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Time to Admit That Modern Fatherhood Is a Myth

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If there's one thing you learn very quickly when you spend half of your life looking after your very young children, it's how to tell a story convincingly: how to make unbelievable things like trolls and talking frogs real for your children.

As an equal parent in and out of working hours for over five years now, I've realised there's no fairytale quite so engaging, but quite so without actual substance, as the modern fatherhood myth.

There's a convincing but untrue story about a huge army of fathers out there across the UK, all merrily doing their fair share of childcare, or maybe even more than their female partners.

Research for my book on equal parenting, Men Can Do It! - published this week - reveals that, yes, there are some men doing toddler and babycare in modern Britain. But nowhere near the number of equal fathers or stay-at-home dads that we've been led to believe.

Just take a look outside.

Where are the groups of dads sitting in coffee shops, or joining sing-along at the local library? Where are the men nattering outside the playgroup gates, inviting each other for coffee and each other's kids for playdates? Where are the blokes getting the shopping in at Tesco, with two toddlers stuffed in the front of a shopping trolley?

As one of these dads, I can tell you we're a rare breed indeed. I see women. I see lots of women. Women with children everywhere, in town, at the shops, outside the school gates, at playgroups and babycare classes. But men? We remain conspicuous by our absence.

This apparent disparity between the modern fatherhood myth and the reality led to me to start researching the official statistics on men and childcare.

It turns out the number of stay-at-home dads looking after babies and toddlers has only increased by just over 6,000 men in the whole of the last ten years.

Hardly a revolution in babycare gender equality, and nothing compared with the reduction of more than 44,000 women who have stopped being stay-at-home mums in the same period. Formal childcare and grandparents have come in to fill the gap, not fathers.

Men still make up by far the majority of full-time workers, while women are still far more likely to work part-time. Over the last 10 years, the proportion of men working part-time has increased only by a tiny amount, and the number of women working full-time hasn't changed at all in a decade.

What is particularly devastating to the new fatherhood myth are the few other startling facts I discovered while in search of this mythical 'new father'.

I discovered that men with children actually work longer hours than those without.

I discovered that where men do look after their children, they tend to only take the good bits: the playing, the stories, the going to the park. Fathers don't do the daily grind jobs, the washing, the cleaning, the cooking, that mothers do. Those women lucky enough to share childcare with the father come home from work to do his share of the child-related housework, as well as her own.

I discovered that even on weekends, mums spend twice as much time caring for their children as fathers, including doing all these childcare related chores. In fact, I discovered that couples without children were actually more likely to share household chores than those with them.

I discovered that men at work were far more likely than women to ask for a pay rise or promotion, but far less likely than women to ask for part-time or flexible working to look after children.

The UK coalition government has claimed it is ushering in a radical new approach to parenting and work from 2015, and with it are introducing men's right to share up to a year of paid parental leave with their partner. Maternity leave is, effectively, being abolished.

"It's heartbreaking to see fathers missing out on being with their children," said deputy PM Nick Clegg when introducing the changes. "So we are giving mothers and fathers more choice to decide for themselves how to balance their families and their careers."

This is the biggest fairytale of the lot. There's no evidence that - even if they say they want to - that men will take up a larger share of parental leave, just because it is there.

Since April 2011, men have been entitled to share 26 weeks of parental leave with their partners. Yet even before it was introduced, a third of men said they wouldn't take it.

In the two years since it was introduced, only 1,600 men have so taken the opportunity. Compare that measly figure with the 1.5million babies that have been born in that time. In fact, just under one third of dads still don't even take their initial legal entitlement to two-week's paid paternity leave.

The sad truth seems to be that men may claim they want to spend more time with their children, and less time at work, but their actions to actually do so are muted at best.

I've heard all the arguments over the last five years, when people learn my wife and I share childcare equally:

Men get paid more than women, so it makes sense for him to go back to work and her to be primary childcarer.

This isn't true. Women are, on average, actually paid slightly more than men until they reach childbearing age. It's only when kids come into the picture that the pay gap between men and women begins to widen in favour of men.

But many women choose to be primary child carer.

I challenge the assumption that women always choose to stay at home or work part-time. Of course some do, but for others - given their career and promotional prospects can be so damaged by having children, and that being a mum is what society expects women to do - I wonder what kind of free choice many of them are really making.

And just because a women chooses to stay at home doesn't mean she won't regret doing so later, nor that all women will, or ought to, make that choice for themselves.

And anyway, this appeal to choice only backs up my main argument: where are all the men freely choosing to stay at home, and the women freely choosing to be the main earner?

Another argument: It's alright to call for parents to work fewer hours, but some jobs just can't be done part-time or flexibly.

Agreed. But doesn't it almost always seems to be the man who necessarily takes on the full-time work, while the woman juggles childcare and what part-time work she can achieve in between?

Nick Clegg can offer men all the extra paternity leave we like, but if men won't take the opportunity to use it, then it is fathers - and the mothers that allow them to get away with it - that are at fault.

If we men really mean what we say about wanting to spend more time with our kids, less time at work, and to strike a fairer deal when it comes to childcare, we actually have to do something about it.

That means a grown up conversation with our partners, even if we agreed something before our children were born, about whether our own set ups are actually fair, or are still working for us.

And yes, that might mean men have to take on some of the financial, career and ambition sacrifice that women have endured for centuries.

If not for our sake, we should do it for our families.

Men Can Do It! The real reason dads don't do childcare was published in the UK on Monday

Around the Web

The Fatherhood Institute

Dad-to-be and early fatherhood - Pregnancy and baby guide - NHS ...

Fatherhood: The Truth: Amazon.co.uk: Marcus Berkmann: Books

Sheila Dillon; British women and Islam; fatherhood; female composers

The Help Desk: A reluctant prospective father

Prince William says he looking forward to fatherhood despite the sleepless nights

Daniel Radcliffe: I'd play Harry Potter's father

Shepard left house twice since fatherhood new Dax Shepard was excited about ...