REALITY BITES: Expected to be New Men at home but Real Men at work, young fathers are finding it difficult to come out in the office as time-pressed dads

REALITY BITES: Expected to be New Men at home but Real Men at work, young fathers are finding it difficult to come out in the office as time-pressed dads - The family has always had a mixed press. Strindberg denounced it as a 'retirement home for women wa

by RICHARD REEVES, a research associate at the Work Foundation
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The family has always had a mixed press. Strindberg denounced it as a 'retirement home for women wanting an easy life, a prison for men and hell for children', which makes you wonder about poor August's upbringing. More recently and famously, Philip Larkin warned: 'They f**k you up, your mum and dad./They may not mean to, but they do.'

Today, the family tends to be bathed in a much rosier light, perhaps because it is seen to be under siege: from higher divorce rates, reduced fertility, the erosion of extended family ties, chosen childlessness, lone parenthood, latchkey kids. The Government is urging everyone to do their bit, penalising parents who don't force their children to school, running parenting classes, setting up childcare facilities and calling on employers to play their part.

'Family-friendly' may have been replaced by the asinine phrase 'work/life balance', but the issue is the same: how can busy parents navigate work and home? It's tempting to widen the debate to include the childless, but the truth is that parents are the ones in the time-vice.

And it probably undermines the cause of workplace flexibility to take children out of the picture, as many work/life campaigners now do. After all, it's more important for someone to be able to leave early to collect a child than to catch a salsa class. There may be a backlash from those without children, as a 2000 MT survey suggested, but this may be a price worth paying.

But the real problem with the debate about work and family is the absence of men. Try as they might, organisers of seminars and conferences on the subject struggle to attract more than the odd, token male (who usually remains silent). For family-friendly, read mother-friendly; for working parent, read working mother. The phrases working father or career man sound bizarre to our supposedly modern ears.

While women now define themselves in a myriad of roles - mum, career woman, friend, community activist, ladette, entrepreneur - most men remain stuck in the mantrap of the breadwinner role. The fact that women will care for children is taken for granted. More than half the population think women with pre-school children should stay at home (by and large, they do not). More than half the population think a father's primary responsibility is bringing home the bacon: and indeed men still earn two-thirds of family income.

As women enter the workforce in greater numbers, the male monopoly of breadwinning is thankfully being eroded. The problem for men is that there's little to take its place, leading to a mini-crisis of masculinity. As the feminist writer Gloria Steinem says: 'The majority now believe that women can do what men can do, but the next step is to believe that men can do what women can do.'

And men are doing more childcare and housework than ever before. Not because they have suddenly had a conversion to feminism, but because their life circumstances both allow and demand it. Or more, particularly, their partners demand it.

Thirty years ago, the family model of earning father plus caring mother was ascendant. Today, there are twice as many dual-earner families as traditional ones. More than a third of mothers aged between 25 and 34 in 1995 returned to work within a year of having their first child, compared to one in 10 of their mothers.

All this means that fathers are facing some of the pressures felt by women. They are rightly expected to do more childcare and housework, because mum's doing her bit of the breadwinning. But their bosses often lack sympathy. The political editor of a national newspaper once told me that he hadn't made it to a single one of his children's birthday parties in the preceding five years. His wife did all the homemaking.

So younger fathers are now expected to be New Men at home but Real Men at work. Small wonder they are so stressed. We know already that workplaces are organised along gender lines. But they are powerfully constructed along generational lines, too. Work is designed not just for men, but for older men with stay-at-home wives - a disproportionately powerful minority.

The issues faced by men remain below the corporate radar; they are finding it difficult to come out as time-pressed dads. They concoct late meetings in order to make it to the nursery. As Michael Kimmel puts it in The Gendered Society: 'As a gender, we find it hard to admit when we're lost driving on the freeway, so it's especially difficult when we are lost about one of the most important areas of our lives.'

Plenty of companies now offer paternity leave, but in few of them do men feel confident about taking it. Truly father-friendly workplaces will only come about when younger dads join with female colleagues to overthrow antiquated models of work pinned to archaic models of the family. But there is a dad's army in Britain's companies, getting ready to march.


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