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Working culture must change if equal parenting is to become a reality

By Catharine Lumby - posted Friday, 20 February 2004

Work cultures will change when we view equal parenting as a legitimate part of working life.

Next month my partner returns to full-time paid work after four years looking after our two small boys. I gave birth to them. But he's the one who fed them expressed breastmilk, changed the lion's share of their nappies and mashed the truckload of vegetables he washed out of their hair. When my sons wake from a nightmare, it's Daddy they want. He knows what scares them. He knows why. He knows the rules to their made up games. He knows where to look when they lose a shoe.

We came to our role reversal accidentally. We'd done the same degrees at university and were earning similar incomes when we met. But I'd just signed on for a demanding new job when I fell pregnant and he was better positioned to work part time from home. We certainly weren't trying to be different. My husband is no SNAG. He likes his cricket frequent, his supermodels scantily clad and his meat rare. We just didn't think it mattered which one of us stayed at home.


If we were to take present debates about child care personally, though, we'd have to conclude we are freaks of nature. In article after article, experts, politicians and commentators all assume that it's only women who are faced with the Hobson's choice of caring for children or following their career instincts.

The latest research from the Menzies Research Centre is a case in point. In her report, Lucy Sullivan recommends that the Federal Government pay an annual tax-free salary to all mothers with children under five, along with a $3000 subsidy for each child they have. On the face of it, this is a proposal that combines simplicity with choice. There's no question that, in an ideal world, all parents should be able to choose whether to stay home or continue to work when their children are young.

Sullivan also notes that it's middle-class women who are the group suffering the largest fertility slide. She says these women aren't having children because they'd have to forgo income while they stay home. No doubt she's right. But what her recommendation doesn't deal with is the impact the decision to stay home has on the future earnings and career paths of women in this group. Because it's the fear of what will happen to their careers in the long term, not just the loss of five years' income, that makes many professional women leery of having children. If both men and women saw staying at home with young children as a legitimate part of working life, you can bet your organic cotton socks that corporate culture would change overnight. The stuff women struggle to justify - part-time work, flexible working hours and career gaps - would be seen as mainstream issues.

Partners in law firms and conservative politicians will no doubt tell me I'm blowing smoke out of my feminist pipe. They'll say we can't possibly run the economy properly and have professionals putting their careers on hold for a couple of years to mind babies. But let's not forget these are the same people who told us the sky would fall in when the fringe benefits tax put an end to the three-chardonnay-bottle lunch. Work cultures will change if and when men opt into, rather than out of, equal parenting. As long as we assume it's only women who are destined to juggle work and child care, we'll perpetuate a system where women view having children as a bent fork in their career path.

To be fair, research does confirm the view that my partner and I are weirdos. A recent national survey found that only 1 per cent of primary carers are men. But you can look at this statistic two ways. You can view it as confirmation that women are biologically designed to look after children. Or you could say it reflects a society in denial - a society that educates women and men the same way, gives them the same career expectations, but then asks the girls to take a back seat when they have children.

Anyone who subscribes to the biological destination theory is welcome to spend a day at home with my male-reared children. I'll admit there's probably a lot more nude wrestling and Tiny Teddy-dispensing than the child-rearing books recommend. But then everyone's a critic until they've had to look after a couple of feral kids all day.


Just ask my husband.

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Article edited by John Mullen.
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This article was previously published by The Age on February 15, 2004.

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About the Author

Catharine Lumby is an associate professor of media studies at the University of Sydney and the author of Bad Girls and Gotcha: Life in a Tabloid World. She writes regularly for The Age.

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Menzies Research Centre Report (pdf, 445 kB)
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