Fatherhood: The power of men talking about managing family & work

The power of men talking about managing fatherhood & work

The contrast couldn’t have been more stark and I couldn’t have been more grateful. While Canberra was imploding yesterday I had the privilege of immersing myself in one of the most emotional – and genuinely important – corporate events I’ve ever attended.

For the first time in Australian history a group of business leaders converged on the Sydney Opera House to discuss the intersection of work and fatherhood. To fix the spotlight on how employers can help  support men as carers. That it’s taken to 2018 for that to occur is, in itself, telling.

A collaboration of local and international organisations, Government, advocacy groups and industry experts launched the conversation in a bid to advance equal opportunities for fathers and mothers to share caring responsibilities.

Parents At Work, an Australian-based working parent consultancy and advocacy group and the Embassy of Sweden led the event.

The launch involved the debut of ‘Aussie Dads’, a series of exquisite photographs of fathers on parental leave taken by internationally acclaimed ‘Swedish Dads’ photographer Johan Bävman. The images and the captions below – where each of the men articulate their experiences of managing their children with their work – are stunning and powerful.

 “What I would say to other men is– you’ll always have work but you’ll never have that time again with your kids. The memories I made during the parental leave will stay with me forever, including Harvey’s first steps. This wouldn’t be the case if I hadn’t taken the time off.”

Andrew, 34, Sustainability Manager, Urban Regeneration. On leave with Harvey for four months, on leave with Fletcher for four months.

“When parental leave was offered, I knew deep in my heart if I didn’t take it that I would regret it for the rest of my life.  With Liam I got to see his first four months of life and at the end of those four months I felt like Liam looked at me differently. I feel like there’s that bond with my children, that trust that I didn’t really feel I had before I took the leave.”

Peter, 36, Business Adviser On leave with Liam for 4.5 months

“I always knew I wanted to be actively involved in the primary care of my children. It was also important that I maintain momentum in my career and equally I wanted to ensure my wife had the same opportunity to continue to pursue and advance her own career.  That’s why I chose to take my paid parental leave flexibly as one day a week over 12 months. This arrangement allows me to be the primary carer for our daughters one day a week whilst continuing to make an impact at work.”

Justin, 32, Consultant.  Working flexibly with twins Harriet and Matisse for 12 months.

The reality in Australia is that very few fathers take much more than a few weeks off work upon the arrival of a baby. It’s not always for lack of wanting – fathers are increasingly eager to spend more time as carers. In many cases, where they can’t, the cost is extraordinarily high but it’s not a conversation we’re necessarily having.

Obstetrician and chairman of the Gidget Foundation, Dr Vijay Roach, spoke incredibly candidly about how he and his wife teetered on the edge of marriage breakdown upon the arrival of two of their children. His wife was plunged into a deep depression, feeling completely lost without work and somehow the carer for two small children and he plunged himself into work as an escape. Their marriage grew hostile and then dysfunctional.

That was nearly two decades ago and Dr Roach says they were only able to reconnect and rebuild after a hospital admission and treatment for post-natal depression and a lot of therapy. He said he might be celebrated in his vocation but he was no hero.

He wasn’t there for his wife and their small children when they needed him most and there was not a dry eye in the room as he shared his regret about that.

Two of the fathers featured in the “Aussie Dads” exhibition who were in attendance, Westpac’s Ross Yabsley and Deloitte’s Justin Algie, spoke about their experiences as dads – about being brave enough to ask their managers for extended parental leave, about being plunged into the deep unknown with their babies, about trying to find their way through their new lives with their partners.

When I asked each of them how they would have managed without taking extended leave their answers were frank and sincere. Neither could fathom the shape their marriages might be in now without approaching parenting as a team. Neither could fathom not having the relationship they do with their small children. Neither could imagine not having their shared understanding in physical terms about what caring entails.

In my line of work the vast majority of events I attend tend to be filled with women but not yesterday. Men were in the slight majority and watching their faces and reactions as father after father took to the stage to talk candidly about managing work and family was incredibly emotional.

Encouraging, facilitating and supporting fathers to share caring responsibilities is fundamental to achieving gender equality.  Until we even the balance on the home front for men, the work front will remain deeply skewed for women.

Introducing a shared parental leave scheme which provides fathers and mothers including same sex parents equal access to leave and tackling gender bias by eliminating unhelpful definitions which force parents to decide who will be the primary versus secondary carer, are all critical elements of the solution.

Employers are key to revolutionising this. Employers can help to achieve the change needed by offering paid and non-paid parental leave policies that are specifically designed to promote shared caring. They can also take the front foot by intentionally creating workplace cultures that support men as caregivers.

Parental leave policies enable employees to combine paid work with their caring responsibilities and to date, parental leave policies and workplace practices in Australia have predominately focused on supporting mothers.

It remains the case that in the majority of Australian house-holds, mothers take extended leave upon the arrival of a new baby or child while fathers or partners adopt a ‘secondary’ caring role and take very short breaks from work. This perpetuates stereotypical gender norms where women are expected to do the caring and men are expected to do the earning . This approach has not caught up with the reality that women now play a significant role in the earning too.

Shared parental leave policies can help to break this cycle and foster a more equal division of unpaid care and paid work and improve the work-life balance of families . It enables fathers to bond with their children while they are infants which can result in greater satisfaction in their relationships with their children.

Yesterday was human proof of this and so much more. It was proof that there are organisations that are genuinely committed to advancing the number of men who take parental leave. Westpac, Deloitte and Spotify are among them.

It was proof that there are plenty of men who want to take extended parental leave: who actually can’t contemplate not taking parental leave.

It was proof that of all the various pursuits we follow, if children are in that mix, they are paramount for men and for women. That’s not a conversation we’ve been having with men which is perhaps why yesterday was so overwhelming.

It filled me with hope and optimism on a day where both were desperately needed.

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