'I unravelled': the brutal truth about being a part-time working dad

Photo: Supplied (Rob Sturrock)
Photo: Supplied (Rob Sturrock) 

In the 2016 census, just 80,000 families had stay-at-home dads. Less than two per cent of families with a child under one-year-old have a stay-at-home dad; by comparison there are half a million stay-at-home mums. About four to five per cent of fathers work part-time, compared to more than 40 per cent of working mums. 

All of the above statistics resonate with me because of my journey so far as a working father.

I've taken parental leave a couple of times. I've used flexible work. I've reshaped my work arrangements to better suit my family, and I've experienced the dilemmas of work–life conflict.

Photo: Supplied (Rob Sturrock)
Photo: Supplied (Rob Sturrock) 

I've even changed jobs because of my desire to maintain a work/life balance. I'm one of the four or five per cent of fathers who work part-time.

A novelty in the workforce 

To be in such a small minority, especially as a white, middle-class, thirty-something man in Sydney's Northern Beaches area, is certainly an interesting change of pace for me. I don't know one other dad who works part-time in order to do caring during the week.

Over the past four years, everywhere I've looked—my bosses, colleagues, close friends, neighbours, even my accountant—I see hardworking fathers doing long hours and handling lots of professional responsibility. My own father slogged his guts out for over 40 years in the auto industry until he became CEO; uncles on either side of my family have been ambitious doctors, business owners and real-estate agents. My cousins are busy opening restaurants and wine bars or climbing the corporate ladder.

Then there's me. I work four days a week at a national charity, I'm home by 6 p.m. every work day, and I goof around with the kids every Wednesday. I'm always running low on holidays or sick leave because I use it for family emergencies. I don't really socialise during or outside of work because I need to leave on time to get to daycare or home. And I don't travel for work unless I absolutely have to—and even then I try to do it all in one day. Every day, I'm stress-testing the system we've built for our fathers, and waiting to see whether it will break.

Sometimes I like being a novelty in the workforce; other times I feel isolated. Sometimes I get a nagging thought in the back of my head that I'm failing in my duties to my family, and I've even heard that sort of thing said straight to my face. 

Like most men, until the birth of my first child I had only ever held full-time positions, most of which demanded long hours. But when I found out Julia was pregnant for the first time, I wanted to rearrange my working life to suit my family. I wanted to heed the advice I was given by my friend and 'get stuck in' to fatherhood from day one. I also wanted to support my wife during her maternity leave, and then help her get back into the workforce when she was ready. I wanted to ensure she didn't have to sacrifice her career just because she was the one who gave birth and could breastfeed.

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On-the-job father training 

After a long series of discussions, Julia and I agreed that I would seek to take three weeks off at the birth of Aila, and that at the end of her nine months of maternity leave, I would take three months' extended leave to be our daughter's full-time carer. After my three months was up, I would ask to return to work four days a week. It took a fair while to arrive at this decision, but it was one we were really happy with. When I nervously pitched this scheme to my boss, he didn't bat an eyelid, and worked closely with me to make it happen. He even drafted a new parental leave policy for the company because of my request.

Now, I wasn't working at a large company with a big HR department and resources and personnel to spare. I was at a small, lean, not-for-profit organisation that ran on very little. The whole place ran on the labour of about five paid staff. Me being gone for several months would have a huge impact on everyone else. So I was also lucky to have an employer like this.

At the time, I had friends who were getting laughed at by their bosses for wanting to be at home after the birth of their first kid, and other friends who were forced to say they had doctor or dentist appointments in order to go to their kids' school events because it was not an acceptable choice for the blokes in these high-flying commercial industries. I felt supremely lucky, to say the least.

Photo: Supplied (Rob Sturrock)
Photo: Supplied (Rob Sturrock) 

The three weeks I took off when Aila was born in April 2016 remain some of the best weeks of my life. I didn't really sleep much, I drank way too much coffee and ate a lot of comfort food, I showered occasionally, I was rarely out of trackies, and I barely managed a single conversation with Julia where our baby wasn't the topic. But I'd never felt more like a man. Considering how hard her labour had been, and the ailments that had followed, Julia was glad I was there too. And I got my first on-the-job father training.

The beginning of the train wreck

My workplace was incredibly supportive during that time, and genuinely happy for me. My phone wasn't buzzing with texts or emails, and there were no snarks about when I'd be returning to work, just a beautiful package of baby things—including a baby Swans guernsey and scarf—and lots of warm wishes. My new life as a working dad doing the juggle could not have started better.

So for the first year of my daughter's life, she always had one of her parents at home with her. My extended leave with Aila was glorious, exhausting, mentally consuming and about as hard as I had feared it would be. And I'd happily do it all over again. We did lots of excursions, including the time we went to the Sydney Aquarium on a stormy, wet day and seemed to be pushing against the entire crowd the whole way—only for me to realise that I'd taken us in through the exit and we were going the wrong way.

