What I Want For Dads This Fathers' Day
Isn’t it telling that Mothers’ Day celebrations often aim to give mums "time out" FROM their kids, yet Fathers' Day is about dads spending time WITH their kids?
The underlying sociocultural assumptions here are that:
1. Mums do the lion’s share of child care, even in families where both parents are present in the home.
2. Dads spending a significant portion of the day with their kids is unusual.
While this doesn’t reflect the reality for some families, data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare suggest that this is what is actually going on in most Australian heterosexual couple-with-kids households, regardless of how many hours each parent works outside the home or how much they each earn. Why is this still the case? We know that overall life satisfaction is higher for dads who spend more time with their kids, so why not simply step up?
If you're thinking the dads near to you are just lazy or disinterested they might be! But it’s also way, way more complex than that. Hear me out.
Of the ASX200 companies (the top 200 Australian companies listed on the stock exchange) the average age of CEOs in Australia is 54 years old and 83% of them are men. Let’s assume for the sake of this piece that management across many companies and government departments like health and education is of a similar demographic profile. Let’s also estimate that their kids were born around 1994, when these men were 28 years old.
In 1994 paternity leave was essentially unheard of - the only "leave" my own dad got in 1990 was an hour off to drive my mum and I home from hospital after her c-section. A colleague born in the mid-1980s has described how her father is still upset that he wasn’t allowed time off work for even that small task of new familyhood together.
To the generation of (mostly) men now administering the major companies and businesses that so many new dads work for, the idea of any paternity leave at all is luxurious, and perhaps something they may feel a little bitter about not getting. To them, one week paid paternity leave (which some companies offer) and 2 weeks minimum wage (which most working Australian dads are eligible for through Centrelink under the title of “Dad and Partner Pay”) could be hugely generous. Having missed out on time with their own newborns, they are unlikey to have insight into the true value of paternity leave to the ongoing health and connectedness of their employees to their families.
Yet the new dads themselves are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Many mums and babies spend half of that first week in hospital while dad goes home to sleep in an empty house. Visitors come and go to cuddle the baby in it’s waking time, and baby needs breastfeeding, so he may feel like an outsider to the baby bubble from the start.
The current average age of 33.1 years for first time dads in Australia reflects a key time for career progression, as well as for household debt. It is a risky time to get in the bad books with your employer when you are more likely than ever before to be the primary breadwinner. Perhaps this is why during the 2018/19 financial year, only about 1 in 4 eligible dads took the two weeks of Centrelink “Dad and Partner Pay” to which they were entitled. To be truthful many families don't even know of the Centrelink payment option. Some families are straddled with debt around the time baby arrives (the strange Australian tradition of trying to buy up a house with massive mortgage before having a baby) and dads may feel they need to work for their usual wage instead of taking the minimum wage pay offered.
There are also issues with intergenerational lack of modelling of just how to be dad to a real life baby. During pregnancy, their unborn baby has been an almost imaginary presence in the home and then in the intense (and sometimes traumatic) ride of birth world is upside down, and not always in a good way. One of the books my husband read before our baby arrived said something along the lines of “of all the emotions a man may feel upon seeing his baby for the first time, the most commonly reported feeling is that of surprise”. There’s not even a men’s version of a baby shower with other dads before his own baby arrives to give them space to do sport or games and drink beer and after hours of banter actually tell him what highs and lows he’s in for!
When you’re not “needed” or welcomed at the hospital (notable mention here to some of the ridiculous COVID-19 partner visitation restrictions currently in place), and home is suddenly filled with the needs and energy of a stranger you can’t easily “read”, some men may get feelings of safety and competency in
going to work. In their familiar work environment they known tasks, known colleagues and known social codes, and can provide for their family monetarily and be proud of their linear work. Babies don’t really tick any of these masculine trait boxes! My pregnant friend's father speaks openly about how he couldn't wait to go to work when his kids were babies, as "home was hard, it was so much easier going to work".
Remember those CEOs, who we’re guessing had their kids around 1994? In 1994 the average Australian dad did 8 minutes of active, hands-on, primary caregiving of their children. EIGHT! The average first time dad of this year was born in 1987, so chances of him having consistent modelling of how to actually “dad” in an active way for more than a few minutes a day was probably pretty slim.
This isn't a direct criticism of now-grandfathers shirking their duties, but a demonstration that successive generations of boys have pretty much only seen women interacting with babies and don't know how to do it as a man. The trouble here is that bonding requires spending time with the baby. Spending time with the baby (including smelling their newborn’s head) literally rewires fathers’ brains to feel protective of them, loving, better able to read their body language and to make them want to spend MORE time with that baby. If Dad’s time is spent sleeping (possibly separately) so he can function at work, readying for work, commuting and working, it won't matter how helpful he is with cooking and laundry and groceries, he's still not going to bond with or feel competent caring for his baby!
Messages of dad-inferiority are everywhere. Think Homer Simpson, Modern Family, Daddy Day Care and Peppa Pig. (Interestingly the writers of Australian kids show "Bluey" have spoken publicly about purposefully making their Dad capable instead of clumsy to break down the stereotype). What does dad have lurking in his subconscious about his boob-less capacities to really click with his newborn child?
