In the great debates about family/work balance and fertility rates, let’s not forget men.
Someone had to do it. And I figured, it might as well be me. In the long-running debate about Australia’s fertility debate, someone had to point out that baby-making and baby-raising is not a solitary business. This means that it simply doesn’t make sense to keep pointing the finger of blame for Australia’s low birth rate at women alone.
As I argue in my new book “What, No Baby: why women have lost the freedom to mother and how they can get it back” (extracted in Good Weekend 22/1), there is little question that men’s desire and decisions impact significantly on whether women who desire children actually wind up mothers. The truth is men can derail women’s maternity plans by failing to partner, failing to prove themselves good father material or simply refusing to have the kids that they promised their spouse years earlier they would want “one day”. Such problems, among others, are why it just doesn’t make sense to leave men out of discussions about the whys and wherefores of Australia’s low birthrates.
But I know there are Australian men who have the incomes and credentials to be part of the problem, but have chosen instead to be part of the solution. That single men exist who are willing to commit to women they love within a reasonable time frame or when an unplanned pregnancy intrudes on well-laid plans. Men who, the moment they realise they are “just not that into” the maternity-yearning woman beside them, let her know so she can find someone who is. I realise that the nation has plenty of men willing to put aside their own anxieties about career and money – and ignore the fact that physiologically they still have time – so they can say “yes” to partners who want to get pregnant while they are still young.
I call such blokes “the gorgeous men”.
In fact, not only have men been wrongly excluded from discussions about Australia’s low fertility, but notions of “choice” have been promulgated that palpably lack the sophistication to accurately describe what women do when they decide against kids. To put it simply, women don’t always do what they choose to do. In particular, my research makes clear that while the vast majority of women want to mother, their freedom to choose children at any particular point is shaped and limited by a range of social circumstances and attitudes.
It would be both unfair and illogical of me to claim that while women’s decisions about children are constrained by social attitudes and structures, men behave as they do because they are naturally rotten to the core. Instead, I have sought to examine not just what men do when it comes to partnering and parenthood, but what they want to do and would, if they were really free to choose.
Not surprisingly, there are plenty of reasons for male hesitation when it comes to partnering and parenthood. Foremost among them is the desire of men to fulfil their obligations to their partners and kids without committing career hari-kari.
Sadly, research suggests that the handful of men who really do swear off breakfast meeting, leave at 5:00 to pick up at creche and refuse to work weekends find themselves in the same career cul de sac as working mothers. Indeed, Australian managers are good at making clear to men in more ways then one that any worker who modifies his schedule to accommodate new fatherhood will be struck off the A-list for the crime of being inadequately “serious”. For instance, one study found that just 8% of Australian manager believed fathers should be entitled to 52 weeks unpaid leave after the birth of a baby, while a mere third supported a five-day a year “special family leave” entitlement.
What all this suggests is that most Australian workplaces remain hostile to anyone who removes their nose from the grindstone, not to working mothers per se. While social convention and pay inequality ensure that it is largely women who will attempt to modify their work patterns to achieve some semblance of balance between work and family – and wind up on the Mummy Track for their troubles – working fathers who attempt a similar juggling act will suffer the same career misfortune.
In the same way that women don’t want to have to take it on the career chin when they become a mother, many men are also reluctant to fulfil their obligations to their partners, kids and – given the joy of fatherhood – themselves at the cost of their satisfaction and advancement at work. And why should either sex have to pay such a high and enduring cost (in superannuation and lifelong earning capacity, to name a few) for doing the right thing?
My answer is that they shouldn’t. In the same way that women are entitled to resent the high costs Australian society demands of those who have children and to refuse to buy into manipulative claims that if they really loved their children they wouldn’t complain, men should also resist any assertion that if they were really gorgeous men, they would simply suck up whatever punishment the workplace doles out to active dads, and talk about how they were never really all that career-oriented, anyway.
Rather, both genders need to join hands and insist that enough is enough. That’s it’s become too hard to have children in Australian society today, and that something – other than the present and future backs of working mothers and gorgeous fathers – has to give.