Our society must address why women are not being given the opportunity to share childcare responsibilities
In most communities, when we talk about children and what a life with children looks like, we’re almost always talking about the choices or decisions that a woman has to make. Conversations tend to focus on a woman’s decision to raise her child versus going back to work or study, or choosing some other path. Very rarely, or almost never, do we practically consider that having and raising children is a genuinely dual and joint responsibility, and that manifests itself in the way in which we talk about children, the types of questions we raise, and to whom we raise these questions. It’s also reflected in behaviour patterns, which interestingly tend to be in conflict with theoretical attitudes on the sharing of childcare responsibilities.
According to the Fatherhood Institute, in the UK, for every hour of childcare that women carry out, their male counterparts carry out a mere 24 minutes. A comparison of work patterns between men and women also serves as a good indication of gendered differentials in child caring responsibilities. Across the British population as a whole, the Office for National Statistics reports that 55 per cent of men are full-time employed versus only 36 per cent of women. In contrast, women are over three times more likely to work part-time (25 per cent for women) and nearly twice as likely to be economically inactive. A 2009 Labour Force Survey found that women with children under the age of 16 were over four times more likely than men in the same position to be economically inactive.
While the unequal distribution of childcare is evident across the British population, there are further differentials between particular groups, and as a Muslim woman I was interested in seeing how Muslim women fared against the average. According to the 2001 Census, 68 per cent of Muslim women were economically inactive, the highest level reported for any faith group. A 2006-08 Labour Force Survey found that only 14 per cent of Muslim women were employed full-time and 10 per cent part-time. A smaller sub-survey found that 57 per cent of Muslim women with children wanted to work, and that 24 per cent of these women cited needing more support from their families to do so and 22 per cent needing better access to childcare.
Despite this particular example, the statistics clearly show that the unequal distribution of childcare affects all groups to some degree. What’s particularly interesting to note is that there appears to be a disjoint between people’s theoretical attitudes towards shared parenting and the way in which this practically manifests in behaviours and everyday societal discourse. According to a 2015 Public Attitudes Survey, 56 per cent of men and 50 per cent of women believed that men and women should share childcare responsibilities equally, if money wasn’t an issue. Despite this, I’ve never heard, in my own cultural community or otherwise, anyone asking a father-to-be whether he’ll work part-time after his child is born or if he’ll give up his career altogether, but for women, this type of question is commonplace when pregnant or even before. With the introduction of shared parental leave, the most we might hear is a question about whether the father will share his wife’s maternity leave, but the assumption is that decisions around childcare responsibilities revert back to the mother after the time period in which parental leave takes place lapses.
But a lot of women, like myself, would like to live in a world where having children requires joint sacrifices (in terms of work and leisure) from both partners. When a couple decide to start a family, it’s because they both want children, and believe that having them will enrich their lives. As such, they should both be willing to equally give what they already have in order to create the space for something new and better. That’s why I’m a strong advocate for shared parenting – a situation in which the responsibility of raising a child is equally split between the mother and father (or the option to do so is available), and the father’s responsibility isn’t restricted to being a partial evening or weekend parent. Such a state of affairs requires us to reconsider our socio-cultural attitudes towards mothers who want to work, and more importantly fathers who choose to give up their careers or work part-time in order to raise their children on a day-to-day basis.
Such a move is also likely to cause a paradigm shift within working cultures to make them fairer for women and to encourage a better work-life balance in general. The current culture penalises women for taking on childcare responsibilities through fewer and less secure opportunities for high quality part-time work, lower pay for part-time work, a culture where working and socialising outside of contracted hours helps to secure promotions, and so on. There isn’t a real drive for this to change because the larger part of the general workforce, and larger part of the male workforce, doesn’t experience these penalties. However, as more men take on genuine childcare responsibilities, there is likely to be a shift in the way in which part-time work and work in general is treated.
So what do studies about fathers’ parenting tell us and how should we view them? There are a number of studies that show that where men carry out substantial parenting responsibilities, child well-being is generally unaffected. Even if this weren’t the case, the moral argument for shared parenting still stands. It’s an argument to say that when it comes to childcare responsibilities, we need to look at what is good for the mother, the father and the child individually and collectively. No parent makes decisions that are fully optimal for their children, consciously or otherwise. They make choices between aspects of their child’s well-being as well as between their own well-being and the well-being of their child. What children need is time, love, energy, a happy and peaceful home environment, access to good role models and to be taught good morals. Both parents have the ability to provide this and, as a result, ensure that their child is raised well.
For many, having children is one of the aspects of life that, in combination, creates a holistically fulfilled life. It’s important to remember that this is something that is true both for men and women. As a feminist, I’m a strong believer in creating a pressure-free environment in which women make the choices they want in order to live happy and fulfilled lives. That means supporting women in whatever decisions they make (whether they choose work full-time, to raise their children single-handedly, or something completely different), but it also means campaigning for women to have the option to share childcare responsibilities if they so wish.
Image from: clipartkid
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