When it comes to parenting, we cannot return to the status quo

For years, most men have wanted to spend more time at home with their children, but social and economic factors have prevented them from doing so. This year, they got their wish. As COVID-19 began to spread in March, the nation went into lockdown and fathers found themselves spending more time with their children than they ever had before.

Instead of churning through most of the week on the road or at work, fathers have found themselves logging on from home, their children on their laps, or yelling across the living room, or running around behind them.

Fathers have had to juggle parenthood with their work.

And so they have juggled. They’ve rung into conference calls while walking their infant sons around the block in prams. They have responded to emails while watching Frozen II. They have had to negotiate over who gets priority access to limited home bandwidth – dad for his Zoom meeting with colleagues, or daughter for her online ballet class with friends.

Fathers report that it has been absolutely exhausting. And they don’t want it to end.

Australia was already falling behind on gender equality when COVID-19 struck and made it worse. Women have lost their jobs and taken on more of the caring duties at home – they are still doing the lion’s share of childcare and housekeeping.

But men have stepped up. A survey by the Australian Institute of Family Studies found that 61 per cent of fathers spent more time helping their children with their schoolwork when the nation went into lockdown, and across the board, from bathing their children to playing with them, fathers were more involved. The largest gain was in households with children aged under three. The percentage of households which split the parenting equally jumped from 28 per cent to 37 per cent.

The pandemic has meant new fathers too have been at home for months on end to bond with their newborns, instead of just a couple of days or weeks. And mothers have found it a relief to be able to share more equally with their partners the emotional and physical burden of a new baby (although calls to Australia’s perinatal anxiety and depression helpline have still increased significantly).

Most fathers want to take more leave when their babies are born, but feel they cannot, either because as the higher earner they cannot afford it, or their employer doesn’t allow it, or there is social stigma around men taking parental leave at their workplace.

Yet having a family-friendly workplace which allows for flexibility and leave is good for business. Studies have overwhelmingly shown that encouraging employees to be parents too improves retention rates, employee loyalty and wellbeing, and even productivity. It is also better for children’s mental health: work-family conflict damages a father’s mental health, but it also damages their child’s socio-emotional development.

Men have shown their employers this year that they can be productive and be present for their families too. Businesses must take note. We will squander an opportunity to improve our lives and those of our children if, at the end of this pandemic we just return to status quo.

This pandemic has brought into sharp focus the precariousness of life itself. More than 700 families have lost a loved one to COVID-19 in Australia. Thousands more have not been able to mourn a death properly because of social distancing restrictions. And many older fathers will spend this Sunday separated from their families, in aged care homes that are now off limits to visitors.

This pandemic has proved that our connection to each other is – and must be – paramount. So to all the fathers out there who have tried so hard this year to be more present for their families, Happy Father’s Day. Count your blessings. And when all this is over, fight for them.

Note from the Editor

The Age’s acting editor, Michelle Griffin, writes a weekly newsletter exclusively for subscribers. To have it delivered to your inbox, please sign up here.

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