Chapter 9



The Father at Work

The making of the modern father is complete. The complex biological, ritual and social processes which create fatherhood have been performed. From now on it is a matter of living with the new role.

Unfortunately, for many men today, fatherhood is far from being a stable occupation. Earlier I suggested that styles of fathering could be arranged on a spectrum from traditional to active. These are characterised by two main qualities: the amount of participation in childcare, and the way power is exercised within the home. I also suggested that most men move towards the active end of the fatherhood spectrum during pregnancy and birth. But the new father can find himself under severe pressures which may push him back towards a traditional way of fathering. In this chapter I look at the way his desire for involvement in the home can be compromised, and in the next I will look briefly at domestic politics.

After the heady experience of birth and early days there is a gradual return to ‘normality’. For most men the spectre of work now looms large. All that has happened during the year-long preparation for paternity is to be challenged by the work ethic and the conflict of interests and loyalties which it brings. Work and fatherhood often seem to be naturally incompatible; each demanding the father’s principal loyalty. In such a situation different responses are possible. In particular, the relative importance given to home and work will vary from father to father.

The active father may start with quite a high work involvement, but when the pregnancy is confirmed he rapidly gives priority to home, and correspondingly decreases his commitment to work. By the time of the birth he is clear that his main attachment is to home and family. Some active fathers, though by no means all, are involved in full-time care of their children. The common description of this—role-swapping—illustrates the problems they can have. The undisguised sexism of this term shows how strongly attached we still are to conventional stereotypes of men and women.

After I tell [people] that I do the kids, they say, “Well, don’t you do anything else?” It’s almost impossible to make men understand. If you tell a woman, she understands, but to a man it just means you stay home all day. When I say I’m a lawyer, that seems to put me up a notch. I have to have a separate validity. It wouldn’t matter if I was the worst lawyer in the world and the best father. (Levine, p.124)

The active father is always open to the reproach that he has unsexed himself, become effeminate. And in his darker moments he too may wonder about his masculinity. Because so much of our definition of maleness is tied up in the world of work, the active father’s relative lack of commitment to it is a potential problem for his self-image.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the traditional father. His fatherhood career is rather different. Although he, too, moves towards greater home involvement during pregnancy, he quickly veers back to high work involvement after the birth. It is important to remember that, within his definitions of fatherhood, this is not a denial of his paternal duty. Providing for the family is his key parental responsibility.

Dave is a real estate agent. At an antenatal class we talked about the impact of babies on work. He was very clear about his priorities. “My job comes first”, he said. “A dozen other people depend on me for their livelihood and if I can’t do my job properly they’ll be out of work. I need my sleep as well. If the baby wakes a lot, then I’ll just have to sleep on a couch in the office.” Although no-one criticized Dave, there was a faint feeling of disapproval from the other couples in the room. Dave’s wife said little; she was clearly prepared to accept the situation, but I got the feeling that she would rather that he wasn’t quite so definite about things.

I spoke to Dave again when his daughter was about six months old. “We’ve been very lucky”, he said. “She’s only woken up once or twice during the night since she was four weeks old, so there’s been no real problem with sleeping.” Dave felt that he’d come over a bit stronger than he meant to at the antenatal class. The point he wanted to get over was his responsibility to his employees—in a sense they are his family too and so his options are not as simple as many men’s. But the birth of Gemma has made a difference to his attitudes to work. He is more keen to get home now. “Before, if there was something which needed to be done, but wasn’t absolutely urgent, I’d probably stay on and get it done. Now I’ll leave it and get home earlier.” Dave is also very aware of the extra responsibility which he has towards his wife and daughter. He is very committed to his home life, perhaps more so than he anticipated before the birth. In view of this, I asked him whether I was correct in putting him in the ‘traditional’ category. “I’ve never analyzed it, but I suppose I have to be by the nature of my job. If I had to work until 10 o’clock tomorrow night, then I would.”

