How do men feel when they become fathers?
When we spoke to a handful of Australian dads who generously agreed to share their experiences on our new Working Fathers podcast – many spoke of deep emotional responses.
“Probably the most happy I’ve ever been,” said one.
“It was just this flood of emotion that I didn’t know [was] sitting in there,” answered another. “I burst out in tears.”
Perhaps this shouldn’t be too surprising. As historian Dr Carla Pascoe Leahy put it to us, parents’ feelings of emotion, love and affection for their children “are so profound, that they almost defy language.”
But do our policies and organisational practices support working fathers, and their families, as well as they could?
Men and care
As a society, we’ve spent decades discussing the difficulties and dilemmas facing ‘working mothers’, and rightly so.
Over the past century, there have been major changes in female employment, particularly in the peak child-rearing years. Women’s advances in the labour market have increased their economic security, their access to the other ‘goods’ of paid work and their representation as a group in positions of authority and power.
But what about men’s access and participation in the rewards and responsibilities of home life?
As cultural norms shift towards fathers becoming more actively and directly involved in their children’s lives, we wanted to explore working fatherhood and policy from several different perspectives.
That’s why, with the support of the Women’s Leadership Institute Australia and the Trawalla Foundation, and a University of Melbourne Faculty of Arts Policy Enhancement Grant, we produced Working Fathers: A podcast about dads, families and work.
Scrutinising the status quo
We tend to take the status quo for granted, but it’s important not to overlook just how radically men’s lives were changed by industrialisation and the evolution of market society.
“Men’s move from the household economy to work in the public sphere of manufacturing and services was just as revolutionary as the more recent changes for women. Men’s move is normally described simply in terms of industrial change. However, it was also a serious move away from their families.”
In our discussions, we’ve found striking insights into the interlocking barriers that stand in the way of men moving back towards their families, as well as some of the potential benefits of dismantling those barriers.
The benefits of Dad
Often overlooked in these conversations are children.
They want more unrushed time with dad. Moreover, experiencing a caregiver dad may shape positive gender attitudes in the next generation.
One of our guests, Matt Tyler from The Man Box at the Jesuit Social Services, pointed to the positive role models that caring dads provide. Sons experience a model of caring fatherhood and masculinity, while daughters’ expectations of future partners are also raised.
Moreover, fathers who are more involved in child rearing during marriage have a higher chance of maintaining contact with their children after divorce.
We also learned that these intergenerational effects have biological knock ons.
Biological anthropologist Associate Professor Lee Gettler explained to us how active fatherhood is associated with changes in men’s biology.
This, he argues, is evidence that men’s physiological systems have “been shaped by an evolutionary history of fathers being involved and committed and participating in … hands-on fathering over the course of our species.”
Associate Professor Gettler hopes that his research “helps men … better understand their own capacities and bodies and the potential they have as parents, because they oftentimes, fathers are treated as kind of just along for the ride.”
One policy change supported by many of our guests was ‘use it or lose it’ daddy leave. This is where a certain portion of parental leave is ‘earmarked’ for fathers.
For example, Monash University philosopher Associate Professor Linda Barclay told us that parental leave tagged just for dads would “reduce women’s marginalisation from the workforce … [and] help protect fathers who do want to take leave from employer backlash, because it’s now something they’re essentially required to do – they can’t transfer it to the mother.”
And, Associate Professor Barclay suggested, “it will hopefully chip away at the gendered assumption … that caring for small children is somehow exclusively or primarily women’s work.”
But parental leave policy is just one aspect of labour market regulation that, when badly designed, works against a shared caring load.
Our tax laws still tend to encourage a division of labour between a breadwinner and a homemaker. Professor Miranda Stewart, a tax law expert, explained that this effect is so strong that same-sex couples – where presumably both partners are subject to the same gender norms – tend to split into a breadwinner and a homemaker once they are raising children.
Supporting dads who want to do more
Another common theme we found was that families need more support from government and organisations. That includes dads.
We are expanding the expectations of them as parents, without lessening the demands on them as workers, Associate Professor Gettler points out.
The experience of fatherhood can be “transcendent, the highs are very high in ways that fathers haven’t anticipated,” says Associate Professor Gettler.
But at the same time, “new fathers can be under tremendous strain, in part because of the expectations we’re placing on them.”
This is something policy makers need to be aware of.
We might think of government policy and organisational norms as all about economic cost-benefit analysis – far removed from powerful highs of love, meaning and joy, and the lows of strain, challenges and feeling overwhelmed by the demands of work and caring.
But as our Working Fathers podcast explains – they’re all interconnected.
You can listen to Working Fathers: A podcast about dads, families and work on Spotify, Apple, Google (or wherever you get your podcasts) from Monday 17 July, 2023.
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