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MumsnetGuestBlogs (MNHQ) Thu 07-Nov-13 13:29:06

The real reason fathers don't do more childcare? They don't want to

Fathers are frequently reported to be taking a more equal role in childcare - but that's a myth, says Gideon Burrows. If dads really want to spend more time with their children - as many claim they do - they need to stop blaming 'office culture' or workplace legislation, and step up to the plate.

Read the blog, and tell us what you think. Is the real work of childcare now being shared more equally? What can be done to persuade men to split the load? Share your thoughts on the thread below.

Gideon Burrows

Author, Men Can Do it! The Real Reason Dads Don't Do Childcare

Posted on: Thu 07-Nov-13 13:29:06


Lead photo

Nine out of ten fathers say they wouldn't take more parental leave if it was offered

This year's Christmas advertising campaign from Lego paints a lovely picture: father and son spend endless days together as they bond over Christmas jumpers, play monsters on the sofa and, of course, build towers out of little plastic bricks.

In the advert, Dad isn't afraid to tell his son when it's time for bed or that he must eat up his sprouts. In Lego land, this Christmas at least, Dad’s in charge of childcare.

The picture of a highly-involved hands-on father, gleefully spending every moment he can with his adorable child is one which the media has been dining out on for years.

Almost weekly stories in the national newspapers describe men who are now routinely 'swapping the pinstripe for the pinny', getting fully involved in their children's upbringing right from birth. There is a growing breed of 'new dads' doing their fair share of everything to do with children: from the baby care to the school run, the nappy change to the housework, the mashing of carrots to attending children's medical appointments.

According to a survey by BT covered across most media, half of all dads say they do an equal or even majority share of childcare. That's one in two fathers. Another survey claimed that one in seven fathers were now primary childcarer. Put your placards away girls, the battle for equality is all but won.

Except for one thing.

The growing trend of new fathers doing a fairer share of the childcare is no more than a myth.

The Office for National Statistics shows that just 6,000 men in total have become full-time baby and toddler carers over the whole of the last ten years. Not a lot - particularly when one considers the care gap created by the 44,000 decrease in women looking after babies and toddlers full time, over that same period. It is nurseries and grandparents who have come in to fill that gap, not fathers.

Out in town with my two children over the last six years, the new fatherhood myth has been plain to see. I see women. I see lots of women. Women in coffee shops with prams, chatting about feeding patterns, sleeping regimes and what school they hope junior will get into. Women in supermarkets stocking up on nappies and Calpol, with their kids stuffed in trollies. Women with babies at playgroups and Sure Start centres.

But men?

At the library singalong one day I did a quick count. There were forty of us, but only me and one other guy. Once the singing started, he went upstairs to the adult section, leaving his female partner with their child to wind the bobbin up.

When my daughter was born six years ago, my wife found her career as a TV producer suddenly subsumed by cleaning up baby sick and filling ice-cube trays with stewed apple. As I watched her career turn to dust, I asked myself what sacrifices I had made for the family we'd decided to build together? Why should she take all the burden (as well as the joys) of childcare, just because she's the one who gave birth?

The biggest problem is not the legislation, or employers, or maternal gatekeeping, or some 'natural ability' with children that men seem to lack. It is that most men simply don't want to do it. And they're using a nappy-change bag's worth of excuses to get out of it.

We decided to split everything right down the middle. The same working and childcare hours, an equal share of the cooking, cleaning, friends' birthday card buying, and princess and pirate party attendance. (And on the subject of festivities, who will be buying presents and writing cards for your children's friends this Christmas?)

I've heard all the excuses from male friends over the years. They'd love to do what I do: work part-time to look after their children. But their work, their situation, their location, their boss, their commute, their pay packet, their (insert convenient reason here) means they just can't.

Survey after survey does indeed show that most men would love to spend more time with their kids and less time at work. But they're not backing up that desire by actually doing anything about it.

Some say the legal framework prevents men from cutting down on work to do childcare. Yet in the first two years of men having a legal right to share 26 months of parental leave with their partners, how many men actually took the opportunity?

Just 1,600. In two years, when nearly 1.4 million children were born in the UK, that's the best we supposedly desperate-to-be-hands-on dads could muster out of our new legal right.

Only two in three fathers even take their statutory two week's paternity leave. Nine in ten say they wouldn't take more leave if it was offered. From 2015, as new parental leave legislation comes in, it will be – but with such a poor show on the legal rights we already have, what are the chances men will exploit an even bigger chance to share parenting more fairly?

