I’ve given presentations inspired by my book Dads Don’t Babysit at government departments, universities and City institutions. I always start by introducing myself as a journalist, author, editor, podcaster and then, inevitably, I add, “Oh, and I’m a dad.”
Why is my most important and fundamental role an afterthought? Partly because I take it for granted, partly because like so many parents it doesn’t seem natural to blend personal and professional life.
Lockdown’s changed all that for me and many other fathers.
Pre-lockdown, even as I spent my days editing workingdads.co.uk and writing about why men should get more involved in family life my offspring were out at school. Now we’re all sat around the kitchen table. Family life has moved off the page and unfolds in front of my face.
It’s not been that way for everyone. I’ve heard countless tales from mums of partners who spend the day holed up in a makeshift office while the woman juggles work, homeschool, squabbling siblings and the not inconsiderable new burden of feeding the whole family three times a day. I feel sorry for those women. I feel sorry for those men too.
They’ve missed out on a unique opportunity to sample a new way of living that rebalances that work-life equation.
Working from home is not for everyone. Engaged fatherhood does not bring benefits if it is enforced. Just ask the generations of women forced into the domestic sphere by social and economic pressures they could not challenge.
But at the heart of Dads Don’t Babysit is a quest for genuine choice.
Partly that means changing the law so men can have more paternity leave if they want it and have a proper shot at parenting. A fortnight with a newborn and a partner recovering from childbirth is not a good guide to the next 18 years of bringing up a child. And when it comes to engendering genuine choice extra paternity leave, whether it be standalone or as part of the Shared Parental Leave scheme, must be properly funded. Currently a man looking to take some leave later in his child’s first year will likely face a significant drop in income from his salary to the statutory parental pay rate of around £150 per week.
But making a genuine choice doesn’t just mean having the options laid out in front of you.
I could choose to spend 20p on a tomato or a lemon. If I don’t know the difference between them I could end up with a sharp surprise.
So it goes with fatherhood. Parents ought to be able to try before they buy. Currently mother is funnelled by society and economy into taking on more domestic work, and that can leave a bitter taste. While father is sent back to work after a couple of weeks and his experience of family life is limited to bedtime and weekends, not enough time to practise parenting and gain the necessary confidence.
At this point in the blog writing process my son is marching round the garden loudly telling me about jellybeans that taste of dog food and ranking ice lollies by flavour. This is lockdown work and parenting. It’s frustrating. It’s not like normal working from home. But it’s a chance like many dads have never had to immerse themselves in family life. Children talk about jelly beans. They test your patience. But I’d far rather look up from my computer to see him swinging from a tree in the garden and eating an ice lolly than my usual view of next door’s cat strutting across the lawn.
And there’s encouraging signs that men are doing more around the house during lockdown, and enjoying it. You can take your pick of the statistics. They all show women still doing more than their fair share. But it is a positive that men are engaging. Boxfresh research for the daddilife website found respondents all reported more playtime, cooking and homeschooling. (The latter two are more important to achieving gender equality than the first.) But the crucial bit is that the men are keen to change. A third pledged to build more quality family time into their lives in future. Nearly half are seeking more flexible or remote working from their employers.
As lockdown eases more change is inevitable. But if the pandemic robbed us of agency, easing restrictions puts it back in our own hands.
If you want to carry on working from home, ask for it. Employers can no longer claim it can’t be done. Business as usual will be the path of least resistance for bosses but it won’t be the right route for many who want to rebalance work with life. We’ve let work into our homes this spring, employers must now allow us to shape work to fit our domestic responsibilities.
And if men take those steps everyone benefits. Fathers who are more engaged enjoy better mental health and longer life expectancy. Women are freed from the weight of the domestic load and have the opportunity to forge more fulfilling and/or lucrative careers. Kids with more engaged dads turn out smarter and happier. Society is richer, both in terms of GDP and diversity.
There’s been much talk of a new normal post Covid. A kinder community. We can achieve that if men take the opportunity to cement the changes in working practices and family life that have been forced upon us all this spring.
Enjoy a relaxing Father’s Day and make the most of it. Because to forge a better life for everyone after the pandemic we dads have work to do.
By James Millar