Working fathers want to spend more time with children.

// 20 October 2009

A new report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has found that working fathers feel similarly anxious about balancing their work and family life to working mothers, but are afraid of asking for more flexible hours:

The report paints a picture of a modern, working father who feels miserable about the proportion of time he is able to devote to his children, but who is too nervous to demand flexible working from his employers. About two in five men fear that asking for flexible working arrangements would result in their commitment to their job being questioned, and would negatively affect their chances of promotion. Although men are entitled to two weeks’ statutory paternity leave (at £123.06 a week), 45% of men did not take it, with most saying they would have liked to. The most common reason was because the fathers felt they could not afford to.

It’s clear that paternity leave needs to be extended in order that men have an equal opportunity to women to spend time with their children and that women do not have to bare the brunt of workplace discrimination against parents. The new plans to allow men to take 6 months’ paternity leave after the mother has taken 6 months (which came at the expense of extended maternity leave) may help, but a more flexible system where the leave can be split according to parents’ needs would be better. And men will need to step up and take what they are entitled to.

In a particularly blinkered and unhelpful article in The Times today, Eleanor Mills argues that working mothers in Britain are getting ‘greedy’ about maternity pay and are making life harder for others by giving employers no choice but to discriminate against women of child-bearing age, but she completely fails to take fathers’ roles into account. If any person, regardless of gender, could potentially take paid time off work to look after a new child, this practice would stop, as employers wouldn’t know who to discriminate against. It’s the focus on mothers as the primary care giver that is the problem, plus the lack of state-sponsored and affordable childcare and work-based creches. Implementing serious change in all these areas would benefit everyone: mothers, fathers, children and even employers, who could keep their existing staff if childcare were provided. I just wish the business bodies would get it into their heads that there’d be no workers in the future if employees didn’t have children.

Comments From You

Daniela Vincenti // Posted 20 October 2009 at 5:50 pm

Dear Laura,

This is totally spot on. I am going to print it out and hang it in my bedroom.

By the way, I sympathise with your current predicament. Things will eventually get better. Sometimes a little white lie to the authorities helps too :)

Kath // Posted 20 October 2009 at 10:35 pm

I understand why you say a flexible system of parental leave would be better. I’m certain it would have very tangible benefits for many sets of parents. But, if we really want to change society and attitudes and how childcare is undertaken then an mandatory period of paternity leave is a good place to start. As you point out it’s the only way to stop employers discriminating against women of childbearing age. If the ‘choice’ is left to individual couples I don’t believe much progress would be made: women would continue to take the most leave because it’s still regarded as the woman’s role and the discrimination would continue accordingly. A possible compromise would be a set amount of time that must be taken by each parent (when I say ‘must’ I mean take-it-or-lose-it) plus an additional allowance that either can take. The order in which it’s taken could be flexible. In fact it needn’t be taken all at once. In Sweden very flexible arrangements can be agreed, such as taking one day a week over several years, if that’s what fits with your childcare arrangements. But a certain amount has to be taken by the father and extended paternity leave is now seen as the norm by the Swedes.

SnowdropExplodes // Posted 21 October 2009 at 10:00 am


From my male-focused “manefism” angle, this is something I have a real bee in my bonnet over.

I’m not sure about the advisability of having mandatory paternity leave such as Kath suggests, especially the “take it or lose it” clause. I have a suspicion that it might be more disruptive for lower-income families. Also, I suspect that that kind of social-engineering solution might backfire, with lots of “dads” who don’t think of it as “their” job and don’t really want to learn, being thrown in at the deep end. I have a slight presentiment of a “law of unintended consequences” outcome about the idea. That said, I think it’s still better than the status quo.

But men should at least have the option to be involved in childcare full-time, and right now the law mitigates against them taking any interest in it (as the OP points out with the statistics). There are definitely men who WANT to be involved in bringing up their children – who want to do it, and to know how to do it well. I believe that change will have to be gradual, but that the government can certainly help by removing barriers and making it a very easy path to follow.

