Should real men take parental leave?

Yvonne Robertssays that despite changing gender roles at work,
men are still playing head honcho at home.

Holidays are women’s business -Êat least when children are
involved. School begins next week and thousands of mothers in paid
work will be able to stop fixing, swapping, fetching and finding
their own and other peoples’ offspring. Who let the dads off?

The short answer is, of course, culture, conditioning and
capitalism. Everybody says fathers ought to be more hands-on in
family life for the sake of their children and themselves but
employees, government and prevailing attitudes indicate that, in
truth, the young are still seen as a fundamentally female affair.
And those men who do want more of a look-in, have to struggle

Flick through, for instance, literature offering advice on
parenting -Êit is as if an immaculate conception has occurred.
The father is invisible. Research shows that a network of support,
including health visitors and those working with teenage mothers,
often overlook the baby’s other parent.

We’re supposed to be on the verge of a revolution in family
policy, a shift of gear in the work-life balance -Êbut as far
as men’s changing role is concerned, “A” for ambivalence brands the
whole endeavour.

Next month, for instance, Cherie Booth is due in court on behalf
of the TUC to argue that millions of parents have been wrongly
excluded from the promise of three months’ unpaid time off. Unpaid
parental leave is currently limited to those with children born
after December 15 1999. The TUC want the right extended to a
further 2.7million parents of under-fives born before that

Add unpaid parental leave to the recently conceded two weeks’
paid paternity leave -Êand what do you have? The answer is
no-show dads; domestic absenteeism. Men continue to be reared on
the belief that it is their prime duty to earn. That attitude is
reinforced by a system of unequal pay, which ensures that they
mostly receive a fatter wage packet than their wives.

Some men may, of course, relish being padlocked into place as
breadwinner and, theoretically, the head honcho but survey after
survey tells us that an awful lot don’t. It is a huge step from
full-time breadwinner to now and then carer particularly when the
latter is accorded the status in society of your basic lavatory
brush. Even in much-quoted Sweden, where family policy is supposed
to be the most liberal and radical in the world, fathers remain
cautious about making the change. There, a man (or woman) can take
parental leave at 80 per cent of salary up to a ceiling of around
£1,500 a month. The result? Still only 11 per cent of parental
leave is taken by men. The main reason they give for this
reluctance is that they are penalised in work for taking time off.
As mothers already know too well, production matters more than

The government, mindful of the female vote, may eventually allow
mothers the right to return to work part-time after the birth of a
child -Êif it can bring itself to brave employers’ moans.
Logically, that right should be extended to dads too. As it is,
they don’t even figure in the debate.

Pundits talk about the “new” fatherhood. First, we need to
address the issue of what it means, in the 21st century, to be a
real man.

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