The most startlingly honest discussion I’ve ever had about the difficulties of working motherhood was with a man named Tim. I was doing a story about stay-at-home dads and my interview subject, a full-time father of three young children who is married to a busy PR exec, became mildly annoyed when I kept prodding him on how he put up with all of it: the loss of status, loss of income and constant demand for snacks. How, I wondered somewhat insensitively, could he possibly stand it as a man?
“I guess I just don’t need that kind of validation,” he responded, shrugging at first. But when I pressed a bit further, something in him hardened. “Look,” said Tim, “you have a kid, so who is your kid with now?”
“A nanny,” I told him.
He nodded. “Well, I can tell you something: Your kid doesn’t want a nanny; your kid wants you. Your kid needs you.”
I told him it was complicated—I have to work, my husband has to work—and he waved his hand like he’d heard it all before. “I just don’t think saying ‘I work’ is much of an excuse for not raising your children,” he said. “For me, that’s just not good enough.”
I wasn’t offended. I’d heard these kinds of arguments before, usually by conservative traditionalists explaining why they preferred their women at home. But to hear such an argument made by a man who was willing to abandon his own career path and walk the double stroller walk was, to put it mildly, absolutely astonishing.
Here’s the thing: We can talk about the need for gender equality until we’re blue in the face, but at some point, if we want things to actually change, there are going to have to be more men like Tim.
The recent federal budget contains changes to Canada’s existing parental leave policy that are intended to encourage more women to return to the workforce by tempting more men out of it (at least, temporarily). The new “use it or lose it” parental benefits package is aimed specifically at men in the hopes that they will take up the reins domestically, allowing their wives to charge forth and narrow the pay gap.
Under the existing rules, parents can share 35 weeks, in whatever they wish, in a standard year-long leave. Under the new rules, that benefit period would be extended to 40 weeks, so long as the father (or non-birthing parent) is the one who takes it. For an extended parental leave of 18 months, that period would be extended from five to eight extra weeks.
The allowance has been criticized as social engineering by conservatives who feel the government should stop fighting “human nature” and let women carry on wrestling the age-old balancing act alone. But as an observer who has watched the snail’s pace of social progress on this issue, I think a little economic incentive couldn’t hurt.
In 1976, stay-at-home fathers accounted for approximately one in 70 of all Canadian families with a stay-at-home parent. By 2015, two years after I interviewed Tim, the proportion had increased to about one in 10.
That’s good news, but the story of parental leave has been a less dramatic social transformation. According to Statistics Canada, only 12 percent of new Canadian dads outside Quebec claimed or planned to claim parental leave benefits in 2015—up only one percent from a decade earlier.
There are many reasons for this, of course, but chief among them is social conditioning—a force that very few of us admit to being swayed by but that almost no one is immune to. When I first entered the workforce back in the early 2000s, the idea of a man taking a “paternity leave” was openly laughable. The very few men who did were, at best, privately sniggered at and, at worst, judged to be lazy and unambitious. Fast-forward nearly two decades and, a host of government economic incentives later, it’s now absolutely normal—if not expected—that a new father will take at least some time off, if not his fair share of the parental benefits available to him.
The pay gap still exists, as does the social stigma for full-time stay-at-home fathers, and it won’t change overnight. But the Liberals are smart to connect the two issues. Child care benefits and the pay gap were, wrongly and for far too long, viewed as solely “women’s issues” and relegated to the rubbish heap of special interest concerns rather than what they actually are: universal human concerns.
Back to the subject of Tim and those pioneer dads like him, if there was one thing that struck me about his family, it was how happy and secure his PR executive wife was. Unlike any of the high-powered working mothers I know, she was able to leave the house every day and go on long business trips, secure in the knowledge that her children would always be with the other person in their lives who loved them best.
For most of human history, this was a privilege afforded exclusively to men. The fact that this is changing, however slowly, is a good thing for everyone. Let’s hope a new generation of Tims are about to step forward and take up the reins.