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Flexibility ever after: Did lockdown teach us anything about equal parenting?

By June 6, 2021June 8th, 2021No Comments

Employers’ attitudes to flexible working, gender equality in parenting, the division of childcare and housework between fathers and mothers; Linnea Dunne questions whether the past year has really changed anything

Back when that first lockdown happened, almost immediately I said: This is it. This is the thing that will accelerate equality between parents. And then the articles claiming that the shut-down of society had put women back to the 1950s started to come in. So which is it? At the very least, surely employers forced to make flexible, remote working work over the past year should be more inclined to approve requests for the same in the future. But will fathers who’ve had a taste of ‘having it all’ be more likely to ask?


I’ll admit that I was clinging to a somewhat vulnerable shred of optimism with my prophecy, but it wasn’t smoke without fire. Anecdotally, I’d had friends in my native Sweden (where parents are entitled to 80% pay for a total of 480 days of parental leave, 90 days of which are earmarked exclusively for each parent) admit that their partners’ extended paternity leave had made their parenting relationship more equal. Statistically, too, I knew this to be true: studies have shown all sorts of benefits of a more equal share of parental leave, from fathers feeling like better dads and being closer to their children, to improved, more equal relationships and career boosts including higher earnings among mothers. That’s without going into the significant health benefits, as well as the reduced rates of domestic violence.

I digress – but suffice to say I’d been hoping to see some knock-on effects of that old thing of not being able to unsee something once your eyes have been opened to it: the outgrown trousers, the empty loo-roll shelf, the birthday presents that need buying, the homework that’s lagging behind. You know, the relentless planning and emotional labour. That’s assuming, of course, that lockdown wouldn’t see fathers hide away in a home office while their partners quartered apples and checked home-schooling activities while simultaneously attending Zoom meetings, as if equipped with the multi-dexterity of an octopus.

Matt Byrne, a father of three, works in event lighting and had all his work cancelled as a result of the first lockdown. His wife was pregnant at the time, and Matt ended up staying at home with their four-year-old and six-year-old while his wife kept working from the safety of their home. “It was great, but also very challenging. At one stage, I had to sit down and think, do I want to look back at this time in ten years’ time and feel I was annoyed with them? I had to dig deep. I knew I had the tools somewhere to deal with this. I wanted to be able to look back and say I did the best I could,” he says, adding that he relied on running and cycling for his mental health and ended up dipping into a couple of counselling sessions too.

The integrated life of working some days and having a bit of time at home with the kids during the week – the result, he says, of the fact that he “never got a grown-up job” – is a lifestyle they chose consciously and which he’s grateful for. “Some of my mates would hate to be around their kids as much as I am, but I’ve got dad friends who I meet up with quite a bit with the kids. Some of them are very involved, more or less full-time dads,” he says. “I think people have learnt what’s more important, and I’d like to think being male or female doesn’t matter. The big companies have all managed to survive with staff working from home, so I think there’ll be a massive kickback when the world goes right. People will turn around and say I’m not spending hours stuck on the N11 every day.”

What’s happened across the board so far isn’t altogether clear just yet. Certain studies from parts of Europe and North America suggest that fathers have started to take on a bigger share of both housework and childcare – not yet equal to that of their female partners, but greater than before the pandemic – with the number of couples reporting that they share housework relatively equally going from 26% before the pandemic to 41%. In the UK, the Office for National Statistics reported after the first lockdown that the childcare work done by fathers had increased by 58%, while the hours worked in a day decreased by just over an hour and a half. Joint chief executive of the Fatherhood Institute, Adrienne Burgess, told the Guardian that crises tend to accelerate social movements and suggested that men’s involvement in childcare could be one such shift.

However, it does seem clear that women have been disproportionately impacted by the financial fallout of the pandemic. The unworkable situation under lockdown, McKinsey reports, has led to large numbers of women considering downshifting their careers or leaving their jobs – hence the 1950s reference. Now, women who were previously said to be working a double shift, doing as many hours of house and childcare work as they did paid work in a full-time job, are doing even more. Men, meanwhile, have been enjoying more uninterrupted work time than women have while working from home. Perhaps that unworkable situation is the clue to the confusing takeaways here: as parents have been forced to be teachers as well as childcare workers in addition to all their previous duties, they’re all doing more and picking up slack – and women are paying the price despite men in many cases stepping up. So what’s to say we won’t just go back to normal when we can, after collectively all but burning out?