Laura // Posted 21 October 2009 at 10:46 am

There’s a good article on stay-at-home fathers in the Guardian today. I thought this comment underneath was interesting in its parallels with many women’s experiences when taking on a traditionally masculine role:

I work one day a week, the rest of the time I’m at home, washing nappies and mashing up banana and I love it. My partner is a doctor so she will basically earn more than me nomatter what I do and to be honest I’m perfectly happy with the situation.

It’s really odd the incredulity that this arrangement arouses in people, I was completely unready for it. Almost daily my partner is asked “So who is at home with your baby? ” and she gets raised eyebrow looks which imply that she is being very brave to let me look after our baby alone. No one has ever asked me who is at home with my baby when I’m out without her.

When we go shopping for stuff for the baby, a pram for instance, all of the shop assistants direct all the practical advice to my partner and all of the price information to me. I had one shop assistant tell me that there was a pub round the corner if I was getting ‘bored’. I get told that the mechanism is so simple ‘even the dads can work it out’.

nick // Posted 21 October 2009 at 11:20 am

this is something which I will have an impact on me next year, as my wife is pregnant , birth around May .

I work full time in a hospital and she is self employed and works from home.

I will take my full entitlement of paternity leave , but then my wife will

be at home caring for the baby. I will

then look after the baby when she needs to go out to meet clients, meetings etc for her business.

I will have to be flexible , but also it was a choice my wife made to work at home and start her own business.

We have no choice to make everything work as best as possible.

Similar note …..did you read an article from an ‘expert’ professor about delivery rooms being female only, and fathers should not be allowed to be at the birth of the child.

What do people think about that ?

Hannah // Posted 21 October 2009 at 11:24 am

Totally agree. The new plans to change things slightly are a step in the right direction but i do feel things need to be more flexible. I don’t have children but hope to in the near future and current parental leave arrangements would not suit me or my husband. He would love to be more involved instead of having just the initial two weeks off but that’s currently not possible.

Laura // Posted 21 October 2009 at 11:29 am

I missed that article, Nick, but it sounds ridiculous, surely it should be up to the mother. If I was giving birth I’d sure as hell want the person I love and trust most in the world to be there.

Anna // Posted 21 October 2009 at 11:59 am

Laura: it was terrible. Apparently us silly womens shouldn’t have men at the birth in case they find they whole birthing thing icky and stop wanting to sleep with us any more. And then divorce us.

..bad science at it’s finest!

nick // Posted 21 October 2009 at 12:40 pm

Laura ….the comment was made by a man , a leading expert ( cant remeber his name or title ) ….

they way I read it , he thought that if the fathers were present at birth , then

the mother would be get too stressed, which would lead to a longer delivery, possible complications and possible mental anguish for the mother.

Its a tricky one for me personally …

I dont want to be present at the birth of our first child at the moment ….its a long way off yet so time to change my mind …….my wife does want me there…….who’s right ?

Of course I will support and help my wife during her pregnancy …..but do I need to be there during the birth ?

She wants me there , so should I put my feelings aside and be there for her

and the baby ?

gadgetgal // Posted 21 October 2009 at 12:50 pm


I think in this case you have to defer to your wife’s wishes – she’s going to be having the worst time of it anyway, so, since she’s got the rawer end of the procreation deal (the pain, the hours of labour, the chances of complications that could hurt her, the baby, or both, plus all the after-effects which will carry on for YEARS), I’m afraid you really should.

Daniela Vincenti // Posted 21 October 2009 at 12:57 pm

Dear Nick,

If your wife strongly wishes you to be there, try your best to drum up courage and be present. You could try watching documentaries on deliveries to get used to it. And of course if you feel faint, you can always sit down or leave the room temporarilly. Will post a detailed criticism of the “take it or leave it” approach advocated by Kath later on.