Dave’s case not only illustrates the traditional, high work/low home, approach to fatherhood, but shows the complexity of fathering today. Dave is committed to fatherhood. If he had a different job, if he hadn’t built up a successful business with responsibilities to both employees and customers, then he might have adopted a more active model of fatherhood.

Whatever their problems, those men who are committed to either traditional or active fatherhood do at least have a clear set of priorities with respect to home and work involvement. But in my experience an increasing number of modern fathers, who do not fall neatly into either category, try to give priority to both work and home. They don’t want to lose the sense of freshness and fulfilment they can sense in fatherhood, nor do they want to lose the consolations of the familiar world of work. So they try to keep a foot in both camps. Not surprisingly they have a hard time, and may be doomed to failure in one or both fields. Can any man serve two masters?

One of the most serious conflicts between home and work revolves around the question of responsibility. Dave decided that his prime responsibility had to lie towards his staff and customers. After all, if you were selling your house and the agent decided that he couldn’t get round to advertising it because his new baby had bad colic, you might be sympathetic but you wouldn’t be very pleased. A colleague of mine had just such an experience recently while she was trying to move house. In her case, it was her lawyer who had just had a baby. In the middle of the transaction he decided that he needed to take two weeks paternity leave. Everything had to stop. Even after that, because he worked from home, he was often unavailable as he wanted to spend time with his new baby. It was easy to sympathize with his paternal desires, but it was hard on Mary who simply wanted to move house and became the innocent victim of his newborn child.

The conflict of interests in this case is obvious, and almost impossible to reconcile. Many workers are not faced with such a direct choice between family and ‘customers’. Often the dilemma is between loyalty to home and a corporate loyalty of the sort which expects first call on a man’s time and energy:

“Ah, Tim. We’ll have to work on for a few hours tonight I’m afraid. Head office have just decided that they want the Stanton report on Thursday, rather than next Monday. No problem, I take it?”

“Well, actually Mr Dykes, I was rather hoping to get away a bit early today. It’s my daughter’s second birthday and she’s having her first proper party. I said I’d be there.”

“Surely they can manage without you? Unless your wife is ill?”

“No sir, she’s fine. I just wanted to be there to share it with my daughter. I promised her.”

“Well Jones, all overtime is of course voluntary. You must make up your own mind about this. When you’ve done so, come and let me know whether a six figure account or a child’s birthday party is more deserving of your attention. I await your decision with interest.”

What would you do? We are increasingly subject to pressures to be more ‘efficient’. Corporate loyalty is preached as a virtue and Japanese-style work methods are seen as the salvation of Western industry. With high unemployment there is ever-greater pressure to conform and knuckle under to pressure from above. Seldom can it have been harder for the working man who wants to make a commitment to his home. One of the problems faced by many new fathers is a lack of understanding and support from their employers and work mates—especially from the other fathers. The very people who might be expected to be most sympathetic are often the most hostile. Why should this be?

A similarly paradoxical result was discovered by Zarina Kurtz in her survey on breastfeeding support. She found that doctors (mainly male) were more supportive of breastfeeding women than nurses (mainly female). Furthermore, nurses who had children were less supportive than those without children. She suggested that this might be due to feelings of jealousy and resentment. Perhaps their own feeding had not gone as well as they would have liked, and their frustration got in the way of their support. I suspect that a similar sort of mechanism might also be operating in the office or factory. The successful manager is likely to have decided in favour of work rather than home. He has achieved his ambition, but the cost may have turned out to be higher than he thought. Because of his commitments to work he may find himself in his middle years almost a stranger to his children, wishing that he had spent more time and energy on them when they were younger.

Some of these men, the wisest, may use their experience to allow them to help their younger colleagues through the difficult work/home divide. But others will be jealous of the younger man. His commitment to home and family will seem like a criticism of the choices they had made. And for this reason the committed father will be resented rather than helped.

