Yvonne Roberts argues that flexible working patterns may just
change the father’s family role.
It doesn’t sound like the stuff of revolutionary slogans. “What
do we want? Work-life balance.”
“When do we want it?”
It lacks the zing of, say, “Ho! Ho! Ho Chi Minh!” Still,
Labour’s promise to set up a task force to examine the implications
of flexible working including a statutory right to return to work
part-time promises a major social upheaval. If, that is, men are
brave enough to take up the challenge. If they don’t, then
“flexible” will always equate with those “not serious” about their
careers or judged unwilling to pull their weight.
Labour has also leaked the news that it intends to create a
government department of work and family, taking employment away
from the Department of Education. This too is a breakthrough since,
until recently, nobody even whispered the word family in
conjunction with work. On the contrary, a star employee pretended
he didn’t have one.
So why the change now? Unemployment is low so (some) employees
are more confident about dictating terms. And pressure is
increasing. In the 1980s, a couple worked 60 paid hours a week, now
it is 67. Legislative change helps, but the hardest hurdle of all
is achieving a cultural shift. What will make it the norm for men
to opt for a shorter work pattern for a period of time, once they
have children? Their offspring would benefit; the definition of
what it means to be a “good enough” father would drastically alter;
and, importantly for women, the value society places on caring will
shoot up. An impossible dream? Well, maybe. Particularly without
sufficient financial compensation.
A quarterly periodical has just been launched by the charity
Fathers Direct to help dispel the myth that dads are little more
than walking wallets. Called Fatherwork, it hopes to create
solidarity among fathers who feel isolated from their children’s
upbringing and highlight dads’ changing roles. Organisations such
as Fathers Direct matter hugely in pushing the boulder of cultural
change to the top of the hill. Once at the crest, it has a momentum
of its own.
Remember smoking? Fifteen years ago, the non-smoker had to
accept that life was lived in a fug of fags. Suddenly, attitudes
shifted. How? By an intangible mix of health information,
advertising, government intervention, fashion and common sense.
Children have a terrible press. Child rearing is mostly
discussed as a string of problems. Women are endlessly reported
struggling with the problem of child care, exhaustion, a hundred
and one infant behavioural difficulties (collectively called “pay
me some attention”) and employment anxieties.
In Fatherwork, Stuart Auger, a house husband in charge of twins,
says mournfully: “You are no longer the regular at the pub, but a
well known face at Tesco’s.” Given the coverage, what sane man
would want to enter the crazy zone of the work-life imbalance?
Only the man, perhaps, who has heard by word of mouth and who
knows from his own instincts that looking after a child offers pain
but it also promises a hundred and one unique rewards which, in
these workaholic times, go desperately under-reported. So, what do