Where are all the dads?

Curious about the lack of hands-on fathers, I hunted down the evidence and wrote this piece more than a year ago. My circumstances have changed a bit since then, but the central argument is as strong as ever. Love to hear your thoughts.

“IF YOU’RE happy and you know it clap your hands,” I jauntily sing, a rictus grin pinned to my face and my palms mashed together. My daughter Amelia, nuzzled in my lap, looks at me quizzically and makes little movement to match my impression of a performing seal.

So goes another Tuesday morning at Dickson Library, where an army of under-threes and their big people take over the mat for a half hour of songs and stories. “Giggle and Wiggle” has become such a hit in this pocket of inner-north Canberra that the library schedules two sessions back to back, and tickets are distributed online at 7am on the day.

Looking out at the few dozen parents whose fast fingers have secured them a ticket, it is evident I am the only dad. While there are sporty mums and homebody mums and underslept mums and juggling-several-kids mums camped out on the carpet with their little ones, dads are nearly absent from the swirling humanity.

Our typical absence from the scene makes us a novelty when we are there. The presence of a father on the carpet is a source of bemusement for many of the kids, who eye me off as if I’m an alien who just joined the checkout queue at Woollies. The mums play it cooler than their uninhibited offspring, but still glance my way to check I have mastered the thumb-and-index finger movements on Incy Wincy.

Such is life as a hands-on father. Even in an era when many people gleefully smite stereotypes and where women are making strides in the workplace, it is still rare to see men being the primary carers for their offspring. Sure, there are many hands-on dads on evenings and weekends changing nappies and pushing on swings in a way that would have been an anathema to their grandfathers, but there are few who are filling their days with it as their primary activity.

About 68,500 Australian two-parent families have at-home fathers, compared to 495,600 with at-home mothers, according to the Australian Institute of Family Studies. But after the proportion rose from almost nothing to 4 per cent by 2001, it has since plateaued there. (By comparison, the proportion with at-home mums sits at 31 per cent, with both parents working at 57 per cent and with neither parent working at 7 per cent.) So even over decades when increasing numbers of women are heading to work, the proportion of dads manning the craft box has stayed steady.

In her 2015 book The Wife Drought, Annabel Crabb explored the effort to increase female workforce participation. “What if we are looking at things the wrong way?” she asked. “What if the structural problem here is not just how to get women into the workplace, but how to get men out of it? All this time we’ve been trying to win equality by eliminating the disadvantages women incur when they take time out to have children. But what it we just accepted that people might well be disadvantaged when they take time out of work, and concentrated instead on spreading the responsibility around?” Bingo.

The barrier to more hands-on fathering is not a legal one. Fathers are now as entitled to parental leave and other forms of workplace flexibility as mothers are, and face protections from discrimination should they seek to use them. But having a legal entitlement to it is very different to a social entitlement.

“As a lawyer, I do not know any men that manage to work part time without drawing criticism, and in my view, limiting their career progression,” said Adam, a Melbourne dad who puts his share of the caring load for his 4-year-old son at just under 40 per cent. “It is certainly the case with women also, however there is an expectation that women will be more likely to work part time and that men should ‘want’ to work full time.”

And just what is the source of this expectation? When asked in a HILDA study whether children do just as well if the mother earns the money and the father takes care of the home and children, only 50 percent of fathers and 57 percent of mothers said they agreed. That’s a lot of people who declined to endorse this seemingly anodyne statement. Clearly many people remain uncomfortable with the idea of fathers as primary carers even as they mouth the platitudes of gender equality and progressive social roles. To understand just why men are so rarely being hands-on dads we need to look at the construction of masculinity in Australia, and the way that male identity is often bound up in vocation.

FIRST, though, consider demographics.

Take an archetypal couple: a woman with an older male partner. If both partners are advancing their careers at the same rate, the age difference means the man will be more advanced at any given point. When babies come along, it makes sense that the couple will choose to forgo the lesser income, hence the woman taking the longer period of parental leave and perhaps only returning to work part-time afterwards. Over time the professional advancement gap between the two parents widens, increasing the economic incentive for the lower income earner to be the primary carer.

But fewer and fewer of us are living that archetype. For starters, there are plenty of same-sex couples with children, and single-parent families. Then there are heterosexual couples in which a younger man partners up with an older woman, and the growing number of households in which women are out-earning men.

