Film and Book Reviews

Fathers suffer too in the parenthood trap

BookMen at Work: Australia's Parenthood Trap (Quarterly Essay #75), by Annabel Crabb (Black Inc., 2019)

By Sharne Rolfe

November 13 2019 

In true Annabel Crabb style, this Quarterly Essay about parenthood, paid work and in particular men’s work-life balance is witty and in parts laugh-out-loud funny. But there can be no doubting the seriousness of the subject matter and Crabb’s passionate commitment to its importance in contemporary Australian society.

The issues raised, mainly to do with well-researched differences in how mothers and fathers manage the competing demands of parenting and paid work, are not new. In a different life, many years ago now, I led a research team at the University of Melbourne investigating the transition back to paid work by mothers with young children, mainly infants under 12 months of age. At that time, 30 years ago, this group of mothers was something of a minority, but Crabb’s essay makes clear the issues they faced are pretty much still the same for mothers in paid employment today.

She does not overload her essay with statistics, but a compelling graph early on reveals that whilst fathers’ average hours per week in paid employment, hours of household work per week and hours undertaking parenting and child care tasks hardly change at all after the birth of their first child, for mothers, it’s a very different picture. Their hours per week spent in child care and parenting tasks skyrocket after the birth of their first child, their hours per week in paid employment plummet, never recovering to pre-birth levels (on average remaining for 12 years at least around half pre-birth hours) and their time spent per week on household tasks continues at a high level, close to double that of their male partners, throughout their children’s first 12 years.

The main point Annabel Crabb wants to make is that whilst women have made big strides in workplace equality of opportunity over the past 20 years or so, the fact that mothers continue to do many more hours of child care, many more hours of household work and considerably fewer hours in paid work per week than fathers seriously and negatively impacts just how much they can realise – make use of – the employment opportunities on offer. Statistics revealing how few women with children are in senior positions of leadership in business and government cement this fact.

But her concern is not only with and for mothers. Crabb predominantly wants to emphasise the negative impacts of all this on fathers (and children) given that fathers, like mothers, have a key role in nurturing their children’s optimum development and often want to have a much greater role than they do in their children’s day-to-day upbringing. There are provisions for fathers to take paid parenting leave, but very few do. Crabb’s thesis is that it is society’s expectations of men, and men’s unwillingness to take the risks associated with requesting and taking up flexible paid work options, that is leading to the unsustainable situation we have today. Mothers continue to sacrifice their long-term paid work prospects in order to do all the things that are needed to keep a home and family running, whilst fathers, overwhelmingly, continue on doing pretty much what they always did before their children came along. Crabb contends that as a result, mothers suffer, fathers suffer, children suffer and society suffers.

Things are of course changing, something I am personally very aware of since the recent birth of my two youngest grandchildren. My son’s workplace is very supportive of equal opportunity in regard to gender and parenting responsibilities and offers considerable flexibility in working arrangements. And my son has been more than willing to take up these opportunities, meaning that his wife has had much parenting and other support from him, something I have observed to make a world of positive difference in how they have coped as a family during this time of important transition. Both my son and daughter-in-law intend to make full use of all the workplace options and flexibilities available to them. Perhaps they are a case study in what parenting and paid work will increasingly look like as we move further into the 21st century. And many new models of parenting are emerging: two mums, two dads, sole parenting. Crabb’s essay doesn’t really engage with these models which is a shame, but clearly this is an important and fertile area for further research.

An important footnote to all this is what message there is in it for Melbourne clergy, and all clergy really, in terms of access to parental leave and flexible work options. Such provisions for clergy must be addressed as a priority in all dioceses throughout Australia. We live in a rapidly changing world that finally understands how important each parent is to their children, and how important it is for families – in all their various forms – to have the opportunity to combine paid work and parenting responsibilities in ways that bring fullness of life to all family members. The Church ought to be at the forefront of paid work provisions that help make this a reality.

The Revd Dr Sharne Rolfe is Vicar of  St Nicholas’ Mordialloc.