Friday, 28 May 2010

Stepping up or aside - it's personal

In a post last week, I promised this week would be about when dads step up and when mum steps aside. But, I’ve been avoiding doing it…because it’s not something that is lightly written or spoken about. Perhaps one of the most controversial and emotional issues confronting shared parenting is whether or not dad chooses to absent himself from childcare and domestics, and whether or not mum plays the ‘gatekeeper’ and denies proper access to children.

A host of research provides different types of ‘evidence’ to back up both arguments. Is it that fathers encounter barriers such as policy, work commitments or social norms (Lewis 1986; Lewis and O’Brien 1987; Burgess 2008, 2005, 1997; Collier and Sheldon 2008; Fatherhood Institute 2008)? Or was it that some fathers did not really want to change and that their secondary position was not entirely enforced (Hochschild 1995 cited in Dermott 2008: 19; Lewis 1986; Dermott 2008). Michael Kimmel, a world-renowned fatherhood researcher claims that some fathers just don’t want to do housework. My own research corroborates this. But this doesn’t necessarily make them bad fathers. And it certainly doesn’t mean that they don’t love or care about their partners.

Today I want to briefly explore how men might not step up and why mums might have to stayed stepped in. And to kick off the debate, I’m going to get personal and share my own experience.

There was one particular moment when our daughter was born that has stuck in my mind. After an emergency caesarean, baby and I were both in the hospital – me downstairs and she upstairs, both hooked up to all sorts. ‘Dad’ was the only one who could take on any active role. He saw our daughter, held her and discussed her health with the paediatrician long before I knew what was going on.

After a day or so, when I was moving about, the nurses launched us into childcare. As they left the room, the nurses muttered that maybe we should change her nappy. We looked at each other: change a nappy through incubator doors! Our first nappy change!

We’d joked about this before at our NCT classes: how do you dress a baby? So much for maternal instinct, I’d always dressed my dolls by placing them upside down on their heads. Funny though that neither NCT nor NHS nor parenting books had given guidance on how to change a nappy through incubator doors!

My partner and I both looked at each other. And then my heart sunk. He turned to me, ashen-faced: “Can you do it?” Why me? I can barely stand up, my blood pressure’s sky-high, I’ve been traumatised, my clothes don’t fit, I smell of milk, and I’ve never changed a real baby’s nappy. In the space of a couple of seconds, dad had defined his role and I had never felt so alone in my life. He had taken a firm step back and pushed me forward. I had no say in it. After all, I’m not going to argue about caring when someone really needs it, am I?

Of course, as the days went by, and weeks turned into months, and years, he was there and changed many a nappy. But he helped and supported. He did not want to be in the primary caring seat.

Next week is National Volunteers Week (1-7 June), so how about volunteering to look after the children, or cook, or go shopping, or make breakfast in bed, or let dad do it his way, or turn off your mobile and have a face-to-face chat. Don’t wait to be asked to ‘step up’ or ‘step aside’. Volunteer to take the initiative.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

An alluring case for a flexible, shedshaped working future

As many of my readers are parents who work from home in some form or another, here’s a slight diversion from my usual posts – a book review about shedworking! If you’ve ever thought of working from a shed in your garden (or even if you haven’t), this book will have you longing for one.

Shedworking: The alternative workplace revolution claims to be inspirational, and it certainly is that. It’s also alluring. Apart from the beautiful and story-rich photographs, the allure for me lies in the way Johnson combines both physical buildings and work-life theory in his vision of a “shedshaped” future.

In using ‘shedworking’ as a theoretical concept, Alex Johnson engages with social and economic debates to promote the benefits of a flexible working environment on the grounds of increased productivity, better work-life balance and environmentalism. He claims that the future of working is “shedshaped”, that more and more people are going to be turning towards “shoffices” and “shudios” as their workplaces of choice.
The text is peppered with Johnson’s characteristic humour and stories of extraordinary shedworkers. I took great personal delight in his references to the likes of Alice Walker, Jeanette Winterson, and of course, Virginia Woolf. For others, there’s 007 and descriptions of OMD’s immobile lorry office are reminiscent of the original Knight Rider.
Drawing on Woolf, Johnson suggests that it is the thought of “an office of one’s own” that is at the heart of the shedworking appeal: a workspace where people have the flexibility to exercise personal choice over when and how they work, and in how it’s decorated too.
Shedworking also provides pages of information on how to go about buying or even building your own shed (or somewhat grander garden office), with details for suppliers and the legal bits too. It is at once a practical resource, a coffee table delight and a lightly cajoling philosophical debate about our future working lives.