Sarah // Posted 21 October 2009 at 1:51 pm

Nick’s problem is a difficult one – if it was the other way round, and she didn’t want you there, then I’d say you should definitely respect that and stay away, in fact if she’s having the baby in a hospital or birthing centre, I can’t imagine they’d let anyone be present without the woman’s consent.

But this – I don’t know your reasons for not wanting to be there, and maybe they’re valid. But she’s your partner, and giving birth is painful and exhausting, and frightening especially if it’s her first time, or if there should be any complications. It seems a little – well – cold, to refuse to be there to support her. Especially it’s your child too that she’s going through all this for. Would you expect her to be there for you if you were going through a difficult and potentially traumatic experience? Does she have someone else (mum/sister/friend) to be with her for the birth, or have you considered hiring a doula?

In general, I think it’s silly to say ‘the father should always be present’ (sometimes there is no father to be there!) or ‘no man should ever be there’, it depends on the individual couple and their circumstances. In general I would say the wishes of the woman having the baby are the most important thing – she shouldn’t be made to feel she must have a particular person there if she’d feel more comfortable without. Similarly few women would want to be left alone, and I’d expect partners to be as supportive as they can.

Troon // Posted 21 October 2009 at 5:58 pm


“If the ‘choice’ is left to individual couples I don’t believe much progress would be made: women would continue to take the most leave because it’s still regarded as the woman’s role and the discrimination would continue accordingly”

I absolutely agree, this is one of those issues where choice has to be sacrificed in order to create some sort of equality which means choice is valid. I’m yet to be remotely convinced that men are queuing up to give up work or to assume ‘responsibility’, as opposed to just wanting to spend more time with their children (note the report’s disjuncture between men who claim to be responsible and women who think their partners are responsible) or that the pay gap isn’t simply horribly self-replicating in present circumstances (women earn less, couples decide they should stay at home more for fiunancial reasons, are viewed as less employable for top jobs).

I don’t know what Nick’s personal difficulties with being in the delivery room are, and they are probably good, but I would strongly recommend not only that you accept your partner’s wishes on this, not only because she knows you well enough to know you are uncomfortable with this but is still asking, but also because in the unlikely event of anything going wrong, you are her advocate to medical staff, and need to have been present during labour in order to fully understand the situation and her likely wishes. Ultimately her life may depend on you decision ,which is terrifying, but surely neither of you would wish that decision to be in other hands.

I would note nothing like this happened to me, my partner was (in my view) calm despite pain throughout the first labour, and I was rewarded for my minimal efforts by a lovely one-and-a-half hour cuddle with my newborn son after he had fed for the first time. Second time round I had no choice, since I delivered the baby in the car park. She did seem more stressed that time, but I don’t think it was my presence which caused this.

aimee // Posted 22 October 2009 at 11:46 am

Oh my god! I don’t know what I would have done if my partner hadn’t been present! Mangled someone, probably! I agree, i think it’s pretty cold to refuse to be there if she wants you to! I mean, you both made the baby… I think her trauma kind of trumps your squemishness… I say suck it up and think about exactly what it is that she ha to go through, compare it with what you have to go through and I think you’ll find she wins. She wants and needs your support.

Daniela Vincenti // Posted 22 October 2009 at 4:38 pm

@Kath and Troon,

Your take it or leave it proposal sounds more like a transparent bribe to entice fathers into accepting the same handicap as mothers rather than a genuine attempt to help couples. Since men are not that stupid, and the job market in the UK is much more competitive than in Scandinavia, I doubt that such an idea would be popular.

And of course, Troon, any choice a woman takes that you don’t approve of has to be considered meaningless, right? You don’t think that some woman might actually earn more than their partners (like Laura’s case above) and agree with her husband that he should take all of the leave.

And of course, you don’t think that a woman (or a father, for that matter) can legitimately prefer to spend more time with a young child and prefer to take all of the leave herself. Obviously the worth of a man is what he contributes to the workplace and the woman who chooses to stay at home is a detriment to the sisterhood.

