European fathers on parental leave – behind the figures
by Lukas Sedlacek
January 17th 2007
last updated January 17th 2007
The number of European men taking parental leave is on the rise thanks to various financial and labour market incentives. But how do men experience their leave?
Men seem to adapt well to the role of caregiver, and the transition to this role is often seen to be less dramatic than expected. Men taking parental leave are often met with very positive reactions from friends, family and the community in general. Their partners, on the other hand, often encounter an opposite reaction. This negative reaction often comes from employers and colleagues who may be forced to cover.
A man on parental leave does not see himself as a housewife. The household chores are at best shared between a father on parental leave and his partner.
The reasons why men take parental leave falls into two main categories: Objective financial arguments and subjective arguments such as the fear of becoming an absent father, the desire to be a better caregiver anda determination not to follow the negative examples set by their own father and other less involved male caregivers.
Overall men often harbour unrealistic expectations for their time on parental leave. Plans to spend more time on a hobby or studying at university are quickly droppedwhen they realize that caring for a small child is a full-time occupation.
European fathers on parental leave – behind the figures
The figures and the legislative arrangements are only a part of what we know about fathers who utilize their right to parental or paternal leave. Since the phenomenon of active fathers is quite a new one only a small number of studies have been carried out focusing on them. Although there are a few qualitative studies which tell us who these men on parental leave are doing: how they feel in their new role; how their relationship to their children develops; what their expectations were and how they were met by reality; what the important issues are for them; what their experiences are; what kind of reactions they face (from their surroundings, employers or within their family)…?
Of course it is difficult to make any kind of general statement about men on parental leave. The studies that are available usually do not feature any great number of socio-demographic characteristics. In fact it is far more interesting to hear the men themselves speak out.
What is the Biggest Change for Men Staying Home with their Children?
According to fathers the changes are less dramatic than one might expect. They usually have experience of caring for their child for certain periods, usually at weekends etc. So there is no particular shock in taking over the care of their young baby.
The significant changes seem to be the small, everyday observations through which fathers find their new competencies day by day. This everyday routine contains the plain, simple things which form the base for a new father/child bond: feeding the baby, dressing the baby, tidying up toys, going for a walk, shopping with the child, etc.
Although these little things appear modest and common, for fathers, handling these situations means “sharing something” with their child. This something exists only between father and child; it is a kind of competence, a feeling that he is a crucial part of his child’s life. This feeling of “I can manage” (despite all the prejudices and gender stereotypes) – comes from the knowledge that he can handle the everyday situations that emerge in the life of a caregiver.
Are Fathers on Parental Leave Considered Soft and Effeminate?
This myth seems to work in a much more complicated manner than it has in the past. It is still possible to find cases where fathers on parental leave are snubbed for not being “real men” and some fathers still find that managers fail to take their request for parental leave seriously.
On the other hand fathers now report far more positive reactions than in the past, particularly from friends and other people in their immediate surroundings.
Fathers on parental leave sometimes encounter very positive reactions, to some people they are almost the new heroes. They play very specific, local, superstar-like roles since a lot of people; male friends, colleagues; and mothers especially are impressed by a man pushing a pram.
Of course fathers enjoy this new position with everyone applauding them for being great fathers. They are the centre of attention at playgroups, swimming pools and playgrounds, representing the current notion of ideal fatherhood.
Yet there is a downside to this state of affairs. The wives and partners of fathers on parental leave very rarely encounter such positive acceptance. Instead they face a slightly negative response or no reaction at all.
It seems that these women are highly sensitive to this poignant silence surrounding them. They describe this as an injustice since nobody praised them for making a special effort when they were on parental leave either. But if a man chooses to go on parental leave, he receives a huge amount of support from the people around him. So we have a new myth slowly taking shape: the man as heroic father, the woman as unnatural mother.
These unequal conditions could play a crucial role in the future and could be an obstacle preventing fathers getting close to their children. If mothers are socially punished for not staying at home with the baby and labelled “selfish, child-hating career-chasers” then there is a danger that they will not comply in letting fathers take care of the baby instead of doing so themselves.
So we need to realize that fathers are not the only ones who must overcome gender-stereotypes, so must mothers if they are to become the sole breadwinners, which is not traditionally considered particularly feminine.
But of course it should not be overlooked that many fathers considering parental leave are meeting significant negative feedback. This is particularly the case when men reveal their intentions to their managers, who usually think they no longer like their job or are overstrained. The desire to take care of a baby or child is not taken seriously. Rather it is interpreted as an excuse covering a perceived “real” work-related cause.
Managers frequently tell employees intending to take parental leave something along the lines of “Forget building a career in this company if you are really going to take parental leave. You should rethink this one more time.” If men do take parental leave, no allowances are be made at his workplace in his absence, meaning that the remaining staff will have to do the work he is leaving behind. This potentially creates a hostile atmosphere towards fathers taking parental leave.
Fathers on Parental leave and Household Chores
When women take parental leave they are traditionally expected to be in charge of running the household – ironing, hoovering, tidying, cooking, laundry etc. Does this apply equally to men who taking parental leave?
For fathers’ on leave, their responsibility for household chores is not as directly implied as it is for mothers. They usually feel responsible for caregiving but not for the duties less intrinsically linked to their child’s life. They reason that this is not only their duty, it also falls to the other partner – the woman.
In families where fathers take parental leave mothers perform household duties after coming home from work far more than traditional breadwinner-fathers would be expected to. While not all the chores are waiting for the mother to complete them on her return, these families do pay a great deal of attention to sharing these duties equally.
Of course one could argue that men have once again proven capable of profiting from their position. But we might also take the view that these families manage to create a more equal distribution of chores than is the case in traditional families.
The Reasons: Why Men Take Parental Leave
There are two levels of reasoning brought into play when fathers explain how they came to take parental leave. The first is objective reason, usually financial: the mother’s income is the same or higher than the father’s salary.
Rather more interesting are the more subjective causes described by the fathers:
- Fear of being an absentee father: fear of missing the most important years of their children’s lives. They are afraid of missing events like their babies’ first steps, first words or first smiles. They realize that watching their babies growing up is far more important to them than having a successful career.
- In some families both parents agree that the father (in their particular case) is the more competent person to care for children. In spite of gender prejudices these fathers show that "maternal" behaviour is not exclusive only to female parents but that fathers can provide the same skills and competencies as many mothers do. Fathers in these families tend to describe themselves as more patient and better at recognizing and responding to the children’s needs than the mothers.
- Negative examples of fathers – friends, colleagues or even their own father. The observed behaviour of these fathers - who lose touch or fail to achieve a close relationship with their child - is perceived as a real threat and appears to play a highly significant role.
Expectations and Reality
Of course some fathers tend to form their ideas or concepts of their upcoming time on parental leave. They sometimes think they are going to spend lot of time on their own hobbies, finishing their studies at university etc.
They learn in daily reality that caring for a small child requires full-time work and that sometimes there is almost no space for private activities and hobbies if it weren’t for the support of the other partner (mother).
Yet they are not so much disappointed as surprised by this. They adapt perfectly to rhythm of their child’s life as the baby is now in the centre of their everyday (and night) life.