Fathers can juggle, too

Children and a job - men are starting to cope, writes Sally Feldman

June 4, 2009

During a senior executives' meeting last week, someone's mobile croaked out the Crazy Frog ringtone, breaking into the owner's full-throttle presentation on corporate accountability. He muttered into the phone for a moment, then, flustered, announced that he had to leave immediately as the baby had been vomiting.

And just a few weeks before that, a new father in my school had asked to rearrange, or more accurately reduce, his teaching so that he could relieve the babysitter on Fridays. Another decided that he'd have to give up a module last semester in order to help his daughter with her A-level revision.

I can't help noticing that it's usually men who seek special dispensation. Women tend not to. In fact, most go out of their way to keep their domestic arrangements at home, often at some cost. One new mother whose baby was rushed to hospital reorganised her timetable while sweating it out in intensive care, just to make sure her teaching was covered. A colleague in finance confided recently that she'd never had a summer holiday with her children. That's her busiest period, so her husband takes time off then instead.

Similarly, a fellow dean, whose husband has an equally high-powered job, operates a rota system to make sure that one of them will always be back in time to help with the children's homework. Like most working mothers, she's adept at organising, juggling, finding fallbacks, coping with contingencies. We've always had to. But now that more and more fathers are beginning to share the load, a curious demarcation seems to be emerging.

I became aware of this shift about 15 years ago when I was working at Radio 4's Woman's Hour, running a team of women. "I don't know how you manage with all those mothers," another - child-free - editor sympathised. "Constantly having crises with the childminder or having to take time off for ballet or being late because of traffic on the school run."

But gradually, as she started to bring in younger, more egalitarian men to revitalise her programme, she started complaining about them. One had to go home early because his wife had a work emergency and couldn't pick up the kids. Another didn't want to miss sports day. At least two would have to stay home whenever a child was ill. Meanwhile, as I gleefully and ungenerously would point out, my female producers were just getting on with the job as usual, without any special pleading.

The difference, I think, is that working mothers have long felt an obligation to demonstrate that they can be as efficient as their male colleagues. No wonder, since the right to have both a family and a job has been achieved relatively recently. When I first joined the BBC, several of the older producers had had to choose between motherhood and a career. Indeed, in the early days women would be sacked if they got married. So I wouldn't have blamed them for feeling resentful at the younger generation crashing into their world and having it all.

Now we have protection that they wouldn't have dreamed of when they started out: equal pay and sex discrimination laws, the right to maternity leave, flexible working arrangements. The Equality Bill currently going through Parliament will radically strengthen these measures. But it won't affect the fraught area of parental leave. Current provision is limited to 13 weeks, whereas maternity leave is now 12 months. And this, according to a new report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, has entrenched the notion that women do the caring and pay the career penalty.

And this built-in assumption that childrearing is primarily a woman's duty may at least in part account for the differences in attitude between male and female parents at work. Men are more likely to flaunt their parental job-sharing because they regard it as a badge of honour, like clattering the dishes so that you can tell they're doing the washing-up.

So the Commission is now calling for higher rates of pay and leave allowances for both parents, pointing out that the UK has one of the lowest rates of parental provision in Europe. At the top of the list is Sweden, with hugely generous levels of support for working parents. That doesn't automatically mean that women there have achieved full equality, but at least these progressive measures have laid the foundation for gender equality.

What we're experiencing is a long period of adjustment, when more and more men are taking more responsibility for their children but are still feeling self-conscious about it. And while legislation can go a long way to changing attitudes, it won't be enough. If a workplace is going to be genuinely "family friendly", it needs to be just that: friendly. I may feel irritated sometimes at my male colleagues' sense of entitlement. But I'm also touched by their delight in the magic of fatherhood and their joy and pride in their babies. I want them to name them after me, to show me pictures, to bring them to work so that they can imagine where their parents are when they're not at home.

Mind you, there are hazards. The child of a proud fine-art tutor once spent a happy afternoon in the studio splodging around with paint, a packet of crisps and a few pieces of Lego. It was only when the external examiner came in to assess the Level 6 work that we noticed the toddler's creative efforts had been entered for the graduation show.

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