My 10 year old peered curiously over my shoulder while I was reading, and displayed a reasonable level of interest: what was the book about? She laughed in disbelief: “They’re not sheds. You don’t use sheds! Sheds are just for storing things in.” She looked at me, and then smiled. “Oh mum,” she sighed, “you want a shed now, don’t you?”

More details about the book can be found at

Friday, 21 May 2010

Baby's Here! Who Does What?

Baby’s Here! Who Does What? presents Duncan Fisher’s argument against splitting parenting into two traditionally gendered roles. He argues that some sharing – even if it’s not equal – is more fair, good for children, and good for couple relationships. However, across all six chapters, Fisher’s key message is that whatever parents do, “don’t sleep-walk – talk”. The book succeeds in offering good tips on how to go about being a parent and a partner too.

The book provides an easy introduction to the relationship issues that new parents will face. Many new parenting books focus on the how-tos and the how-nots of babycare, but very few focus on the nitty-gritties of how parents share this care.

But don’t be fooled by the book’s packaging in an easy-reading format with colourful comic illustrations. This masks what are difficult (and often taboo) questions. It really is a call to action.

As a staunch advocate of inclusive fatherhood, Fisher has written the book for both fathers and mothers. He challenges them to do some active thinking, asking and discussing about the stereotypes that all too many of us just accept as mother or father roles. Really, he is arguing that both parents need courage: courage to think and talk about these issues, courage for mothers to stand aside, and courage for fathers to step up and sometimes be a ‘trail-blazer’ dad.

Taking action is made easier for the reader as Fisher adopts a workbook style call to action at the end of each chapter in his pointers for ‘kitchen table talk’. These consist of questions that parents could ask themselves and their partner.

For any parent-to-be or new parents, this book provides a quick guide to kick-start some possibly not-yet-thought-of decisions. I would even go so far as to recommend that all ante-natal and post-natal care services make it available as essential reading for all new parents.

Now of course I don’t agree with everything that Fisher argues or suggests, but nor would he expect that of me. And nor does he expect that of fathers or mothers. What he would like, and what I would like too, is for everyone to bring these issues into the open in a far more honest manner than we previously have done.

Fisher hopes that the sale of this book will help to fund the distribution of free information to parents through maternity services. Further book talk can be continued on – although I think he should have called it

Next week I pick up on the issue of fathers stepping up and mum stepping aside.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Parental Leave in Canada: Progressive Policy vs. Antiquated Stereotypes

A warm welcome to my first guest blogger all the way from beautiful Vancouver! Cameron Phillips of Bettermen Solutions takes a look at parental leave in Canada.

“I am prepared to unload a legal cannon on my employer if that is what it takes,” says first time Albertan father, Will Green, “though that probably will mean that I will also be looking for a new job.”

Green wants to take parental leave from his upper management job, but he’s not having much luck. He takes little solace in the fact that he is not alone. The discrepancy between Canadian men who want to take parental leave and those who actually do is stark.

In many respects, Canadian parental leave is progressive. Women are given 15 weeks of paid maternity leave, often supplemented by their employer. After these 15 weeks, an additional 35 weeks of paid governmental leave can be split between a couple to use as they see fit. Some truly progressive employers offer dads salary top-ups if they choose to take a leave. It is no Sweden, but Canadians feel quite smug and satisfied when we view our neighbours to the south, forever espousing “family values” but failing to offer a single day of government paid parental leave.

This begs the question, with a relatively “father friendly” policy in place, why do fewer men end up taking parental leave than those who wish to do so? As Green’s case demonstrates, policy is one thing and workplace culture is another.

In his attempts to take his leave, Green has been told everything from, “You’re too valuable to the company” to “We can’t afford to cover for you while you are gone.” It is the more subtle resistance, however, that Green finds so impassable. These are the sorts of workplace-culture comments that suggest he has his priorities askew by not putting his job ahead of his family, or worse, that he is of more value to his family at the office rather than at home.

And then there is the cowboy culture of the Canadian West.

“In Alberta my wish to take a parental leave is not finding much support,” Green laments. “It seems it is just something that men in Alberta do not do for the most part.”

