Why Work Needs to Value Dads

Dads, does the family financial burden fall mainly on your shoulders or are you able to share it with your partner? Do you have as much involvement in your child’s day to day life as you’d like or does work get in the way?

I ask these questions because neither the media or politicians are discussing the quiet childcare revolution going on in heterosexual family homes, or the lack of support for men to play a different role to their fathers.

Unlike Boomers, for whom being a good father meant providing financially for the family, Gen X and Millennials are adapting to expectations that both parents share earnings and childcare as equally as possible. A change created partly by economic necessity – few families can survive on one salary – but mainly because dads want to be a more present father than their own had been and to support their partner’s career. Together, these priorities make shared parenting a smart choice for three reasons.

Benefits of shared care

First, mums earn more. In Sweden, where it’s the norm for men in professional jobs to share parental leave, research shows a mother’s lifetime earnings increase by 6.7% for every additional month of paternity leave a dad takes.

Second, equal paternal involvement in the early years creates a stronger bond between father and child and has a significant positive impact on a child’s level of educational attainment, wellbeing and resilience. An effect that lasts all the way through the challenging teenage years into early adulthood.

Third, both dads and mums enjoy better mental health, which makes for a happier, stronger relationship.

Barriers to shared parenting

Despite these advantages, government and wider society keep throwing obstacles in the way of dads that want to share parenting equally with their partner. From the get-go, dads experience barriers to bonding with their baby. Initially excluded from staying overnight on the maternity ward, back home, 95% don’t take Shared Parental Leave, for fear doing so will signal to their boss that they’ve got their “priorities all wrong”. Two weeks statutory paternity leave might signal the “right” commitment to work but it doesn’t allow time for dads to bond with their babies and learn how to parent independently.

Other daily instances reinforce an insidious hierarchy of responsibility that assumes the business of having and raising a child is primarily the mother’s responsibility. A baby’s NHS medical record is linked to just one parent – usually the mothers. Doctors’ surgeries, nurseries and schools still call mums first even when instructions are left to call the father.

Unless dads are properly supported to bond with their babies – to take extended paternity leave without damaging their career, it’s unlikely many will increase their share of childcare. In turn, women will continue to deliver the bulk of childcare, limiting opportunities to progress pay or career.

As a society we need to wean ourselves off the belief that mums are the ‘natural’ lead parent. Not just for women but because it teaches men to hide parenting commitments at work. Sneak parenting, quietly slipping away from the office to attend to their child’s needs.

Science has moved on and attitudes and policy need to catch up. New research says it’s a myth that women are uniquely biologically programmed to tune into a baby’s needs. When dads have skin to skin contact with their baby they experience the same hormonal changes that promote bonding as mums. Similarly, when dads respond to a baby’s cries, rather than wait for mum to dive in first, the part of their brain that prompts urgency increases four times in size which is the same for mums. There is no biological reason why fathers cannot be as nurturing, caring or involved as mothers but need equal time to bond and respond to do so.

Towards a culture of fatherhood

Two things need to happen for shared parenting to become acceptable.  First, work needs a culture of fatherhood.  One that regards parenting as a responsibility shared by both parents. That understands and values the contribution an involved father makes to family life. That doesn’t see family and career as mutually exclusive commitments.

Second, we need to see action to address the impact of the motherhood penalty on women’s careers. Why would men think their career won’t incur the same parenting fine applied to women’s pay and promotion prospects.

I don’t think the responsibility for making this happen should fall purely to employers and line managers. When pushing for social change on this scale, results tend to come faster when couples themselves push for it.

Added to which, this issue presents an opportunity for men and women to work together to create a win-win outcome from a scenario that currently penalises both in different but not less damaging ways. A growing number of young men think the feminist movement disadvantages them. This is a golden opportunity for men to demonstrate to their sons the power of taking personal responsibility to drive change. Here are five actions couples can take today. These apply whether both parents are together or co-parenting.

5 actions couples can take to drive shared parenting at work

  1. Ensure you are both on the same page – discuss shared goals for your life, family and career and identify the support you need from one another to achieve them. How you prioritise these as a couple and support one another will help to ensure they stay visible throughout your parental journey. Circumstances change so regularly check in with one another to assess whether your plans need adjustment. Shared parenting doesn’t necessarily mean an equal split of work and childcare – that can be hard to achieve. Instead remain curious, communicative, and proactive in making choices about how you combine your lives.
  2. Related to this point – consider whether men can have it all? Achieving a higher position and salary often means spending more time on work, leaving less time for family. What balance do you want as a couple and what are you prepared to compromise to get it?
  3. Men parent out loud – increase volume in line with the seniority of your role. Some 45 % of men say they hide their dad responsibilities at work for fear they will be judged negatively by their boss. When you leave work early to pick up the children or take an afternoon off to attend a school event announce the fact loudly and proudly.
  4. Join your organisation’s parenting network to influence change within. Contribute your views and actively encourage your organisation to strengthen its family friendly culture and policies. Whether you are an expecting dad, have teenagers or grandchildren, the bigger the group the greater the force.
  5. Use your voting power – despite 14,000 signatures the government recently rejected a petition from the Fatherhood Institute to increase statutory paid paternity leave to six weeks. In the run up to the next general election, lobby the other political parties to commit to this policy.

There’s a quiet revolution going on at home. Government, work, and society needs to catch up and for that to happen sooner than it is, men and women need to work together to bring about change to their mutual benefit.

Men, I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences on this issue. You can reach me at geraldine@executive-coaching.co.uk.