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Working Moms and Daddy Day Care – the Hidden Side of Co-Parenting

August 1, 2019

©Getty Images/KatarzynaBialasiewicz

When I woke up last Thursday, I had one target in mind: to get to work. Now, that might sound like an easily achievable objective to most, even for working moms, but let me provide some context for you…

That morning, it looked like my one-year-old son might have a case of hand, foot and mouth disease. His day nursery wouldn’t take him in until the doctor confirmed this, in case it was something else.

My partner was already at work (which is where I should have been!), so that morning I was the one who had to stay at home with our son. OK, I’ll get it sorted fast and then head to work only slightly late. No problem.

A Difficult Day

The morning got worse from there: I called the doctor 89 times before getting through (no exaggeration), then had a phone appointment, a face-to-face appointment, and two trips to the pharmacy for skin cream (the first one I went to didn’t have it). Finally, everything was accomplished. I was in the position to take my son to nursery and get to work! Then, Murphy’s Law struck…

As I was driving back from the pharmacy, the nursery called to say that my three-year-old daughter had just broken out in spots, and she too needed a doctor’s appointment.

To cut a long story short, there were no doctor’s appointments available until 5 p.m., so I raised the white flag and conceded defeat. I would not be making it into work that day.

The Buck Stops at Mom

In the evening, I was feeling unsettled on a number of levels. I’d let work down, but I’d also let my children down by not being fully present.

After a few passive-aggressive comments in the direction of my partner (sorry Neil), I realized that it wasn’t just the day’s events that had rattled me, but also the realization that I’m always the “default” parent who takes the time off for childcare issues.

This made me wonder, why does the buck always stop with me, the mother? Why do I always have to fight so hard to be at work? Am I the exception, or the norm?

Ask the Audience

I’m a member of a number of wonderful parent forums on Facebook (after all, what parent hasn’t needed advice at midnight from someone in the know?!), so I posed the following question to a local group:

“Who tends to be the ‘default’ parent that stays at home when your children are ill, and why?”

Overnight, an amazing 126 people responded to my question. The results were as follows:

Mom: 69 votes 

Equally split: 46 votes 

Dad: 11 votes 

In the Facebook poll, moms were the parent who stays at home with ill children 55 percent of the time, compared to nine percent of dads, and 36 percent taking a wonderfully balanced 50:50 approach.

If I’m honest, the results were just as I’d expected, based on what I’ve witnessed with friends and family.

Working Moms – Why Do We Still Carry the Load?

Why is it, in this day and age of greater gender equality, that moms are over six times more likely to take time off to look after their children when they’re sick than dads?

Some of the themes and fears that came up in my poll were: 

Potential loss of earnings.

Work commitments.

Nature of job (such as working with vulnerable people).

Hours worked.

Flexibility of employer.

Role seniority.

Now, it may well be that when you weigh up the above, it does make sense that six times more moms than dads stay home with sick children. While noting the implicit acknowledgment in the list that men are likely to earn higher salaries and occupy more senior positions, I can’t help feeling that there’s still more to it.

Some other – less palatable – reasons behind those statistics could be:

  • Fear of the consequences of absence for men. A fear of missing out on projects and promotions, and the worry of being perceived as not working hard enough, etc..
  • Old-fashioned gender stereotyping. The deep-seated idea of the dad being the “hunter-gatherer,” while the mom looks after the children. This idea can endure even if the mom also works and there is a mutual desire for co-parenting.
  • Inequality in parental leave. Sometimes, male employees don’t get the same amount of parental leave as female employees when the baby has just been born. This can lead to the mom continuing in the role of primary caregiver by default as this has become the norm, even after she returns to work.

The Secret Inequality Behind Co-Parenting

Even some of the 50:50 poll respondents said that they, as mothers, still carry what’s known as the mental load. Here are three telling responses from the poll:

Chloe: “In our house, it’s 50:50 depending on each of our work commitments, but it always seems to be my responsibility to ask the question / make a plan / find alternative childcare. The mental load.”

Sarah: “I feel like I have to ask my husband if he can take time off, whereas he assumes I will drop everything.”

Veronica: “It’s 50:50 but it is normally me organizing this. #mentalload”

My gut instinct is that most fathers would love to have a fair, 50:50 split. But it sometimes seems that my partner has the perception that my working week is really easy: I only work 3.5 days, my hours are 9-5 (pretty much to the minute, due to nursery drop-offs/pickups), I get to spend extra time with our beautiful toddlers… and then here I am complaining about a bit of extra time “off” with our children!

However, turn that on its head, and my employer could see me as someone who isn’t always present, and therefore isn’t suitable for certain projects or promotions. They may well think I don’t work hard enough when I’m running out the door at 5 p.m.. Then factor in absence for sick children and there’s barely any point in me turning up…

The Fight for Work

I’m obviously being facetious, but I do feel like I have to work twice as hard to simply stay on track (let alone get ahead), so any extra absence on top of that is very much a source of anxiety.

