Here’s to absent fathers

Why is it still mainly women leading the charge for better paternity leave?

Dads shared parental leave

Encouraging more conversations between employers and dads about Shared Parental Leave

It’s Father’s Day this weekend and so, naturally, thoughts turn to the dads of the world. But people’s experience of their dads – or indeed any family member – can be very different. My parents divorced when I was four. My mum moved with my stepfather to the UK and I saw my dad about once or maybe twice a year while I was growing up, mainly during the holidays.

I remember sitting with him at a recorder recital for my daughter at primary school. It was odd because he never came to anything school-related at all when I was a child. He wouldn’t have known the name of any of my teachers or even my friends. My dad wasn’t a bad person; my stepfather was, but that’s another story. He was just more or less absent and he didn’t know me really and I didn’t know him.

My dad died three years ago – we had his funeral on zoom. We are now preparing for a remembrance event for him. I have been going through poems to find one to read out. They seem mainly to be about people who had very close relationships with their fathers, the kind of relationship I longed for growing up, with every encounter with my father underlining that I couldn’t have it because my dad was of a background that didn’t talk about feelings and complicated stuff. My dad used to ask a lot of questions about the capitals of the world and so forth, but he rarely asked us how we were.  But, despite the lack of poems, I would bet that there are many people of my generation who had a similarly distant relationship with their father.

Perhaps I could have had a deep conversation with my dad when I got older, but the problem is that I think it is hard, if not impossible, to undo missing out on the childhood years. It takes real, sustained effort and we were never in the same country long enough, even if I had forced the conversation.

This all came to mind this week when I was writing up the several stories on paternity leave that inevitably come at this time of year. I went to an event on paternity leave earlier in the week. The event itself was great, but the lack of any men in the audience – except one representing a female MP – was reminiscent of all the events 10 years or more ago in the debate over Shared Parental Leave.

It felt like, for all the protestations that the world has changed and dads are really upset about the atrocious paternity leave they have, if they’re lucky, they are not willing to fight for time with their children in those first weeks. Or maybe everyone is just overwhelmed with getting by these days or cannot afford both parents to be on 90% pay for six weeks at a time of such crisis. Yet we know that patterns established at birth shape parenting in later years. Dads who are involved from the off are more likely, for instance, to ask for flexible working. The benefits are widespread in terms of parents’ relationships if they share childcare more, but also in terms of fathers’ ability to bond with their children. Someone mentioned an older dad who hadn’t been close to his children when they were little and found himself regretting that in later years.

I don’t know why dads don’t show up for these events. Maybe because they are usually led by women with a female agenda – in this case, the gender pay gap, but then wouldn’t the response be to organise their own events? One speaker said it was due to dads’ difficulty in asking for help and speaking up for what they want. But men don’t have trouble speaking up for what they want in other contexts. It’s just the emotional one that seems challenging. All I could think was that if I was an MP sitting at the back of the room and I was weighing up putting money into paternity leave or the NHS or social care or the environment or whatever, I would look at the audience and think do dads really, really want this. My daughter says it shows the power of socialisation, that despite all the talk of change, we haven’t really moved that much from the masculine stereotype. And because of that, everyone loses.

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