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Margaret O'Brien

“Home Alone” Parental leave for Dads transforms fatherhood

First published on the Children and Family Blog, 

Fathers become more independent caregivers and are more responsible for housework if they parent solo for some time.

“When I was on parental leave, I took care of cleaning, shopping, cooking, all the basic work.” Pekka, a 37-year-old Finnish journalist, is talking about what happened when he took solo charge of his one-year-old son during the day over several months, while his wife went back to work after maternity leave.

It was, he says, “natural” to take on the broader household tasks. “I can’t remember any quarrelling about it. I did as much as I could. That was part of my job during leave.”

Pekka stayed at home for 8 months with his son. “I took two weeks paternity leave when the baby was born and one more week later. Then, when he was about 16 months old, I stayed at home, combining annual holiday with care leave. We did not want to put him in day care before he was two years old. It was OK for my wife to stay at home a year and a half, after which I took the rest.”

The picture Pekka painted of his family life is one that our network of research colleagues is finding in many countries when fathers take extended leave from work to care for their young children while their partners return to work. Our findings are set out in a new book published this month. We have found that the way couples work together in these situations is qualitatively different from how family life typically operates when a father takes just a couple of weeks of paternity leave around the time of birth and then goes back to work.

Gendered roles survive paternity leave

That pattern usually leaves dad as the secondary parent, a helper rather than an equal or autonomous caregiver. Typically, when dad takes just a couple of weeks off around the birth, the division of tasks in the home continues to follow a more traditional, gendered model that has proved highly frustrating for working mothers who usually remain the primary caregivers, mediating father-child relationships.

Solo fathering changes everything 

In contrast, we have found that when a father spends weeks/months in solo care of young children, his long-term relationship with them is closer. Rather than just a helper in the home, he becomes a man who relishes his competence as a parent and takes much more responsibility for housework and care of the home. This chunk of solo caring by the father seems to be a tipping point, offering considerable potential for greater gender equality in the home.

Pekka also explains how, like other similar fathers, his one-to-one experience in his wife’s absence led him to adjust to child-caring in “slow time”, at a child’s pace, rather than the faster world of his adult or working world. This shift made him more competent, better attuned to children and more reflective about his role.

“I probably have learned to be systematic, fast and effective in many ordinary, mundane tasks,” he says. “But the most important learning has to do with personal growth. It was a surprise to realise how impatient I could be. I always thought I was a really cool and calm person who does not flap about anything. The little one-year-old really pushed my buttons, and I had to manage my anger in a new way. I also began to think more about profound questions of life while sitting by the sandpit. Sandcakes are like life itself: it is not the completed cake that is important, but the process of making it.”

Adam, in Norway, was home alone with his daughter, Thelma, for 15 weeks, starting when she was 6 months old. His experience was similar to Pekka’s. “We’d get up, and me and my daughter would set the breakfast table because I knew I didn’t have to rush, so I’d make breakfast for everyone. And Thelma would sit and eat her breakfast. And afterwards we’d tidy up together. We’d go out on the back balcony, and then we would have all the toys out. And she’d play, and we’d play, and we would go around the garden. Then it would maybe be time for her to sleep. So then she’d sleep, and then I would clean up the breakfast and vacuum and do the washing. And, just like my sister said, you’ll be the housewife.”

Adam and Pekka show how important changes seem to be happening in fatherhood and family life in countries that have allowed, persuaded or nudged fathers to take longer leave alone with the children. Fathers are interacting more with their children and sharing more responsibilities in the home. The quality of the couples’ relationships may also improve, with greater mutual understanding and sharing. We also see some fertility gains – in Sweden and Norway, where leave for fathers is generous, such couples are more likely than parents elsewhere in Europe to have a third child.

Our findings, from researchers in 11 countries, are qualitative, involving small samples and in-depth interviews, and should prompt larger-scale quantitative research. They reflect shifts in leave arrangements not only in the Nordic countries which, over the past 20 years, have increasingly offered use-it-or-lose-it extended leave for fathers that can be taken in the first years of a child’s life and which is not transferable to, or from, the mother. Our studies also include other countries, such as Canada and Portugal, which have recently enhanced fathers’ leave entitlements.

Smart design of parental leave is vital

It seems that where parental leave is transferable from the mother and poorly paid – the system that has developed, for example, in the UK – fathers tend not to use it. They don’t want to take away women’s entitlements. Additionally, because men are typically the higher earners, the family can’t afford for the fathers to take those entitlements in any case.

However, in countries where some of the leave can be taken only by the father and it’s also well paid, dads do take it. For example, fathers’ earmarked entitlement in Norway is 10 weeks of fully compensated leave. It’s part of the couples’ total 49-week parental leave entitlement, and it’s more readily taken up than in the UK, often once the mother has returned to work. This pattern of role-swapping also reduces the couples’ reliance on day-care.