What starts as a work-life balance, between looking after my children and work, very quickly becomes an imbalance. And yet my partner continues working normally throughout.

But does it have to be this way? What are the 36 percent of people in my poll who have a 50:50 split doing that the rest of us aren’t? Or what are their employers doing? How can we get to a stage where dads share the responsibility as well as the “mental load”? 

I’d love to hear your experiences – and any suggestions, too!

And for advice on these issues, see our article on Combining Parenthood and Work.


14 thoughts on “Working Moms and Daddy Day Care – the Hidden Side of Co-Parenting

  1. Matt Jefferson wrote:

    Hi Suzanne, this seems to be typical. For some reason Dads generally have the mental load in providing (so financially all the pressure to pay the bills, school fees and mortgage which comes with a huge amount of stress) while mothers have the mental load around the home and children (equally but differently stressful). Have things really changed? Men as Hunters (hunting resource) and Women Gatherers (gathering up the children).

  2. Alison wrote:

    We are in the 50:50 camp. I think it starts with the every day, by which I mean that we have arranged our working hours and days so one of us can drop off and the other pick up. The benefits of this include us both having a share of time with the wonderful toddlers and neither of us being the ‘default’ parent. The downside is we’ve both had to make compromises in terms of furthering our careers. Consequently, we live off less money than we could potentially make. I still think it’s the best thing for our life as it is now.

    Because we have it established that we share the every day parenting load, when someone is sick, it seems only fair and natural to share responsibility for that also. During the most recent episode, it was my partner who took the majority of the necessary time off. It’s unfortunate that parenting small children means so much time off but I can’t see a way around it. My job would be at risk if it was always me, and the same for him. We share it as evenly as possible, taking in to account what we’ve both got going on.

    On the topic of the mental load, I would say that it’s 95%+ shouldered by me. I am the maker of plans, lists and decisions, holder of the family budget and remember-er of everything that needs remembering. However, the reason this responsibility falls to me is I am good at those things and we work best as a team when we play to our strengths. In addition to his full time working week and morning childcare responsibilities my partner washes up everything that is ever used in our kitchen (whereas I plan meals, shop and cook) and cleans just as much as me and, in any spare moment, tackles DIY tasks from the list I usually have pinned up on a wall. He has also got up in the night at least 50% of the time, as he took on nighttime responsibility for our non-sleeping toddler when I became pregnant a second time. So all in all, I am not resentful that the mental load falls to me. We both recognise that those things are ‘work’ in the same way that washing up is.

    What it all boils down to for us is that we are both exhausted, both just about keeping our heads above the water and both compromising. No, the house is not as clean as it would ideally be. Yes, in a perfect world there would not be any jobs that frankly never make it to the top of the list. Ideally, we would both be able to invest more of ourselves into our work and reap the financial rewards. But for the time being we are content enough to put all that to one side and get through these early years as best we can and neither of us would want to put more of the burden onto the other than they’re already carrying as we’re both already so stretched. Compared to others who work the hours we do, we both get to see a lot of our children while they are so young. We try to remember that they won’t always WANT so much of us. We feel fortunate in that respect, hard as it sometimes is.

  3. Vicky Johnstone wrote:

    Such an interesting topic and very relevant for me and many of my friends at the moment! I feel very lucky as my husband seems to step in a lot more to help out when we have the dreaded nursery bugs doing the rounds at our house – but a key point I would make here is that he is self employed, and therefore has a lot more flexibility than others in employed roles. This blog reminded me of my friend’s partner who was offered 6 months fully paid paternity leave by his company. In the end he decided not to take it as he thought it would damage his career prospects by taking this time off. Even though it was offered by his company. Such an interesting take and a reflection on how far we still have to come. Thanks for writing it Suzanne!

    1. Midgie Thompson wrote:

      Thanks Vicky for sharing your experiences. Having flexibility with your work and your employer certainly can make a difference to child care.

  4. Aaron Marshall wrote:

    This isn’t a Mother/Father issue at all, but a primary/secondary care-giver one.
    The roles and habits are set early on in child-raising, and it is usually the mother who takes the parental leave, and sets the way things run with regards to childcare, so setting the stage for the future habits.
    As the parent who took the parental leave, it now largely falls to me to organise school pick-ups when I’m away for work, or to have the reduced productivity when our son is sick.
    I’d be willing to wager that many of those who are in the 50:50 camp have had it this way since the beginning.

