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When dads want to play mum

24 Jan 2003

The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) has just released a report that suggests men want to spend more time with their children than ever before. But are employers and the government standing in their way?

Men now take on about a third of all the childcare, according to the report, revealing an entirely different world to the traditional image of the husband dozing in front of the TV while his wife puts the kids to bed.

However, our culture of long working hours is preventing many dads from becoming more involved in their children's lives, even though they want to be, the report argues.

Chained to the office desk

Nearly 40 per cent of fathers work more than 48 hours a week and 12 per cent work 60 hours or more, meaning the burden of childcare continues to fall mostly on the mother.

"Many dads are spending far more time with their family than their own fathers did, but it is difficult for them to do more while they work such long hours," says EOC Chair Julie Mellor. "The knock-on effect is that women often have little choice about how they balance work and family."

Also, because women tend to earn less, a couple will often decide that the woman should spend less time at work. This, argues the report, is reinforcing the old belief that childcare is a woman's job without recognising the fact that many dads wish to be more involved.

Vive la revolution

That view is strongly reiterated by the co-founder of campaign group Fathers Direct, Jack O'Sullivan. "Research shows that there is social revolution going on, but it is quite clear that men are having difficulties. They want to spend more time with their children but are also working long hours so they are being squeezed," he says.

"It's no good pretending that women do all the child raising any more - men are out there doing it, they're not sitting in the pub."

Working practices

Jack says many fathers become frustrated that they can't spend more time with their kids. So what's the solution? Julie Mellor says employers can help by promoting family-friendly working practices to all employees, and making sure they are paying women fairly.

"This is in employers' interests and the interests of the economy as a whole, as it can boost morale and productivity," she says.

But why would companies want to change? The EOC says family-friendly practices can encourage good staff relations plus improved motivation, commitment, retention and turnover. In fact, eight out of ten employers questioned agreed, but more than half still failed to offer schemes that could help new dads.

A step in the right direction

But it's not only employers that are falling behind the times. The government is too, despite recent efforts. The law is due to change on 6 April - after that date, fathers will be entitled to two weeks' paternity leave within eight weeks of a child's birth at 100 per week.

A further four weeks unpaid leave can be taken in the first year of the child's life. And employers will be obliged to consider requests for more flexible working for those with kids under six.

But while Jack O'Sullivan welcomes this as a "good start", he says it's nowhere near enough. "We have a social revolution running way ahead of policy," he says.

"I think the government is beginning to understand, but we need more leadership from those in the higher echelons to help recognise the reality of life today."

Legal wranglings

A prime example, he explains, is that under the new law, the four weeks of unpaid leave must be taken in week blocks. "If we really supported getting women back to work, then when she is ready why could she not go to back one day a week and the father take that day off to look after the kids?" As he explains, "women would much rather hand a baby over to the father than a child minder."

It's hard to argue against giving men more chance to be involved with their child's development. You need only look at all the pictures of male celebrities pushing their kids along in prams - an unthinkable image only a few years ago - to see that society has changed.

Man about the house

One man who has benefited from a more flexible work life is Lester Haines from Manningtree in Essex. Lester works for an IT website, and when his baby daughter was born 14 months ago, he was commuting to London every day.

"The problem was that I'd often arrive at home after the baby had gone to bed," he says. "I got very little time to spend with her."

A few months later though, Lester was delighted when his company let him start working from home. "I was given the opportunity so I took it," he says. "Now I get to see the kid every day, which is definitely better. Every parent should consider working from home a bit more."

Men are taking a more active role in childcare and employers that appreciate this will be more attractive to a new dad. However ambitious they are, given a choice, most fathers would have no trouble deciding between their job and spending more time with their child.

Further information:

Equal Opportunities Commission
Fathers Direct

Link to this story on Discovery Health

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