And don’t even get me started on the messages about dads being primary carers for their kids when out in public... Surely I’m not the only one whose partner gets congratulated for taking the kids on public transport alone? Or gets the comment “Lucky mum’s got a day off!” when he takes the kids to the park?
In the blink of an eye, it’s time for mum to think about whether or not to go back to work. Many workplaces have contracts that allow dads to take unpaid “primary carer” leave if mum returns to work before baby turns one, yet only 1 in 20 dads take up this option. This is significant as the average total time mothers take leave from work is 32 weeks, including leave taken before the birth.
For those that do want to take whatever combination of paid and unpaid leave is entitled to them there is a risk of career stalling and stigmatisation (shock horror, I hear mums everywhere say). One of my close friends has been told that he can use his parental leave entitlements on the proviso that he not tell his workmates the details of what kind of leave he is taking, as it might “jeopardise” their workforce availability. Yet every dad I know who has taken a chunk of time off to be primary carer will openly tell you that it’s the best thing he ever did for he and his child’s relationship.
Flexible work may be an avenue to explore here but on average, Australian dads work the same number of paid hours pre-baby as post-baby, and a greater percentage end up taking on more hours, rather than stepping in the few years post-birth. If you want to get specific, 40% of mothers work part time, yet only 4-5% of fathers do. So then the question arises: what if, when mum is back at work, the baby gets sick? Or what if she gets sick on one of dad's work days and the children still requires care?
Some families choose to split it down the middle, with each parent taking their fair share of days of carers leave to stay home caring for the sick child. This is a rarity though, and dads can get “stung” trying to do their bit.
One of my collaborators worked in the same hospital department, in the same team, on the same hours and pay rate as her partner when she returned to work after her first child was born. At the dad’s performance review he was grilled about taking “unreasonable amounts” of carer’s leave in the six months prior, yet this was not raised at all with mum, despite them taking the exact same number of days of carer’s leave during the period. Women’s unpaid care work is assumed, and male-dominated management can’t seem to get their heads around the idea that it is important to a dad’s self worth and family harmony to play an equitable role in childcare.
What's all this got to do with father's day? Paternity and patriarchy sound synonymous, but dads who care about fathering meaning more than just donating sperm get a shitty deal in our current social structure too. For those who can work from home or have altogether different working and living arrangements the story might be different, but for the majority, dads have been set up to fail since the day their own dads boss rejected their leave request.
So what to give dads this Fathers’ Day?
1. Tell him early on that bonding is about more than breastmilk, and that in the newborn state you need him around to protect you as much as “help” with the baby. Enforcing boundaries with guests is just one way to call out his inner guard.
2. Reframe “being with the baby” to “growing baby’s brain”. Babies make 1 million neural connections per second, so if he does playful copycat style facial expressions or sounds with the baby for even a few minutes at a time he is literally helping that baby create hundreds of millions of positive brain connections.
3. Let him know all the ways that being physically present and playing with his kids provides them with more safety than meets the eye. Kids with dads who are present in early life and childhood are less likely to be bullied or be bullies, less likely to drop out of school, less likely engage in risk-taking behaviours like drug taking, more likely to have healthy boundaries around their bodies and more likely to wait until later into their teenage years to become sexually active.
4. Give him time with his kids without mum. You might like to leave for a while, but if not do your best not to hover so he can find his own way to do things differently and explore different past times. There is more than one way to change a nappy, and they might end up loving certain activities or music together that you can’t stand.
5. Help him prepare him for fatherhood in advance. If he knows what normal baby behaviour and needs are, it’s not going to be quite such a shock to the system. I run parent prep courses on the science and skills you both can find useful in baby’s first year and beyond. There are also some great books on fatherhood by Steve Biddulph, and a few episodes on fathering on the “Newborn Mothers Podcast”, “Happy Mama Movement podcast” and “The Aware Parenting podcast”.
6. Scaffold tasks if he’s unsure how to do things with the baby. You may need to help him with things like using baby carriers or dad-baby co-bathing until he gets the hang of it.
7. Get support post-baby. It’s unnatural to “do it alone” as a nuclear family unit. If you can afford it, get a cleaner or postpartum support professional (like yours truly). At the very least organise a meal roster for friends to drop in food for when baby arrives. This will mean that after-work evenings can be spent with the baby, not catching up on household tasks. It is also useful to know about PANDA, Mensline and the Australasian Birth Trauma Association that have resources and help for men with postnatal depression and transition to parenthood, and for those struggling after witnessing birth trauma.
8. Lobby for more and better-paid parental leave, and provide encouragement to use every last drop of paid and unpaid leave that he’s entitled to through the year. If you have older children, this might include using carer’s leave, annual leave or long-service leave, even if you’re in isolation or he’s working from home.
If you are the boss, it might mean outsourcing as much as possible during the newborn period (and other challenging childhood patches) and supporting your employees to take parental leave.
I would like to end by expressing my gratitude to the Dads who whether single, separated or partnered are stepping up and are about to, and bringing it to their backwards bosses and businesses to change the conversation for those who will be parents in the future.
Healthy families make healthy communities make a healthier planet.
Happy Fathers’ Day fellas.
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