Last year, my friends Kevin and Tracy (not their real names) had a baby. Kev and Trace work on a national newspaper and they decided to share their time off work: Tracy would spend eight months at home with their baby, then go back to work while Kev spent his days at soft play.
“That’s so cool!” I told Tracy. “I wish we could do that, but my husband earns so much more than me.” I get that a lot, she replied. It turned out that pretty much every parent she knew had had the same defensive reaction I did - how great for you, but it wasn’t an option for us. “And I did start to wonder,” Tracy mused, “ why are all the men earning more ?”
It’s a pretty good question, isn’t it, but here’s one idea. While my generation were brought up to believe that women could have careers as well as families, we largely lived in homes where the father was the breadwinner. Whatever we were told, that was our model and it didn’t really hit me until I was on maternity leave just how powerful it was.
Yes, I’d built a career, but I’d structured it so that it would work around children way before I had any. I’d never haggled over pay, probably because I didn’t see money as my thing. And when a child did finally fall out of my nether regions, I just assumed it was my responsibility. As if I’d wee’d on the carpet or something.
My husband would be all like, I’ll change her nappy this time and I’d be like, that’s OK, it’ll be quicker if I do it. He’d go, alright, well let me dress her and I’d go, OK thanks, I guess I can have a shower if - are you mad? That obviously doesn’t go with that. Then later he’d say why don’t I get up with her when she wakes tonight and I’d say no, you have to work tomorrow and anyway she’ll probably need feeding. And he’d go all timid and say I could give her a bottle? Whereupon I’d go nuclear: ARE YOU TRYING TO UNDERMINE MY BREASTFEEDING?
Thank God for the Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who points out in her book Lean In that this sort of carry-on really disempowers fathers. If you ever want time away from the baby, you have to let other people look after it. And as I forced myself to do that without jumping in, I noticed something else: my husband and my daughter had really bonded.
“It’s so important for us to release those old patterns because the impact of a child on a father is immense,” says Louise Webster from Beyond the School Run. “And just think what a difference it could make at work. If every father starts to say, I’m going at home at 5pm to pick up my kids, or I can’t come in today because my son is sick, that will change the world.”
Webster founded the Beyond the School Run website in 2012 to help parents to use their skills and talents in the hours available to them. Like a lot of women she knew, she had given up a successful job (running her own PR agency) because the hours wouldn’t give her enough time with her two small children. Not wanting to give up her entire career, she applied for a freelance job that would fit around her two kids - and was turned down because she was “too experienced”.
Noticing that this situation was utterly stupid, she set up a website that connects businesses with the huge pool of talent that can be found waiting at the school gates at 3.30pm. (It does a lot more than that besides but you will need to check it out yourselves because I haven’t got all day, it’s chucking-out time at the childminder’s in about 20 minutes.)
Two years on, she is starting to see a new pattern emerging as people like Kevin and Tracy blast through the barriers of prejudice (Kevin’s boss told him to “grow a pair” when he heard their shared leave plan). When parents share the load more equally at home, it won’t just be women taking a hit to their careers.
“It’s a biological fact that women have children in their thirties, but it should not just be half the human race that has to deal with that in their working life,” one female business leader told me recently. “If it’s always one person that has to deal with childcare and work, the likelihood is that they will drop out. But if both of you can share it you possibly get 2 + 2 = 5.”
In other words, we all need to be more Beckham. “David Beckham is really helping,” says Louise Webster. “I am seeing a change. There are new role models showing that fathers are important, and that mothers can have careers. These are the people who will influence and guide.” After all, nobody’s going to tell Becks to “grow a pair” for being a good father; we’ve all seen him in his generously filled Armani kecks.
Maybe the government are fans, because one week ago today shared parental leave came into force in the UK. This means that when a baby is born, EITHER of its parents are entitled to a statutory weekly payment for up to 50 weeks if they choose to stay off work after the first two weeks. (When Kevin and Tracy did it, he had to take an unpaid sabbatical.)
I know, I know. You can’t do it. Neither can we. But I am wondering… what would the future look like for our daughters if we did?