Daddy's dilemma: Men struggle to manage competing demands of work and home

Fathers now want to get more involved with childcare but, says Helen O’Callaghan, they can be reluctant to look for flexibility in the workplace.

Daddy's dilemma: Men struggle to manage competing demands of work and home

HE arrives at the park, toddler and five-year-old in tow.

The toddler’s screaming to get out of the buggy and he has just delivered a lecture to his older child about the safe cross code.

A granny on a nearby bench says: ‘Isn’t he great?’ Her 30-something daughter throws her eyes to heaven and says: ‘Why wouldn’t he do the childcare?’

Today hands-on dads are the norm. Indeed wives/ partners and society expect it, says work and occupational psychologist Patricia Murray.

“It’s frowned upon if men don’t participate in these roles both in public places and at home.

"There’s a higher expectation on men to be jugglers, just as there always has been on women. And yet men in the workplace haven’t been given less to do.”

The two-parent working family is now the norm, courtesy of feminism, the demands of the housing market and the high cost of childcare — Ireland’s exorbitant childcare costs, at 53.5% of the average wage, are the highest in the EU.

Historically, men were the big breadwinners. Very often they’re still the higher earner and expected to bring home the lion’s share of the bacon. It’s a responsibility men take seriously.

“It’s almost evolutionary that a man automatically feels he has to provide for his family,” says Dr Harry Barry, GP with a special interest in mental health, who has just launched his book, Flagging Anxiety and Panic: How to Reshape Your Anxious Mind and Brain.

“If it’s a struggle to pay the mortgage, he can get very anxious about being able to hold down his job. He sees it as a reflection on him if things start to crumble.”

Owen Fitzpatrick, psychologist and author of Not Enough Hours, has met “quite a lot” of fathers who are struggling with the demands of work and being a good dad.

“Mums have always had a hugely challenging time, being the primary nurturers. But fathers are feeling the strain more — when they get home from work they’re expected to have energy to play with the kids and spend time with their wives.”

Add to that the way modern technology has increased the amount of work we’re able to do and, says Fitzpatrick, we’ve raised the standard of what’s expected.

“So it’s more difficult to switch off.”

Which means the hands-on dad in the park, just after cautioning his kid about road safety, just after calming the tantrum, might well receive a phone call from work.

Murray sees a new workplace dilemma for men with kids — competing with the men who don’t.

“John, aged 32, with children, doesn’t have the same energy as Mick across the corridor, aged 32, who doesn’t have kids.”

But she warns against jumping to the conclusion that men without attachments are guaranteed to be more productive than men with dependents.

“If Mick’s out partying every night, his eye mightn’t be on the ball at work. Whereas men who are engaged, who are good dads have lots of skills.”

And all the more so if they get cut some slack if it’s acknowledged that something has to give if you want to be a good worker and a good dad.

Murray has heard of “a good few men” saying they and their partner have decided to stay static in their careers for the first few parenting years.

“They’ll say ‘I’m not going for promotion and Niamh is taking a four-day week’.”

Dr Kara McGann, senior labour market policy executive with Ibec, says companies offering good flexible work arrangements to accommodate parenting demands — see knock-on benefits in terms of engagement, productivity and retention.

But flexitime or flexible working policies aren’t fully embedded in the culture of some companies.

“Unfortunately, despite a policy existing, there can be a perception that no-one who’s serious about their career engages with [flexi-time].”

She says it’s unfortunate new dads often get overlooked when workplaces are discussing flexibility and parenting.

“It’s important to be mindful there’s another parent in the equation alongside the mother. We’re hearing more from dads wanting to be involved in the parenting and upbringing of their children and not just on the weekends.

"Some like to do the school or crèche run in the morning or the pick-up at the end of the day... This is their opportunity to catch up on what’s going on in their children’s lives.”

When men don’t opt for whatever flexible work arrangements are available to them, they’re likely to burn the candle at both ends — the workplace end and the parenting one.

In 17 years working as a HR consultant in large multinationals and in the corporate sector, Alex Kotsos has had only one dad ask to change his hours to accommodate childcare.

“That was two months ago. He works part-time [now] — a four-day week. There may be more men out there but I haven’t come across them.”

She welcomes the paid paternity leave set to come in for new dads this September.

It may be delayed of course with the current governmental hiatus. But the promise is there. Dads can take the two-weeks’ leave at any stage within 26 weeks of the birth. It’s a welcome move.

“It recognises the important role of the dad,” says National Women’s Council of Ireland director Orla O’Connor.

“This new legislation says to dads: ‘you’re needed at home’,” comments Murray.

Kotsos says paternity leave is an absolute must.

“In Germany they give three months paternity leave and subsequently men do take more flexible [work] options when it comes to parenting — it’s considered normal.”

But the very act of juggling job and babies may be especially tough for men, says Dr Barry.

“The female brain is hardwired to multitask. The male brain is hardwired to do single tasks well and to then move on to the next task.”

