It’s a common dilemma for families – how to combine work and home duties without the kids spending all their time in childcare. For a small but growing number of parents, the answer is simple: they both work part-time and share the home and childcare duties, equally.
In a paper from the Australian Institute of Family Studies, research shows that the number of parents who both work part-time has risen over the last 20 years. According to the ABS 2007 Survey of Employment Arrangements, Retirement and Superannuation, there are 31,000 families where both parents work part time.
The primary reason, according to AIFS senior researcher Dr Jennifer Baxter, is the change in attitude of fathers.
“[They have] a greater awareness and interest in raising their children, and a willingness to cut back their hours to do that,” she said.
Dr Christina Tuke Flanders is a family psychologist who works with a lot of stay-at-home fathers. She says that parents who both choose to work part-time in favour of family get the best of both worlds.
“Those first three to five years are quite precious – you’re not going to get those early years back. As well, [from birth] to five years is the attachment period that’s really important for the long-term wellbeing of children.”
Rebecca and her partner, Tom, work for government agencies in Canberra, and have two children, aged three and five. Both work four days a week and care for their youngest daughter, Katia, at home one day each.
While Tom was keen to spend more time with the kids, Rebecca’s primary motivation was for greater equality in the home duties.
“When you have all those mummy hormones rushing around, the drudgery of cleaning and home maintenance isn’t part of the equation,” Rebecca said. “It slips in quietly afterwards.”
Parents like Rebecca and Tom quickly realise that caring for kids at home is about more than just playing games, reading stories and taking naps: the lion’s share of the housework – cooking, cleaning and washing – also usually falls to the stay-at-home parent.
Now, Rebecca says, the household responsibilities are shared far more equally and she feels less resentful about it.
But such a work-life change requires serious consideration; not least is the financial impact on families with a mortgage and other commitments.
“Money is one of the major stresses in marital breakdowns so this [arrangement] would need to be thought through carefully,” said Dr Tuke Flanders.
“Parents need to ask themselves whether it is financially viable and to make some short-term sacrifices.”
While there may be less money coming in, there is also no primary breadwinner. Instead, the careers of both parents are equally valued. This is especially supportive to a mother returning to the workforce after maternity leave because the emphasis isn’t just on her changed role. It becomes less about making ends meet financially and more about both parents spending time with the children.
They also have equal responsibility for the house, and can enjoy their time apart in their respective workplaces. There is less guilt about putting the children into daycare.
“I love my kids to bits but for me, I like work better than staying at home with them full-time,” said Rebecca. “I love coming home to them.”
As well as bonding in those early years, there are other advantages for the kids. Children who see both parents working and involved in home duties develop a much broader sense of self and of life, and their experience challenges the ideals of traditional social norms.
“A child seeing their mother engaging in a meaningful career is very powerful, especially as so many women feel their career is over if they have children,” said Dr Tuke Flanders.
“Equally, a father engaging in part-time childcare also works towards redefining old fashioned stereotypes of what it means to be a man.”
Not only do the children’s perceptions change, so do the parents’ views of family life.
“I used to obsess over the kids a lot but having a job has evened out my priorities a bit. And Tom having more solo parenting time has made him prioritise their needs more, too,” said Rebecca.
Ultimately, parents who choose to work part-time while balancing home responsibilities can strengthen long-term family ties.
“For me, it has changed our relationship with each other – there is genuine equality in the way we go about raising our children and organising our home,” said Rebecca.
Does your family do something similar, or would you like to try it? Have your say below.