There is another problem experienced by many working fathers. Work requires a particular set of attitudes which are often inappropriate for childcare. To be successful at work you must be decisive, have clear goals, be able to make and accept deadlines, and perform specific tasks in a specified time. Young children don’t work that way. For the first two or three years a young child does not have goals in an adult sense. She does things because they are good to do, not because they are steps towards an end. If something is worth doing once, it’s probably worth doing a dozen or more times. A child can have endless patience at times, building up bricks and knocking them down over and over again. At other times, she is like a butterfly sampling this pretty flower and that; never still and never willing to be directed.

A child has a different sense of time and priorities from an adult, and the working man finds it very hard to enter into this time. Many fathers discover a real sense of failure here. The temptation is always to try to direct the child’s play “Look, build up these two towers of bricks and then we can make a bridge so that Teddy can walk from this one to that one. No, don’t knock it down. No...” In the traditional role division it is the father who takes the lead in broadening the child’s horizons, and this is still true of most fathers today. Clearly, there is a need for a child to be stretched, so that she may be made aware of new possibilities. The trap so many men fall into, even when aware of it, is never being able to give up their control and surrender themselves to the child.

There are exceptions. Jim works as a management consultant. His job involves a great deal of planning, analysing and directing. Yet he doesn’t find the adjustment to his one-year-old son’s rhythm of play at all difficult. In fact, he welcomes the change of pace. Playing with Tony and immersing himself in Tony’s world is Jim’s way of unwinding after coming home from work. Jim is one of the lucky ones; most fathers do not find it so easy. It takes time to get to know a child and to be able to switch into his way of behaving—especially when he can’t talk. Many working fathers simply don’t have long enough. By the time they’ve got home, unwound from the cares of the day, and relaxed enough to start accepting a different set of priorities, it will be past bedtime.

Unless they are like Jim, the only way most committed fathers can get close to their children is by spending more time with them. But work also takes up time, energy, and commitment. The conflict often means that one or other has to go. Many fathers find that, because they feel impelled to give priority to work they ‘fail’ as active and committed fathers. So they give up, and devote ever more energy to a career and a chance of ‘success’. So his fatherhood becomes ever more traditional in practice, even if he is still committed to a more active theory of fatherhood.

Perhaps it is simply impossible to have commitment to both home and work, but that is what many men now want. At last there are now some indications that society is gradually changing working practices to allow this to become just a little easier.

The first such change, paternity leave, isn’t just of interest to the active father. A survey by the Equal Opportunities Commission in the UK found that 91% of the men interviewed thought there should be some provision for paternity leave around the time of the birth of a baby.

The 5% of men who were definitely against paternity leave tended to have two or more children, to be older than average and to have non-manual jobs. Most of them were able to take time off work without loss of pay. One said, “I wouldn’t readily agree with it—it would be open to abuse and would cost a lot of money. It’s a sorry tale if you can’t find time in your holiday leave to save for this time of birth.” In fact many workers, especially manual workers, are not able to take their holiday leave whenever they need it, and it seems fair to say that, apart from these few well-off exceptions, paternity leave appeals just as much to the traditional father as to the more active one.

The most common reason given for wanting paternity leave was “the need to look after your wife and child”. The need to give emotional support was also mentioned by several fathers in the sample:

What I’ve noticed—after the first two she had depression, really bad but this time since I’ve been home she’s been great—I think it’s directly due to me being at home. I’ve been waiting for the crunch to come but this time she’s been really great. I can’t see any reason other than me being here to explain it. (Bell et al, p.67)

Men with more than one child were particularly insistent on the need for paternity leave. The birth of a second child is often a very stressful time for the father—especially if he hasn’t been very involved in the family until then. He can be thrown together with his older child and forced to care for her in a more intensive way than ever before. Many men find that this is the first time they really get to know their older children. Provided the stress is managed properly it can be a positive and rewarding experience for both father and child.

Paternity leave can also be useful in giving the new father a chance to get used to the changes in his life.