In market economies, it’s hard to nudge fathers’ behaviour in this way because it typically requires state intervention – it can be uncompetitive for employers to set such systems up unilaterally. Establishing such a system requires countries or companies to set a value on changed behaviour and recalibrate the rules around leave for fathers accordingly.

Leave policies shape families and gender roles 

Countries that pursue such a policy may find that they’re laying the foundations for a second gender revolution, one that builds on the first revolution which has enshrined rights for women in the workplace. The second revolution could create symmetry for men – they could move more into the home and participate in the family as carers as well as earners.

Looking at different welfare systems, there’s a risk that a division will emerge between parental leave-rich and parental leave-poor countries. Such a division could also occur within countries, if welfare models are inflexible. For example, access to leave arrangements in Nordic countries is linked to citizenship. In some countries, leave arrangements are not generous for self-employed or irregularly employed workers. As result, poor parents have fewer options.

The message of our studies to governments and employers is that the rules they set for leave arrangements in children’s early years may have a significant impact on how families operate. This includes the roles that men and women occupy in work and the home and the strength of fathers’ relationships with their children.

Beyond breadwinners and authority figures – dads enter the 21st century

Margaret O’Brien, UCL Institute of Education

Fathers’ active participation in family life will likely be one of the most important social developments of the 21st century. Times have changed since fathers were often seen in terms of breadwinners and authority figures. Today’s children wish for a relationship with their daddy as a loving father, a pere de coeur, not just a father of duty, a pere de devoir.

In many places across the world fathers are expected to be accessible and nurturing as well as economically supportive to their children. Images of caring fathers are now part of everyday culture, in advertising and depictions of sporting icons.

The new State of the World’s Fathers report builds on increasingly global focus on fathers’ role in the family. The first UN report on this subject was published in 2011 and the first international conference on fatherhood was held in Asia in 2010.

Fathers, work, and paternity leave

Working conditions, in particular excessive hours, can be a barrier to active fatherhood. In rich income countries the debate about work and family time in the 1990s was dominated by discussion about a culture of long working hours.

But our ESRC research shows that fathers’ working hours have declined over the past decade and more fathers are sharing the “breadwinning” with their partners.

There is growing evidence that employment-based family support measures such as maternity and paternity leave after childbirth and parental leave to care for children in the early years has the potential for improving children’s health. A large 2005 study on parental leave arrangements and child health outcomes for 18 OECD countries (16 in Europe) from 1969-2000 suggested that infant mortality and morbidity gains associated with maternity leave (for example greater uptake of infant immunisation, breastfeeding initiation and duration). More research is emerging on the benefits of fathers taking parental leave, particularly in the Nordic countries – including boosts in fathers’ involvement in care of infants, cognitive outcomes for children, improvements in the quality of couple relationships and even fertility gains.

Dad by Shutterstock

Statutory leave provision for fathers at the time of a child’s birth (paternity leave) or later, in the early years of a child’s life (parental leave), are significant policies for increasing male participation. The complexity, scope and speed of policy change in this area since the late 1990s has been striking.

In some countries, a section of parental leave during this period is reserved for fathers only and cannot be transferred to mothers, so-called “daddy days” or “father’s quota”. In some countries fathers are entitled to a couple of months of paid leave to care for children that cannot be transferred to partners. In the case of Norway, the time is linked to a use-it-or-lose-it system: if the time is not taken by the father, the family loses it (a combined bonus/penalty arrangement).

In January 2007, Germany also radically broke away from a leave policy that tended to encourage mothers to stay out of the labour market for three years after the birth of a child. The government added two highly paid daddy months for fathers onto a shorter 12-month maternity leave period. The reform had the explicit aim of increasing the take-up of leave by fathers and recently published data by the Federal Statistics Office show that the proportion of fathers taking leave has risen significantly from 3.3% in 2006 to 29.3% for children born in the second quarter of 2012.

Fathers and mothers need explicit nudges to change behaviour and non-transferable well paid entitlement to fathers’ increases choice and incentivise fathers.

Parental leave policies

The Iceland 3+3+3 month model has significantly shifted male behaviour in a relatively short period of time. Introduced early in 2000, by 2006 more than 90% of Icelandic fathers now take parental leave. Ingólfur V. Gíslason, an associate professor at the University of Iceland, said there have probably “never been more Icelandic fathers active in caring for their children than there are today.”