Affordability is one reason families cite for pursing the traditional arrangement when baby comes along: families can't afford for Dad to go part-time or become primary child carer.

But why not? Women actually earn more than men before childbearing age, according to the ONS. On the finances alone, shouldn't it be Dad leaving work to bring up baby? Or at least working part-time along with Mum?

Men also often say they can't go part-time or take parental leave because they won't be taken seriously at the office: they wont get promotions or pay rises, they'll be seen as uncommitted by colleagues. (In other words, they'd face the same workplace restrictions that mothers face every day.)

I’m a small business owner. Going part-time to do childcare wasn't easy, it did curtail my prospects and I frequently lament it. But don't many mothers with once successful and fulfilling full-time careers feel exactly the same?

Is it OK for mothers to put up with a glass ceiling, but not fathers?

Mothers taking time away from the workplace while fathers don't is the biggest driver of the pay gap between men and women. While 30-something professional women are looking after the kids or working part-time, their male colleagues are getting all the pay rises and promotions. By the time they hit their 40s, women's pay lags 15% behind men's. And the gap only widens from there.

But even if affordability and workplace culture were preventing men from doing their fair share of childcare, the final proof that new fatherhood is a myth is simply this: women still do twice the childcare and related jobs than men do - even during non-working hours, on evenings and weekends.

Surveys have also shown that only a third of couples report taking it in turns to get up for a new baby during the night. One in three dads don't regularly change nappies, and a third don't bath their babies. One in ten move out of the parent's room entirely because he has work tomorrow (while she, presumably, spends all day with her feet up watching Bargain Hunt.)

The biggest problem is not the legislation, or employers, or maternal gatekeeping, or some 'natural ability' with children that men seem to lack. It is that most men simply don't want to do it. And they're using a nappy-change bag's worth of excuses to get out of it.

Childcare can be wonderful, heart warming and rewarding. But it can also sometimes be disgusting, frustrating, boring and, well, just downright hard work. Women are getting on with it, while men are getting away with it.

Men aren't willing to make the sacrifices to their careers, free time and hobbies that childcare necessarily involves and which women have been making since time immemorial.

If even just a slightly fairer share of parenting is to become a reality, we all have to admit that new fatherhood is a myth. We also have to admit that child rearing involves sacrifice and men need to take a fairer share of the hit.

Actually making those sacrifices – rather than just saying we'd like to and then building the occasional Lego tower when we get home from work - is what being a good father, indeed a good partner or husband too, should really be about.

Gideon Burrows is author of Men Can Do It! The Real Reason Dads Don't Do Childcare

By Gideon Burrows

Twitter: @GideonBurrows

Wonderstuff Thu 07-Nov-13 14:35:32

I read your book, I found it really interesting. My partner and I share childcare 50/50 although this is a recent, short-term arrangement. He does feel I don't give him enough credit for being more involved than 'most blokes'.

I think as a society we've established that women can do pretty much everything men can, we haven't really convinced men they can do everything women can.

ubik Thu 07-Nov-13 14:36:48

This was very interesting. Thanks for writing it.

One thing occurred to me though. There are many men who do childcare - but not on weekdays. We have to have two incomes, my partner is self employed full time and I look after the kids during the day ( unless I am on nights) while he works. I then work some evenings/ weekends and he looks after the children. Very occasionally we have some time together as a family.

I know lots of other people who work this way mainly those doing shiftwork.

So do you think that typically middle class white-collar occupations: media, law, finance, may be more resistant to part time working and caring? Perhaps due to their extremely competitive nature and the values that go with that?

Childcare cost was a huge factor in the loss of my career sadly but my husband had to keep working and earning to support us all.

Personally, i think universal, good quality free childcare for all is the only way to help families -dad working part time isn't going to pay the heating bill this winter.

Suddengeekgirl Thu 07-Nov-13 14:39:50

Sounds about right.

Dh could be a SAHD. He is perfectly capable. But he's the first to admit that he doesn't want to. He finds it unrelenting and exhausting and his patience doesn't stretch far enough.

Fair enough.
He was earning more than me when ds arrived so financially it made sense.

IMO there is a major difference between men and women/ fathers and mothers, something physiological and instinctive about looking after the dc. I'm sure it's the reason dh never wakes when the dc cry. hmm

It would be interesting to know if there is a physiological difference between mothers and fathers and their responses to the different challenges dc present.

I'm happy with dh working and having the financial pressure on him. I'm also happy that he knows just how testing my job can be! smile

ubik Thu 07-Nov-13 14:41:09

I rather think the answer is free universal childcare rather than dad going part time to do childcare.

