It’s not uncommon for dads who are on Shared Parental Leave to be asked if they are “babysitting” their child. It happened to David Freed. “I was with a friend and she asked if I often did this Daddy Daycare thing,” he says.
It’s the kind of attitude that needs to change if dads are to become more equal partners at home so women can achieve equality at work. David has just co-authored a book on the subject with James Millar, entitled, appropriately enough, Dads Don’t Babysit.
The book came about after James published another book The Gender Agenda with his partner Ros Ball. David was writing a blog – Dad’s Turn: Raising Little Bear – about being on Shared Parental Leave. As he got more into his SPL, he became increasingly aware of the kind of gendered barriers he was having to push against as one of a limited number of dads taking the leave. He started questioning why that was and came across James on Twitter. The two men met up and decided they needed to write a book.
David wrote the book while also working part time and sharing childcare responsibilities. James, having gone part time from his job as a Westminster journalist in 2014, is now freelance.
The two are keen to push for more equal parenting. They say not only does it make family life easier and take the double burden pressure off women, but it means men are not effectively shut out of a huge and rewarding part of the parenting experience. They acknowledge that childcare can be hard work, but the benefits – including strong emotional ties, the sharing of children’s daily successes and failures and the deeper family relationships that result – are so much greater, they say. They cite research showing a majority demand for equal parenting, but they realise a lot has to change before we can get there.
David says that right from the beginning when his partner was pregnant he noticed that the the books in the parenting section in Foyles were strongly tilted towards mums as if dads were just outside observers.
He talks about how his partner was in labour for three days and half an hour after the baby was born he was asked to leave because visiting time was over. His wife threatened to discharge herself if he wasn’t allowed to stay. He slept on a mat on the floor. “It’s ridiculous. It’s really difficult for the mum from the beginning. All the burden is put on mums and dads are asked to leave,” he says.
Could employers do more to enable more equal parenting? James acknowledges that some of the bigger City firms are waking up to the need to enhance paternity or Shared Parental Pay and that some employers are actively promoting take-up of SPL and flexible working, but he says this attitude has yet to trickle down. Moreover, there is often a gap between that and what senior managers who are dads actually do which makes it okay for other employees. Also, many dads still don’t feel they can request flexible working, although many want to, and many report having requests turned down or challenged.
David states: “Women are brought up to think kids will be their priority. Men are brought up to think they are meant to be working. Bosses react better to women asking for flexible working than men.”
“If you are not meant to be doing something it doesn’t take much to put you off,” adds James.
The two highlight private sector, male-dominated industries and larger SMEs as a particular challenge. Yet even in the public sector, where James works, there can be pushback. When he announced he wanted to work part time to share childcare duties he had some strange looks and was told HR would keep his part-time hours under review so he could keep his career prospects in mind. Very quickly, however, he says people got used to his three-day week and soon after he took SPL others followed.
David says: “It is just a question of doing it and pushing through the resistance. The benefits for everyone are huge. There is not a single dad we spoke to for the book who had been actively involved in their children’s lives who said they regretted it. Everyone said it was the best choice they had made.”
The two men think getting dads more involved in childcare will solve a large part of the gender pay gap, but they believe employers looking to engage more with dads need to be careful about how they brand and promote events for parents so they are inclusive. They cite events about SPL that are organised by women’s networks, for instance. It is not surprising few men turn up, they say. Even events that specify parents may exclude men because the underlying assumption is that parents equal mums. Targeted dads event may be the bridge to more inclusive parenting events, they state.
David and James talk about the mutual benefits of SPL – saying taking six months off makes it much easier to return than taking 12. They would like to see the first six weeks taken by both mum and dad so the mum can fully recover rather than being forced to look after a baby on her own after what may have been a traumatic labour or major surgery.
James says he has had lengthy discussions with MP Jess Phillips about SPL. She argues that it is hard to convince mums to give up something that they have fought hard for. “It doesn’t have to be a zero sum game, though,” says James, who would like to see a Scandinavian model of shared leave in the UK with ‘use it or lose it’ leave for dads rather than the legislation we now have which places the onus on women to give dads part of their leave. He adds: “We need to talk about the gains. Talking is key. We need to ask men if they are taking Shared Parental Leave when they say their partner is pregnant.”
The two dads would like to see sharing leave normalised. Too often, they say, those parents who took SPL said they felt “lucky” their partner had given them the opportunity to share their leave/been willing to sacrifice their career.
Most of all, David and James’ book is a call to action. “Men can make change happen. Men have agency and power,” says James. “The more we talk about it the more it will change.” David adds that this requires a change in the way we frame masculinity to include caring and nurturing. He refers to how Sweden changed the debate by putting “a big bearded Viking guy” on the side of a bus holding a baby and smiling. “It showed you can be manly but have responsibility for your child,” says David. “For most of history men have been cut off from this bonding role. We have been tricked into thinking it is ok to give up all of that stuff.”
He adds: “Men have been on top career wise for a long time. That structure, however, disadvantages both men and women. It disadvantages children and it disadvantages the economy.”
James sums it up: “The current work/home structure is not fit for purpose. It’s clear that the final piece of the jigsaw is men.”
*Dads Don’t Babysit: Towards Equal Parenting by David Freed and James Millar is published by Free Association Books, price £11.99.