The demise of male-dominated factory jobs and the rapid growth of female-dominated health and education jobs has improved earning opportunities for women, while equal pay for equal work has belatedly permeated parts of the economy that previously hid behind sexist pay policies. Women today have more earning opportunities than did their mothers and grandmothers, so it follows that they are either the leading breadwinner in households, or have a negligible income gap with their partners.

With this archetype slowly being eroded, you would expect more men to become primary parents. After all, if economic logic is guiding your behaviour, when a child is born and the mother is the higher income earner, it makes sense for her to get back to work as soon as possible after recovery from birth, and for the man to take a longer period of parental leave or part-time work.

But that does not seem to be the case. There is evidence that in a vast majority of heterosexual households, it is the woman who takes on primary caring responsibilities for their children, even when she is the higher income earner.

Boffins from the National Bureau of Economics Research in the United States looked at this in 2013. They found that in households where a wife earns more than her husband, she takes on an even greater share of household tasks (including childcare) than in typical households, which are already heavily weighted towards women doing unpaid work at home. “One explanation for the observed pattern is that, in couples where the wife earns more than the husband, the ‘threatening’ wife takes on a greater share of housework so as to assuage the ‘threatened’ husband’s unease with the situation,” the researchers wrote. It is unlikely that things are much different in Australia.

Why are couples so keen to ensure that mothers are taking on primary care roles? Or to put it another way, why are couples so keen to ensure that fathers are spared from primary care roles?

A FEW MONTHS into my time as a hands-on dad, my wife and I left our daughter with her grandparents and headed to a dinner party. Much as I love spending time with Amelia, it was a small relief to enjoy the company of adults for an evening, finally spared the need to wipe a snotty nose and interpret babble. It was a fun gathering of people from across Canberra, the usual mix of public servants, journalists and government affairs types, chowing down on a pot-luck selection of risottos, curries and quinoa salads.

As the conversation rambled on and people volunteered some gossipy tidbits from their various lines of work, I awaited the question that would inevitably come my way. “So what do you do?” I shared the truth about my circumstances, and was rewarded with some mushy praise from enlightened types for whom respite from the professional rat race is a stated objective even if rarely enacted. But suddenly my domain of expertise was shrunk from the world at large to my home, and at a stretch, to my neighbourhood, with anything I might have proffered on the state of the planet discounted accordingly.

It is a belittling that generations of women have complained about, and right then I was feeling its sting.

For many people, our occupation is an integral part of our personal identity. It informs how we see the world, but also how others see us. It is a reflection of the skills, knowledge and commitment of which we are often proud. Clearly it applies to people of both genders, but for many men, denied the primal capacity to bear a child and give birth, our achievements at work are often the greatest accomplishment we have.

To be a man without work (and the income that goes with it) is a humbling experience that invites a pitied response from others. Couple that with a breadwinning wife who is putting in the hours at work, and the sensation is emasculating – a word that has fallen out of favour in an era of supposed gender-blindness but still carries plenty of heft for a man experiencing it. The data offers some clues in how at-home fathers are responding to that emasculation. When the Australian Institute of Family Studies crunched HILDA data, it found that even in households with at-home dads, mothers are more likely than fathers to take on the lion’s share of housework and getting children dressed.

The obvious rejoinder is for us to mentally categorise child-raising as a form of employment. But such a label is problematic in that it turns an act of love into a burden. Many of us cringe at a father whose looking after his own children is described as “baby sitting”, thereby grouping it in with childcaring-as-employment rather than childcaring-as-love. To extend this mis-description to the primary activity of an attentive father seems wrong.

Perhaps the answer lies in creating the social expectation that both parents will make a significant professional sacrifice in order to take care of their children. Paid parental leave is available to most working parents, and employers are obliged to consider requests for significant extra unpaid parental leave. It is not unreasonable for each parent in a two-parent household to take an extended period of time to be the primary carer for pre-school-age children. Countries in Scandinavia have introduced parental leave entitlements that need to be shared among both parents, and perhaps something similar might work here.

As it stands in Australia, the emasculation of reducing paid work commitments in order to take on parenting responsibilities comes from the sense that not only are you doing it, but you have chosen to do it. Were this to be the default setting for more couples, it would change that parameters of the conversation – a father reducing paid work to care for children would be the standard approach and opting not to do it would be the choice.

