Jai Breitnauer talks about shared parenting in the 21st Century when you’re a one mother, one father family.
Long, long ago, in a hemisphere far, far away, there was a little girl called Jaime who liked red ribbons in her hair, grapes in her lunchbox and horse riding at the weekend. Every morning after a breakfast served by her mum, she would hop in the car with her dad who would drop her at school on his way to work. When the school bell rang at 3pm Jaime, and her friend would gallop like horses out the gate to meet their mums, in a sea of mums.
At home, Jaime and Mum would do homework before Mum drove Jaime to swimming, or Brownies, or ballet. Back home around 6.30pm Dad would come in, ta da! Like the hero father from The Tiger Who Came To Tea, and they would all sit down to dinner – except Mum, who would be up and down fetching things for Jaime and Dad. After dinner, Jaime’s mum would read her a book and sing her to sleep in her beautifully tidy room that Jaime felt sure wasn’t tidy that morning.
When Jaime got older she realised a few things:
- Mum did actually work. So did many other mums, often in under-paid jobs like cleaning and admin so they could fit work around their children.
- Mum worked two jobs. When her part-time paid job finished, her other job preparing meals, doing laundry, cleaning, helping with school projects, and being a taxi began. That made her working day much longer than Dad’s, which finished at 5pm followed by a bath and a beer and Brucie on the telly. This second, unpaid job is referred to by sociologists as the ‘second shift’.
- It’s unlikely there was a real tiger in The Tiger Who Came To Tea. The mum was probably just fed up and created an elaborate ruse to go out for a feed.
So, Jaime became Jai, got some qualifications, a good job, and set her sights on an egalitarian relationship. She met a lovely bloke called Noah who was adamant he wanted to be a hands-on father when they had kids.
As luck would have it, Noah got to put his money where his mouth is, due to being made redundant two weeks before Child One was born. We entered this new bohemia where we both freelanced and whoever had the work had the desk, and the other one had the baby. It was wonderful, even though there was no guarantee of getting paid, and often we both had work at the same time. In those cases we had to learn to share a chair while balancing the baby on our heads.
Then baby number two came along and, briefly, husband got a ‘proper job’ with a salary, and a car, and a tie, and we were all miserable until I said: ‘Stuff this, I want to be the editor of a magazine’. So, I did that for a bit, and he joined Playcentre and generally brought some energy and creativity back into daily life.
Eventually though, we realised what we both wanted was to ‘have it all’. A lot has been written about whether women can ‘have it all’, and pretty much everything written woefully neglects the fact that many men don’t. They don’t even get close. Because having it all means having a good chunk of everything – including the ‘second shift’. For us both to have it all we had to share the load, 50/50, even the shit neither of us wanted to do.
I went to a great public lecture recently called Engaging with Dads, jointly presented by three fab organisations; Great Fathers, Family Start Manukau and Father and Child. Aimed primarily at social workers and those involved in supporting vulnerable children and families, it was a real eye-opener in terms of the importance of fatherly involvement if you’re parenting with a father or father figure. It relates to one mother, one father families.
Dave Owens from Great Fathers noted that children who had involved dads from day one usually have much better outcomes in later life. Better at making friends, better at problem solving, secure enough to explore the world and their place in it, better able to cope with frustration and control aggression … Key, I thought, in a nation where one in three women experience family violence, was that boys with involved dads were less likely to be violent as adults. Boys and girls with involved dads were less likely to experience teen pregnancy, substance abuse, end up in jail or be at risk of suicide.
Owens referred to this as ‘The Father Effect’ and pointed out that waiting until your kid is nine and taking them over the field for a kick around isn’t the same as being an involved father. He noted that when dads hold their baby, their bodies are subject to a physical, hormonal response just like women, and that response causes permanent positive change in the brain.
David Ringrose from Family Start Manukau noted how important it is to engage men, especially fathers’ in vulnerable families, early on. He noted how little trust some of these men have for social workers and government agencies. They’ve been let down, and they need to be met on their own terms. They need their confidence rebuilt and for their friends and family to see how capable they are.