How ironic that you want to create a more liberal society by illiberal legislation. Your broken eggs and omlettes smell quite rotten to me.

Victoria // Posted 22 October 2009 at 5:55 pm

“Your take it or leave it proposal sounds more like a transparent bribe to entice fathers into accepting the same handicap as mothers rather than a genuine attempt to help couples.”

Daniela, I would point out that a “take it or leave it” system is not the invention of Kath or Troon. That’s the current system as it stands for women (I write as one currently on maternity leave – I’m taking it rather than leaving it as my partner has no option of sharing). Moreover, the point is not to entice fathers into “accepting the same handicap as mothers” – I don’t see how it’s a handicap if it’s equally distributed, and it’s a funny way of describing what would be being offered.

Of course some women earn more than men and some women or men would want all the time with their child. Incidentally, what would be your suggestion if both did? Or if neither wanted to accept the responsibility of childcare? A presumption of equal distribution, like, say, the evil Kath and Troon were mentioning? Or does the validity of women’s preferences, which Troon was in no way questioning, mean that they trump men’s, in which case you’re placing childcare back as essentially women’s responsibility?

Your focus on individual choice simply overlooks wider social benefits to reconfiguring how childcare is understood and carried out in this country. This is essentially the point which others are making. It’s not that a woman who chooses to stay at home is “a detriment to the sisterhood”; it’s that her personal preferences can’t form the basis for how an equitable society is structured, as that would be patently unfair. Right, must go and apparently betray the sisterhood by looking after my toddler.

D Vincenti // Posted 22 October 2009 at 7:00 pm


“I would point out that a “take it or leave it” system is not the invention of Kath or Troon. That’s the current system as it stands for women”

I’m not saying the current system is good. I’m saying that the proposals of Kath and Troon are bad too, because they limit the choice of the individual couple, whilst Laura’s proposals empower them with the most choice.

“Of course some women earn more than men and some women or men would want all the time with their child. Incidentally, what would be your suggestion if both did?” Then they would have to sort it out between themselves. It is not the role of the state to be the nanny that tells the arguing kids how to divide their candy. Adults have a right to decide for themselves.

“Or does the validity of women’s preferences, which Troon was in no way questioning, mean that they trump men’s, in which case you’re placing childcare back as essentially women’s responsibility?”

First of all, Troon WAS questioning the validity of a woman’s choice:

“I absolutely agree, this is one of those issues where choice has to be sacrificed in order to create some sort of equality which means choice is valid.”

She is assuming that any woman that under Laura’s model takes all the leave herself would be making an invalid choice. Notice also Troon’s very appropriate use of the word sacrifice. Allow me to tell you one thing, Victoria. Where I to be blessed with having another child (admittedly impossible now, besides the point) and Laura’s proposals were in place, I would very much want to spend more time with him or her myself. This is because bringing up my children has been the most beautiful and worthwhile experience in my life. But of course my choice would be less valid according to Troon, and indeed it would have to be sacrificed for some greater good. Excuse me, but that does not sound very liberal to me, and I don’t like being coerced into a choice I do not want to make. As such, if you and Troon want to “sacrifice” me, I am not going to be dragged up your altar like a meek lamb, but will fight back every inch of the way.

And secondly, no, the preference of a woman does not trump that of a man. I never suggested that. If my husband also wanted to stay at home once again we would sort it out between ourselves.

CMK // Posted 22 October 2009 at 7:14 pm

@ Nick: Your feelings are perfectly valid and as equal as your partners.

@World: Is anyone surprised at having a massively increased financial load on the family any parent is reluctant to take time off which results in less pay?

The new plans are terrible, they reinforce the view that childcare sits with women first. When we have parity for time off to care for our children (not recover from giving birth which should be a separate type of leave) then we will see some change.