It gives the new father the chance to adjust to this new thing. Those first few weeks of having this new babe around you get very little sleep, you’re not a lot of use for anything and I think it would give you the chance to adjust to this, to get the routine settled and actually start sort of becoming a human being again and not a nappy changing zombie. (Andy)

Many employers are reluctant to grant paternity leave—especially paid leave. But perhaps they should think more carefully. As men get more involved in pregnancy, birth, and the early weeks after birth it will take them longer to regain their equilibrium. Many men feel that the process would be helped by a period of leave—two weeks is the most commonly quoted figure, but some want six weeks or more—to be taken soon after the baby is born. From an employer’s point of view a ‘nappy changing zombie’ may not be the most reliable or efficient of employees. Looked at in this way, paternity leave may be just as useful to employer as employee.

So far the kind of paternity leave discussed has been fairly small scale and of relevance to almost all fathers. Recently, a proposal for parental leave has been discussed in the European Economic Community. This would allow an employed parent the chance to stay at home and take sole or principal care of his or her child after maternity leave had finished. An important thing about these proposals is that an employed father or mother could only take parental leave if he or she had a partner who was also in work. The proposal is for a minimum of three months leave per worker per child. So in a two-parent family the mother could take three months leave while the father worked, and then he could take three months while she worked. This leave would have to be taken before the child was two.

Several countries in the EEC already have some form of parental leave and the Community proposals are, in part, designed to harmonize the different provisions.[1] The public sector is relatively enlightened, but private firms are also gradually coming round to the idea of parental leave. Several British banks now offer quite generous parental leave to some employees. One of the largest, the Midland, has recently instituted a scheme which allows up to five years unpaid parental leave. This is not open to all employees, but only to ‘career bankers’ in whom the bank has already invested a lot of resources. Anyone taking up the scheme is guaranteed reappointment on the same grade as the one they held when leaving—although there is no guarantee that they will get exactly the same job back. Pension rights are frozen, and they will be able to go back into the pension without penalty—except for the five fewer years benefit. So far, it has been mostly women who have taken up the offer, but men are also beginning to be included.

The most famous example of parental leave comes from Sweden, where it has been available since 1975. Parents are entitled to up to twelve months parental benefit which they can divide between them as they wish, although only one parent can be on leave at a time. This is in addition to two months antenatal maternity leave and ten days paternity leave. There is no separate postnatal maternity leave. When the scheme started the period of leave was only six months and only 3% of fathers took advantage of their rights. An extra six months was introduced in 1978, and by 1981 22% of men took at least some parental leave (in addition to paternity leave) during the first year of their child’s life. The average length of time taken by men was 47 days, which is quite high when you consider that any postnatal maternity leave must be taken from the parental leave. Payment of 90% of gross income is given for the first nine months parental leave, and a basic flat rate for the last three months.

Swedish parents are also entitled to time off to care for a sick child. Relatively few fathers seem to have used this option, but attitudes are changing. In a recent survey, only half of men in their 50s and 60s felt that caring for a sick child was a legitimate reason for taking time off work, while 80% of men aged around 25 felt it to be valid.[2] Similar figures are found in respect of paternity leave: the older the man, the less likely he was to take paternity leave. Sweden is usually ahead of the rest of the world in its social provision, but we tend to catch up in the end. The will for paternity leave and parental leave already exists; how long it takes depends on how much fuss individual men are prepared to make. Some employers and unions are already taking it seriously, but many still do not. Paternity leave is often put on the negotiating table as a hostage to fortune. It is something both sides are prepared to give up in order to achieve what they see as more important goals. The more pressure there is on them, the more likely they are to take it seriously.

Some men are trying other ways of combining work and home. An obvious way of doing this is for both parents to work part-time and be at home part-time, but it has many pitfalls. George and Miranda wanted very much to share the care of their daughter. George was working in a hostel after Samantha was born, and he arranged with them that he and Miranda could share his job. But the pay wasn’t very good and they decided to look elsewhere. Eventually they got a job with a local authority with a commitment to jobsharing schemes. This, too, was not a great success and neither of them was happy with the job—both feeling that they were not being stretched or used to their full ability. They decided to try again, but without success. The only solution seemed to be to apply for full-time jobs; the first one to be successful would go out to work, and the other would stay at home with Samantha.

