In their new book, Dads Don’t Babysit, frustrated fathers – successful dad blogger David Freed and journalist James Millar – are challenging society’s stereotype of what it really means to be Dad and asking just why is it so difficult to equally share the pleasures of parenting?
Interview by Nadia Duncan
A social scientist by background, David Freed was one of the first dads in the UK to take half a year of Shared Parental Leave, sharing responsibility for his son equally with his wife. While doing this he discovered of how great it can be being the lead parent, but still felt very out of place as a dad in a week-day world of mums. He now works part time to look after his son during the week and believes that when it comes to bringing up baby, a win for families with equal parenting is also a win for companies, wealth and jobs – if it’s done right.
He explains, “When I took six months of shared parental leave, my wife and I discovered a well-kept secret. Being a fully-responsible parent during the week is amazing, and it gets even better if you share it.Dads have been missing out on this for most of history. It’s not fair that so many men don’t even think it’s a real possibility for them. It’s like being told chocolate is only for one sex, so telling yourself it’s probably not something you’d like to taste anyway.
Doing all the childcare practically alone, with all the responsibility for the most precious thing in the world on your shoulders, can get really exhausting. My wife also didn’t want to lose out on her career because someone else thought that’s what ‘had’ to happen.
The evidence shows that, when possible, the more childcare is shared equally between two parents, the better off everyone in the family is. Mums benefit from sharing the ‘mental load’ and the burden of running the family they traditionally shoulder on their own. Dads benefit from more fulfilling and closer relationships with their kids and partners, more ‘life purpose’ and even better mental health. And of course, research suggests that kids benefit, probably most of all, from more dad.
The evidence is mounting that more equally shared parenting is good for the economy. A happier workforce is more productive, and since fewer women are faced with long-term absences from the workplace, companies benefit too.”
All too often the perception is that dads are actually quite happy to let their partner take on the lion’s share of parenting. Is that fact or fiction? David replies, “The low uptake of parental leave doesn’t match up with what parents want to do: dads want to take a bigger role in parenting, and mums want them to as well. But society’s expectations about what parents are ‘meant’ to do puts a lot of pressure on parents to fall into the stereotypes. Because men feel others expect them to stick to the workplace, and let mums shoulder the real burdens of childcare, when they want to push against these expectations they risk feeling ‘less of a man’. At work, they face an uphill battle and can feel their careers could be under threat.
Equally, women who want to share childcare more equally are often made to feel ‘less of a woman’, with all the negative judgments about how they’re not being ‘maternal’ enough.Having said that, parents are not passive in this whole thing. The aim of Dads Don’t Babysitis to ask parents to challenge these limitations and role-model the alternative. It’s the only way we can change what people expect from both parents.”
But if many dads really want to share parenting equally then why have such a small percentage taken the opportunity of shared parental leave since its introduction in 2015?“Despite what some have tried to argue, it is certainly not because sharing parenting is unpopular. In fact, we found that on almost every reliable scale, equal parenting is extremely popular” David reveals, adding “When we look at different European countries, we see that properly funding parental leave leads to a much better take up. But it’s not just a money question. We often make decisions that will cost us money because we believe it’s better off for our family: taking out a mortgage or saving up for a holiday. So why don’t we do the same with parental leave?
The expectations at work and in society that mum should be the one who takes all the responsibility for the tots, and dad should stay away from it, are the other half of the picture.We need to tackle both of these, the affordability of parental leave and the social perceptions of dads being responsible parents if we’re going to let parents share childcare in a way that works for them.”
In the book, you refer to ‘gatekeeping’ mums. Where do you think women are going wrong if they want more support from men?
David believes, “The pressures to be a super-mum can force some mums to push out dads because they feel the buck really stops with them. If the dad makes a mistake, the mum will be blamed. But unless you’re very lucky, no one knows how to take care of kids from day one. When any parent is left with responsibility for their kid, they will quickly learn what their baby needs and the best way to provide it, even if that involves mistakes along the way. We learn how to do it by being responsible for our kids, not being micro-managed by the other parent.
