Working from home with schools and creches closed for long stretches, the Covid-19 pandemic has meant that many working dads are now much more involved in child-rearing and domestic chores than before. It’s a challenging but rewarding situation, and one that could signal the start of a cultural shift for Irish fathers
A Scandinavian sensibility has been influencing how we dress and style our homes for years, but it looks like, post-pandemic, we may begin to see Nordic influences transform more than just our aesthetics. In countries such as Sweden – the first in the world to introduce paid parental leave in 1974 – working fathers take anything up to seven months’ professional leave after a baby is born.
Rather than scaring them off back to their white-collar worlds or serene creative hubs, it’s well documented that, in fact, it encourages fathers to remain engaged in parenting at a deeper level and more involved in domestic chores even after they return to work.
Stay-at-home dads are by no means a new phenomenon in Ireland; CSO figures show that the number of stay-at-home dads here rose from just 445 in 1986 to more than 10,000 in 2016. It will be interesting to see what effect, if any, the pandemic has on these figures — has a year of being at the coalface of child-rearing left Irish fathers reeling? Is the reality of crayon marks on important print-outs, home offices hijacked by stressed-out Leaving Cert students, and kids’ art projects permanently in progress on the kitchen table too much? Or has it forced a permanent change in what fathers would like their new normal to look like?
According to the Tallaght-based Childhood Development Initiative, the role of fathers is changing more rapidly now than at any other modern period.
Seamas Sheedy, a psychotherapist and vice chair of the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, agrees. A father of two adult children, he explains that while working fathers have been more present in the family life over the past 10 years, the pandemic has sped this up enormously.
A report published by the Harvard Graduate School of Education last year revealed that in the US “68pc of fathers feel closer, or much closer, to their children since the pandemic”.
Sheedy is not surprised at these findings and says that even before Covid-19 hit, he was seeing “many men who were genuinely concerned about their role within the family. Not being present enough, they were questioning their sense of purpose.”
While some working fathers have found the transition to remote worker and day-to-day carer challenging, Sheedy says he is nonetheless noticing a degree of regret among those he speaks to about what they’ve missed out on in the past.
“While many I’ve talked to had no idea of the amount of hidden labour involved in running a home and looking after children full-time, they’re really enjoying it. They’re identifying much less with the traditional breadwinner role.”
The pandemic is reshaping the framework of families’ lives. For working fathers, there is no longer a forced suspension of domestic life between 8am and 6pm. They’re balancing professional deadlines with the daily demands of family life — from restless children and relentlessly energetic dogs to shopping lists and washing-up.
Sheedy expects that this shift will continue after the virus has been beaten — “I’m seeing a lot of people rethinking how they live” — and believes the impact it will have on children and teenagers is huge.
“What children see is what they do,” he explains. “Boys will now look at previously ‘female’ jobs as their responsibility because their fathers do.” He adds that active fathers can have a huge impact on their young children’s emotional intelligence. A 2019 study published on SpringerLink — an online collection of scientific, tech and medical journals — confirms this. It found that “[paternal] leave-taking... is positively associated with children’s perception of fathers’ involvement, father-child closeness, and father-child communication.”
Sheedy’s assertion that children emulate their parents is how Mayo-based goldsmith and father of two Nigel O’Reilly explains his very hands-on approach to fatherhood.
“I’m one of four boys, and my father was a farmer and my mother a teacher. Her income was just as important as his, so it was up to my father and me and my brothers to manage the house when she was at work. There were no ‘man’ jobs or ‘girl’ jobs in our house,” he says.
O’Reilly and his wife are both creatives with a degree of flexibility, so when the pandemic hit and schools shut, they divided up the week, with Nigel working three days and his wife Tracy an alternate three. But even for a dad who was used to making packed lunches, doing the school run and overseeing homework, he admits 2020 was “a culture shock”.
Dr Damien Lowry, chartered member of the Psychological Society of Ireland says the past 15 months have been “transformative” in how society views fatherhood. He speaks as a clinician, as a father of two children under the age of seven, and as a friend and peer to many other dads of young children.
Dr Lowry tells me that, the evening before we were due to chat, he did a quick survey on his WhatsApp ‘Daddy thread’. “Down to the last one, the dads were incredibly positive about how their lives have changed over the past year.” About two-thirds of these men, he explains, are the primary earners, work long hours outside of the home and travelled regularly pre-pandemic. “They really value this family time.”
Dr Lowry, who is based at the Mater Hospital, says he feels guilty about not having been as available to his wife and children as other fathers were to their families over the past year. “I’m in the Mater Monday to Friday, and I have two evening clinics a week in Rathgar, although this dropped to one while the schools were closed so I could be at home a little more.”
This sense of frustration is something he’s noticed among his peers, too. “Men would definitely like to be at home more now. My experience is that fathers are in favour of the changes happening, but if this shift is to become permanent, the State and employers will have to support it.”
That work has already begun. Last year, Microsoft’s The Future of Work report, which questioned leaders and employers across a variety of industries, found that companies expect 45pc of workers to continue working remotely after the pandemic.
Meanwhile, drinks giant Diageo implemented a policy in 2019 which allows its Irish workers 26 weeks leave on full pay at any point during the first year of their new baby’s life, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, or the method by which they become parents. HR director of Diageo Ireland, Sarah Caffrey, commented that the company is a better place for having introduced equal parental leave and believes “businesses like ours play a significant role in shaping the future of society”.
The Government is keen not to be left behind, with the introduction of five weeks’ parent’s leave for children born or adopted since November 2019, in addition to existing parental leave and paternity leave entitlements. In January, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said he was determined to drive through legislation that allows for 20pc of public servants to work remotely by the end of the year.
Before the pandemic, 40-year-old, father-of-two Conor Lantry left his home in Co Meath every morning at 6am and worked from home maybe once a month at most. “The switch from being based in an office full-time to working from home with two young boys in the house was a definite shock to the system, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being at home with my family the past year and being able to help with the school drop-offs and pick-ups. The kids just expect me to be around at this stage.”
Lantry changed employers in September and now works for American-owned company DocuSign and, while he is looking forward to getting into the office to meet his new colleagues, he hopes to work from home a couple of days a week going forward. “I’m lucky in that my employer already offers this flexibility and puts a lot of trust in its employees.”
Anecdotally, at least, it seems as though the changing dynamics of family life are having a positive impact, not just on children, but on marriages and parental relationships too. (Conor Lantry’s wife, Sarah, says that she can’t remember how she ever coped when her husband was gone from early morning every weekday).
A study published in The Economic Journal in January 2020 supports this hypothesis, finding that couples where fathers take paternity leave are less likely to separate, an effect that persists throughout the first 15 years of the child’s life.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us that, as a society, we are no longer attached to archetypal roles or gender stereotypes. It has also demonstrated — as the fathers I spoke to pointed out — that men are not stuck in the Dark Ages.