“When was the time in your life that you remember being the happiest?” I asked on a rare date night we shared.
For me, it was always family holidays whether camping in the bush or travelling overseas, those times are my fondest memories. I thought he would say something similar, perhaps our annual camping trip to the Grampians or the short breaks we spent at Palm Cove. But no, that wasn’t his response.
“When I was a stay at home dad,” he replied.
I was gobsmacked.
“I’ve been thinking about it lately,” he said. “Staying at home watching our son grow up, being there for those special milestones, that was the best time of my life.”
My heart sung with joy! It made me so happy to hear it.
But it also made me feel an overwhelming sense of sadness. Not for him, but for all the dads who miss out on those early years. This is a very special time, a time when bonding with your baby moulds you into the parent you will become.
As Annabel Crabb so eloquently puts in her Quarterly Essay: “When a woman has a baby, our society and the vast majority of workplaces are geared to expect – accurately, by and large – the she will be primarily responsible for the care and supervision of that baby”.
Our son is now 10 years old. At the time, it certainly wasn’t the norm for dads to take time off work. But we had discussed it during my pregnancy and my husband wanted an opportunity to also spend some time at home with our baby.
It wasn’t easy. It meant that I had to sacrifice some of my parental leave because our employers only offered leave policies to the primary parent within the first 12 months.
That I meant I had to shorten my leave to eight months (with 12 weeks pay) and my husband took four months leave (with two weeks pay). Financially it was tough – but we saved our money to make sure that we could accommodate time off work for both of us.
What we didn’t expect though, was push back from his employer – an organisation which largely employed women and focused on women’s education.
When he applied for parental leave, the response from human resources was that the parental leave policy was for women. We couldn’t see any reference to gender in the policy – and they had changed the name from ‘maternity leave’ to ‘parental leave’ so we challenged the response and he was able to take the leave.
My husband was the first male in that organisation to take parental leave but what followed was interesting: more men took up parental leave.
He spent those four months at home, taking Ethan to my “mother’s group”, having play dates and doing the lion’s share of housework. I would come home to a (mostly) clean house and dinner on the table.
Sometimes he would get funny looks or cynical comments when he told other men he was a stay at home dad like “Aren’t you bored?” and “How’s the golf handicap going?”.
After those first 12 months, we both worked part-time so that we could minimise childcare in the first two years of our son’s life. We shared the parenting and the domestic workload.
What transpired is a wonderful relationship between my husband and son, and a stronger marriage that respects both partners have careers and want to be parents.
We still share the domestic and parenting workload today. It includes using flexible work arrangements to do school drop off and pick up and to accommodate extracurricular activities like guitar lessons and basketball.
When we’ve changes jobs, flexibility has been the top of our priority list. It’s meant that I’ve been able to build a career and be a mum. Is it perfect? Certainly not. But it’s worked for us.
At YWCA Australia, we advocate for change that leads to gender equality for everyone. This includes challenging the taboos around men taking parental leave.
Here’s my three tips for couples who are making plans for a family:
1. Have a conversation. Before you even start thinking about having a family, make sure you’re both on the same page about your family and your career goals. If there are competing expectations, it’s best to have this sorted before you have a child, not after!
2. Make a budget and stick to it! Having a child is expensive – not just in direct costs, but also indirect costs in time off work. Make sure you’ve planned and budgeted enough to take time off.
3. Don’t be afraid to do things differently. Maybe you’ll be the first man in your small workplace to take parental leave as the primary caregiver – be that trailblazer! You can be the one to pave the way for others.