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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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…
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.
Is paternity leave working? How do new fathers feel about it? I spoke to some parents at Mind Tools to find out.
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"Mental health issues are often based on the tension between what one has achieved and what one has the potential to become." - Clive Lewis