Like many dads I found my work and home life compressed on a massive scale when in March this year we entered a post-Covid world. In the blink of an eye, I found myself at home 24/7, splitting each day into two shifts, one where I wrangled the kids and let my wife, Julia, work and one where I scrambled to do my paid work in between sporadic interruptions from my kids.
Millions of dads like myself were trying to meet their deadlines and work from home. Dads were grappling with the domestic workload and childcaring. They became more immersed in ‘the juggle’ than ever before. It also accelerated a conversation we’ve been sporadically having in the community over the past few years about what it takes to be an active father these days.
I’m thrilled to see this discussion is getting more focus in 2020, because men really want to be active fathers, more than ever. A Nielsen survey in 2017 found that 83% of millennial Aussie dads believe family is more important than career. I’m proud to count myself in that group. I’m also in a tiny minority of fathers who work part-time, and who’ve had the chance to take paid parental leave, twice in fact. As someone who was mostly terrified of kids as a young adult, I’ve relished fatherhood more than I ever thought possible. I love raising my kids and it’s made me a better person.
In my four and a half years in this crazy job, I’ve found that being an active father means you’re involved and interested in your kids’ development, their emerging passions and talents as well as their creeping doubts and limitations. You’re doing your best to love and care for them and to help them find their identity and place in the world.
Right now, a lot of men are attempting to do the double-act of breadwinner and active father. As working mums over the past few decades can attest, that’s a pretty brutal load.
Dads on average work over 46 hours per week; for many, the week is much longer and often bleeds into the weekend. Also, our parental systems still tend to exclude men, or make it hard for them to be carers.
Currently, most dads can’t afford to take paid parental leave because they tend to earn more than their partners or because paid leave is not available to them.
Currently, most dads can’t afford to take paid parental leave because they tend to earn more than their partners or because paid leave is not available to them. The paternity leave available from the Federal Government is only two weeks at minimum wage, and half the workplaces around the country don’t offer any private parental leave.
Yes, we absolutely need our fathers to be more involved in childcaring, but let’s not set impossible standards while our systems are so outdated. Each dad can find their own way to be active with their kids and determine the best way to make the best impact. And being active does not mean being omnipresent, brilliant or perfect. The dad who wakes up early to spend precious time with his kids before a long day at work, who FaceTime’s from the office every day to talk about school, or who takes the kids for babycinos on a Saturday morning after a grueling week is doing something special and impactful with his kids.
My own father travelled for work all the time when I was young, but even if he stepped off an international flight at 7am on a Saturday morning, he still watched every ball I bowled in my cricket match from the sidelines. It left a major impression on me and the support I want to offer my kids as they get older.
Similarly, just because I have more time with my kids does not make me some super-parent. There are lots of moments I don’t put on Instagram, like when I’m on my phone because I’m distracted; when I’m watching the clock waiting until I can turn a movie on because the kids are annoying me; when I lose my temper and snap at the kids over something relatively minor; when I pedantically hover over the top of their game telling them to not do this or that; when I huff and puff because they’ve spilt something on the carpet.
But in the end, active fatherhood is important, for everyone. A growing body of research shows that the more a dad engages with his young kids, the more he helps their emotional and social development, their preparedness for the wider world, their success at school, even their use of alcohol, tobacco and drugs as teenagers.
A growing body of research shows that the more a dad engages with his young kids, the more he helps their emotional and social development, their preparedness for the wider world, their success at school, even their use of alcohol, tobacco and drugs as teenagers.
So if we’re going to get serious about the role of men as carers, then let’s create the time, space and attitudes for men to actually be fathers, first and foremost. We need to tackle the breadwinner culture and the long work hours, embracing the fact that dads can be just as amazing at raising children as mums. We need to overhaul paid parental leave and ensure men can access it equally with women. We need to actively include men in early childhood services and better support fathers with their mental health.
Our dads are willing, ready and able to be amazing carers. While we celebrate what they’ve done for their kids so far this year in a challenging year, let’s also work together to transform our society’s parental structures to help them achieve much, much more.
Rob Sturrock is a working father of two, advocate and author of Man Raises Boy: A revolutionary approach for fathers who want to raise kind, confident and happy sons out now with Allen & Unwin.