When feminists don't want to 'work anymore'? Time for dads to do more.

When feminists don’t want to ‘work anymore’? The case for dads doing more is clear.

parental leave
“I’m a feminist and I don’t want to work anymore,” the headline read. Of course I clicked through.

I devoured every word of Polly Dunning’s essay on realising that even as a ‘third generation card-carrying feminist’ she doesn’t work much at all while her two children are small.

She said it’s something of a shocking admission, even taboo, to make but she is frustrated at the ‘work’ of caring for small children being undervalued. She has never worked harder than she is currently tending to the 24/7 demands and needs for a newborn and a toddler.

She describes the pressure on women to not just to return to work after a small baby but to want to return.  She is sick of women being blamed for the consequences if they do choose to stay at home.

The piece was read and shared widely and triggered hundreds of comments. Personally, the essay resonated as I’m sure it did with many other parents.

There is no other realm quite like early parenthood in which theory and practice diverge so wildly. What sounds ideal in theory before becoming a parent becomes entirely fanciful in practice.

This begins at childbirth (discarded birth plan anyone?) and continues through the various milestones. How hard can it be to get a 2 year old dressed? Come over to my place and I will show you. Same goes for putting them in the car or the pram.

On paper the various reasons it is ideal for women to remain financially independent and connected to the workforce are beyond compelling.

As Dunning pointed out the pitiful average superannuation balances of women are the proof that the price of spending time out of the workforce is steep. Poverty is the price many women pay for spending their lives caring.

But in reality it isn’t so simple. The system in its current guise – from childcare to workplace culture to tax settings to social expectations – makes it almost inevitable that it is women who undertake the vast majority of the unpaid caring work that is estimated to be worth around $434 billion a year in Australia.

Given this I agree entirely with Polly that it is victim-blaming to then punish women for making a choice that carries with it adverse consequences.

Yet again theory and practice fail to collide. Even the prospect of a substantially dwindled nest egg in retirement doesn’t change the fact that when you are charged with a newborn and a toddler getting out of the house to engage in paid work is not always possible or seem desirable.

One part of the solution proposed by Dunning is to have joint superannuation contributions so that the parent staying home is still compensated in effect for the ‘work’ they do. She also makes a compelling case for valuing the work of caring.

To my mind the bigger part of solution was mentioned peripherally but has the capacity to revolutionise the dilemma many mothers face: fathers doing more of the caring.

Not ‘helping out’ by occasionally preparing dinner or doing the odd drop-off or pick-up, but being on the ground in the actual trenches of parenting as a matter of course.

When the decision one parent makes about their capacity to work is made in the context of the other parent working full-time and being unable to share the caring at home in a meaningful way, it is unsurprising the former determines that working won’t be sustainable.

Holding down anything close to full-time employment while doing the lion’s share of caring for kids and running a house is in many instances untenable. As Dunning identified for many families having a child in full-time care isn’t always optimal (or even financially viable).

But what if their partner worked part time? Or worked flexibly so that they could regularly do pick ups, drop-offs and parenting?

The fact that may sound like an entirely radical proposition reflects the cultural expectations in Australia. Other countries around the world have addressed this by proactively legislating to increase the participation of fathers in caring.

And it’s not just the clever Nordics.

Earlier this year a committee of the UK’s conservative government, which is actively campaigning to boost the number of British dads who take paid leave, declared it is time for wholesale change.

“Britain must radically reform parental leave to encourage more fathers to take time off work, or it will never get to grips with the gender pay gap, an influential committee of MPs has recommended. Fathers should get the option of 12 weeks’ paid, “use it or lose it” paternity leave to try and encourage greater male involvement in the young lives of children, the women and equalities select committee reports on Tuesday.”

I would like to repeat this: a group of conservative MPs made this determination.

“Parental leave and the gender pay gap are closely linked,” the committee chair, Maria Miller, told the Guardian. “Until we get it right for dads we can’t get it right for mums.”

The committee said the government should also legislate to force businesses to offer men flexible patterns such as part-time work or unusual hours because many fathers complain that bosses do not understand their need to juggle work and family life.

This is not a conversation we are having in Australia despite the fact we desperately need to.

Compared to the OECD countries Australia provides limited short-term support for both working mothers and fathers. Our government PPL scheme is comparatively small offering just 7.6 weeks full-time equivalent pay, compared to 39 weeks in the UK and 35 weeks in Canada.

This often leaves parents with incredibly stressful work situations, where they are forced to balance demanding jobs with the round-the-clock demands of being a parent without the necessary support. It means employees are forced into making sacrifices either to family or to work.

The Australian scheme splits the caring roles performed by mothers and fathers into ‘primary and secondary carers’, which in itself perpetuates dated and unhelpful stereotypes.

As it stands only 2% of eligible dads in Australia take paid parental leave of any type. Increasing the proportion of working dads taking up PPL is a critical challenge and potentially transformative because it will free their partner up to also engage in work and to share the domestic load.

There is real joy in being a parent, in being present and involved in the rearing and raising of children. Dads have as much right to that joy as mothers have to the right to financial security. Both sides win when the load – unpaid and paid – is shared.

Until we seriously consider how fathers can do more at home, mothers will continue to struggle to combine work and family.  And unsurprisingly, many of them, feminists included, will decide they can’t.

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