When Rob Sturrock and his wife Julia were contemplating managing the care of their first baby in 2016, they were adamant they would approach it as a team.
“We had a relationship that was explicitly based on the fact both of our careers mattered equally, and it was the same with the running of our household,” says Rob, 37. “It was natural then that we wanted to maintain equal roles with a baby.”
The professionals, who both work in the community sector, cobbled together a mixture of government leave, unpaid leave, annual leave and a small amount of paid parental leave that meant Julia stayed at home with their daughter Clementine for the first nine months of her life and Rob then stayed home for the next three months until she turned one.
“I also took three weeks off at her birth to bond and get a sense of our new life before going back to work,” he says.
Financially it was expensive because Julia didn't receive any paid parental leave from her employer and Rob only got a few weeks. Under the government parental leave scheme Julia was paid 18 weeks at the minimum wage and Rob received two weeks of dad and partner pay at the minimum wage. They effectively lived on a single income for most of that year.
“The financial sacrifice was an accepted reality because we put the bonding and parenting ahead of it. We really wanted to get the first 12 months done properly and as evenly as possible,” Rob says. “It couldn’t have gone on for much longer than it did [financially] but we were willing to accept it.”
The fact they earn very similar salaries helped them in their bid to share the care of their daughter.
“We have friends where the income split is 70/30 which obviously makes one person going on leave more difficult because it’s expensive. We’re on a relatively even keel which made sharing the leave more of a reality.”
Ahead of time they did a budget to assess the likely impact of 12 months on one income with an array of increased costs.
“That exercise really helped give us a good high-level overview of where we would land. We ended up having eaten into some of our savings but it wasn’t disastrous.”
Their families both helped in different ways: with caring, gifts and the odd grocery shop, which eased the squeeze.
Since then Rob and Julia have each opted to work four days a week: Clementine is in daycare three days and they each spend a weekday at home with her.
Their second child is due in October and this time there is the prospect of paid parental leave for Rob, which is not just a nicety. They have recently moved into a bigger place, with a bigger mortgage, which means having a longer period of time without getting paid isn’t as viable as it was.
When Rob changed jobs last year he sought out an employer with a generous parental leave policy.
“I knew a second baby would be on the horizon and I wanted to be able to access paid leave so I could have that opportunity at home again.”
He will take two weeks off at the birth and, all things going to plan, when their second baby is between six and nine months’ old he will take two months of paid parental leave.
“I had a conversation with my boss as soon as we reached the 12-week mark in this pregnancy and they have been very supportive,” he says. “I am fortunate to work in an organisation that doesn’t just have the policy but values it and is happy to encourage men to use it.”
Rob has friends in the corporate sector whose employers offer very generous packages to fathers but they feel intimidated about asking to use it.
By global standards Australian fathers take very little time off to care for babies and children. A 2014 study by the Human Rights Commission revealed 85 per cent of Australian dads surveyed took less than four weeks leave when a baby was born.
Compared to OECD nations Australia lags in terms of the provision of paid leave and the number of fathers who access it. According to the Workplace Gender equality Agency less than half of non-public sector Australian organisations with over 100 employees offer paid parental leave and a little over a third offer an average of 7.3 days of paid leave for secondary carers.
Global experience suggests fathers are more likely to take parental leave when a policy is generous and flexible in its application. When a dad taking extended time off work requires a family to take a big financial hit, few are willing and able to reach an arrangement like Rob and Julia did, which Rob considers a huge loss. "I've never done anything as emotionally fulfilling as being a dad."
Georgina Dent is a journalist, editor and TV commentator with a keen focus on women's empowerment and gender equality.