I know the urge to swipe your child out of someone else’s arms when they start to cry. But the evidence is clear. For parents to truly share responsibility in the home, both need to be willing to step-back when it’s the other’s turn to take on the role of lead parent.”
Co-author James has also blogged about his experience of going part-time at work and the way people treated him at the time – with the suspicion that he lacked ambition because he was taking time off to look after his child. I ask him what more could be done, for example in terms of support for new dads?
James responds, “First getting dads engaged from the beginning. We’ve heard of NHS staff who refused to speak to a dad at the appointment for a couple’s first scan because it was only the mother’s name on the paperwork as the patient. Clearly, as long as the baby is in the woman’s body she should have control about what happens, however excluding dads in this way sends a message that they are not as important in the whole parenting process. Things like that need to be looked at.
David Lammy, the MP and chair of the all-party group on fatherhood, suggested the NHS could spend some money on promoting the benefits of engaged fatherhood. Lots of money is spent promoting the benefits of breastfeeding, and the benefits of involved fathers are so huge that that too ought to be promoted. Though to be clear neither he nor we are suggesting that money should be spent instead of other campaigns like breastfeeding, we’re suggesting additional spending.
And there ought to be community and council run events for dads. We’d love it if everyone is equal but we understand that men are brought up to reject singing nursery rhymes in public. Perhaps instead of the numerous rhyme time sessions, why not a Duplo building session? That’s not excluding women. Plus, all the mums we know love Lego!”
Is the media and TV partly to blame? From The Simpsons to Modern Family, why is Dad dumbed down when it comes to parenting or is it a just a closer reflection of true family life that Mum, will naturally, take charge?
James thinks, “It’s a lazy trope. You can try to bring your child up as gender-neutral as possible but unless they are raised in a bubble it’s not going to happen. The second you leave the house you see adverts on the side of buses that feature action men and passive, often partially-clothed, women. And kids, particularly pre-school kids trying to make sense of the world, will spot the difference.
The same is true for the portrayal of dads. They are often fun, active, etc. – see Daddy Pig or Homer Simpson for example – but they are not caring and competent. And so we set limits on what the role of the father is. That’s okay if you want to be a fun dad if that’s how your family sets up, but it’s not okay to be forced to take on that role because it’s what is expected. In the book, we suggest The Simpsons shouldn’t be shown before the watershed because Homer’s brand of fatherhood is so damaging.”
The final word goes to James when I ask if he could change just one thing right now, something that he believes would make an instant impact on changing things for dads for the better, what would it be?
“More properly funded paternity leave could be the trigger that sparks a chain reaction. Currently men get two weeks, women get six at 90 per cent of full pay. Why not equalise that? It would send a message that men matter in the children’s lives from the very beginning. It would also make mum’s life easier (why is she encouraged to take at least six weeks off but expected to manage alone for most of that time?) and it would allow dad to gain experience and confidence around his baby.
Given that confidence he may feel more included to take Shared Parental Leave, to talk about the joys of parenthood and encourage other men to do the same. He wouldn’t feel weird pushing a buggy around on his own and more women can return to work and balance work and family life the way they want to. It’s a wonderful virtuous circle and getting men more involved is the key to setting it in motion.”
Dads Don’t Babysit by David Freed & James Millar is published by Free Association Books. PB RRP £11.99
- Shared parental leave, which allows both parents to share up to 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of statutory pay after their baby arrives was introduced by the UK government in April 2015 in the hope it would boost gender equality in the workplace.
- According to a Freedom of Information response received by law firm EMW from HMRC, the number of people taking SPL in the UK was just 9,200 in 2017-18, just 500 more compared to the year before (just over one per cent of those eligible).
- In Sweden, Norway and Iceland where new parents are paid 80-100 per cent of their usual incomes while on leave, between 85 per cent and 90 per cent of fathers take up the rights.