Written by Sophia Russell, this article first appeared on Women’s Agenda.
When Roslyn went back to work nine months after the birth of her daughter, she braced herself for an onslaught of emotions: guilt, exhaustion, excitement tinged with anxiety.
What she wasn’t prepared for, though, was the solidarity she felt with her husband, Evan. While Roslyn, a senior associate at a law firm, was wading through a new world of breast pumps and precision-timed morning routines, Evan was preparing for a change of his own: taking three months paid parenting leave from his consultancy work to become the primary carer of their nine-month old daughter.
He’s not alone in wanting to spend more time at home. Men like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg are typical of the current crop of dads pushing back on the workaholic father stereotype because they value raising children just as much as their careers.
Flexibility to manage family life is now the third most highly valued job characteristic for young dads, while the Boston College Centre for Work and Family found 65% of Australian dads believe both parents should provide equal amounts of care.
Family-friendly work options are also becoming increasingly important for men, not only so they can raise children, but to better support mothers re-entering the workforce.
Roslyn agrees. “If I was on my own in wanting to continue work, the whole thing would break down,” she says. “Evan has been a massive enabler for me by stepping up his involvement in caring for our daughter and sharing in the housework”.
Although handing the reins over to a trusted co-parent sounds reassuring, for many mothers, changing roles can be a complex and emotionally charged issue.
Initially, Roslyn found it difficult to relinquish her cherished role as the parenting expert. “Even though he helped out before going on leave, I’ll think ‘I wouldn’t have necessarily put that combination of clothes together’ or ‘I wouldn’t have chosen to feed her that,” she says. “But he’s doing it his way, so why should it make a difference to me? I’m resisting the urge to insist he do things my way”.
For Peggy, returning to her career as a town planner while her husband, an IT analyst, took four months off work to care for their eight-month old daughter Kailey, brought up conflicting emotions: frustration over not “putting in 100%” into her work, alongside a longing to be with her daughter. “When I have to work late, I get really upset that her day didn’t end with cuddles with me,” she says. “Mostly, it’s me being my own worst enemy because no one is telling me I’m doing a bad job – as a mum or at work. Perhaps I’m setting myself unrealistic expectations, but stress does build every few weeks, when I feel like I should be achieving a better work/life balance.”
But Peggy believes having Matt at home, forming a strong bond with their daughter, outweighed the struggles of their arrangement. “The best thing is knowing he is experiencing exactly how hard and time consuming a baby is,” she says. “No amount of reading a book or talking to another parent compares to living it day in, day out.”
This opportunity to trade places – for one partner to develop empathy for the other by walking in their shoes – is at the heart of what makes flexible work options so valuable for men, not just women. “It’s the nub of what I love about our arrangement,” says Roslyn. “I could tell Evan when I was on maternity leave what I’d done for my day, but experiencing it for yourself can give you a really good appreciation for parenting.”
She adds, “Shifting cultural stereotypes towards appreciating the active parenting role fathers can play is key to enabling women to participate to their potential in the workforce … and this certainly rings true in our experience.”