Britain is a relative latecomer among affluent countries to paid leave for fathers. British fathers were only given a legal right to take two weeks paid paternity leave after the birth of a child in 2003, several decades after European neighbours. Maternity leave that begins at 52 weeks into a pregnancy remains one of the longest in the world.

Under the new Children and Families Act 2014, fathers in the UK are now entitled to access any unused maternity leave after two weeks but only at a low flat rate of £138 per week. The government has claimed that this legislation “enables fathers to play a bigger part in bringing up their children”. However, it is predicted that only 4-8% of eligible fathers will access unused maternity leave. Families will inevitably lose out if they switch from more highly paid maternity leave.

Despite the spin, this new UK legislation contains no provision to introduce an individual non-transferable paid entitlement to fathers, which is the accepted evidence-based approach to incentivise partners as shown elsewhere. Expanding national policies and programmes to promote a stronger engagement of men in family care activities through the life course will help modernise work-family policies to catch up with the changing role of women.

In the 20th century, many post-war public policies created systems and services which assumed a full-time home female carer, supporting a full-time male breadwinner – a work and family model that no longer fits the circumstances of 21st-century families.

The Conversation

Margaret O’Brien is Director, Thomas Coram Research Unit at UCL Institute of Education.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

The invisible dad

When I joined the world of parenthood, I was surprised by the extent to which new dads are expected to be peripheral to the whole experience. Pregnant with my first child in 2007, the NHS handbook for pregnancy I was given featured a large photo of a woman holding a baby, with a small photo of a man in the background. How much of an impact does this have on childcare decisions further down the line?

Lately it seems hardly a day goes by without a headline on childcare costs—the Family and Childcare Trust, IPPR, and the Resolution Foundation have all recently pointed out just how high they are, and the barrier this causes to maternal employment.

The coalition are promising further support. Given the underinvestment in childcare this country has seen over the past 40 years compared to our European neighbours, I applaud any attempt to support parents with the costs. However, anything that can be afforded in the current climate is likely to be a drop in the ocean for most families. Are there other solutions?

Most of the childcare debate centres on allowing mothers to go back to work, but I prefer talking about how it can help both parents in this way. Mothers are too often seen (in both private and public spheres) as the ones with the responsibility for childcare. Far too many dual-working couples do not even consider the father reducing his hours. I know this is often because the father earns more (and this is not changing fast enough), or because the mum is simply more interested than the dad in being with her children.

However, plenty of evidence also shows that if childcare was cheaper many mothers would be more likely to return to work, or work more hours.

So what if dads did more of the childcare, or even more drop offs and pick ups? The fall in salary might be more expensive than using childcare, but more involvement from dads could help with the common complex patchwork, sometimes involving grandparents, childminders and nurseries all in one week.

This will require cooperation from employers, as in Sweden, where part-time working for dads is much more common.  In this country, there seems to be little appetite from dads to request flexible working, and even less willingness from employers to consider such requests from dads versus mums.

I agree with the Fatherhood Institute that we need to actively support fathers to be more involved with their children. Statutory and voluntary sector professionals could have a large role in helping with this, whether this is renaming toddler groups ‘Parent and baby’ or encouraging the dad’s presence in their meetings and visits.

When I became pregnant with my second child in 2010, the parents on the new cover of the NHS handbook were of equal size. Let’s encourage parental equality across the board.

Anne is the Deputy Head of Measurement and Evaluation at NPC.

This blog was originally published by Children & Young People Now here

Earning mothers or caring fathers? Why convergent gender roles are best for families.

When the Fatherhood Institute was founded in 1999 (under its original name ‘Fathers Direct’) central to its mission were two interdependent goals:  to support high quality and substantial father-child relationships; and to support both mothers and fathers as earners and carers.

These goals remain unchanged, as does the Institute’s uncompromising belief that family resilience rests on both parents’ substantial participation at home and both parents’ substantial participation in paid employment.

The evidence is clear:  overall, full-time mothers are not a happy bunch.  Their rates of anxiety and depression are way higher than those of employed mothers.  They are poorer when they are raising their children, poorer in old age and particularly poor when they tumble through the ‘trap door to poverty’ occasioned by family breakdown or by the death or unemployment of their breadwinning spouse.

Sole breadwinner fathers don’t fare any better.  They work longer hours than men with employed partners and spend less time interacting with their children.  This correlates with substantial work/family conflict which in turn is linked with anxiety and depression; and also with poor health outcomes.  Fathers’ worries about their relationships with their adolescent children, for instance, are strongly correlated with the dads’ poor physical health.  Fathers who take little parenting leave are less involved with their children and feel less confident in those relationships; adopt less healthy life-styles; live shorter lives than other fathers and experience less satisfying and less stable relationships with their children’s mothers.  Wwhen family breakdown looms fathers who have developed their skills and self-confidence primarily through paid employment, may lack the where-with-all to maintain substantial relationships with their children and suffer extreme distress.