Brendon Smith from Father and Child said that according to the Growing Up In Auckland study, 40% of mums don’t have their child’s dad actively involved. This has increased by 7% in the last decade and it means many fathers are forgotten in services for parents. He said he has met with staff at a local agency who said, ‘our policy is we don’t have to ask if there is a dad involved.’ Brendon noted that mental health, development and poverty outcomes are usually better with an involved dad.
He noted that post-natal mental health issues affect dads too, plus women with PND have faster recovery times and better outcomes when the dad is involved. Multiple studies, he says, have shown that a happy relationship with both parents taking joint responsibility for the child leads to better outcomes for the child. So important is this fact, it is a tenant of law – The UN Rights of the Child, ratified by the New Zealand Government, states that governments should support fathers and mothers as a child’s right. Yet when Smith contacted UNROC to ask what changes could be made to enable this, he got no response.
One thing that Owens said that resonated with me, was this idea of a ‘maternal gateway’. That there can be a subconscious presumption in our society that men are incapable of taking on ‘maternal’ responsibilities, and it should all fall to mum. This stereotype has persisted in popular culture with, for example, those memes about What Happens When You Leave Dad Alone With Baby. Funny as they are, they devalue a man’s role at home, and the sad thing is that this myth is often perpetuated by men themselves.
This infantilising of grown men really is the sharp end of shared care, and something I can’t support. People have asked me, ‘how does your husband get the kids to sleep when you are working away?’ or ‘do you have to leave meals and instructions for him?’ and my answer is no, because he’s a fucking adult. I don’t thank my husband for doing jobs and taking the load off me, I thank him because we are a team, and team members support each other.
Our day usually involves dad dropping the kids off at school before heading into the office. I work from home so I will do a load of washing or run a quick errand in my breaks. Four days a week I pick the kids up from school, and on one day, husband does the deed. Crucially, (and if you have a willy and a sense of entitlement this section is definitely for you), the four nights that my husband doesn’t pick the boys up from school doesn’t mean he wanders on home when he fancies, cracks open a stubby and asks what time dinner will be served. We appreciate that evenings are also shared care time, and that means we share responsibilities at home while supporting each other to have personal interests.
It really does take a fucking village and we are lucky to enjoy the support of great friends. On top of that, our various employers and clients also actively support our family goals, offering flexibility and understanding our children are a priority. While we know plenty of people who share care, as well as those people who chose to stick with traditional roles (And I salute you! After all, feminism is about having choices) there are also those who would like to share care but cannot because their husband earns more, or because their family do not approve, or because they just don’t have the support of their workplace and/or social connections. Often, it’s the people at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum who need this flexibility and support the most, who don’t receive it.
We are a Straight, White, Affluent Family (SWAF’s – I just made that up, cool eh?) and that means we have options that aren’t always open to other types of family. Yet supporting the choices of men and women underpins the notion of equity – and equity is the key to scaffolding our children effectively, raising good citizens and in turn lowering family violence rates and improving mental health outcomes.
Inclusion of both parents in the hands-on raising of a child or children is a total no-brainer. And yet we still have employers refusing flexi-time, we still have healthcare professionals focussing heavily on mums rather than dads, and the primary eligibility for paid parental leave still lies with mum, with paid parental leave possible for dads only if mum transfers it to them.
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Enabling shared care of children by both parents should be a priority for the new government, but it requires big legislative, industry and social change otherwise for many, it’s simply not an option. The change is simple. When you place the child at the centre of the support system – as recommended by the UN, inclusion of both parents becomes logical. I for one would like to see New Zealand leading in this area, but for now my watch must end – it’s my turn to pick up the tamariki, and we have big, big plans for today.
Jai Breitnauer has worked as a writer and editor for 18 years, and her passions include parenting, health, sustainability and vegan food. Social justice is at the core of her work. She lives in Kingsland, Auckland, with her architect husband and two ballet-mad boys, one of whom has additional needs.
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