Victoria // Posted 22 October 2009 at 9:12 pm


With respect, I think you need to read the sentence you quote from Troon again. The point is that the context in which people currently make choices is distorted by economic inequality and social prejudice, which would unfortunately continue under Laura’s proposal. It’s really not about what has or hasn’t been “the most beautiful and worthwhile experience” of your life, it’s about trying to create a fair and just context in which choices can be made (including choices between people who do not have the relationship you are fortunate enough to have with your husband).

Deciding that others are out to make a sacrifice of you personally is a stunningly self-centred way of reading things. Moreover, this is not about the value of childcare, which you seem to suggest in comments such as “the woman who chooses to stay at home …” and “the most worthwhile … etc.”. Funnily enough, you’re not the only one who values time spend raising their children, and there is absolutely no need for you to imply that others, including mothers such as myself, need to be told that bringing up children is an amazing experience. Thanks, but we’ve noticed.

Troon // Posted 23 October 2009 at 4:55 pm

“She [actually, I’m afraid, he] is assuming that any woman that under Laura’s model takes all the leave herself would be making an invalid choice”.

Well, no. First, I didn’t say “an invalid choice” I said “choice [no article] is valid”, i.e. ‘choice’ as an abstract noun. The point was that so heavily stacked do I feel the odds are in favour of the woman taking the majority of responsibility that I don’t consider it to be a ‘choice’ free enough to be validly called that (it’s of the ‘do I go to work if I have a job’ kind, obviously you have the right not to, and can choose not to, but the consequences are too serious to make that choice remotely likely). Second, I was writing about proposed changes to the system, not pre-emptively judging individual decisions made under a different system. The fact I think a fairer system should (regretfully) preclude some options doesn’t mean I’m intrinsically opposed to those options, against people making those choices if systematically allowed to, or judging them for doing so. Third, here and elsewhere, I really get upset by the use of “any woman” and of “woman’s choice” as if these decisions are rightly for women to make and with the subtext that I’m some bullying man telling women what to do or an anti-abortionist. I assume that for mixed couples the choice is not simply a woman’s choice, but one for both people. You may as well write to the council complaining traffic lights limit a woman’s choice because some women have to stop when told as to use this terminology of what I’ve said here.

What I don’t think you are taking into account is just how far removed the norms of discussion here are from those I hear when looking after my kids. Over the last year I must have heard about two or three hundred mothers discussing care options after maternity leave (when men would be equally legally able to participate). The standard ‘choices’ available for consideration are: when are you going back to work?, how many days will you work?, where are you putting the kids?’ The standard answer and response to the last is nursery or childminder (as my partner and I do, I’m not having a go here), to which you reply ‘yes, they’re very good there’. If the answer’s grandparents or neighbours the answer is ‘yes, that’ll be really fun”. On one occasion did someone say “Peter will have them for a day”. Against all expected protocol the response to that was “oh right, well you’re brave”, to which the reply was a laugh and “well, nursery was full”. These conversations aren’t the whole story, but over the year I have met three other men who take any weekday responsibility for their children (and I now go to post-1 groups so this isn’t about leave law). In other words the list of ‘choices’ which normative public conversations about childcare consider does not include ‘male partner’, which is a non-choice, an emergency. For all the correspondence with the world in which the key choice is male/female carers in this thread, we may as well be discussing whether elephants should be child carers.

The point here is not to castigate any for making those choices, but to simply point out that ‘flexibility’ in such a context does not relate to ‘me or my partner’ but to the ‘when’ question. You cannot simply design a law which works for Laura and you into a world which is this skewed, since the consequences would be to skew it further. And that affects not just the couple concerned but other men, women and children disastrously, not least because sane parents who don’t have full-time paid employment are not “stay-at-home”, they participate in activities which pattern what it is to be a ‘normal’ parent in the eyes of other parents and children.

