the-iceberg, covering a host of cultural beliefs that limits our expectations on dads. We sum these up as the ‘babysitting handicap’.
But, what I’m doing during the week is not temporary, and it’s not as a favour to my wife. I’m not babysitting, I’m just being a parent.
These impressions about dads ‘doing mum a favour’ by looking after their own kids reinforces the mindset that dads are not meant to be caring for their kids full-time. It nudges a lot of willing dads away from childcare by making them feel they would be weird to take the lead, that in a sense they’re not really allowed to. It makes them nervous to ask their employers to ask for flexibility so their work can fit around new family commitments and explains why many couples who may want to share parenting equally don’t in practice.
On the flip side, it also explains why the gender pay gap only really kicks off after women have children. Employers are expecting mums to disappear from the workplace so become more willing to limit their opportunity for promotion or pay-rises. So, the mum will make all the sacrifices for the children through her career, and the dad will make all the sacrifices in quality time with his babies because it’s what society expects.
But contrary to popular myths, dads and mums make equally good parents. The more dads look after their babies, the more they experience similar brain changes to mums to prepare them to care for their children. What makes us ‘naturally’ better parents is not our sex, but the time we spend alone looking after our babies.
But the cultural barriers of the babysitting handicap are found in the workplace from uninformed employers, in the TV we watch, and in the conversations we have with family, friends and strangers.
Worst of all, the barriers is the notion that taking on a caring role in the family is only for women. It’s not. The publicity campaigns in the Nordic countries showed tattooed, bearded and butch men looking after their babies and loving it. The front cover of my new book echoes this idea that fathers can ‘man-up’ and look after the baby. It’s those sort of images we need in order to shake up old fashioned expectations on dads, and show men that they can be comfortable in their masculinity when they are responsible for the kids….Maybe even more manly than the guy who hides from his parental duties?
More and more dads are pushing back at these out-dated limits but we still have a long way to go.
It’s time to put that right.