In the event, it was George who got the job. He had been doing it for six months when I last spoke to him. He enjoys it very much and feels that at last his talents are being used. Miranda is not so happy. She feels that she has been pushed back into a traditional mothering role, and this frustrates her. George, too, feels that he is losing touch with Samantha. Neither of them wants Samantha looked after by a nanny or childminder, so they really have few options left. George sees their present position as temporary. They hope to have another child soon, and then he says he will be quite happy to stay at home full-time with the children while Miranda goes out to work. Yet this is not their ideal solution either. They want to share work and home life, but so this has not been possible.

If George does eventually look after the children full-time he will join the ranks of the news-worthy role swappers, so popular with the mass media. Yet his predicament shows how complex such decisions really are. Just because a man stays at home full-time with his children does not mean that his commitment is to full-time fatherhood. He may want to share care, but find himself forced into the situation; he may desperately want a full-time job but be unable to get one; or he may simply have drifted into it as Simon did.

Simon was unhappy with his job, and since Nancy was earning good money they decided that he should give it up and spend time renovating the house. When that was done Simon still didn’t want to go back to paid employment, so he used his skills in the community, helping the elderly with small maintenance tasks. When Nancy got pregnant it was sensible that they should continue the arrangement, and that Simon should look after Wayne full-time while she returned to work. They are both reasonably happy with their lifestyle, experiencing many of the same satisfactions and frustrations as a couple with a more conventional arrangement.

The role-swap is still relatively rare. A recent American survey found only 4 men out of 3600 who were caring for their children full-time. But those men who choose to spend the major part of their middle years caring for children are like the yeast in the dough; whether they like it or not they are hacking a trail through the dense prejudice (both male and female) which has trapped men for so long. The man who willingly stays at home to look after his children is challenging society’s view of male and female roles. In 1974, men’s magazines such as Playboy, Penthouse, and Esquire ran a two page advertisement for a men’s cologne, made by the Scandinavian manufacturer, Scannon Corporation. They showed a rugged Norwegian holding a baby. The caption read, “Kanon. Brought to you from the country where men are so sure of themselves, some of them stay home to care for the children”. Even one successful ‘male mother’ calls into question many of our folk views about the ‘maternal instinct’ or the nature of sex roles.

Graham is one example. He and Judy made the decision that he would stay at home to look after their new baby when Judy was four months pregnant:

The reasons for our decision were many and varied: reasons which by themselves would probably not have had such a dramatic effect, but in combination were irresistible.

a) Judy was really enjoying her job whereas I had been having a series of rows with my boss which eventually made my position untenable.

b) Judy was earning more money than I was and, with her as a computer analyst and myself as a civil engineer this was unlikely to change.

c) The tax situation in the UK was beneficial since the household is taxed as an entity. If a woman gives up work her tax allowance is lost to the household, but a man keeps his. (This anomaly will no doubt be sorted out in the future!)

d) We had realised while we were still engaged and discussing the idea of children that I would probably make a better parent than Judy since, as a Scout leader, I had actually been trained and enjoyed dealing with children. Also I had more patience. It is a question of gifts in the Christian sense—some fathers do make better parents.

e) We foresaw big problems with evening activities. I enjoyed going out and doing things, Judy was more of a back-room person. We felt that Judy would complain less if I went out in the evening having looked after Margaret during the day. In a sense I have more freedom as a result because I don’t feel guilty about it!

f) We wanted to bring up our own children, and there is now an ethical question as to whether it is right to have more than one wage-earner in a household in a country with over three million unemployed.

Graham continued to work until Margaret was almost five months old. Then, after one week’s handover, Judy went back to work and Graham was on his own. Judy was still breastfeeding and the plan was for him to feed Margaret with her expressed breast milk, using a bottle. However, Margaret refused to drink from the bottle and had to be fed from a trainer beaker which was a slow process, each feed taking over an hour. Apart from this, Graham experienced no more child care problems than any other parent might expect.

