I'm just coming back from another great morning at our local Forest School. Both my sons love going there. At Forest School they meet friends, plant seeds, explore wildlife, learn about trees and plants - and yes, most important, they enjoy themselves by getting muddy. Like me.
When I look back (that's just 18 months ago), I remember being the only man in that group which made me feel slightly uncomfortable at the beginning. Even though all mums gave me a warm welcome and actually told me that it's so good to see a dad too.
But things change. Not only more fathers are now joining the sessions here locally (which wouldn't be very representative), the national trend states clearly that more men want to look after their kids, especially in their first years. However, it's not easy when they get little or no support from their employers to take prolonged time off, working flexibly or even financially from the state.
The BBC just featured a report commissioned for London's Work and Family Show. In this study researchers present their findings about mothers and fathers returning to work and their feelings and anxieties around that topic. The article states that
"More than a third of men questioned told researchers that they worked full-time and were offered no flexibility at all by their employers. (...) 'It is men, not women, who are most dissatisfied with their work-life balance,' said Adrienne Burgess [from the Fatherhood Institute] (...) 'They're more likely than mums to be in full-time paid employment, and to be the sole or main breadwinner. (...) Crucially, few employers have strategies to support the men in their workforce to combine their work and domestic commitments. As a result, men are less likely to request flexible working, and if they do, are less likely to get it.'"
That's where the problem lies: Fathers are still expected to go back to work full time (after having a ridiculously short paternity leave compared to other countries like Germany, Austria, Sweden etc.) And then they feel stuck by feeling responsible for the family income and receive no or little support. I'm not surprised at the researchers finding that "more than a fifth of men wish they had looked after their children rather than returning to work."
Here is the contradiction: Society wants men to spend more time with their kids and families (believe me, at least once a week I get a comment like "Oh it's good to see daddy being in charge" when in public), but employers and government do next to nothing to support them.
I believe we need some fundamental changes here:
- New parents should get paid 100% of their last salary when on maternity/paternity leave for at least a whole year
- When returning to work all parents (with an incentive for fathers) should be offered to work part time hours in order to have enough time for their offspring and yes, to have time for themselves too. This must be granted by law.
- Smaller companies who might struggle with those arrangements will need compensation payments from the state in order to cover paternity leaves
After all, it benefits our children. While dad is at work, our children are looked after by their mum, by female nursery staff, female childminders and then mostly female teachers. It is no secret that children need male and female role models to thrive developmentally and emotionally.
Other countries have long recognised this and offer families incentives when the father stays at home. In Germany families get an extra two months "Parent pay" when the father stays at home. In Iceland there is the '3+3+3' model, Icelandic couples are entitled to nine months' paid leave, at around 80% of their salary; three months are reserved for the mother, three months for the father and a further three months to share between them. Similar regulations are true for other Scandinavian countries.
When is the UK catching up?
I have this dream of mothers and fathers co-parenting and sharing responsibilities. Fathers who don't miss out of all those magical first-time-moments because they're stuck in a grey office and parents who are happier together as they are supporting each other.