Child Care

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The invisible men in the child-care debate

The invisible men in the child-care debate


It's Thursday afternoon and my son, Edward, is in child care so his mother can go to work. At least that's how most people would view our household arrangements.

Edward is also in child care so that I, his father, can go to work. But few would consider that. Or that it might have been my decision to leave Edward in care, or that I decided to go to work rather than staying home with him.

Nobody would bother to analyse my motives and my morality. Nobody would think I was selfish or a bad parent - because I am a father.

But it's completely different when you're a working mother.

Whenever the subject of child care is aired in the media it elicits an emotional reaction. The latest study to fuel the debate, from the University of Melbourne, is ostensibly about the effects of long-term child care: it found that children who are in care for more than 30 hours a week have more social problems when they get to school. Inevitably, though, the subtleties of long-term or short-term care, good care and less good care, will be lost. Inevitably, a report like this is used as evidence in the fundamental debate about child care: good or bad?

Working mothers are suddenly forced to revisit their decision to put their children into care. Once again they have to ask, am I doing the right thing?

For mothers who have chosen not to work, or who can't afford to work, the findings smoothe those niggling doubts that there may have been more to life than raising children. And it's a free kick for those who still believe a woman's place is in the home, among them no doubt most of the Howard Cabinet, along with admirers of ABC TV's reality drama The 1940s House.

If a child is in care, it's always seen as the mother's decision. Working mothers constantly have to justify their choice: to other mothers who don't work, to grandparents, to themselves.

Fathers, on the other hand, rarely have to justify themselves to anybody.

Nobody thinks for a moment that a father might be making a choice when he comes to work. If the subject of child care does happen to come up, there might be questions asked. But it's not, why aren't you at home looking after your children? Rather it's, why isn't your wife at home looking after the children?

When a man has a child, nobody expects him to give up work, go part-time, or even take paternity leave. Quite the contrary: a father who does wind back his career to care for his children is viewed with suspicion. Isn't he committed to his employer? Isn't he a good provider? In politics, retiring "to spend more time with the family" is just a euphemism for being shafted.

That's not to say men don't think about it. Newspaper stories about high-profile executives who've quit to spend time with their kids make the notion of fathers as carers increasingly normal. And as I discovered after interviewing a range of fathers for a book, many wish they could spend more time with their children, and have an increasing awareness of the importance of doing so.

Yet studies show that when men become fathers, rather than spending less time at work and more time at home, they often start to work longer hours.

So why don't more fathers do more about it? Despite the advertising industry's habit of portraying fathers as bumbling fools, it's not as if they can't look after children as capably as their partners. Several of the men I interviewed are, or have been, full-time carers for their children, and they've behaved much as John Howard would expect a mother to behave.

One of these fathers has been a stay-at-home dad to a baby and a school-age daughter for six months, after years in a corporate job, and he loves it, right down to making the packed lunches. Another fellow took six months' paternity leave on principle, because he wanted to buck the trend, but found the reality soul-destroying and couldn't wait to get back to the office.

Much of the time, looking after children is hard, mindless, repetitive work, and, like women, some men adapt to it better than others.

The bottom line, though, is that for many couples any arguments about societal pressures and sexual equality are moot. Because he usually earns more than she does, it's a foregone conclusion that it will be the father who returns to work full-time. And when she starts to think about returning to work it's her career, not his, that's weighed down by all that emotional baggage.

Is the child-care debate just another reaction against feminism? It's too simplistic to view it like that, just as it is to state unquestioningly, because it is politically correct, that child care doesn't have a negative effect on children.

But it's time to look at the issue as one for which we are all responsible. Even fathers.

Source: Angus Holland is an assistant editor at The Age. His book, Real Dads, will be published by Lothian in September. aholland@theage.com.au or www.theage.com.au/articles/2002/05/23/1022038456348.html

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Making the decision to have a child - it's momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body. Elizabeth Stone

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