It has been just over three months since my son was dropped off for his first day of daycare. I handed him off to the child educator, kissed him and turned and walked out the door back to work, trying to ignore his wails and outstretched arms. His sister did the same thing for her first week, so I expected this reaction, but it is still a tough moment. It was tougher than it was with Harper because it had been just him and I for months, and I never had that time with her.
I suspect a lot of my takeaways from my time at home with the kids are similar to a lot of dads’ experiences that stay home: I connected with my kids more, became a more engaged dad (and remain a more engaged dad), really learned about managing the household, I became a better cook and I became a more supportive spouse (a fact I checked with my wife prior to publishing). Some days were long, some days were fast, I lost my composure a few times, and then the months flew by and the magical time was over.
Some things I thought would occur did not; for instance, I never felt isolated as I have read some dads have felt during their time. And some dads are embarrassed about what they are doing because they are staying home instead of being the traditional breadwinner. I, for my part, felt none of that. In fact I felt amazing about what I was doing. I felt not only am I making an impact in my kids’ and wife’s life, maybe, just maybe, I am making a small contribution to advancing gender equality in our society. Maybe…
Going into taking parental leave, I became aware of Canadian society’s views regarding which gender should take leave. As stated in my first blog, The three reasons why I am taking parental leave, I was alarmed by my findings. With only a small percentage of men taking any leave at all, to me the message is clear: the actions of our society define our values. I understand the choice is often a financial one, but as the research I shared in my first blog points to, the fact that women continue to overwhelmingly take maternity leave and continue to be the primary caregiver afterwards continues to be one of the biggest contributors to the gender pay gap. So, if as a society we want more gender pay equality we need at the very least to spilt the leave and the child raising between the sexes more evenly. And this statement “spilt the leave and child raising between the sexes more evenly” is a lighting rod of my understanding of the disparity between the sexes in our society. Prior to parental leave I believed that I did my part around the house and with raising our first child. I acted as I thought all “good supportive husbands” should act. How ignorant of me.
Even though I helped out with shopping and cooking from time to time, I never had the responsibility of shopping, deciding on the menu for the family, organizing all the household needs (garbage bags, cleaning supplies, etc.), the kids’ schedules, the kids’ doctor appointments, and the list goes on and on. All that mental energy and stress fell to my already incredibly busy wife. I just helped when asked (sometimes begrudgingly).
So if I think about how taking parental leave really deeply affected me, it was understanding what parental equality really looks like and then beginning to understand (and see) the broader implications of this inequality in our society.
While I was on leave I had no less than six senior executives ask me “So what are you really doing on your leave?” or some variation on that statement. They just couldn’t believe that another male senior executive would stay home to take care of his kids. Their default thinking is that a women stays home to take care of the kids. These men that said this to me are all business leaders that carry the culture in the organizations they own and/or run. One could argue that sexism just runs deep in the private sector and not the public sector that provides paid parental leave and has had long-standing affirmative action hiring policies. Look no further than what has been recently uncovered at the city of Edmonton public service. Sexism thrives in the public sector as well, because it is a society issue not a sector issue. Our society’s underlying values produce our actions.
Other casual comments happened often such as “how’s being a Mr. Mom?” While this could be considered innocent enough I took every opportunity to correct the issuer of the statement with a counter question: “you mean being a parent? Doing my part? Great!”
Canada just extended total parental leave from 12 to 18 months in December of 2017 (although with no extra pay the existing maximum allotment is merely stretched further) and it’s a good intention on the part of the federal government that more time is being extended for parents to stay home with their kids, but if women just end up staying out of the work force longer (now with even less pay monthly comparatively) this is only going to amply the gender pay gap, not address it. A better change would have been to force the leave to be split between the parents (considering there are two active parents) in order for benefits to be claimed (this has been suggested to be made law in some Nordic countries, and now being debated by our parliament). This would force men to take leave and in effect would force change in our society.
If parental leave was forced to be split one can assume more men would take leave, and stay at home dads (which turn out after their leave to be more actively engaged fathers) would not be the outliers they are today in our society, and maybe with women being able to spend more time in the workforce some of the gender pay gap would be addressed…maybe.
So what happened while I was away from work?
Nothing really changed at my work place, business marched on, my teams covered while I was away and when I returned I picked up things where they were left off. My career did not suffer. I came back refreshed and renewed, ready for new challenges.
That said I came back changed. I travel less, I am more efficient at work, I am more focused, and I am no longer lenient of ignorant remarks. Recently I was dumbfounded by a male executive suggesting a male can’t be allowed to continue to take parental leave. His comment was “well, he just can’t keep doing this!” I looked at him squarely and said, “it’s the law, and you remember that I just came off leave myself don’t you? You just hire a term position like you do for maternity leave. You also understand that you can’t say what you just said.” He agreed with “ya I guess so.” It runs deep, really, really deep, and I for my part am no longer going to allow these ignorant remarks to go unchecked in my presence. I suspect that is going to label me and make me unpopular in some crowds.
At the end of the day this issue about men taking parental leave is not a female problem, it is a male problem. For this to change men need to change. Men who believe in equality need to raise their voices and be models for other men and hold other men accountable.
Interestingly it has been proven that men in relationships that are based on equality, a relationship in which the domestic duties and financial burden are more evenly split, end up being happier and have less depression. The same can be said about societies that embrace similar ideals, they have greater supports for everyone including men. So why are men fighting this?
I think there is a still a long road ahead until men are not ostracized for taking parental leave instead of it being a normal accepted part of parenting. But change is coming and if men want this male problem to be fixed we need to support men that do take leave and no longer ignore the bad behaviour around this issue. By ignoring it and doing nothing, we are greenlighting the behavior. Only men can make this go away by truly engaging equally in their parental responsibility. By doing this there will be uncomfortable, unpopular conversations with other men, but so what? Change is never comfortable and for my part I would rather do what is right than be liked.