Returning to work as an equal parent and the questions that break stereotypes.

Troy* stands as a fortunate example of the growing number of dads whose workplaces are providing equal access to parental leave. When Troy and his partner Hannah* had their first child, Hannah took a full sixteen weeks of paid maternity leave. On the other hand, Troy, labelled as the “secondary carer,” only had two weeks. This time was mostly spent in hospital with Hannah and their newborn, followed by a hectic flurry of sleepless nights and diapers. Once the leave was over, Troy only had fleeting moments in the mornings and evenings to spend with his son.

This time, however, things were different. Troy’s workplace updated its policies to offer equal parental leave provisions to all employees. This change was monumental. With Hannah as the primary earner, this new policy offered Troy the flexibility to stay home and care for their newborn, allowing Hannah to return to work earlier.

Three months prior to his parental leave, Troy sought information about who would cover his role during his absence. The usual process was to organise a temporary replacement who would slowly take over the role up to a month before the parent’s leave. This approach aimed to minimise work disruptions and offer contingency plans in case the baby arrived early. Troy had seen this effectively implemented many times with his female peers and women in other teams.

Troy’s conversation with his leader went differently. There was no planned replacement for his role, and a peer was assigned to handle only part of his workload. The rest of his duties were left for Troy to pick up when he returned. It was assumed that he would jump right back into full-time work and catch up on his missed workload, all while adjusting to life with a newborn and a toddler. The possibility that Troy might need or want to reduce his work hours to care for his children was completely overlooked.

While equal parental leave policies are undoubtedly progressive, they are not sufficient on their own to bring about real change. Men, like women, still grapple with deeply ingrained gender-based stereotypes around parenting and work-life balance.

How are you doing?

Talking to Troy and other new dads on their perspective of what the first few months and years are like as new parents or parents to new babies, the disparity between genders is stark. Post birth most women are constantly asked how they are going. Midwives, doctors, child health nurses, family, friends, colleagues and even strangers on the street check-in. The list goes on. Mental health and wellbeing is prioritised. Post-natal depression is actively spoken about. Women are offered support, advice (mostly unwanted) and guidance.

For Dads the questions follow a similar vein, but it’s not about them.

“How is your baby doing?”

“How is Mum going?”

At best, “How are you both coping?”

Dads, and indeed all other members of society fulfilling the “secondary” carer role, are deprioritised from day one. Even though dads have also experienced what is likely one of life’s biggest changes, what Troy experienced following the birth of both of his children was that not one person directly asked him how he was doing, and if he was coping. Notably, research has shown that up to 1 in 10 new dads experience depression during pregnancy or post-birth. However, as a society, we rarely address this issue, thus overlooking the emotional journey of new dads.

Further, many questions directed towards new dads tend to downplay the significant life change they’ve gone through. This is evident in jests and comments like:

“Enjoying the sleepless nights?” Such remarks seem out of place in organisations where, under normal circumstances, fatigue is recognised as a serious risk and addressed for safety and wellbeing purposes.

Comments like “Have you changed a nappy yet?” or even “have you worked out the tricks to get out of changing nappies?” are also all too common. This type of discourse encourages the outdated belief that tending to a child’s basic needs is something to be avoided or minimised by men.

“Why aren’t you back at work yet?” Where the assumption is that the dad’s priority is to get back to work as soon as possible post birth.

It’s important to remember that while some dads may brush off these offhand comments and questions, others may find them to be dismissive or even hurtful. It minimises the significance of their role in their child’s life and overlooks the impact that becoming a parent has on their emotional well-being.

So, how do we change this narrative? Firstly, by acknowledging that the stereotypes and expectations placed on dads are outdated and unfair. Dads are just as capable of being nurturing, caring, and present in their children’s lives. They can be, and often are, just as involved in the day to day care of their children, from changing nappies to getting up for middle of the night feeds.

Next time you meet a new dad, why not try the following:

  1. How are you feeling? This open-ended question can encourage new dads to share their experiences and emotions honestly.
  2. What has been the most rewarding part of becoming a dad? This can help to draw attention to the positives in what can be an overwhelming time. It also validates their important role in their child’s life.
  3. How are you managing the balance between work and family life? This question acknowledges the challenges new fathers might be facing in their work-life balance, which can open the door for a more in-depth conversation about their experiences.
  4. What kind of support do you need right now? Often, new fathers might feel unsure about asking for help. By directly asking them about the support they need, it can make them feel more comfortable to express themselves.
  5. How are you coping with the sleep changes and new routines? Sleep deprivation and change in routines are common experiences for new parents. Asking about it validates their experience and gives them a chance to share their coping strategies.

These questions can create a space for new dads to express their thoughts, fears, and joys, and show that their feelings and experiences are important and valid.

Lastly, workplaces need to play their part. Equal parental leave policies are a huge step in the right direction, but they need to be accompanied by a shift in workplace culture. Employers can do this by providing support for new dads, such as flexible work arrangements, resources for navigating the transition back to work, and an understanding, supportive environment that respects their role as caregivers.

The birth of a child brings enormous changes for both mothers and fathers, and it’s time we started recognising that dads, too, deserve support and understanding during this transformative period. They are not just “helping out” or “babysitting” – they are parenting, plain and simple.

We all have a part to play in supporting new dads. Whether it’s offering a listening ear, being mindful of the language we use, or advocating for better workplace policies, these small steps can make a big difference. Let’s start asking the right questions and showing new dads that we see them, we value them, and we support them.

*Names have been changed for privacy.