"No doubt some of the longer hours dads work are to pay for the children. But honestly, it may also be to escape" ... Christopher Scanlon
"Back at work yet?" I asked Steve*. We were keeping an eye on our preschool-aged daughters, who were running in circles and squealing at each other on the busy café strip. It was the middle of January and the end of the long summer break was in sight.
"Yeah. Went back yesterday," he replied, adding "Thank God!" with a roll of his eyes.
Perhaps it was meant as a male bonding moment; it wouldn't be the first time I’d missed cues of male bonding, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. But I think he was sincere: he really did want to go back to work in order to get a break from home.
The strange thing is that he’s made it clear to me in the past that he doesn’t really like his job. Actually, that’s putting it mildly. He loathes his job.
And he has every reason to have gripes. Despite handsomely exceeding annual targets, and moving his family around the country for the greater good of his company, he’s been repeatedly declined a promised promotion.
And it’s not as if he works for a small business struggling to make ends meet. His employer is one of Australia’s largest firms, the kind that boasts on their website about their flexible, family-friendly policies.
It came as a shock, then, to find that instead of wanting to spend time with his young daughter, he prefers to spend time with a group of people who don't have his best interests at heart.
Outside of holidays, he barely sees his little girl. Like many corporate soldiers, he can go five days in a row without seeing her awake.
Steve’s experience isn’t uncommon, as a 2009 survey conducted by the Australia Institute found that men with young children do more overtime than any other segment of the workforce. They put in an average of 71 minutes of overtime per day; in contrast, men overall do 63 minutes overtime in a typical workday.
That’s a startling figure. If any group of men had a good reason to leave the office on time, it’s those with young children to bathe and tuck in at night. Yet they’re doing more overtime than anyone else.
For Steve, at least, time at the office is an oasis from the chaos of home. And, let's be honest, meeting the needs of young children isn't always as straightforward as meeting those of clients.
Sure, some clients - and even colleagues - may have the emotional range and temperaments and communication skills of toddlers, but at least in professional settings, the challenges can be defined. There are processes for dealing with problems. And there are people who can be called in at a moments’ notice to do specific jobs.
Not so with preschool-aged children. Especially over the long summer break, when many of the structured activities for children dry up. No storytime at the library, no kindergym, no regular playgroup, no music lessons, no childcare.
This lack of structure may be one reason why men who become fathers work the longest hours out of all workers. No doubt some of the longer hours are to pay for the children. But honestly, it may also be to escape.
And some of this time may not even be spent at the office. In his book Fat, Forty and Fired, Nigel Marsh confessed that he would sometimes wait in his car outside his home after work so he could avoid the evening chaos of getting his four children fed, bathed and in bed.
But even granting that parenthood isn’t always a picnic, what’s the point of a few moments of silence if it means you’re missing out on being part of your children’s life? Sure, the peace and quiet may be nice, but it’s temporary. Your bond with your children is going to be much longer.
Of course, everyone’s situation is different. Some jobs don’t permit a great deal of flexibility, and independent contractors and people who work in small businesses often don’t have the same luxuries enjoyed by salaried employees.
But most men who are putting in overtime are in the high-income bracket - jobs that typically allow greater opportunities to work where and when you want, compared to most jobs.
Dads need to remember that providing for our families isn’t just about the paycheck. It’s also about being present as much as we can.
* Name has been changed
This article first appeared on Daily Life.