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  • When dads do time
  • By Rob Burgess
  • The Age
  • 20/11/2003 Make a Comment
  • Contributed by: admin ( 75 articles in 2003 )
Society is saying that there's more joy in fatherhood, so men's sense of materialism is starting to diminish.
Picture: Robert Banks
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With his willingness to nurture his children and share household duties, the modern father has finally achieved a work/family balance. Or has he? Rob Burgess reports.

Dads always know the right thing to say. My own father recently looked over my shoulder as I changed my son's soggy, reeking nappy and said gleefully: "I never did that. Not once!"

OK, so his comment did not make wiping digested apricot off the changetable any easier, but it did highlight one of the great truths of modern times: dads have changed. Or rather, they think they have.

The problem is, nobody really knows what the modern dad is. It's not often the main topic of conversation at the pub, and even when it is, it can fall foul of the same male instinct that makes trophy-fish grow bigger with each retelling. Fortunately, there are better places to look for an answer.

Ruth Weston, principal research fellow at the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS), is part of Australia's biggest intensive study of home life, the Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey (Hilda), which covers 14,000 people in 7700 homes around the country.

With the Hilda team, Weston has unearthed some interesting facts about modern dads' work habits in particular.

"We've found a strong correlation between men enjoying their work and being happy with other areas of their life," says Weston. "Even men working more than 60 hours a week report less parental stress and more energy if they enjoy their work."

Other researchers have even pointed out that a father's "extra" hours can be low-stress, quality time at work, leaving his mind free when he gets home.

But does this mean modern dads are getting the work/family balance right? Sadly not. "Fathers are getting older - that is, having children later - and they are also increasingly likely to work longer hours," says Weston. Conversely, young dads are most likely to work less than the official 35-hour week.

"(Many men) are looking for a more meaningful life, and many would rather live in a small house spending time with their families than work all hours to pay for a bigger house."

This age-related work/family problem is due, in part, to unresponsive workplace policies, says Weston. "For women entering the workforce there has been a long timelag for workplace policies to fall into line with their wishes," she says. "But for men, workplace policies are actually working against the grain, pressuring them to work longer hours."

Market research confirms what the sociologists are finding. Liz Phillips, account director at market research company Heartbeat, says many of the men interviewed for the recently published New Men report wanted to work less. "Society is saying that there's more joy in fatherhood, so men's sense of materialism is starting to diminish. They're looking for a more meaningful life, and many would rather live in a small house spending time with their families than work all hours to pay for a bigger house."

For those fathers who do manage to get the work/family balance right, the obvious question is what extra parenting tasks they should take on.

Phillips claims the men they surveyed in the 30-45 years age group are seeing their roles broaden to include more cooking of meals, more picking up kids from school, more teacher-parent evenings. But is this the reality, or just wishful thinking on the part of "new men"?

"Overall there are some new dads out there, but they're thin on the ground," says Janeen Baxter, associate professor of social sciences at the University of Queensland, and author of the study Gender Division of Household Labour in Australia.

"Around 1 to 2 per cent of the men we surveyed showed evidence of increased involvement in childcare, but then so did women - they are having fewer children, so they are tending to spend more quality time with them."

On the housework front, there is more gender equality, but not for the reasons you might expect. "In the 1970s, we thought that as women entered the workforce, men would pick up more housework. Actually, women are doing a lot less housework and men's contribution has not changed much at all. Instead, women are coping by buying in takeaway or pre-prepared food. Also, 18 per cent of households now buy in cleaning services."

Researchers most commonly separate parenting roles into three groups: accessibility, meaning simply being on-hand when kids want attention; engagement, or actually interacting with your child; and responsibility, which means planning or organising to meet a child's needs, such as buying clothes, choosing appropriate toys, or visiting the doctor.

Though these activities are often done when the child is absent, research shows that they are vitally important as they provide the framework in which the child experiences the world.

At the annual AIFS conference earlier this year, researchers Katherine Wilson and Margot Prior highlighted responsibility roles as those being most neglected by fathers. However, "the more fathers valued their role as important, and the more efficacious they felt, the more they participated in the responsibility tasks of parenting".

In itself, that might sound a little obvious, but the researchers also found that mothers can have a big effect on fathers by encouraging them to feel valued and effective in this type of role. So, when mum blithely tells dad "oh, I'll do it", she may be reinforcing his sense of inadequacy in that role - effectively saying "that's not your job".

Men play catch-up

Most dads muddle through the process of defining their role without too many tears. But for a growing number, the answer is elusive, to the point of despair.

Terry Melvin, manager of the counselling service, Men's Line Australia, says a contributing factor is that men's job descriptions have changed significantly in the past 20 years.

"And because their own fathers didn't have to deal with these changes, they don't have any role models."

Melvin says changed roles have come about largely as a result of the women's movement and women's changing expectations of men.

"But it's not helpful just to point the finger. Women have a right to ask for better relationships and men have a right to ask for help in changing. Men are in catch-up mode."

Melvin says a 70 per cent increase in the suicide rate for men aged 20-39 since 1979 largely mirrors increased separation rates.

While women initiate up to 80 per cent of separations, men are 12 times more likely to suicide after the split. "A lot of men are in relationships that they are not trying to get out of, but are very depressed. Part of this depression is a lack of understanding of their role within the family."

Such men are prime targets for early intervention. However, Richard Fletcher, team leader of the Engaging Fathers Project at the University of Newcastle's Family Action Centre, believes that family services have been slow to change to accommodate the new roles expected of modern fathers.

Fletcher's team is working in the Hunter Valley region of New South Wales to bring fathers back into the loop.

One scheme involves getting dads along to a primary school to help their kids through a literacy program.

All well and good, but what about the loss of income dads face in taking time off work to be with their children?

"The economic obstacle argument is a myth," insists Fletcher. "When dads are interested and understand what it is they are supposed to be doing, they make the time. They are very creative in arranging their workload to get to the sessions - we've even had dads taking very long lunches to be with their kids."

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