By David Freed
What makes us ‘naturally’ better parents is not our sex, but the time we spend alone looking after our babies.Author, Dads Don't Babysit: Towards Equal Parenting
On a cold evening in early 2016, my wife and I underwent the biggest change of our lives. Just before 5 p.m., my son was born. We were both exhausted from the birth (her obviously more than me), but ecstatic at getting to finally hold this tiny person. It was a feeling that’s difficult to describe: excitement and trepidation, as your nurturing and protective instincts kick in. This was a journey we were embarking on together.
But shortly after my baby was born, I was told I had to leave the hospital without him. My wife, in desperate need of some sleep, was told she had to look after my son for the night, alone. Two and a half years later, I still face this disconnect between the kind of caring and fully responsible dad I want to be, and the dad others expect me to be. This attitude of placing all the burdens of childcare on mum and telling dad to leave doesn’t make sense, and isn’t fair on mums or dads. Yet it is widespread across our continent.
I haven't met a dad who hasn't been overrun by goose-bumps and nurturing instinct when taking care of his kids. Attitudes are changing across Europe and elsewhere, with more dads wanting to play a more active and equal role in raising their kids, and mums wanting to share the responsibility.
Dads are shown to have happier, longer and more satisfying lives the more they take on responsibility for looking after their children. Unsurprisingly, mums who share responsibility for childcare with their partners have better mental health, are more likely to enjoy the time they do spend with their kids, and have a better chance of having a successful career. But topping all this is the clear evidence that kids who have a closer relationship with their father are happier, healthier and smarter.
Yet, uptake of parental leave by new dads across the EU is pretty bad, save in Scandinavia where nearly all new dads take a chunk of parental leave. Germany and Portugal have both seen a rise in recent years thanks to good and well-funded parental leave systems. But in most EU countries, only between zero and four percent of new dads are taking time off to care for their kids in the first year. As the kids get older, dads also spend far less time than mums with their tots and teenagers during the week, and in many cases almost never have sole responsibility for their own kids.
Why is there such a huge gap between what parents increasingly want to do, and what they do in practice?
A part of the reason is parental leave across Europe. Those countries with better parental leave systems have more involved dads. Well-funded parental leave and incentives to encourage dads to take it aren’t only good for the families involved, evidence shows that they’re good for companies and the economy as a whole. Europe needs ways to boost economic growth through spending wisely, and as the Nordic states and Germany will happily show you, spending on parental leave is an easy (and popular) way to do that. Governments that give no support to dads, such as Greece, have not benefited from this false economy of forcing mums to exit the workplace.
But even if parental leave policies are fixed, the limiting expectations from society on both parents persist. When looking after my toddler during the week, I’m frequently told I’m ‘babysitting’. But for whom? The word ‘babysitting’ means temporarily looking after someone else’s children for them. No-one would tell a mum she’s babysitting her own kid, so why would we say it to the other parent?
The implication is clear, I’m doing my wife a favour by looking after my own kid, because deep down they think she’s the one who’s meant to be looking after him not me. The idea that a dad can babysit his own kid is the tip-of-the-iceberg, covering a host of cultural beliefs that dads are not ‘proper’ parents. But what I’m doing is not temporary, and it’s not as a favour to my wife. I’m not babysitting, I’m just being a parent.
I have not seen a single good reason why dads make worse parents than mums. In fact, contrary to popular myths, the more dads look after their babies the more they experience similar brain changes to mums to prepare them to care for their children. What makes us ‘naturally’ better parents is not our sex, but the time we spend alone looking after our babies.
Cultural barriers are found in the workplace from uninformed employers, in the TV we watch, and in the conversations we have with family, friends and strangers. They are even found deep within us as parents: with many dads feeling nervous about breaking the mould of the breadwinner weekend-only dad, and many mums worried about ‘mum guilt’ if they share the burdens of caring for the kids.
Worst of all is the sense that taking on a caring role in the family is only for women. It’s not. The publicity campaigns in the Nordic countries showed tattooed, bearded and butch men, looking after their babies, and loving it. The front cover of my new book echoes this idea that fathers can ‘man-up’ and look after the baby. It’s those sort of images we need, to shake up old fashioned expectations on dads, and show men that they can be comfortable in their masculinity when they are responsible for the kids. Maybe even more manly than the guy who hides from his parental duties?
More and more dads are pushing back at these out-dated limits, but outside of the Nordic countries, we still have a long way to go.
It's time to put that right.
Opinions expressed in View articles are those of the author.