How Do We Get More Dads To Stay At Home?

"Is it important in the grand scheme of things that more dads take part as primary caregivers? Should it remain the main domain of women?"

Today was the first day of summer camp for my soon to be 8-year-old son. He was a little sad and nervous to be going to day camp. Last year things were a lot different because this father was a “stay at home dad”. That parental leave came about suddenly when our 4-year adoption journey suddenly took a turn and my 10-month-old daughter arrived. Within three weeks we went from a family of three to a family of four. Et voilà, I was off work for 10 months. I had no idea at the time that I was part of only 10 per cent of the population of Dad’s that take parental leave.

When last summer arrived I wasn’t sure how it would work having both kids at home. I had been home with my daughter since January, and we had done the daily walks to and from school to take my seven-year-old to elementary school, but the days belonged to me and my daughter. How would it be with both kids at home? I had checked on some day camp possibilities for him. However, he spoke to me earnestly and said, “Dad I want to be home with you”. So we gave it a shot and in hindsight, it was a great decision. I won’t pretend that every day was ideal and that we both behaved like angels. But it was a great time in my life. I truly wouldn’t trade it for anything.

I didn’t have the chance to stay home with my firstborn – that was my wife’s journey. And it was very difficult to go to work each day, leaving them behind. And I did miss out on some firsts, as kids change so much in the early years. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had the chance to be home with kids for close to a year with the arrival of child # 2. So why don’t more Dad’s take advantage of this opportunity; this life changing event? Or perhaps the better question is, how do we get more men to take part in parental leave? Why has the take-up figure been at roughly 10 per cent for over a decade? Do we have the program wrong? Or do we still have some growing to do as a culture and society? I suspect it’s a combination of both.

We need only look at our European or Scandinavian brethren to see how different things can be. By simply changing the administration of parental leave the statistics changed quickly. With options like simply giving the “parents” the right to benefits with maximum flexibility, whereby parents could share the leave time, the take-up of fathers soared from less than 1 per cent to over 30 per cent in a few short years. So, maybe there are some valuable lessons here. Maybe trying to box parents into long term leave is not the right answer. Perhaps if we were able to make it easier for parents to break up the time we would see different results. Clearly, a major roadblock to dads taking the initial leave with new a born is the Mom’s ability and desire to breastfeed. Perhaps making it easier for dads to enter into the leave later in the game would encourage them, but when it’s a bureaucratic challenge, many just avoid it. An interesting side effect of these policies in Germany and Sweden has been the wage gap between men and women decreasing. When men share some of the parenting responsibilities, we see a leveling of the career playing field. 

Last summer when Justin Trudeau was still deemed a long shot for the job of Prime Minister, he began the dialogue of reforming parental leave in Canada. He is a young dad with young children, so perhaps he “gets it” when it comes to the importance of hands-on dads. Clearly, his father was a hands-on dad. The idea of changing how we look at parental leave and how we administer it was discussed, with some trial balloons of extending the leave time to 18 months, and lower weekly benefits and easier transitions between parents to alternate time off with the kids. The other option was to extend benefits for longer periods up to 18 months. There has been little talk of this very serious policy shift since the election, perhaps overshadowed by the more ‘sexy’ topics like the legalization of Marijuana.

Is it important in the grand scheme of things that more dads take part as primary caregivers in the first years of a child’s life? Should it remain the main domain of women?

It’s here that I believe the cultural shift needs to be accompanied by policy changes. From the example of a few other countries, it seems the policy changes tend to change behaviour significantly. But what will motivate our politicians to make these changes if we don’t tell them about the importance of dads in our children’s lives?

So, to my fellow dad’s out there; it’s time to let your voices be heard. And it’s time to push the comfort zone around the issue of dads and the care of young children. I heard some interesting feedback from both men and women while I was on parental leave. Most comments were positive, some were condescending, and some showed clear surprise that a male would be a primary care giver of an infant. I recently met a colleague at a trade show. I had not seen him in quite some time and the logical question was, “Where have you been?” When I told him about my daughter and being off on parental leave, he was shocked and immediately asked, “How did you get your wife to allow you be the one to stay home?” All the comments and questions I received about my experience tells me we have a long way to go to achieve that cultural shift where a majority of parents simply accept that both parents could, and should, be shouldering the responsibility of child rearing EQUALLY.

I have heard men make the argument of economics that often men are the higher wage earner, so it would be a bigger hit to the family budget when the highest earner takes leave from work. This provides more force to the argument that the glass ceiling and gender wage gap needs to be addressed. It’s time that as a society we look at the long-term costs of not providing parents with the necessary resources to put their kids first in the early years of development. Yes, it costs money to keep parents at home, but the cost of providing adequate daycare infrastructure to infants is also astronomical. In the GTA it’s similar to a second mortgage payment to have a child in daycare less than 18 months of age. We have been blessed to have quality daycare workers in our lives, but in my opinion, it’s only the second-best option to full-time parenting.

In the end, fathers will need to make their own choices when it comes to child rearing and what role they will play. I won’t pretend that it’s not a sacrifice professionally and economically to take a lengthy leave of absence from work. Even with the assistance of a government program like Employment Insurance, which softens the blow, it’s still a major hit to most family’s budget when you lose 30 or 40 per cent of your income. But we need to ask why it’s just accepted that women should be the default in this sacrifice?

I can only share my personal experience as both a working dad and a stay at home dad. There is no substitute to physically and emotionally “being there” for your kids. The first day waking up as a stay-at-home dad was a little intimidating – I wasn’t sure how I would fill the days and I wondered if I was adequately equipped to be with two little munchkins all day. But I learned that what isn’t instinctual can be learned and there is no harm in asking for help. I was fortunate to have a very supportive network of family, first and foremost my wife. Having a partner in all this, who encourages rather than belittles or condescends, is a huge help. The 10 months when I was off work with my kids was a time where I could give them much more of me, and much more of the best gift we have – our time. 

Going back to work was a big adjustment. The extra money is nice, the adult conversations and camaraderie is great, and the competitive challenges of business are terrific. But the challenge of dividing the proverbial pie between career and family is my biggest challenge. I miss my kids! To all the dads out there…give it a shot and tell your stories! We need to have this conversation!

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