Both partners sharing childcare can work but only if both partners are earning at a certain level. Personally I work evenings and weekends and my partner works week days so that we have enough money. In thus way we manage an almost 50/50 split in childcare responsibilities but rarely have family time together.

Wonderstuff Thu 07-Nov-13 14:42:49

Do you not think though ubik that good quality part-time jobs or job shares would be part of the answer? My DH and I both work part time (4 days) and earn over £60k between us, I know of one other couple where both partners have maintained high earning careers whilst both working 4 days a week. I don't know anyone else whose tried it.

Wonderstuff Thu 07-Nov-13 14:45:29

In the book he states that in lower income households men do more childcare than higher earning ones, presumably in the way you describe.

Tournesol Thu 07-Nov-13 14:51:39

I agree that workplaces need to be more open to flexible or part time work. I find it so frustrating that I cannot have an office based career and look after my kids, so have gone freelance (and have to put up with the inconsistent earnings) as a result. I would love it if I could have a proper well paid part time job.

Free childcare was also help massively! I just feel like so many parents are wasted because they are effectively forced out of work.

BadgerBumBag Thu 07-Nov-13 15:41:16

My dp loves dd dearly but cannot bear the thought of being a SAHD. However, I don't think all women love the idea but more women seem find ways to make caring for children work for them. I wonder if more men asked for flexible hours it would begin to happen.

I can't speak for all men, but when it comes to my dp, when the going gets tough he comes to me but when it gets tough for me I deal with it and am inventive in ways to manage the household. He thinks I am more instinctive but gets annoyed with my ways at the same time as they don't always make sense to him.

In short, he cannot deal with it in anything more than short bursts which he loves but enjoys escaping from.

CityGal29 Thu 07-Nov-13 15:47:28

I think it depends where you live. In north London I'd say its about a third father carers - they are everywhere and usually 4/5 in every Playgroup. 1/3 mothers and 1/3 nannies or grandparents.

Look where people have money and choice and that's where the higher participation levels are. wink

ubik Thu 07-Nov-13 16:17:19

It's so hard to generalise, isn't it.

I know other couples who both work part time and make it work but they are self employed at high rates or in a well paid profession such as medicine.

I know public sector employees who work a compressed week allowing for a 'day off' meaning childcare can be cut to three days.

But I know many other families who either need 2 full time incomes and rely on grandparents/state nursery for childcare or who have one well paid provider (usually the man but not always) while the other does the childcare.

One thing though - I found DH much more confident about caring for our 3 children once I went back to work. He is much more involved in their lives, they are very close to him and that was an unexpected benefit of me going back to work.

Andcake Thu 07-Nov-13 17:08:04

I think it also has a lot to do with women's salaries and careers - pre child.
I liked my job more than DP, earn more etc so for the moment DP is a stay at home dad - end of. He knows how much he would have to earn to cover childcare - he is happy to do it. But then we are in London and a lot of our friends dads do some of the childcare.

Also I have never heard any of the Dads i work with blaming 'office culture' or workplace legislation for missing out on key moments with their children or helping out if mum has other commitments.

Also growing up mum worked and dad would often help out with us kids - telling us when to go to bed and what to eat.

I hate blogs sometimes very subjective and just courting controversy in the hope for 'online fame'.

GideonBurrows Thu 07-Nov-13 17:31:14

Thank you very much for feedback on the article.

ubik - Yes, absolutely, this is a middle-class problem mainly. In lower income households, the statistics show, things do work out a little more equally (as Wonderstuff states) with parents juggling the pt work they do have between them. And it is in middle-class parenthood, isn't it, where the new fatherhood myth is mostly located? My book states right from the beginning that I am mainly talking about professional middle-class couples.

Wonderstuff - Totally agree that good quality flexible and part-time work is the solution to this. In order for it to happen, men themselves have to ask for it. It won't be handed to them, except in very progressive workplaces. Men aren't asking, nor are they challenging (say in sexism tribunals) when their female colleges are granted flexible and pt-work, but they're not.

There wasn't room in the article to highlight one of my main solutions: that men in leadership positions in the workplace need to show the way. If you are a professional man and your boss works three days a week to look after the children, wouldn't you be more likely to ask for the same?

CityGal29 - I reckon you're absolutely right about north London (and other affluent parts of the capital too). And where do all the journalists who perpetuate the fatherhood myth live? They may see men doing childcare around them, but outside the M25 (where I live) we're a far rarer sight.

