Aussie dads see themselves as mums' helpers, not equals: study

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You've shopped and raced home from work to cook dinner for the family. It is nearly ready when one's male partner asks: "How can I help?"

To many women juggling work and family, there is nothing more infuriating than this innocent, nearly always well-intentioned, question.

Now a survey of more than 1000 men has found half of all men consider themselves "helpers" and not primary carers in the care of their children.

"Too many Aussie fathers take on back office parenting roles for a range of reasons like work pressures, social expectations and basic lack of know-how," said Save the Children CEO and father-of-three Paul Ronalds.

"We want this to change since we know how important it is for fathers and male carers to play an active role in raising children right from childbirth."

Save the Children conducted in-depth case studies and interviews with dads to prepare its first ever report on the State of Australia's Fathers. For more than 15 years, the non- profit organisation has marked Mother's Day with an annual State of the World's Mothers. 

"Times have changed and men are becoming more active and engaged parents, which is great because this really helps enhance children's physical, intellectual and emotional development. However our report reveals there is still a long way to go before men become equal partners in parenting," said Mr Ronalds.

The Australian report echoes many of the issues raised by America's most famous first daughter, and now a new mother, Chelsea Clinton, who recently launched a report produced by MenCare and co-sponsored by the Clinton Foundation, the State of the World's Fathers.. It found major inequalities persist between parents.  Women spent between two and 10 times longer than men caring for children. There was not one country where men and boys share unpaid domestic and child care work equally with women and girls - despite the fact that women today comprise 40 percent of the global workforce and 50 percent of the world's food producers.

Released in time for this year's American Father's Day, Ms Clinton said balancing caregiving in the household "is not only morally the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do — for fathers, for families, for communities, and for countries."

"Why is that the smart thing to do? Well we know that engaged fathers are going to be healthier fathers. We know that positively engaged fathers now are happier fathers. We know that happier and healthier people are going to be more productive contributors to their countries' economies. We know that when fathers are more engaged, it creates more time and space for women to be more engaged in work outside the home." 

In Australia, Mr Ronalds said the report reveals there is still a long way to go before men become "equal partners in parenting."

"Men's involvement has too often been missing from policies, programs and efforts to promote the best interests of children Australia."

Almost all Australian men interviewed recognised that an active father or father figure was important, yet the research found:

  • 30 per cent of dads want to spend more time playing with their kids
  • 25 per cent would like to stay home to care for sick children
  • 50 per cent of dads had never sought advice on parenting or caring for children
  • 40 percent of fathers with children under 18 took one week or less off work when their last child was born while 11 per cent took no time off at all. That was fewer weeks of paid leave than dads in France, Norway and Korea, and was below the OECD average. Australia ranked 11th in the OECD on the number of weeks of paid leave for fathers
  • 50 per cent of men attended antenatal classes, and 
  • 33 per cent of men who had children in the past three years had done some work at home, but half of those men said there were no flexible work arrangements in place for them.

"Being a dad is one of the toughest – and best – jobs around. But children don't come with a 'how to' manual, and just when you think you get the hang of it, everything changes. While mums seem to be swamped with advice on birth, babies and parenting, the roadmap for fathers is not so clear," Mr Ronalds said.

The report argues that big changes in workplaces, homes and fathers' own perceptions about being a dad mean it is time to make more space for fathers in Australian policies and programs.