Author Tim Winton has spoken out recently about the rise of toxic masculinity among Australian men, in which rank displays of misogyny have become pervasive. “So often I see boys having the tenderness shamed out of them,” he put it. Much of that toxic masculinity is grounded in enduring perceptions of the rightful roles of men and women, with a generation of men feeling threatened by the challenge to their position of cultural privilege, and so lashing out in a desperate bid to reassert their waning dominance. While calling out displays of toxic masculinity is a worthy endeavour, it does little to prevent the rise of future generations of boys adopting these behaviours.

Far more constructive is an effort to broaden ideas of the rightful roles of gender. Already this is happening in the advancement of women in the workplace, but it is only in its infancy in the advancement of men in the domestic sphere. Making emphatic the idea that real men play with their kids may open the eyes of many young men to their full potential. What better way to preserve the tenderness Winton observed?

BUT THIS furrowed-brow approach to the issue ignores a central fact of which I have become deeply aware this past year: hands-on parenting is a heck of a lot of fun. Rather than grinding through the hours and days like I imagined I might, parenting my daughter has been a joyous experience in which many days have flown by in a whirr of galleries, parks and libraries.

To be a hands-on parent is to be the biggest single influence on the life of a child, and to instil the behaviours that will last a lifetime. Perhaps the most satisfaction I have got out of the experience is to see the best of my actions reflected back at me – Amelia mimicking my habit of returning things to their right place by volunteering to put away her scattered Duplo – while the biggest disappointments have been to see some of my worst qualities on display in her – Amelia letting her frustrations show just as I occasionally let the angst of the day get to me.

Days out and about with a child allow you to rediscover the place you call home. While revisiting places of culture (high and low) can become tiresome on your own, done in the company of a child it offers a whole new perspective. It is a simple pleasure to wander through Canberra’s underappreciated National Portrait Gallery, as we have done many times, pointing out the quirky details on the works on show to a little person eager to see the next one and the next one and the next one.

Even the most unpleasant parenting task can become a thrill if framed the right way. What if a dirty nappy in a shopping centre prompted not a resigned shrug about the necessary course of action, but instead a Mission: Impossible logistical stunt, in which the two of us dart around for a flat surface that could suitably act as a change table while considering what toiletries supplies we can repurpose? We all need ways to make ourselves the heroes of our own lives, and as I successfully wiped away the detritus from my daughter, I’d briefly found mine.

Watching mums and dads with their offspring in a busy park, you cannot help but notice the different parenting styles each gender often adopts. Many mums linger close to their children, conditioned to be on hand for any contingency, while many dads hold back, giving their children space to move and figure out things for themselves.

It can be tempting to perceive the fathers taking this approach as distant, physically and emotionally, failing to fulfil the parental obligation to shield their children from the dangers of the world. But look closer and you will see that these are just fathers with their own style, showing their love for the children by allowing them to make their own mistakes and discover things on their own terms. If we want dads to play a more active role, we need to accept that they will often “do” parenting differently to mums, and spare the tut-tutting that may be tempting.

There’s plenty of evidence that a hands-on father can make a positive difference to children’s lives. According to Dr Leanne Lester’s analysis of the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, the presence of a father (or father figure) can be correlated with higher NAPLAN performance, greater rates of school attendance and even lower body mass index scores. “Children have significantly better health, academic, social and emotional outcomes when their fathers have a consistently warm parenting style,” she found.

AS I GOT ready to return to work part-time after a dad break, I looked back on how I had invested the past year. My wife and I had had some grandparental assistance, and I had taken some time to study, but a majority of my waking hours had been spent looking after Amelia. I’d seen her grow from an adorable infant into an insatiably curious toddler, full of her own ideas about how the world should be.

The morning of my first day back at work, I was getting Amelia dressed for preschool and we were having a standoff over socks. She thought they were unnecessary, but I demurred. When tasked with selecting a pair from sock drawer, she opted for a garish panda-themed pair, that even me, as a helplessly unfashionable type, could tell was a bad fit with the rest of her outfit. “I want these,” she implored with a doe-eyed plea. Fair enough.

As she marched out the door in her panda socks, I hung back and admired. It had been a damn good year, and there were plenty more like that ahead. Wouldn’t miss it for the world.