While on paper it would appear that policy trumps antiquated gender roles, reality would suggest that the old stereotypes, which ultimately judge a woman by her parenting skills and a man by his earning potential, are alive and thriving.

Cameron Phillips is the president and founder of Bettermen Solutions ( located in Vancouver, Canada. He gives corporate keynotes and workshops, designed to improve employee retention and workplace productivity through empowering men with better work life balance skills.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Fathers need supportive employers during tough economic times

In a guest posting in Canada today, I argue that fatherhood can create a stressful work-life balance for men so in tough economic times, supportive employers are important. I suggest that both policy and fathers' practice is pointing towards flexible working as the option that reduces the costs of work-life balance most.

Read my full posting at Better Men Solutions, a Canadian based business providing keynotes and workshops helping men achieve better work-life balance.

And watch out for great guest blogs on here this week.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

The daddy shift: when do fathers care?

The majority of fathers in the UK work full-time jobs while a high percentage of mothers work part-time and their reference to a double-shift of paid work and unpaid childcare remains common. For these parents, the ‘daddy shift’ in childcare is often very important. By the ‘daddy shift’ I am referring to childcare that fathers do on their own. And the numbers of fathers involved in doing this is growing. In my research, just under half of the fathers interviewed were doing the ‘daddy shift’

The daddy shift is important for mothers who want a break from childcare or who want or need to earn money. The daddy shift is also important for those working fathers who want to develop caring and loving relationships with their children.

The daddy shift tends to take place in the evenings or on weekends – outside of typical working hours. These times are often seen as being family time or quality time that is off-limits to employers. For a growing minority, the daddy shift also takes place during the day (Mon – Fri), times which are traditionally for mother care.

Interestingly, in my research, the daddy shift took place because mothers were absent from the home or unavailable to care. This is either due to paid work, education, leisure or illness. Many fathers said that the daddy shift – looking after children on your own – was hard work. This was especially the case with young children and for long stretches of time. Many fathers claimed that needing a break from fulltime childcare was necessary for them. It is often after experiencing the ‘daddy shift’ that fathers either choose to become more involved and to share the care with mothers – or to back away from it.

Importantly, many fathers looked to other fathers to see what they were doing. The more that people talk about sharing care and doing things differently, the more ‘ordinary’ the daddy shift will become….to the point where it is no longer a shift but a way of life.

To help make this change, add your comments here, vote in this blog’s poll, or have a look at my article on the Enterprise Nation website.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Quizzing the ways parents work it out

Working Families has launched two little quizzes for parents to help them think about their work goals and finances. It then provides contact details where people can go for help if they feel they are having problems.

The first quiz: I can work it out compares your ideal working patterns with your reality. Yours truly is apparently STRESSED about her work-life balance (which made me laugh).

The second quiz: We can work it out asks questions about how you feel about money. Your partner also has to answer the same questions before getting the results. I stopped before this point.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Why dads should vote for women

Now here’s a debate to froth at the mouth about – and then chew on. Digestion may be difficult.

For many years, women have moaned that the care work they do goes unseen. Many have rallied that this creates a burden with long term effects for women as individuals and as a social group. Making childcare a man’s issue too has been at the forefront of many calls for a new, modern fatherhood. This fatherhood is one that is more involved in daily childcare and that expresses love and care in a more open way.

While women and mothers have led the way (for a variety of reasons) some fathers echo similar calls. Certainly the rhetoric of a contemporary fatherhood is heard far and wide in the UK. And since 1997, new Labour did make policy headway in making childcare a man’s issue too.

But I want to put forward a case as to why voting for women parliamentary candidates can make a difference to fathers who want to contemporary fatherhood to become an easier and more achievable practice.

The crux of my argument comes down to visibility: more women MPs will make care a more visible public issue. Pregnancy, birth and childcare are still often a women-centred time and place. For example, a large number of fathers testify to the lack of a father-presence at playgroups. The majority of fathers in my own research expressed concerns about how society viewed the safety of men’s involvement in childcare. Many employers don’t even know if any fathers work for them.

But women’s visibility in care is far more inevitable: because they get pregnant. For about nine months their bodies give it away. And for a few months more, the law means they have to be absent from work for health reasons. Chances are, your woman MP may have experienced this. She’s going to be more likely to want fathers more involved if only because it makes life easier for her. Thatcher of course, squashes my argument. But I’m ever hopeful……….