Equal Parenting Opportunities
By Harald Breiding-Buss
So a vast majority of Kiwis want shared parenting, and similarly they don’t want discrimination on the basis of gender at the workplace. Why don’t we get it, then?
Women have made their progress, but that seems to have leveled out. Some commentators, in fact, suggest that women’s “progress” in the workforce was mainly driven by men’s “decline”, i.e. a significant drop in real wages for most that we haven’t caught up with as yet and at the same time a decrease in government financial support.
The “progress” of women in the workforce may not have been much of a choice.
Nevertheless, we still seem to be stuck in questions such as childcare or parental leave for women. New Zealand’s Equal Employment policies carry an intrinsic assumption that men are simply not involved in children’s upbringing; that it is women’s job, and women’s job alone, to organise their work around their children.
The recently appointed advisory group to the government on Equal Employment Opportunities does not have one single male on it. And the best proposal on parental leave we have had so far, Laila Harre’s 1999 private members bill, excluded single fathers with babies.
While we are talking about assisting women to combine work and family, we don’t do the same for men. In particular we don’t assist men at all with their parenting-related tasks.
The result is that while, according to a 1999 survey by the Office of the children’s commissioner, 92% of New Zealanders think men should be expected to share equally in the parenting, less than half thought they are as good at it as women. And even more men than women were more critical about men’s parenting performance.
As far as men’s parenting is concerned there is quite a gap between expectations and the confidence to meet them.
It may also be a bit naive to assume that the problem can be fixed with giving women better access to childcare.
Most people don’t have children in order to get rid of them for large chunks of the day. Childcare is at best only the second-best option for most. If they can, parents will do it themselves and will try to organise their work around their family as much as possible.
In the age of more flexible (read:erratic) working hours this involves a lot of teamwork between the parents. However, if dad is not supported in doing his bit, then mum will find it hard to give as much attention to her career as she’d like to, EEO or not.
The new breed of working mothers, of course, do not always get much out of the parent support system either. The things that make the parenting job fun, like so many other jobs, is the frequent yaks with your workmates.
It has long been discovered that the humble “coffee mornings” for mums increase their confidence in their parenting and are a very important avenue for learning about children’s issues. For this reason such (on the face of it) rather social occasions are organised by Plunket, midwives, churches and many other organisations.
But they are coffee “mornings” and if you are working mornings – tough.
For fathers no such networking opportunities even exist, and being dependent solely on their partners, or even ex-partners, for parenting information goes a long way in explaining why these men feel less confident about it than women.
Other factors come into play: society feels a lot more ambivalent about men than about women as parents. Movies where men put their children before ridding the world of evil simply don’t exist. It is very hard to find any movies, books or other media where men are even considered to have a problem with juggling work and family life!
When they gotta go they can, there’s always a woman to look after the children while they go shooting villains. Dramatic – yes. Realistic – no way.
Society may also feel a bit apprehensive about women who work a lot while there are small babies at home. It seems okay when it’s nana who’s babysitting, but dad? Everyone knows that men are so clumsy that they’ll drop the baby while trying to rock it to sleep, or bump it against the doorframe when carrying it out of the room. Which responsible mother can allow that to happen?
Men have received quite a bashing about not ‘helping’ enough at home. They’re doing a lot more of this ‘helping’ now, but it is only very recently that we have (re-)dis-covered that men’s actual hands-on parenting is good news for children.
But men overwhelmingly still consider their contribution at home mainly as ‘helping’ mum, not parenting. A Nelson study about men’s perception of social, health and parenting services found that the guys struggled to even grasp the concept that they, too, are legitimate recipients of parent support.
According to the researchers, the general thrust of their replies was: “I’m happy when the wife’s happy.”
For guys parenting has been promoted as a duty to help out mum. We’ve only now started to tell men that it’s actually more of a duty to their children, and that amongst all the chores there’s some rather pleasant rewards attached to it as well – a bond that lasts a lifetime, personal growth, a sense of achievement when the kids grow up.
There are a whole lot of issues around father’s increased emotional involvement that have ample potential for causing stress.
How does mum feel when the prime target of junior’s affection is someone else, when the almost mythical mother-child bond doesn’t apply in her own family? Or what if dad senses such vulnerability and holds back for that reason?
We really need some timely approaches that are free from 60s stereotypes about how families operate to achieve true “Equal Employment Opportunities” at work and home. It started with treating women as competent and able workers in paid employment, and/or giving them the training and experience to become competent and able in the workforce.
It has to continue with treating men as competent and able parents within a mother/father team, and/or giving them the training and experience to become competent and able at home.