Lifestyle

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Dads want to care for their kids . . . so why don't we let them?

Rebecca Asher believes in parental equality. Liz Kearney reports

As a high-flying journalist and radio producer at the BBC, Rebecca Asher had always taken equality for granted, both at work and at home with husband Nick.

And when she gave birth in her late thirties to her first child, she wasn't surprised to find both her work and home life tipped upside-down.

What did surprise her was that Nick's continued virtually unchanged.

Despite both wanting to be involved, hands-on parents, from the moment Nick returned to work after his two-week statutory paternity leave, she realised, to her dismay, the job of bringing up baby was primarily hers.

Instead of the teamwork that had characterised their relationship up to then, Rebecca found herself dazed and careworn, coping with a sleepless newborn.

Being shut off from work and adult conversation left her feeling isolated and vulnerable.

"My life had become unrecognisable. I came to resent motherhood itself," she says.

Infuriated by the experience, Rebecca flung her energies into writing the highly engaging Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality, a fierce broadside against a system which excludes men from the child-rearing process.

Rebecca interviewed dozens of parents and built a solid case showing that the entire family unit would benefit from a more equally shared parenting system.

"The majority of fathers say they want more flexible parental leave and more chance to be involved with their children," she says.

"If we we allow fathers to be involved in the early months, then they will want to be more involved later on.

"Currently, they are not given the opportunity to develop their skills of caring for children."

In the book, Rebecca describes her first night alone in the hospital with her baby.

"Memories of that night are like nightmarish flashbacks," she writes. The baby lay screaming and Rebecca tried to comfort him.

"By the time my husband returned the next morning, my son and I had travelled across a universe of experience together."

Excluding men at this crucial moment cements the idea that only mothers know how to calm and soothe the new arrival, Rebecca argues.

"Most fathers aren't given the opportunity to be pushed in at the deep end, and then after that, it's hard to become as involved and proficient as they might otherwise have been," she says.

It is nigh-on impossible to break these habits once they're formed.

Childcare in Ireland is expensive and limited, and there is no obligation for employers to provide men with any paid paternity leave. Stay-at-home dads are few and far between, and women here earn 17pc less, on average, than men.

This year's Leaving Cert results showed that the girls outperformed the boys. Those young women will go on to college, earn degrees and when they arrive in the workplace, will work hard to establish their careers.

But until drastic changes are made, when they decide to have a family, many will be forced out of these careers.

"What are we doing living in societies where we educate women and train them into professions, only to then say to them, when they decide to have a family, actually you can't exploit that skill in the workplace any more?" asks Rebecca.

She took a close look at the lessons to be learnt from other countries. She found much to admire in Sweden, where parents get 480 days leave, with 60 earmarked for the mum and 60 for the dad.

The Swedes also enjoy extensive, affordable childcare: early childhood education and care is an entitlement from 12 months.

As a result, Sweden boasts high numbers of mothers still in the workforce.

Rebecca even finds something good to say about the "evenhanded, if mean" policies of the US where there is no such thing as paid maternity or paternity leave.

Legislation allows for three months of unpaid leave, at most. While this is stingy, Rebecca argues, it is at least fair because it takes a neutral stance towards fathers' and mothers' rights and roles.

'I spoke to an American father and he told me he goes to parent drop-in groups, and there are loads of dads there and they're all being a bit blokey, but they are great at looking after their kids and at ease with their role as a co-parent," she says.

Governments need to study what works elsewhere and to recognise that it is not just families who'll benefit from equality, but the economy – the more women stay in work, the greater the increase in GDP.

"We need a massive cultural shift," she says. "I don't care if people are critical of me and the book. I just want to have the debate. We should feel we have a right to talk about these things."

Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality is published by Vintage Books

Irish Independent

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