Daniela Vincenti // Posted 24 October 2009 at 5:40 pm


Apologies for wrongly assuming you were a woman. We do tend to be the majority here :)

First of all, I think it is convenient and dangerously patronising for you to think that a woman cannot make a “free choice” because of economical factors or societal pressures. Whilst on average men are still earning more than women, there are an increasing number of cases where the reverse is true. In the past I have come under pressure from both patriarchal norms and authoritarian feminist ideas, but I have always done what I believed in.

Your traffic lights comparison is just overblown here troon. I am not campaigning for my right to drive recklessly in an urban area without a concern for pedestrians. There is a valid reason why certain things are illegal. The matter is different here however. We are talking about a personal choice each couple has a right to make about how to subdivide their allotted leave. This is part of their domestic arrangement and the state should not interfere in their choice, by trying to bribe them into dividing it in a particular way.

You said that it was regretful that some options would be precluded. Well I think it is unacceptable rather than regretful. It is a throwback to an old-fashioned type of feminism, where women were told that the personal is political, and their individual choices had to be according to some feminist ideal.

Well I’m sorry troon but times have moved and we have realised that personal choices are primarily personal. No woman is obliged to sacrifice her choices in order to try and bridge the collective pay gap. No woman is obliged to carry the cross for the sisterhood. You have a right, of course, to campaign for the “take it or leave it” model but I can assure you that I will oppose strongly any campaign that limits the choice of any individual woman.

Troon // Posted 27 October 2009 at 3:07 pm


I don’t deny that individuals can make decisions which go against the ‘norm’. I do feel, however, that the norm in this case is supported not just by inequities in the legal system or in pay (which are, as you note, slowly changing), but by a nexus of cultural assumptions about childcare which is replicated and reinforced by the fact that women are the primary carers in most families, and thus in social contexts outside the family defined as ‘parental’. This creates extremely high personal costs for men and women that vary from this norm, and (as in the example above) reproduces a series of assumptions in parent-only situations which further confine choice by making gender difference ‘natural’ (in both senses) and so beyond even the boundaries of ‘choice’. I didn’t think this with as much strength before I took on full-time and then part-time responsibility for my children, when I believed (as you do) that choice can be worked out by the couple and was nobody else’s concern, but I do now I have practical experience of how parents discuss childcare, how naturalised the sexism in the childcare system can be and how this limits the perceived options of parents I talk to. My great fear is that the changes you propose will result in women assuming more childcare responsibility for longer, which will exacerbate rather than ameliorate the asymmetrical pressures that exist on men and women. Even if they produce no change for the worse, and help some couples to choose, unless they actually produce 50-50 sharing (which they won’t) they strengthen the cultural gender gap by seeming to suggest that this is what all women want if given choice, despite then uneven nature of that choice, which further strengthens the pressures upon parents.

One of the reasons I disagree with your statements on ‘choice’ is thus that I don’t share your perceptions of the freedom with which couples make choices, and believe the consequences of those decisions affect other couples more than you would admit (that is they aren’t ‘purely personal’). More generally, your linking of restraints on choice with restraints on women and your clear feeling that you have been attacked for choices in the past is to me a symptom of the broader cultural pressures which you refuse to admit the power of. I am no more suggesting that women cannot make ‘free choices’, should be told the ‘personal is political’, or to ‘sacrifice choices to bridge the pay gap’ than I am saying this of men. The only reason which you could have for criticising the proposal generally on these grounds is if, at some level, you still see the childcare as a ‘women’s issue’ (since I assume your criticisms of a system for all cannot be just about a woman-you-being theoretically limited or previously attacked). The point of the traffic light comment was not the consequences of dangerous driving, but that you would not write in such a way about an issue where you genuinely believe the broader restrictions to be systematically gender neutral, which is a pre-requisite for your ‘flexible’ system bringing significant positive change.

Leave is not the whole solution, but a system which states that men should have equal responsibility (a paternity and maternity allowance) seems far better than one which says they could (which will be seen and acted upon, as in the OP, as men being able to ‘share’ in a normatively maternal leave period).

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