  5. Surender Kamal wrote:

    Stress is for both parents, when it comes to such situation. Sometimes timing of jobs also impact, travel time to home, etc. Employer plays very crucial role as they have to see the balance as well. Ultimately in work what matters is the outcome of task, depending from where you can deliver (home or office or any other place). If this concept is understood then i think life can be easier for parents to handle the family as well. Thanks

  6. Kasia wrote:

    We are quite atypical family. My partner is stay at home dad with 2 small children (3 and 5) and I have always worked full time. For us it’s about who we are as people – I would never have been able to stay at home with children and remain mentally healthy, but my partner is quite happy not to work and be a primary care giver.

    That still doesn’t change the fact that’s it’s me organising all nursery and school staff (payments, activities, summer clubs, etc.), doctor visits, vaccinations, etc. He is happy to take the child for a vaccination or GP but I need to organise appointment and write him exactly what he needs to say about symptoms if one of them is sick. When he returned to work for few weeks recently (lasted 2 months only due to various reasons) I was the one who needed to take time off, be late, etc. because he was new in the job whereas I have been working in my company for few years and have a bit more flexibility.

    It’s all very difficult without grandparents or others who could help with emergency childcare.

    1. Yolande Conradie wrote:

      The lack of a wider support structure adds extra pressure. My sister and her husband immigrated and started with a family in their new country. Not having any family or even friends at that stage meant that they had no-one else they could ask for help in an emergency – much like you.
      Good luck, Kasia, and thanks for sharing your experience.

  7. Fiona Brennan-Scott wrote:

    Thank you so much for this excellent, well-balanced article! As a mother of three now adult children whose career is about effective communication, I think that’s where it starts and end. When we were both working full -time and a child was ill, we would say, “It’s my turn to take time off.” No employer is going to argue with that, and if they’re half decent they’re going to communicate that respect. We also communicated respect to people we worked with in how we felt about their time off for personal reasons. I don’t think it’s ever created issues with career progression but admit that in the early days I made the decision to work for myself part-time while parenting and my husband was promoted multiple times.
    Recently, I’ve appreciated the differing mental loads. I’ve started to understand the mental load of being the main income earner and I know I didn’t fully appreciate that ongoing stress while mine was daily organisation of children’s timetables and our diaries.
    I’ve really enjoyed the other comments here too. All very thought provoking. How will it look like for our children and how will we raise them to be or understand 50:50, whatever that will mean?

    1. Yolande Conradie wrote:

      That’s an excellent question, Fiona. How it’s going to look for our children probably in part depends on how the world of work changes.
      Thanks for sharing how you went about taking care of your children and how you shared responsibilities. Also, communicating respectfully is so important – thanks for emphasizing that.
      I think what you mentioned about people not understanding the mental load of the other partner’s role, is also crucial. I’m wondering if we talk with our partners about that enough? Great food for thought and excellent “conversation seeds!”

  8. Nathaniel Gilbert wrote:

    It makes sense that there would be a division of labor within the family (just like the workplace). Since women are designed to bear and nurse children, it make sense for this role to carry forward as the child get older. Men are better designed for labor intensive chores and, therefore, tend to focus more on home upkeep and other similar tasks.

  9. R Shaffer wrote:

    My husband seemed like he’d be so great with kids before we got married. Before we had kids we split the household chores 50:50. But then, after we had our first child, he basically acted like our son was my responsibility, and that he could come and go as he pleased. It’s like, I carried the child for 9 months and therefore, the child was henceforth my responsibility. The fact that I chose to breast-feed my kids only further seemed to cement this belief. Any time a baby-sitter was needed, it was my responsibility to find one. All time off from work to care for a sick child, biohazard messes made by a sick child, doctor visits, school forms, school fees, etc. were all my responsibility. It seems gender equality is a myth. I’m expected not only to hold down a 40 hour a week job, but also take care of the kids as if I had no job at all, and then all household chores somehow transferred over to my sole responsibility, too. Men are the “bread-winners,” and therefore anything that they have to do is more important. My husband is so blind to everything I do for our children, and he seems to think that he should be commended for anything that he does to help – like he’s doing me some big favor. Yet, in his eyes he’s carried half the load.

    1. Yolande Conradie wrote:

      Wow…that’s a big load on you – forty hours a week and almost exclusively taking care of the children. Is there any possibility that you could have a series of serious conversations about it? They’re most likely going to be crucial conversations (high stakes, strong emotions, varying opinions). I say “series of conversations” because it’s not a one-conversation topic. Plan the conversations ahead, tackle one main issue per conversation, and help him to understand what you’re dealing with by asking great questions.
      Because we can make it look easy and seamless, people can assume that we’re coping and we “have it together” when we’re really just holding on.
      Good luck!

  10. Rosie Griffiths wrote:

    Having previously been a single parent, any help I got with the children or household chores from my partner was seen as a bonus so I just look back and think “how did I do it”.

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