SuddenGeekGirl - The women are naturally better at this stuff argument is one I hear a lot. First, in answer to your question, there is extensive evidence that men are just as good and sensitive as women when it comes to childcare. The Fatherhood Institute has extensive evidence of this, all based on peer reviewed psychology and other studies. It's excellent stuff.

Secondly, we sometimes mistake natural ability among women and men's lack of it because, right from the beginning, it is women in there getting their hands 'dirty'. Meantime, men are are (often willingly) elbowed out of the way by maternity services, traditional expectations and, yes, women/maternal gatekeeping. So the mother gets better and better at it, while dad doesn't get a chance to learn for himself (or does it differently, and mum thinks her way is better). This backs up BadgerBumBag on the different reactions to when the going gets tough. She's learned to be inventive, while he seeks help from her when he struggles.

UBIKs experience in this area is common - men who are left to get on with it by women feel more confident and 'better' at it when their partners aren't around, or worse watching over their shoulder. In the book I tell the story of when my wife did this very early on. We had a big bust up. We learned the hard way that I had to have my own learning curve, just like she had had, and that my way wasn't necessarily going to be hers.

Tournesol and others - free childcare would indeed be a huge bonus in all of this, but so would be better pay, more flexible working, better legislation, less workplace sexism. I say bring it all on. But also, in a climate where there is no cash, and where parliament sits sometimes until after 11pm and women can't become MPs because they can't juggle work and childcare, what's the chances of that happening?

The key point of my blog and book is that men (and families) already have loads of wiggle room that we're simply not using, particularly when it comes to parental leave and non-work time childcare and chores. We surely need to fill up that wiggle room we do have before claiming it is impossible, or that something else should happen?

ZenNudist Thu 07-Nov-13 17:46:45

It makes good polemic to say "men don't want to", but there are more practicalities to consider.

You could as well say "women don't want to let them".

The truth lies in the grey area.

I don't want to be an apologist for the many selfish dads i come across but i do appreciate the situation is rarely black & white.

There are plenty of 'traditional' families where the woman takes the primary carer role, usually with pt work. It wouldn't make financial sense for both parents to take the career hit that pt work entails. Usually the woman takes the hit because she wants it more than the man.

My dh has made career choices that keep him more involved in family life. We also share care fairly equally for our 3yo ds. I work 4 days but bring home better money than him! I do pt work because we can afford it and I want to take extra time with ds when he is young. Equally I'd hate to be a sahm.

Next year when dc2 is born I will take on sahm role for a while. It's not even a question of the better earner working. Psychologically I won't want to be away from baby. Also I intend to bf for the year. Even if this weren't the case dh works in the family business & they couldn't spare him for 6 months.

Lancelottie Thu 07-Nov-13 18:06:13

DH's old boss said to him 'Don't you want to play with the big boys?'

This was when he wanted to leave on time for a change, not even apply for flexible working. That kind of attitude takes a bit of shifting.

NumptyNameChange Thu 07-Nov-13 18:26:28

i find it really sad to read women excusing their partners saying things like, 'they can only cope with it in short bursts' or they're not as good at it or whatever.

they're like that because they know you'll do it. teenagers for example don't lack the actual ability to put their clothes in the washing basket they just probably won't bother doing it if they know mum will pick it up off the floor and do it for them.

if magic mummy, she's so much better, she has instincts and can multi task wasn't there taking over daddy would have to pull his finger out and learn to cope same as we had to.

the reality i see happening is more and more women having children on their own from the start or getting divorced when they realise they've married someone who thinks a woman is little more than a house elf once she's given birth (though i suspect women married to very high earners may stay longer). it seems the only way to get some men to actually do some childcare is to divorce them then at least you get every other weekend and one night a week off grin i laugh but seriously i listen to some women's workloads and the embedded disrespect they live with and really do think they'd be better off, have more leisure time and a hell of a lot less on their plates if they were single.

NumptyNameChange Thu 07-Nov-13 18:29:53

one pattern i have seen that i'm not sure has been explored anywhere is whereby it was the woman more than the man who wanted to have a baby. this sets things up for inequity imo - how does a woman really feel confident to demand someone make equal sacrifices and do half the work on a project that part of them feels they pressured the other party into?

i have known at least one couple where this was an explicit part of the dynamic going on - she was aware she'd talked him into it and was unconsciously therefore not feeling able to make any demands and he was abdicating all real responsibility for childcare on her. was sad to watch really.

mollythetortoise Thu 07-Nov-13 18:57:46

I think it is very true that in the early years there are fewer fathers involved in the daily grind of chilcare although in my experience, once the children are in school , fathers are much more evident.
I see lots and lots of the school run for example. Many father's attend parents evening, school plays, cheering on the after school football match, watching the sSaturday morning swimming lesson.
I would say that my partner and I share the "work" between us now.
Pre-school I did 80%, whilst also working a 4 day week.

