“Because dads have harder jobs than mums,” announced my seven-year-old, stopping me in my tracks, as we pulled into the playground.
She was chatting about summer and playdates and conversations she’d been having with friends in school about seeing each other over the holidays. She’d worked out that one of her friends might be around, because her mum would probably take some time off.
“Well, I think she will be there, because it’s easier for her mum to take holidays – you know, because dads have harder jobs than mums.”
I looked at her in the rearview mirror.
“What do you mean?”
She backtracked. “Oh, I mean dads do things like lighting fires, and mums just eh… do the washing up,” she said. I should add that we have a (mostly unused) gas fire, so as digging oneself out of a hole goes, this was pretty dismal.
“Ah OK,” I said. “But you said jobs, not housework – did you mean jobs as in going to work?”
“Yes,” she admitted. “Well, I mean it must be easier, because mums take more days off, especially in summer. I think that even though dads really love their kids, they know that both parents can’t take time off work at the same time or there wouldn’t be enough money. So mums take holidays and dads go to work. That’s what I mean. So it’s a bit easier for the mums.”
And really, I couldn’t fault her logic. She’s seven years old, and that’s her view of the world. In a way, she just paraphrased what employers or society as a whole might say on the subject. As women, we look to spend more time with our kids, to find a balance between work and family, and this is perceived as lack of ambition or lack of interest. Women are still seen as responsible for child rearing, and many are still having to choose from an all-or-nothing menu of options when it comes to career and family.
To put this in context, until recently, and since she was six months old, my daughter saw me go out to work every day. I worked full-time until she was four-year-old, and then went to a four-day week. Most of her friends’ mothers work. About three-quarters of the mums from the class in school work. Most of my friends work.
I’ve had the “girls can do any job they want!” conversation with her many times and she herself wants to be a “business woman” – she once asked me if men could be business men like women can.
So she’s growing up in a world where mothers go out to work, yet she clearly sees a difference – she doesn’t see the work we do as having the same importance as the work that men are doing. And it’s because we’re not at work as often – it’s because we’re finding smart ways to be at home.
If this is how a child sees it, despite the context, it’s not surprising that we’re still swimming against the tide.
Without paid paternity leave, without shared, paid parental leave, and without employer support for (and normalisation of) men seeking flex work, women will continue to be seen as responsible for rearing children, and men will continue to work full-time.
And realistically, even if men taking leave is normalised, there will always be more women at home – and that’s fine. I know that in my house, if both of us had the option to work a four-day-week, but financially only one of us could, it would be me – because I’d desperately want to, and because my husband is kind, and because I’d win the argument.
But we need more choice, and we need to shift the balance.
“That’s a good point, but you know that mums’ jobs are just as hard as dads’ jobs, don’t you? And that girls can do any job they want?” I said to my daughter.
She nodded agreement, and we walked into the playground, to join dozens of other kids – and their mothers. Only mothers.
For details on our bottom-of-the-table record on paid parental leave and flex working, see Family Leave Policy: A Chance for Change