Someone from my mothers’ group told me a story about a friend of hers who went back to work after maternity leave.
Her friend worked in the public service, and her department had moved floors while she was on leave. When she returned, she discovered—as she stood around awkwardly among her colleagues’ desks—a space hadn’t been reserved for her in the new office configuration. So her manager offered a solution: how about she sit in the team’s previous location, on the other floor?
All set for her first day back, wearing her smart new work clothes bought especially for the occasion, she took the lift up to the old office. The lift doors opened, and the lights flickered on to reveal the unmistakably desolate scene of an abandoned commercial space: a cityscape of old ring-binders stacked in higgledy-piggledy towers, desk chairs poised at strange inclines scattered about like artefacts from a ruined civilisation, and a forgotten mug, chipped, with a now-permanent tea stain, left behind on the one remaining desk. She was the only person there.
Maybe this story is apocryphal, but that’s how mothers talk about returning to work after children. Cautionary tales are passed around like folklore.
There’s the woman, working part-time, who was told her desk by the window had been given to a full-time employee, since the view was “going to waste” for the two days a week she wasn’t there. There are the stories of day-care centres which only ever call up the mother when a child is sick, even though they have both parents’ phone numbers on file. There are the women overlooked for promotions while on maternity leave, or because of their part-time hours, who watch their junior staff members leap-frog them to become their boss. And there’s this graph from a Danish study, passed around in Facebook mothers’ groups like the world’s most depressing meme:
When I meet Dr Liana Leach from the ANU Research School of Population Health, she tells me stories too. She tells me about her partner’s work-hours and how they split the care of their two children, she talks about the different approaches her sisters have taken to work-life balance. She says that in her research there’s a survey question which asks participants ‘How often do you feel rushed or pushed for time?’ with the responses being ‘Never’, ‘Sometimes’, ‘Often’ and ‘Always’ and every time she looks at that question, she thinks: ‘Always’.
She repeats it: “Always”.
“If it’s not rushing at work, it’s rushing to get things done at home. It’s an intensified way of being, all the time, where you feel like there’s no space.”
Dr Leach is a quantitative mental health researcher. “I like to stick to what the numbers tell me,” she says. Yet here we are, not talking about data at all, but swapping stories of compromise and frustration. It seems impossible not to. Mothers get together and they compare battle wounds, and they try to puzzle out if there’s some trick to making it all work better somehow.
All these stories which mothers tell each other do nothing to alter their hobbled trajectory on that depressing graph. But it’s not the stories which are the problem; it’s who’s telling them. If fathers joined the conversation, what might change?
Recently Dr Leach was using Facebook ads to recruit participants to some of her parenting research, when she noticed something strange. Ninety-eight percent of the respondents were mothers.
“When we realised what was happening,” she says, “we ran a second set of advertisements where instead of referring to ‘parents’ we used father-specific language and talked about ‘dads’ and we got a really good response rate from men.”
In Australia, the social attitude to parenting is that it’s actually just mothering, and women bear the costs accordingly.
“We tend to think that it really should be the mum who stays at home, and we have high rates of part-time work for women in part because of that.”
As a result, when leave provisions and flexible working arrangements are made available to fathers, they’re unlikely to take them up. They don’t perceive that they’re even for them.
“The government’s paid parental leave scheme—18 weeks at minimum wage—can actually be taken by either parent. Mums or dads can take it, but only two percent is taken by dads.
“The same thing happens when an organisation offers family leave. If it’s available to both parents, it tends to be the mums who take the leave.”
Similar to Dr Leach’s Facebook ads, evidence shows that when a leave scheme is positioned as being specifically for dads and partners (rather than a scheme which can be shared between parents), fathers are more likely to take it up. This is how places like Norway, Sweden and Quebec, with partner-dedicated, use-it-or-lose-it policies, have substantially increased paternity leave rates, and this is also how the new ANU parental leave policy works.
It’s a mistake to think, however, that taking off a chunk of time in a child’s first year resolves all issues of childcare. Even once the initial parental leave period is over, there are many more years of drop-offs and pick-ups, school holidays, extra-curricular commitments, sick days and the extra domestic labour which necessarily comes with raising children.
“All throughout your child’s school years,” Dr Leach says, “there’s that horrible discussion between parents where you both see the kid coughing the night before school, and you’re working out who’s going to stay home. It can be quite stressful.”
On top of dedicated leave provisions for partners, Dr Leach says we need to change the culture of what we mean when we talk about parenting.
“If you ask dads, they will say they want to be more involved in childcare and that family is important to them, but even when they have these entitlements available to them, they feel reluctant to take them up.
“They say it will affect their career progression. They say it’s not financially a good option. They say they don’t see enough men around them using flexible working provisions, and they don’t want to be the first ones doing it.”
Yet the benefits of fathers being more involved in their children’s care are unquestionable.
“It’s good for the kids, because increased engagement by fathers is linked to better developmental outcomes. It’s good for the mums because they have more opportunities to get back into more work and more satisfying work. It’s good for the workplace, because if you can balance work and family you’re more likely to be more focused at work. And it’s good for relationships because when parents share the load, they parent in a less irritable way.
“And long-term, if the father can spend some time at home and do some caring early on, there’s evidence that it increases the likelihood of them doing more caring throughout the child’s life.”
This is backed up by a statistic from Amelia Dixon, founder of A Seat at the Table, a gender equality initiative. Dixon says that for every one month of leave a man takes in the first year of a child's life, his female partner's lifetime income goes up by six per cent.
"Having a women's revolution,” Dixon told the Australian Financial Review, “without having some kind of men's revolution as well is crazy”.
The revolution begins with national, survey-based research, Dr Leach says, to find out what a broad sample of dads and partners want—not just white-collar employees—and what barriers are in their way. We also need to better include same-sex couples in our understanding of parenting. All of this can inform the introduction of government-supported dedicated partners’ leave beyond the current, seemingly inadequate, two weeks of Dad and Partner Pay.
And instead of mothers swapping horror stories, we need a national conversation. One that promotes the valuable role fathers have in parenting and that empowers them to actually use the entitlements they do have. Men in senior positions can lead by example by taking leave and using flexible working provisions and encouraging other men to do the same. We need to stop only asking pregnant women what they plan on doing work-wise after their maternity leave, and start asking their partners too.
“All of us, we have to dig our heels in hard and fight for these conversations to happen,” Dr Leach says. And I can’t tell if she means conversations with our partners, or with our bosses, or our elected representatives or all three.
But I nod, anyway. And I think about that woman sent to the abandoned office, and I wonder why men, having seen their female colleagues, and their wives, and their friends, and their sisters, endure the disadvantages which come from combining childcare with work, would ever willingly take that disadvantage on.
I ask Dr Leach if she thinks most of her male colleagues at ANU will take up the partner leave they’ve just been offered. She thinks about it for a really long time. Long enough for me to jump in just to break the silence, and we end up speaking over the top of each other.
“I don’t see why they would,” I say, and at the exact same time she answers, “Yes, I hope they will.”
And I realise we have both given the same answer: we need them to.
Dr Leach and her colleagues are holding a forum called Why Fathers’ Care Matters: Enabling Gender Equity in Care and Work, at University House, ANU on Thursday the 9th of August. See further details and register here.