What about the children?  One of the most important roles parents play is to support them financially.  But there is nothing special or magical about this financial support being provided by their father.  Mothers’ earnings are just as relevant.  Furthermore, in a substantial number of families, mothers’ earnings raise their families out of poverty.  This trend is likely to accelerate as women’s earnings equalise or outstrip men’s.  There is already no gender pay gap in low income families; and research from California finds that when expectant and new parents in such families are helped to think about gender roles, including the value of father involvement, they are less likely to sleep-walk into the traditional mother cares/ father earns pattern – and family income increases.

As for children’s socio-educational development and wellbeing, there is clear evidence that ‘leaving it to mum’ won’t wash.  Not only does fathers’ participation at home take pressure off mothers (which a robust body of research now shows helps them parent more positively) but substantial father-child relationships correlate with a host of positive outcomes for children:  better educational achievement, lower criminality and substance misuse, higher social mobility relative to parents’, more satisfying adult sexual partnerships, and so on.   ‘Co-parenting’ – the extent to which both parents participate in the day to day raising of children, feel confident in caring roles, and support each other’s parenting – has a powerful impact on children.  When one parent earns and the other cares, positive co-parenting is less likely.

Someone (I think it was Freud) said that human happiness depends on our capacity and opportunity to ‘love’ and to ‘work’.  To devise social policies that challenge gender norms are the policies we need today.  Fifty-two weeks’ maternity leave v. two weeks’ paternity leave is a nonsense which the Coalition’s proposals to water-down by allowing maternity leave to be transferred to  fathers in a minority of ‘eligible’ families will do little to challenge  We have to stop the social engineering that convinces mothers they should be carers and fathers they should be earners.  Caring-and-earning fathers and mothers – that’s what families need.

Adrienne Burgess is joint CEO of the Fatherhood Institute, and the author of FATHERHOOD RECLAIMED – THE MAKING OF THE MODERN FATHER (Vermilion, 1997, 1998)

Making it work as a single dad

“It’s a sort of bereavement, when the life you used to know just goes,” says Andy, a father of three, of the time after his marriage ended. “Throughout, my main focus was the children. They really needed me and I needed to be there for them in any way I could.”

Modern fatherhood includes men like Andy, one of around 186,000 dads in the UK bringing up his children on his own . Around 8 per cent of the UK’s 2 million single parents are dads. Statistically, single dads are more likely to be widowed than single mums (12 per cent of single fathers are widowed, compared with five per cent of single mothers ), but many find themselves parenting alone after marriage and relationship breakdown. Regardless of their route into single parenthood, single dads surveyed by Gingerbread tell us they are very unlikely to know other dads in their situation, and can find parenting alone even more of a challenge as a result.

Indeed, although one in four families with dependent children is headed by a single parent, balancing working life with the demands of caring for children alone can still be an uphill struggle. Andy, who works part-time in a secondary school, describes the efficiency he needs to ensure life runs smoothly for the family. “You always have to think: what can I achieve at this moment in time? What is the most important thing for me to do right now?”

In a society still not used to seeing men as main carers, single dads often find it even more difficult to combine work and single parenthood. “I don’t think employers expect a man to be on his own with a child, let alone a baby,” says Eddie, a 50 year old father of one, who became a single dad following his wife’s death when his son was just five months old. “Nobody seemed interested in giving me a job so I had to try a different route.”

For Eddie, that route was self-employment, the only working option he could see that would give him the flexibility to be there for his son. Others, like Andy, take on fierce competition and lower pay to secure a part-time job. Some choose trying to balance higher salaries gained in full-time, yet usually inflexible, work with rocketing childcare costs. And there are those forced into a cycle of short-term jobs and out-of-work benefits to keep their families afloat.

But single dads also tell us of the huge pride they have in themselves and their children, and their real sense of achievement in bringing them up successfully. “You learn things you never imagined”, says Gareth, a widowed single parent to Max, nine, and Polly, five. “You find these immense resources of strength and character you never knew you had.”

At Gingerbread, the national charity for single parents, we’re campaigning to break down the barriers to finding, keeping and progressing in employment, and we’re challenging the government and employers to Make it work for single parents. And when it works for mums and dads raising their children alone, it will work for anyone who wants to combine work with family life.

This Father’s Day at Gingerbread we’re celebrating the brilliant job being done by the UK’s single dads in a special video shining a light on the skills they have to offer, gained from what can be an intensely difficult job.

“It’s probably been the biggest challenge of my life”, says Andy of his time so far as a single dad. “But I desperately love my children and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”