Leave isn’t enough to change fathers’ role in caring for kids

A 2012 survey found playing was top of dads’ caring list. Parker Knight/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Dads bringing their baby home from the hospital today know they’ll be more involved in their child’s life than their fathers were. Community values have shifted, and it’s expected that couples will share their child’s care. But, from a gender equity stance, things appear largely unchanged; fathers might be at home more these days but they still spend only a fraction of that time caring for their baby.

A 2004 survey by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, for instance, showed mothers spend 294 minutes a day alone with their baby compared to 38 minutes for fathers. And national surveys from 1997 to 2006 show the amount of time dads spent caring for kids under the age of five rose just 17 minutes, compared to 65 minutes for mums.

More recent data is clearly needed - although the next planned national survey was cut from the last budget. But it might be optimistic to look for big changes.

Not quite there

There’s also the issue of what fathers do in the time they spend with their child. Consider the fairly regular task of changing nappies: to judge by the 41,000 Youtube clips on the topic, it’s largely a joke for fathers. When comedian Adam Hills tweeted a photo of himself holding a full nappy with the words “Real men change nappies #smelfie”, for instance, the hashtag smelfie became an international Twitter trend.

But a more accurate understanding of how well dads really do in this area can be garnered from a 2012 survey of 2,000 fathers that featured in-depth interviews with couples. While more than half reported changing nappies several times a day, one in 20 said they’d never done this.

The survey found playing was top of dads’ caring list, and that less than half put their baby to sleep even once a day. Both parents accepted that dads’ work comes first so they were off the hook if they got home late. Mothers also took over tasks if dads found them too hard; fathers, for instance, would hand their upset baby back to mum for soothing.

The survey gets to the heart of the issue of shared parenting as it illustrates how the belief that mums will be primary carers underpins the lack of sharing. In the interviews, none of the mums who worked said they sometimes missed out by being late and not one gave upset babies to dads.

Tried and failed

Shifting the belief that mums naturally care while dads help out will not be easy. And the 2013 Dad and Partner Pay scheme, which provides new fathers with two weeks leave paid at the minimum wage, shows just how hard. Sold by former families, community services, and indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin as a major step for gender equality, the policy’s aim was to give dads more time to bond with their baby and take a bigger part in their care.

Fathers tend to hand their upset baby back to mum for soothing. Alisha Karabinus/Flickr, CC BY-SA

But a recently-released independent evaluation of the scheme found no change in the total amount of leave taken by dads once the policy was introduced. Only about a third of eligible fathers took up the new leave.

In the first two months after the birth of their child, fathers took one extra day. But after the first six months, they took no more leave than they had before the introduction of the scheme. Dads caring for the baby across all the basic jobs from feeding to playing did improve early on but again, by 12 months there was no difference.

A similar lack of staying-at-home impact was found in Australia before the new leave scheme came into effect. Dads who took four weeks or longer leave at the birth took no more care of their infants than dads who took less. Clearly, just boosting paid leave for dads is unlikely to change who cares for their infant.

Other options

Sweden has one of the most progressive paternal leave schemes in the world but even that may not be enough. The introduction in 1995 of the country’s “Daddy-Month”, days off work that fathers must use or lose, which is paid at almost full wage, led to a 50% increase in time taken by fathers to care for their offspring. A second month off was added in 2002.

But its flow-on to actually caring for children is not so clear. Swedish fathers who took the leave did not later take more time off to care for sick children, for example.

According to the recent “Engaging fathers – Evidence review” report, birthing services may hold the key. Until they treat both parents as crucial to the baby’s well-being, mothers will be overloaded and fathers shut out.

Maybe change will come from left field as well. US actor Ashton Kutcher who has a five-month old girl recently complained on his Facebook page that “There are NEVER diaper changing stations in mens public restrooms”. Two weeks later, after his remark had invited 35,000 comments and 250,000 “likes”, he began a petition aimed at family-friendly stores, which garnered 75,000 signatures within a week.

In response, discount retailer Target published a plan to have change tables for fathers in all its stores. Maybe all those social media-savvy, nappy-joking dads will speed up the shift to the more involved fatherhood that we all say we want.


Richard will be on hand for an Author Q&A session between 11am and noon AEDT on Wednesday April 1. Post your questions about the article in the comments section below.