When I joined the world of parenthood, I was surprised by the extent to which new dads are expected to be peripheral to the whole experience. Pregnant with my first child in 2007, the NHS handbook for pregnancy featured a large photo of a woman holding a baby, with a small photo of a man in the background. How much of an impact does this have on childcare decisions further down the line?
Lately it seems hardly a day goes by without a headline on childcare costs—the Family and Childcare Trust, IPPR, and the Resolution Foundation have all recently pointed out just how high they are, and the barrier this causes to maternal employment.
The coalition is promising further support. Given the underinvestment in childcare this country has seen over the past 40 years compared to our European neighbours, I applaud any attempt to support parents with the costs. However, anything that can be afforded in the current climate is likely to be a drop in the ocean for most families. Are there other solutions?
Most of the childcare debate centres on allowing mothers to go back to work, but I prefer talking about how it can help both parents in this way. Mothers are too often seen (in both private and public spheres) as the ones with the responsibility for childcare. Far too many dual-working couples do not even consider the father reducing his hours. I know this is often because the father earns more (and this is not changing fast enough), or because the mum is simply more interested than the dad in being with her children.
However, plenty of evidence also shows that if childcare was cheaper many mothers would be more likely to return to work, or work more hours.
So what if dads did more of the childcare, or even more drop offs and pick ups? The fall in salary might be more expensive than using childcare, but more involvement from dads could help with the common complex patchwork—sometimes involving grandparents, childminders and nurseries all in one week.
This will require co-operation from employers, as in Sweden, where part-time working for dads is much more common. In this country, there seems to be little appetite from dads to request flexible working, and even less willingness from employers to consider such requests from dads versus mums.
I agree with the Fatherhood Institute that we need to actively support fathers to be more involved with their children. Statutory and voluntary sector professionals could have a large role in helping with this, whether this is renaming toddler groups “Parent and baby” or encouraging the dad’s presence in their meetings and visits.
When I became pregnant with my second child in 2010, the parents on the new cover of the NHS handbook were of equal size. Let’s encourage parental equality across the board.
This was first published for Children & Young People Now.