When Judy became pregnant again, Graham went back to work while she was on maternity leave. He didn’t really enjoy it and looked forward eagerly to returning to the house. Again Judy went back to work five months after their second daughter was born. Graham was confident that he would be able to cope well, but things didn’t work out as he had anticipated. The first month was really bad and the extra strain brought on diabetes. “I had to come to the realization that I wasn’t coping. I just wasn’t as competent as I thought I was. The funny thing was that as soon as I faced up to this, things became much easier.” Graham is now coping well with the two girls and is very happy at home with them. His diabetes has stabilized and is controllable with pills. Despite the bad patch, he is still much happier at home, and would not go back to work unless absolutely necessary.

George and Miranda, and Graham and Judy each chose a different approach to the problem of work and parenting, and each for different reasons. The fact that their solutions are still relatively uncommon masks a more radical and widespread change which has occurred over the last few years—and that is the existence of the choice itself. Fourteen years ago, when Shirley and I decided to have a child, we did not discuss the question of who should work and who stay at home. Even though she was earning more than me, and perhaps had better job prospects than I had, there was no question of me staying at home and her staying at work. It simply wasn’t on the agenda. Now, for a small but increasing number of couples, the question is raised and discussed. At a recent antenatal class one couple out of seven had decided that the father would stay at home full-time, and another couple had still not made up their minds.

That is the positive side of the coin. Some couples are beginning to recognise the strains between working and parenting and are trying to deal creatively with them. The negative side is that it is only the favoured few who able to make such choices. Economics still plays a vital role in any such discussion. Many couples, especially those on low incomes, have no such options. They have no chance of a job share because they need two incomes just to survive. Most employers feel threatened by any attempt at more flexible working arrangements. Trade unions are also suspicious, seeing them as a threat to traditional employment practices. Until recently, job sharing has been seen principally as a means of giving women more equal access to the marketplace, while still allowing them to have babies and young children. Men are at last also beginning to recognise the opportunities which job sharing can offer them.[3]

Working practices may change. The spread of computerization and information technology is likely to provide new opportunities for mixing home and work. In 1986 a study undertaken for the British National Economic Development Office predicted that by 1995 over three million Britons could be working from home on computer networks, and that the number may have risen to five million by 2010. Others remain sceptical about the scale of any such changes. It is too early to say what our future work patterns might be; whether there will be a more equal spread of work and home opportunities for all, or whether we will have a small elite of workers; with the majority unemployed, poor and disillusioned. Those few couples who are currently experimenting with new ways of coping with the demands of work and home may be more influential than they realise.

In the meantime, most men are faced with a dilemma. However much they want to compromise, sooner or later they find themselves faced with a choice between work and home. The attractions of career and traditional male values are very strong. The question is, can the pull of home and involvement with the children prove strong enough to overcome the lure of the world of work? [Next]



[1] Several countries in the EEC already have some form of parental leave and the Community proposals are, in part, designed to harmonize the different provisions. There are a lot of variations and special conditions, but the following table gives a broad indication of the position in 1985.

Country               Length of leave                                             Who entitled                                                            Pay

Belgium                3 months, up to 4 years extension                  Public employees                                                       Unpaid

Denmark              10 weeks                                                         All                                                                             90%

France                  2 years                                                             All in public sector; only women in private              Unpaid

Greece                  3 months                                                        Private sector                                                            Unpaid

Ireland                  NONE

Italy                      6 months                                                        All                                                                             30%

Luxembourg         1 year                                                              Public sector                                                             Unpaid

Netherlands          NONE

Portugal                6 months/2years                                            All                                                                             Unpaid

Spain                     NONE

UK                        NONE

West Germany      3 years                                                           Public sector                                                              Unpaid

(Source: House of Lords)

[2] House of Lords p.195. Many men I know will take time off work to look after a sick child, but they will usually have to lie about it and pretend that they were themselves ill. It’s not a very satisfactory system.

[3] A register of job sharing opportunities around London is kept by New Ways To Work, 309 Upper Street, London N1 2TY [01-226 0246]. They also have details of similar organizations in other parts of the UK.