An Ant in Tokyo: Playgrounds aplenty

It’s nearly a month now since Kawaii, The Diplomat and I arrived in Tokyo, and so far the experience has been a sensory explosion – the hearty aroma of deep-fried tempura, the soothing five-o’clock chimes that remind us of the prospect of a cataclysmic natural disaster and the garish neon that makes even the classiest restaurant feel like a greasy diner.

I’m spending a large part of each day out at about with Kawaii exploring a different neighbourhood. In spite of – or perhaps because of – Japan’s very low fertility rate, Tokyo is a remarkably kid-friendly city. It is easy to get most places with a pram, although peak-hour trains and buses are best avoided unless you’re keen to get up-close and personal with a salaryman’s armpit.

The abundance of public parks, with lots of kid-friendly equipment, make it easy to wander around confident in the knowledge that there will be somewhere fun to play. Because of the high density of apartments in Tokyo, kids often don’t have much room to play at home, so communal outdoor spaces are pretty much essential. The lack of alternate open space means the playgrounds are also where office workers go with their lunch, or smokers loiter with a sly dart, or trysting couples plan a visit to a love hotel.

Still, the playgrounds are safe places for kids and prams. We’ll often leave our pram, complete with bags, valuables and vending machine detritus, sitting near a bench while we wander. Out of habit I occasionally glance toward it from elsewhere in the park, but such is the security of Tokyo I’m more likely the find an origami crane deposited on the top than I am have anything go missing. In spite of a lack of rubbish bins, the playgrounds are near spotless – pockets and prams get crammed with the flotsam of the day.

Fun slide
Slide? Check. Swings? Check. Dirt on the ground? Check. No bins? Check. Looks like we’ve got ourselves a Tokyo playground.

Each playground has its own unique design, but a slide and a set of swings is a near-certainty. Oddly, getting up the steps in order to go down the swing is not as easy as it should be. We’ve found sets of steps that are too high, are oddly shaped, feature gaps, are at an odd angle or are too narrow, but barely a set that offer an easy climb up for a new walker. Perhaps it is designed to introduce kids early to the Japanese habit of disciplined self-denial.

Octopus slide
This slide, from Tako Park in Ebisu, is styled on an octopus and offers three ramps down. Unfortunately there’s no easy climb to the apex for a young ‘un, so it is best admired from the side rather than actually used.

Unusually, from an Australian perspective, grass is rarely a feature of the playgrounds. Instead the play equipment is often situated in dirt, meaning kids are adept at dusting themselves off whenever they tumble into it. Given the sunshine and rain that Tokyo receives, it seems that grass would grow well in many playground sites, but alas it remains absent. Even the “sand” pits seem filled with black dirt, which means it can be a bit confronting when a little one starts running their hands through it and putting it through their hair or that of a playmate. That’s one way to toughen them up.

When we visit playgrounds during the day there’s a high probability that there will be other kids there as well. Kawaii is getting the hang of interacting with other kids, taking turns to sit on the swing, head down the slide or complain about the difficult steps. As a gaijin, Kawaii is occasionally an object of curiosity for Japanese kids, but the interaction is always friendly.

Often our playmates at the playgrounds are kids from a local kindergarten or primary school, who come to play as a group, usually donning matching hats or T-shirts in order to stand out from the crowd. It is an impressive show of discipline that kids as young as four can be walked to the playground alongside main road, linked hand in hand, without wandering off or otherwise causing heart palpitations for those nearby.

Day care child mover
Kudos to the teachers who keep their young ones happy and safe. Photo via Facts and Details

Once they get there the kids are usually happy to play on the equipment, but often the kids play games in the open space. One common one is janken (known elsewhere as rock-paper-scissors), a game Japanese kids seem to have turned into a competitive sport. (Basically, the kids line up as two teams in single file facing each other head on, with the front two in combat and the winner of each bout progressing down the line to take on the next challenger. Mesmerising to watch.)

Pick the right park and there can be a few twists (sometimes literally) on the conventional playground setup. The Ajiro public park in Azabu Juban has an enormous slide that is comprised of small rolling cylinders, so the child (or drunken adult) slides down like a box of ramen noodles at the Nissin factory. That same park features a wide slope leading to a sandpit, which is best used by sitting on cardboard or something else to reduce bum-on-cement friction.

