Despite our best intentions to equally parent our firstborn child, my husband and I slipped into the traditional roles of him returning to work while I took on the childcare. We were both self-employed, and freelance fathers aren’t entitled to paternity pay, so Rich took less than two weeks off before returning full-time to his job. It was the same when our son was born two years later, except that by that point I’d built a freelance career from home, so I was then looking after a two-year-old, a newborn and a business.
We are weeks away from the birth of our third baby and this time we have decided to do things differently. Earlier this year I had a book published, The Freelance Mum. Off the back of it, I was able to launch an online course advising small businesses and freelancers on doing their own PR. There was clearly an appetite for this course, and I launched another on becoming your own boss.
Having proved that this online course business was not just viable, but also lucrative – bringing in £7,000 a month, with no overheads – we decided it made sense for Rich to quit his job. His knees were suffering from years of building work and he wanted to spend more time with our children. Also, he made documentary films and wondered if he could find time for that if we adjusted our work-life situation. He is now supporting me with the marketing side of my business, and there is less pressure on us, with everything split more or less equally at home.
Research suggests businesses run by mothers contribute upwards of £7bn to the UK economy each year. But the gender pay gap is one reason why fathers stepping back from their careers to prioritise their partner’s isn’t that common. With men earning more on average, it often makes financial sense for women to take on the childcare. But this widens the pay gap further, because when mothers do return to work, the cost of childcare can be prohibitively expensive and they struggle to find work that can fit around family.
Interestingly, research this year from Dove Men+Care revealed that UK fathers were increasingly keen to play an active role in their children’s early years, with 93% of those polled saying they would do anything to be involved during the first weeks. Yet just 44% of fathers in the UK took the full two weeks of paternity leave and 16% took no time off at all.
In order to bring about change, we need to be sharing childcare from birth, as this sets the precedent for the family’s home-work balance down the line. This is why Sarah Akwisombe and her husband, Jason, reassessed their careers after the birth of their first baby. Sarah was running her own business – the No Bull Business School – and Jason was working for an insurance firm. At first, he went part-time to help out more with their daughter, Marley, but as Sarah’s business grew and her income increased, he started to see where he could add value. “We had always discussed working together,” he says. “And we both wanted a life with more freedom and flexibility.” So he quit his job to help Sarah, taking on the admin work.
“I don’t know how other women do everything,” says Sarah. “It takes two people to have children and keep a house running, so why is this seen as women’s work? Both sexes are equally able. Jason is the one who knows if something is missing from Marley’s school bag. He books her swimming lessons and dance classes. I do the cooking and laundry. We play to our strengths.”
It helps that Jason was raised in a family that valued equal contributions in the home and workplace. “I had a strong female role model growing up in Tanzania,” he says. “My mother was entrepreneurial and I learned that no particular jobs are assigned a gender. Childcare is something to be shared by both parents and the idea of women being the main caregiver is an outdated concept.”
Hannah Saunders and David Round were also open to challenging gender norms, but after becoming a mother at 41, Hannah quit her 22-year career as a civil servant and launched Big Fish Little Fish family raves. While they had planned to share the childcare, Hannah soon found herself taking on the majority of it, as David was often travelling for work – as director of purchasing, PR and marketing for a wine merchant – and not making it home in time to put the kids to bed. Mutually dissatisfied with this, Hannah persuaded David to quit his job.
She was not sure how they would cope going from two salaried jobs to none, and growing a business while raising a young family: “It felt like we’d run off to join the circus.” But she found this more thrilling than nerve-wracking.
At first, David was a full-time dad to their two children and, though he knew this was going against the grain, he did not feel negatively judged by others. “It felt exciting to have this chance to spend so much time with our children,” he says.
But he did find himself in a culture that did not hugely welcome fathers. He had taken the children to baby groups that were populated with mothers who ignored him. In time, he developed a routine that suited him and the kids. And as they have grown older, he has become more involved in Hannah’s business.
Although work and family time blend, sometimes to the annoyance of their children, they agree that working together has created a much more settled home life.
Alice Darbyshire, an HR expert who focuses on helping mothers back into the workplace, believes that if more men step away from their careers to support their partners after having a baby, it will be positive all round. “The talent pool will look different and businesses may need to look beyond their traditional places and types of person to fill vacancies, especially if they currently unconsciously lean towards male candidates,” she says.
In addition, she says the language used in business and legislation will change. “For example, I love the idea of having ‘primary carer leave’ rather than maternity leave, or even scrapping anything to do with caring responsibility and just ‘long leave’, which indicates anyone going on leave for six months or more, whatever the reason.”.
In a culture that creates more work opportunities for men, the notion of them stepping away to allow their partners to build their careers may feel financially counterintuitive. But, as Jason says, “Our outdated system has created a society of men who find fulfilment and value from being the main earner” and the idea of sharing childcare emasculating.
The more we see examples of mothers as primary earners and fathers as primary caregivers, the less uncomfortable it will become. But we need those first couples to switch up the status quo and demonstrate how well it can work. I’m pleased to be one of them.