Murray says the pressure of juggling very different demands is onerous, and exhausting, on our brains.

“Men who might have been well able to cope with doing a PhD and running the GAA club now find they can’t cope with Johnny’s tantrums and Mary’s dermatitis — and the job.”

The fact is women have a couple of decades’ experience of juggling workplace and childcare demands. And they’re plugged into networks of women who are similarly juggling. Not so men.

And on top of this, the new demands on men to juggle more are coming at a time when couples are older having kids. Which brings additional pressures, says Dr Barry.

“In their 30s, often late 30s, couples are moving into a period when they’re at their peak at work. They’re having children at a stage when they [for a long time] have had a nice organised life and now their routines are completely knocked out.”

And faced with mounting pressure, men stay silent, says Dr Barry.

“It’s almost a badge of shame for them to say ‘I can’t cope’.”

He points out that one in 10 men become depressed in the year following the arrival of a new baby.

“But that’s never said. Men get displaced. All the attention is on the new baby, on the mum. Men are struggling to get a look in [in any discussion of working parent stress], yet they’re expected to get stuck in.”

Women talk. They have a safety valve. Meanwhile, says Dr Barry, there’s a silent 50% who feel they have no right to talk about how stressed they are.

“Instead, they drink more. They spend more time on the computer. They go quiet.”


Lives are busier today

Based in Killorglin, publican Erwin Kingston and wife Aoife have three daughters: Molly, 8, Lucy, 6 and Anna, 5.

“We strike a very fair balance,” says Erwin.

“Aoife does the majority in the household. She’s part-time in the bar. She concentrates on the books and admin. I’m full-time in the bar, though I’m more flexible during the day.

“I generally do the pick-up — Anna from crèche at 12, Lucy at 1.40pm from school, and Molly at 2.40pm.

"Aoife and I give a bit of time to business administration. Our business has become very event-oriented.

"We might go away for two hours for a coffee and knock heads. This is all done between the pickups.

"Once the girls start coming in, you’re doing homework. I often do it. Mondays and Tuesday, I like to cook. I generally have some nice food prepared.

“I am one of four, and my dad always bragged that he never changed a nappy. It shows how things have changed and it’s right — women do an enormous amount.

"I couldn’t sit down and watch TV while Aoife’s cooking dinner. There’s always something to be done.

“It’s harder to get away without helping — lives are busier today. Our kids do dancing and swimming on Fridays, football on Wednesdays.

"When the kids were very young, it was difficult. They were like steps of stairs and parenthood was new to us. Nights ran into days, days ran into nights. I work late, long hours.

"Aoife breastfed them, which meant she was up all night. If I wanted to do anything, like go for a cycle, I couldn’t do it. Just the time — you couldn’t sacrifice it. There was too much going on.

“Molly was about four when we got an au-pair. We’ve had au-pairs for the past three or four years until this year. It helped put a structure on things.”

Juggling act

Stephen McDonagh has a media company, Vivify Multimedia, in Kilcock, Co Kildare.

Wife Sandra works in admin with the HSE. Their children are Shona, 10, and Euan, 5.

“Sandra leaves the house at 6.45am. I’m up at 7.30am. I get the kids ready for school. I do the lunches and uniforms. I drop them in the car to school for 9.10am.

“Back at the studio in my house, my work can range from doing logo and graphic designs and Facebook posts, to doing video production.

"The childcare takes up again at 2pm when I collect Euan. I’m back at 3pm to collect Shona. Between the pick-ups, I pop down to the butcher to get food for the dinner.

“The kids’ homework can take anything from 30 minutes to an hour and a half. I’d be in and out to the office.

“Sandra’s back for 6pm. Around 7pm I’m in the office again. My most productive hours are between 7pm and 2am. The children are a big factor in how my business takes shape.

“I want to move the business away from home but I’m kind-of stuck for the size of commercial premises I need — it’s difficult to find it at the moment and it needs to be local because childcare’s too expensive.

"And we don’t have any immediate support — my parents are still working, in Offaly, and Sandra’s are in their 70s in Terenure.

“Do I tear my hair out sometimes? Plenty. During the two-and-a-half week Easter break, I had to reschedule work. I normally fit in three hours when the kids are at school.

"There was a conference in March that would have helped the business. But I couldn’t go because I couldn’t get anybody to mind the kids. That’s frustrating.

"In a way, I’m lucky — my wife would love to be home more with the kids.

“If there’s work left over from the week, I catch up on Saturday afternoons. To keep the cashflow going, I DJ on Friday and Saturday nights.

"I get home at 3.30am. I’m always running on about four or five hours’ sleep — that’s been my norm since I was a teen. We keep Sundays as a day for all of us to go off and do something together.”

More in this section

Puzzles logo

Puzzles hub

Visit our brain gym where you will find simple and cryptic crosswords, sudoku puzzles and much more. Updated at midnight every day.

great irish summer

From walking and hiking, to day trips and camping, your guide to holidays at home in 2021


The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up