First published by The Hoopla, 6 March 2015
This International Women’s Day I have one wish: that we start making caring for children men’s business. Honestly, truly, men’s business.
If I could wave my feminist wand and make all my equality dreams come true, I would begin by banning all talk about parental leave, childcare and flexible work as if they were only women’s issues, or mainly women’s issues. The ACTU is currently running campaigns for family friendly work policies and the right to request part-time work. The rights are for parents, but the campaign material nearly always talks about women.
I’d like to see our whole thinking about who does what at work and home shifted. But in the meantime I’d settle for enacting these six simple policies.
1. Make men responsible for phone numbers
Any parent will be familiar with the way your telephone contacts list balloons post-children. And you’d think that dads would totally ace this numbers business, given how boys still outnumber girls at math-based subjects at school and university.
Yet, for some mystifying reason, when men have children their numerical advantage disappears as fast as Peta Credlin at cabinet meetings these days. Is there a (heterosexual) father in Australia who hasn’t asked their child’s mother: “Do you have the number for the doctor/babysitter/tuba tutor”?
It’s time for a ban on the number crunching mothers: let’s make that dad’s job from now on.
2. No more talk about how childcare will help “women get back to work”
Tony Abbott and opinion writers everywhere need to stop carrying on about how more investment in the childcare sector will “help” women “get back to work”. Presumably male parent humans also need “help” to work. But it’s invariably women who help men go to work by looking after their children. And we don’t talk about that, we just ASSUME it.
The last time I checked, the numbers of women enrolling and graduating from university had outpaced men for some years. So this unofficial but remarkably persistent policy that it’s still the mother who stays home, while a man stays at work when children come along, has to be one of the greatest economic inefficiencies in the nation.
3. A moratorium on all talk about paid maternity as if it’s a private benefit to women
There’s a section of the community that seems to hold enormous resentment for the money paid to women on maternity leave. As one voter told Abbott at a community forum: “The forklift driver in Mount Druitt shouldn’t be paying his taxes so a pretty little lady lawyer on the North Shore earning 180 grand a year can have a kid.”
It’s as if the enormous largesse of maternity payments, that women are apparently squirrelling away all to themselves, is creating mini Gina Rineharts across the country. (To be fair, it briefly crossed my mind to use the $5,000 baby bonus I received for a round-the-world shoe shopping expedition. But I ended up staying at home and spending the money on petrol, groceries, food and nappies – and a bunch of other stuff the whole family needed.)
Perhaps the men and women of Australia should start adding up the volunteer hours they contribute to the community? Then let’s see which gender is in greater debt (see policy 4).
You see them on MasterChef, you see them on cookbook covers, you see them in the most expensive restaurants lovingly plating up $90 mains, but how often do you see them in the school tuckshop? About as often as you see Bill Heffernan reading bell hooks, that’s how often. Here’s my plan to get those weekend kitchen warriors into the canteen – tell them there’s a hot new cooking show in development and scouts will be crawling around a school canteen near you looking for undiscovered talent. And if that doesn’t work, put their names on the school’s billboard.
5. Teachers & childcare workers: talk to the FATHER about their problem child
I know they are underpaid and under-appreciated, and I can’t thank them enough for the years of service they have given, and continue to give, my own children. But if I hear one more mother friend tell me that the teacher/childcare worker always corners her to talk about her child’s problem with biting/hitting/not paying sufficient attention at baby Zumba class/trigonometry lessons, while never mentioning a word to the fathers, I’ll bite someone myself.
That child they have a problem with? Fifty percent of its DNA has come from its father. So there’s a good chance he might have a handle on what the problem is: “Oh yes, I never paid attention in baby Zumba classes either – but mum said it was just a phase and I grew out of it. I’m sure Jack will too.” Teachers should take the same approach (but the shorter school days means that many teachers will be rendered speechless at seeing a father at 3 in the afternoon).
It’s funny how before having children there were plenty of men who could find six months or a year to take off work to find a new career direction, an undiscovered surf break, or themselves. But when the kids come along? Suddenly the business will not be able to survive a week without their input and the world will stop turning on its axis.
Introduce paid paternity leave on a use-it-or-lose-it basis (men tend to need financial incentives – see policy 4) and all the other policies of collecting and remembering phone numbers, getting men more involved in volunteering, dealing with the teachers and carers in their child’s life, and learning that there is life outside of work, will start falling into place.
There’s one final frontier I haven’t covered: organising the school holiday care. I’m yet to meet a man prepared to tackle that herculean task: we’ll know equality has arrived when men start taking on that job.
My policies might sound unrealistic, but I know they are all possible. They are still in a minority, but I do know dads who happily pick up other people’s children after school and do their share of swapping babysitting favours. I know dads who spend hours setting up and cleaning up after school fetes. And I know dads who have taken a year or more off work when babies have come along. I even know one or two house husbands.
It’s true that sometimes dads still expect medals for doing what women do as a matter of course. But the good guys are pretty much just getting on it without fuss. Just like the mums always have.
Follow Kath Kenny on twitter @kathkenny_