For decades women have fought to gain the autonomy and satisfaction that comes with being in the paid workforce. We’ve been knocking on the doors of businesses, demanding to be let in. We’ve successfully campaigned for affordable, quality childcare, smashed glass ceilings and gained seats at the management table.
The problem is, the traffic between work and home has been largely one-way. Women can now choose to be full-time breadwinners, full-time mums or any combination thereof. Men, however, are still expected to stay put in the paid workforce.
It is this conundrum that Annabel Crabb tackles in her piece for The Quarterly Essay titled Men at Work: Australia’s Parenthood Trap. As she points out:
Half a century of modern feminism has changed the way women conduct their lives almost beyond recognition. But men are still in their old box.
But why? It’s not necessarily because men don’t want to spend more time with their family. Crabb gives us the example of Silicon Valley executive Max Schireson. In 2014 he stepped back from his role, citing a desire to spend more time with his family than the high-powered, frequent-flying job would allow.
Schireson was dismayed that fatherhood was never considered part of his corporate identity:
As a male CEO, I have been asked what kind of car I drive and what type of music I like, but never how I balance the demands of being both a dad and a CEO.
Crabb found that a significant roadblock for men who want to spend more time with their families – either by working flexible hours or taking parental leave – is essentially an identity crisis. A man’s worth is defined by his professional – and financial – success.
In her essay, Crabb recounts a conversation she had with a man she met at a superannuation industry dinner. He and his wife were about to have their second child.
“Personally, I would absolutely love to take extended parental leave,” he told me. “It’s just that in my job I’m not really replaceable.”
“And what would happen if you were female?” I asked him.
If he were female, he wouldn’t get a choice. Biology forces women to confront this identity crisis whether we like it or not. Our employer has to replace us while we give birth and recover from birth, no matter what position we hold.
Of course, knowing this intellectually and actually experiencing it are two quite different things. For me, reality began to sink in about six months into my first pregnancy – once the happy hormones which made having a baby seem like a wonderful idea wore off.
My career was rocking along quite nicely. I was getting promotion opportunities and I was loving the work.
But then it dawned on me – the next opportunity coming up was not one I could stick my hand up for. By the time it came around I would be at home caring for a tiny newborn. My epiphany spiralled from there and morphed into a total freak out.
I planned to work part-time after my period of parental leave. I hoped to have another baby within a couple of years of the first. That meant I was staring down the barrel of ten years or so of part-time work. Surely that was a total career killer? Nobody would take me seriously.
Oh good god, what had I done to myself?
Of course, by this point, I couldn’t very well turn back. I couldn’t knock on my uterus and say, “Hey, I’ve changed my mind. I’m not going to take any time off work. They can’t live without me. You can stop growing now.”
I was rather stuck with going through with this whole birthing-a-new-human palaver. I was forced to integrate “mother” into my professional identity.
Added to that, my workplace had several months to watch my pregnant belly grow and get used to the idea that I was becoming a parent. By the time I came back to work we’d both managed to come to grips with this new parent / professional identity and navigated our way around it.
(Oh, and spoiler alert: having children didn’t destroy my career. And the workplace didn’t actually fall apart without me.)
Men never have this biological imperative nor this physical signalling. There is no forced integration of the two identities and they always have to make a final, deliberate choice – paid work or parenting? Add in the kicker that society still assumes that men won’t take time off to look after small children, even if they want to, and I can see why it continues to be largely women staying at home with young children.
How do we break this cycle? How do we stop pushing men into staying at work, so that women have to stay at home, by default? Crabb has some fabulously concrete ideas, based on policies which have worked in Scandinavia and Canada. But it also has to come from us. As she points out:
Governments can’t legislate to change people’s assumptions. Nor can they correct a culture that has hung on to the idea that raising children is women’s work well past the point at which it relinquished the idea that earning an income is solely the preserve of men.
We need to have the same sort of revolution when it comes to men and child rearing that we’ve had for women and paid work. Women can’t have it all, we can’t do it all, and nor should we.
I do think things are changing – slowly, but they are changing. I’m 39 years old and many men and women of my generation are parenting differently.
The (senior manager) husband of a friend took 3 months of long service leave after his second child was born so that his wife could go back to her (also senior manager) role. He had a ball being able to focus on his kids for an extended period of time and learned exactly what is involved in parenting young children (hint: it’s not all sipping lattés at trendy cafés).
I’ve known dads who are teachers to be the sole carers of their kids while their doctor or lawyer wives continue to work through the school holidays. I’ve known dads who take time out of the workforce altogether to care for the kids while their partner takes a promotion opportunity that requires extensive travel.
I stand outside my son’s classroom at school pick-up on a Friday and count more dads than mums some weeks. Some dads are clearly tradies who’ve knocked off early for the day, but others have preschoolers hanging off their legs, who they’ve presumably been caring for all day.
Men don’t need to be the family breadwinner anymore. Women can share the load, if that’s what works for their family. But this also frees dads up to – and gives them a responsibility to – share the load (and the joy) that is being at home with the kids.
Perhaps as more men in senior roles step back from their jobs to spend time with their family we’ll start to see a shift towards a societal structure that truly acknowledges the role of parents, and caring more generally.
And until child-rearing stops being viewed as ‘women’s work’ we’re not going to get any further towards true equality. It’s not about taking away power, status and money. It’s about giving men the opportunity to experience the joy of deep connections with their own children.
Grab a copy of Men at Work: Australia’s Parenthood Trap, by Annabel Crabb, from your local bookstore, newsagency or online at Quarterly Essay.