Three quarters of Australian men say they’d like to work flexibly if it didn’t damage their career, and yet they are happy for their partners to do so…. Fortunately the tide is turning; people are realising that careers aren’t broken from taking time off and that men are parents too. One such father and all round great guy is Brendan Ferguson. He’s a Principal consultant with Social Ventures Australia, leading their work with Indigenous Australians. He has been with the organisation for three years and last year, when his son Alexander was 10 weeks old, he took 7 and a half months paternity leave taking on the role of primary-carer.
We spoke to him about paternity leave, and how he combines career and the gift of fatherhood.
When your child was born, were there different expectations placed on you and your partner?
There remains a pervasive expectation within our community that mum will carry the burden of raising an infant while dad helps out around the edges.
But our careers dictated otherwise, so we chose to do things a bit differently.
What is Social Venture Australia’s paternity leave policy?
Until recently, we handled parental leave on a case by case basis, without a published, consistent policy. But when several staff members announced that they were pregnant, the issue was highlighted and the Board and Executive promptly developed a clear policy.
The parental leave policy is gender neutral. At the risk of oversimplifying it, the key points are:
- You are entitled to up to 12 months leave
- If you are eligible for the government’s paid parental leave scheme, as primary carer, SVA will top up that entitlement to your full salary for up to 12 weeks
- If you are not the primary carer, you are still entitled to two weeks of paid leave.
I’m very grateful for the support that SVA has afforded me as primary carer and I’m proud to work for an organisation that is willing to invest in its staff. Given that we are a small/medium sized non-profit organisation with finite resources, that investment is not insubstantial.
Why did you decide to take leave?
My wife is a doctor and is currently completing her specialist training. She was told that she would not be accredited for the year if she took any more than a couple of months off.
As a management consultant, I do project based work, which is much more amenable to flexible working arrangements.
So it made sense for me to take leave and allow my wife to return to work.
It’s disappointing that my wife’s employer was so inflexible, but it forced us to think differently about how we might share the parenting responsibilities.
This is our first child and I’ve taken more time off work than my wife did. But we’re hoping that she will have greater flexibility when (and if) number two comes around.
What did you think it would be like?
I expected to get pretty bored. I thought I would watch a lot of late night English Premier League. I thought I’d be handing back a screaming child to my wife every evening, saying “you deal with him…!”
But none of that has really happened.
What is it actually like being on paternity leave?
At its most basic, I don’t have to go to work and I get to hang out with my son.
There’s a bit more to it than that:
- I’m constantly playing with, reading to, feeding, cleaning, dressing and walking my son
- I visit a lot of cafes, often with other parents (usually mums)
- I see a lot more of my family (who also live in Melbourne)
- I do a lot of house and life admin (we only recently moved so there’s plenty to do)
- And I do keep abreast of what is happening at work with semi-regular calls, emails and meetings.
Do you feel closer to your child after having this time?
I really enjoy lying on the playmat with him under his mobile on a Tuesday morning, squeezing his toy duck. I kind of wish I had my own mobile.
I like that my wife asks me what he wants when he’s upset because I’m more familiar with his routine.
My goal (confidentially) is that, when he starts walking, he’ll choose me over his mother for comfort when he falls over.
What do you appreciate more, or less, now?
How difficult it can be to complete even one simple task during a day and how helpful it is to have family around to ease the burden.
What have you learnt?
I’ve learnt how pervasive our assumptions are in relation to gender roles and I’ve been quite surprised by my reaction to seemingly innocuous remarks.
People say strange things to me when I’m out with Alexander during the week. I’ve been asked whether I’m babysitting while my wife enjoys some retail therapy. When I was feeding in a shopping centre, a woman walked past and said, “Onya Dad!”
No one would ever say these things to a mother.
I find myself getting quite offended by commonly used phrases like, “daddy day care” and “Mr Mum.”
Similarly, my wife is sick of being told how lucky she is that her husband is willing to take time off.
I’m not “being Mr Mum”. This isn’t day care.
I’m being a father. I’m discharging my responsibilities as a parent.
Stay-home dads are still an anomaly, did you feel isolated or lonely at all?
The most isolating experience has been in our “parents’ group”. I’ve been regularly attending the weekly catch ups for several months, and yet the group messages always begin with “hi lovely ladies…” or “hey girlies…”
Perhaps I’m being overly sensitive, but I wouldn’t say I’ve been embraced by the group. I’ve never felt particularly welcome.
For the most part though, isolation hasn’t been an issue. A lot of our friends with babies have included me in coffee, lunch or walking plans, even though I’m usually the only dad.
So, lonely is the wrong word, but there has certainly been a degree of monotony to some days. I usually take that as a sign that I’m not scheduling enough activities in my days, which is easily rectified.
How has your partner coped returning to work?
It has been difficult for my wife. She would have liked to take more time off work, but she didn’t really have a choice.
Of course she misses Alexander when she’s at work, but if I were working, I would miss him too.
I think there are two things that are more difficult for a mother to deal with when she returns to work quickly than for a father:
- Feeding; and
- The expectations of others.
My wife expresses twice a day in a cupboard at hospital and comes home with a small esky full of milk. It’s been a super-human effort. She set a goal of trying to feed exclusively with breast milk until 6 months. Alexander is now 7 months old and we’re still yet to use formula.
What is really unhelpful is when others feel the need to share their views on our parenting arrangements. When my wife returned to work, one young man – her colleague and a recent father – told her that he “really thinks a child needs its mother.” Apparently, in his view, a father is incapable of providing the requisite love and care to an infant.
Would you recommend paternity leave to others?
Absolutely. For all the reasons I’ve explained above, this has been an incredibly rewarding experience for me.
Many male friends that I speak to about my experience have shown interest in taking several months off themselves. I can think of a couple who have already acted on it.
This is all anecdotal, of course, but I’d be surprised if we don’t see an influx in men taking parental leave, particularly in the 2-3 months after their partners return to work. I think attitudes are changing.
Will you work flexibly upon your return to work?
I’m planning to work a 4-day week.
Do you intend to structure your work around your family commitments, or vice versa when you return to work?
Certainly the former (structuring work around family).
I will probably need to do the majority of childcare drop-offs and collections and I’ll be working a 4-day week.
My job can be demanding at times, but there is also a high degree of flexibility, so I’ll be interested to see how it goes. Parents often say that their time management skills improved with the arrival of children. Mine will certainly need to improve dramatically…!
What’s your advice for other new dads out there?
When you’re planning the division of parenting responsibilities, don’t be afraid to start with a blank sheet of paper and challenge your assumptions.
People often talk about how hard babies are. They don’t often talk about how fun they are, and by extension, how enjoyable parental leave can be.
How has fatherhood changed you?
I’m less selfish. You just can’t afford to put yourself first anymore.