I think the reasons for this are many and varied but the main ones for me was that that I wanted to be super mum in the early days. It was important to me.
I am older and wiser now and physically can't be everywhere so i have renegotiated our arrangement .
Children are also more fun and the activities more interesting once they hit school age, juniors onwards and so dad's become keener to do stuff with them.
Toddlers and babies are just plain hard work!

Amongst my friends with school age children, all the dads now share the running around side of parenting.
The administration stuff still seems to be mum's job though and I think that is because someone has to be ultimately responsible for organising so things don't get forgotten and mums are still ultimately in charge.
My dp will do anything I ask but I still have to do the asking!

ssd Thu 07-Nov-13 18:58:40

I agree with this op, but I'd go further and say its sometimes not just the men who dont want to do childcare, if I could count how many women I've heard say "oh I'd love to give up work or go part time but.....we need the two cars/foreign holidays/big house etc etc", I'd be loaded

Meglet Thu 07-Nov-13 19:03:07

It's going to take a few generations for the culture to change IMO. The children who are growing up now need to realise that men and women can look after children.

Boys are still told they don't play with dollies, girls are still raised to be 'homemakers'. As I'm a LP my children do see that a mother can work and run a house badly. But I'm also drumming it into them that mums and dads can look after children, woe betide DS if he has kids and leaves it all to his partner (he's almost 7, I like to plan ahead). I'd be livid if I thought I'd raised DS like his Dad was, with outdated 1950's parents. All I can do is chip away at stereotypes and hope things are a little better when they are adults.

Oblomov Thu 07-Nov-13 19:17:16

Very interesting. Very true.

bronya Thu 07-Nov-13 19:21:33

To turn this on its head a bit - as a woman pre-child I had a career that I loved and was very good at. I was passionate about what I did, and happily spent hour after hour in the evenings/weekends/holidays, plus a fair bit of my own money, making sure that everything I did was the best it could be. It fulfilled me and I felt I was making a difference.

Post child, I've changed what I do to a related job with far fewer hours. I still really enjoy it, but I've chosen a career path with much less pressure, more satisfaction, less hours and lower pay. This gives me most of my week to spend with my child. It's what I WANT to do, and my husband supports me in this. Every instinct I have pushes me to stay with my child and to bring him up myself. I can't control that, and leaving him for extended periods is stressful, even though I know he's in the best of care. Instinct is powerful, and it's there for a reason. Some have stronger instincts than others, but if mothers didn't have a strong instinct to stay with their children, to protect and nurture them, then the human race would have died out long ago!

starkadder Thu 07-Nov-13 19:37:49

I think many men are scared of what it will do to their career. Women are too, but we have to face it, because all our colleagues and bosses can see we're pregnant an we h e to take at least a few days (!) off work to give birth...! So, I think there are more and more career women who think, prior to birth, "I have no idea how my office will manage without me; I'm essential here, I just can't take time off" - but they have to, and their bosses have to let them - so we confront those fears and realise, after the event, that the things we were so worried about are not as important as we thought they were.

Also the huge rush of hormones helps - but men who spend a decent amount of time with their children bond just as well, and men who share responsibility develop the ability (curse?) of waking in the night when the baby starts to cry too.

headoverheels Thu 07-Nov-13 20:00:09

Pre DC I earned almost exactly the same as my DH (we met at work). Now I'm a SAHM while he works long hours and isn't around much to help with childcare. We could have done it the other way around from a financial perspective, but the thing is, this is what we both want. I love being a SAHM!

sleeplessbunny Thu 07-Nov-13 20:22:26

I don't think we should just lay the blame on each father who fails to make career sacrifices for equal parenting, there is a whole cultural pattern that determines their career expectations and makes it difficult for an individual to go against the grain.

DH and I do 50/50 childcare, both working part time, and although we work in similar jobs the effect on his career has certainly been worse than that on mine. It is pretty much expected for a mother to work part time hours, but DH was the first in his office to request flexible working, and although he eventually got the hours he requested, the grief he got about it was eye-opening. He is frequently told (informally at least) that he is not taking his career seriously because he is working part time. I don't think anyone would dare say that to me.

The whole cultural expectation of women being the main caregivers seriously blights the workplace despite all the legislative efforts to move towards more equal parenting. I suspect it will take generations for the necessary cultural shift to take place. It is getting better, but it is slow.

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