Long slide
Sliding down like a box of ramen noodles at the Nissin factory, at Ajiro public park.

Sadly dads are a pretty rare sight at the playgrounds. Beyond the aforementioned kindergarten educators, mostly it is mums taking their charges to the park to burn some energy, and in affluent neighbourhoods it seems it is the nanny doing the duty. While some mums are admirably hands-on, others seem to have fallen into the national (possibly global) obsession of staring at their phones while with their kids, only occasionally raising their head up to ensure their offspring hasn’t gashed their head.

Now that we’ve had a taste of the kid-friendly things to do in Tokyo – parks and beyond – it’s time to get a bit methodical in sharing our experiences. Over coming months (and possibly years) I’m keen to share my reviews of some of the more interesting places for kids to go, so that others can seek them out or avoid them, if that’s how they roll.

So, Tokyo-ites – what is your favourite park?


An Ant in Tokyo: Baby on board

It was late in the afternoon when Kawaii finally lost it. She was sobbing inconsolably, struggling to take in the requisite breaths in order to continue her cycle of woe-is-me cries. Neither the offering of a teddy bear nor the whispered singing of AFL club songs was able to stem the tide of tears.

Who could blame her? Here we were, in a van heading from Haneda, the more central of Tokyo’s two airports, to the digs that will be our new home for the next few years. Our day had started 18 hours earlier several seas away, and Kawaii was simply vocalising what The Diplomat and I were feeling.

We were lucky that it was in that small van that fatigue finally got the better of her. After all, our only company in that space was our world-weary driver and a colleague of The Diplomat who had greeted us at the airport. Had she have lost her composure an hour earlier, our company would have been a planeful of well-heeled commuters towards the pointy end of an A350.

As it happens, our flights were about as good as we possibly could have hoped for with an 18-month-old. She was in a good mood, slept a few hours, paged through some books and ate enough to develop a healthy distrust of airline food. By the end she was even asked for selfies by hosties enamoured with her curly locks and cheeky smile.

Before the flight I had asked a few people for advice on long-haul travel with a toddler. Two themes came up repeatedly: make generous use of Phenergan, and queue up plenty of videos.

For some parents those two had clearly worked well, but I wasn’t sure it was right for us. After all, using a sedative for the first time could be a risky move and does seem a little like using a performance-enhancing drug in the Parenting Olympics. And encouraging Kawaii to zone out in front of a screen would take her a step closer to being the screen zombie I fear.

Flying long-haul with a toddler is a test of character: how far are you willing to compromise your parenting principles for the sake of peace and quiet? It is easy to have all sorts of family rules when you’re in the comfort of your own living room and the only people who need to hear the wails of dissent are you. But when you’re fraying with tiredness, stressed by logistical complications and trying to stay nice with a bunch of strangers, it’s tempting to bend the rules.

In the end we held firm against using a sedative, or even making liberal use of the free-flow chardy on board (for any of us). But we did yield a little on screen time.

Desperate for some quiet and sick of looking for that fucking green sheep, I sat Kawaii in my lap and turned on the screen in front of us. I sifted through countless menus until I finally got to the kids section and scrolled through. The options were high-energy cartoons, epilepsy-inducing action and happy-clappy song-and-dance numbers.

But among them were a couple of gems: Wallace & Grommit in The Wrong Trousers and a Bugs Bunny special featuring the usual suspects in all their politically incorrect glory. Gold. If I was going to let my daughter gawk at a screen for an hour, I was going to expose her to the best bits of television of my own childhood.

Being mid-flight adds an extra degree of difficulty to feeding a toddler. Normally we’re pretty adventurous in what we feed Kawaii, knowing that if she doesn’t like what we offer her that she’s got a pretty effective way of letting us know. Then we sponge it out of our hair and move on.

But try that same strategy in the air, and we could find ourselves wearing some unloved morsels for the rest of the journey, or worse still trying to identify a mysterious squelch each time we adjusted our seat. A safety-first (and dignity-first) strategy demanded that we only offered things we knew she’d like. That left us poking and prodding at our tray, debating the merits of each forkful before we offered it up, like heathens offering sacrifices to appease a vengeful god. Dangerous business, that.

Apart from a few tense moments, Kawaii remained the good kid she always is. We made it through the flights intact, then passed through border control and jumped in the van that would take us to our new home. Then she cracked.