Photo: Supplied (Rob Sturrock)
Photo: Supplied (Rob Sturrock) 

Aila learnt to stand while I was taking care of her, and I learnt what it was like to change a nappy full of shit at a place with no changing table for dads. I didn't see many dads wherever I went during the week, and I often felt like a loner—but hey, I had my gorgeous little girl with me, making me look competent or powerless depending on what mischief she was up to.

It was April 2017 when I returned to my job four days a week and took care of Aila one day a week. My colleagues were excited for my return and I was fired up to be back doing work that I loved with a bunch of amazing people. I figured that opting for part-time might slow my career trajectory a bit, but I was more than happy with the choices I had made. I hadn't anticipated any other negative effects. With Julia also working part-time at this point, it was the first time we were both plunged neck-deep into the fight for work/life balance. It was also the time that things for me slowly turned into a train wreck.

Our family's weekly routine became a head-spinning combi-nation of staying on top of home commitments, splitting daycare duties and scrambling to get things done at work before rushing home. I felt an urgency like never before, and the weight of multiple, important responsibilities. At the end of every day I felt a gravitational pull towards home that was irresistible, and I was increasingly stressed if I didn't make it back in time to do baths, dinners and settles. It felt like trying to spin plates on high poles, hoping to keep them all wobbling without any one plate crashing down.

Photo: Supplied (Rob Sturrock)
Photo: Supplied (Rob Sturrock) 

High psychological distress

One of my first 'uh-oh moments' at work was when it hit me that working part-time didn't mean a reduction in workload. Before kids, I was dealing with a big volume of challenging work that often required long hours, and because I loved the work I was more than happy to do it. But after kids, I was doing the same load in one day less each week. The work didn't stop coming simply because my hours had changed. If I'd thought I was busy before, that was nothing compared to the hyperspeed of being part-time.

The next 'uh-oh moment' was when Aila started getting sick at daycare, and as a consequence so did I. My wife and I valued each other's careers equally, so we took care of our daughter equally when she was unwell. So now not only was I contending with a high workload in less time, but my working week was regularly obliterated by hand, foot and mouth disease and other horrid toddler viruses. And there was nothing we could do about it—we were just in a new reality. The grandparents would help occasionally, but they'd invariably get a nasty secondary infection and so became (quite fairly) reluctant to take care of a sick girl. I took more sick leave over the next year than I had in the previous two. And my employer was noticing.

As the months passed, I got a good sense of what those fathers in all those studies were talking about. I was reluctant to stay late at work, to participate in meetings before 9 a.m. or after 5 p.m., or to travel unless it was absolutely critical. I would haul arse as hard as I could during the day, not taking breaks or procrastinating, in order to squeeze the most out of my time, but when my family needed me at the end of the day, that was it—at least until later that night when everyone was in bed. It gradually dawned on me that my employer, which had been so amazingly supportive to begin with, was growing frustrated by my attempt to do the juggle.

Photo: Supplied (Rob Sturrock)
Photo: Supplied (Rob Sturrock) 

I started to get texts or emails with thinly veiled frustration about my not being there for 4.30 or 5 p.m. teleconferences. There was explicit frustration at my unwillingness to travel overseas for an international conference. I was questioned about how much leave I'd been taking. Even if I called in to a staff meeting while sick on the couch at home, there were exasperated sighs about me not being in the office.

Life was already tricky enough, and as I realised my employer was starting to give me low marks for my performance, I unravelled. A job which I had long considered my dream started keeping me awake at night with stress and anxiety.

During my descent into what researchers would call 'high psychological distress', where I was in my therapist's office every one or two weeks to deal with how awful and fragile I was feeling, I had another uh-oh moment—I realised that there's pressure on parents to feel grateful for how their employers allow them to reshape their working life.

As a part-time worker, you are daily combatting the perception that you're not doing as much work as the full-timers. (Of course, you're not getting paid as much either.) But I increasingly sensed an assumption that I should be eternally grateful for being allowed to go part-time—for being allowed to care for my family. And a pressure to repay that gratitude.

It's like a whisper in your ear. You're already not in the office as much as the others—why do you need more time off? Can't you get someone to help you? Can't you get your shit together better? As one of the only working dads doing part-time hours, I was all the more conspicuous to everyone around me.

Between April and December 2017, my confidence in how I was handling the juggle nose-dived, and with it my self-esteem. I despaired going to work, dreaded every new email I received, felt more and more like a failure who couldn't keep up with everyone else.

I spent most nights curled in a ball in bed dreading the new day. That's how f---ing hard being a working parent and a part-time working dad can be. Before long I believed performing the juggle was well and truly beyond me.

My big, bold experiment to be a different kind of working father seemed to have become a total fizzer, and in such a short period of time. Was I breaking the system, or had it swiftly broken me?

This is an edited extract from Man Raises Boy by Rob Sturrock, RRP: $29.99, Allen & Unwin, available now.