Last week I was typing away in a cafe not far from my home when a small group of mothers and their babies arrived and sat at the next table. They nursed their infants, sipped coffee and shared notes about their lives deep in the domestic trenches.
They weren’t first-time parents: as far as I could deduct they each had a toddler in addition to the sleepy three or four-month olds in their arms/prams/baby carriers. On this morning, however, the toddler were in the care of grandparents or preschool so their mums were free to chat. When their conversation turned to their marriages, a familiar household dispute arose.
“Basically my husband and I have the same argument on a four week rotation. It reaches a point where I say ‘I am doing everything and you need to do more’, and then for a week or so it’s great and he does more then it slips and he does less and then we have the same fight again.”
“He says he ‘helps me’, and I’m like ‘it’s not help…it’s your child too!'”
“His life really hasn’t changed – he goes to work, he’s not getting up in the night, he’s seeing friends, and I can barely brush my hair and have a shower.”
I did take notes but I wouldn’t have needed to because this dialogue is almost universal: I have heard and participated in versions of it many times among groups of mothers and I suspect most women have. Sit close enough to a mothers’ group and you will hear a version of it too.
The point is not that the men and husbands and fathers in question are terrible people: they’re not. Nor is it the case that the women are unreasonable and unforgiving. The tone in these conversations is rarely “I hate the bastard” so much as it is “Faaaarrrrk I can’t do this ON MY OWN!!!”
But as it stands the division of household labor means women are doing a lot of it on their own – they are drowning in their duties while their partners are barely in the pool.
But it’s not always because their partners don’t want to get in and swim.
A new study by online career resource for parents, Circle In, of more than 500 Australian dads shows of the 75 per cent of fathers who took parental leave, half took between one and two weeks’ leave. This compares to mothers who take an average 32 weeks’ parental leave, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
More dads wanted to take parental leave, but 1 in 2 believe their employer doesn't support it. Further, 40% believe their policy wasn't equal. This must change. #parentalleave @WGEAgency @annabelcrabb @the_parenthood @morningshowon7 @SarahHarris @GeorgieG @pollietracker pic.twitter.com/0xKJO0NCA8
— Circle In (@circlein_co) October 1, 2018
When a baby arrives and a parent only has a week or two to bond and adjust to the new dimension of their family life, it is fanciful to imagine that parent will, in practical terms, be equipped to engage in the new world order on the home-front.
Settling a colicky baby while simultaneously entertaining a toddler and serving them their dinner one-handed is a skill no one is born with: it is mastered by necessity and learned on the job. So much of parenting is.
When a parent only has a week or two to bond with a newborn before returning to work as normal, it is entirely likely that fast forward three months their partner will be downing coffee wondering out aloud how on earth they became solely responsible for the running of a household and the rearing of children.
There are – essentially – two versions of parenting; there is the reality experienced by adults charged with actually parenting, and there is the perception that can only be formed by those who haven’t ever looked after a baby or a toddler or a small child alone for an extended period. Until the former is experienced, the perception will persist.
It is a chasm that only shrinks when both parents know in real terms the full extent of life in the domestic trenches. Circle In’s study suggests this is likely to remain the case for some time.
One in two of the fathers surveyed believes that their workplace isn’t supportive in encouraging fathers to take parental leave, and 40% felt their workplace parental leave policy was not equal for men and women.
For those dads who did not take parental leave, the main barriers were demands of their job (29 per cent), the fact paid parental leave wasn’t offered (26 per cent) and not having a supportive workplace (22 per cent).
“We need to strive for equality at home and in the workplace,” Circle In co-founder, Kate Pollard says. “We believe men participating equally in parental leave will have the single biggest positive impact for women.”
— Lanai Scarr (@pollietracker) September 29, 2018
As NewsCorp journalist Lanai Scarr put it, this is the “great workplace elephant” we need to discuss. It has, historically, been overlooked and remains that way in many workplaces but change is afoot. The importance of sharing the care is being recognised.
In recent months organisations including Medibank and L’Oreal Australia have introduced 14 weeks’ of paid leave for parents. Westpac and Deloitte have hosted events specifically focused on putting dads in the spotlight. While the numbers are still small more fathers are taking parental leave and they’re talking about it.
Earlier this year I wrote about hearing Dr Vijay Roach talk, with heartbreaking honesty, about the pressure that having small children put on his marriage: while his wife was seriously struggling he focused on work. They averted total disaster and managed to work it out but it wasn’t easy and two decades later the pain still made his voice shake. It remains his greatest life regret.
Which is why I’m loathe to dismiss the conversation I overheard as trivial: it’s easy and tempting to write off the perpetual juggle of house-work and childrearing as a woman’s lot. But the impact – psychologically, physically, financially – of this expectation cannot be underestimated. It can – and does – break up marriages, derail careers and stymy happiness.
There are many reasons for individuals, families, employers and governments to consider how to better support and encourage fathers as carers, and the toll the universal household dispute exacts is one of them.