Tomás Gorman, who works for a major entertainment venue in Belfast, ended up shouldering the majority of the childcare and housework when he was furloughed and his wife worked full-time from home. “It was a pretty big shock,” he says. “The amount of labour involved, trying to look after your own mental health, constantly doing laundry, cleaning, preparing and planning meals – it was a shock to the system.”

The past year, he says, has been full of “beautiful experiences” but “a real strain, claustrophobic at times” – but it’s ultimately brought him and his wife closer together. And yet, for him, flexible work is not a realistic option when things return to normal. “It would be gorgeous, but the industry I work in wouldn’t be able to accommodate that. Once delivery time comes, I could be out of the house for 14 hours a day for five days straight.”

This so-called situational division of labour is not uncommon. In couples where the parents work different hours, men are more likely to do more in the home. The point about the idea of flexible working arrangements as a promoter of gender equality being flawed is not new either. “We’ve been talking about flexible and remote working for a long time and people said it wasn’t possible. Then overnight, practically the entire country moved to working remotely. And there are loads of positive things about flexible work, and there are benefits to having processes in place to have the right to work flexibly, but that doesn’t exist free of context,” says Sandra McCullagh, Women’s Economic Equality Coordinator at the National Women’s Council Ireland (NWCI). “We also have to look at existing allocations of paid and unpaid work. Currently, people who take up flexible work options are mothers, and this has unforeseen negative effects. There’s the perception that you’re not as committed to your job, and it has an impact on career progression and so on.”

Perhaps the right to choose flexible working hours is simply not enough, much like the right to parental leave has failed to convince almost half of all fathers in Ireland to stay at home with their new babies for the first two weeks. There are significant financial reasons for this, naturally, but there are social and cultural explanations as well. Parenting, after all, is not seen as a man’s job. “The downside to being a househusband and parent is the feeling of emasculation,” says Henry Doohan, a business owner in Donegal who ended up taking on the running of the household when his wife underwent life-changing cancer surgery and his business diary cleared overnight as the pandemic struck. “Afterwards, when my wife was the breadwinner, I felt like I was bringing nothing to the table. Even when my wife explained how her wage earning and all that I do at home balanced out, I still felt unequal without having an income.”

After a year that was tumultuous and challenging in more ways than one, Henry admits that it’s been incredibly stressful and very tough on both his physical and mental health, but concludes that the quality time he’s had with his children is priceless. “These are things so many do not get, so I am thankful for that,” he says, adding that there’ll be less guilt and more gratitude in the years to come – whether that’s for time spent with the family or on building the business back up again. “I imagine that a lot of people have realised they’re working too much and not spending enough time with their families. The culture shift that’s needed is that money is not the goal of life. Being a man doesn’t mean you need to have the flashiest car or mansion.”

According to Luke Murphy, who became a father during the pandemic, that culture shift may well already be underway. “The wider thing among men around mental health and the family focus, those expectations of being the breadwinner or in some ways emotionally unavailable, that’s changed since I’ve been growing up, and I feel like the pandemic has accelerated that.”

Luke was able to combine holidays and other leave entitlements and stay at home with his wife and daughter for six whole weeks. “Even now, the baby will sleep on me, and we’re both able to soothe her and put her to bed,” he says, glad to have been able to share the burden of night feeds in those early weeks, when he did bottle feeds all night until 5 or 6 in the morning so that his wife could sleep.

Despite working for an American multinational, where he’s seen some people return to work four weeks after having a baby, he is confident that a request to continue to work flexibly and a few days from home would be approved – which, he says, feels like a natural progression. “I think it’s one of those things, people have realised that the sky doesn’t fall in if people work from home at least some of the time.” So does he think that fathers might be more inclined to request flexible working arrangements as a result of the pandemic? “It’s really about work buy-in,” he says, “and being in an environment where that’s not super outlandish.”

Sandra wants to think that we can learn from the lessons of the pandemic, but she sounds somewhat deflated. “There’s been a focus on care that we haven’t seen in a long time – but the evidence still shows that women have continued to do the majority of unpaid care work,” she says. “Flexible work is often available in higher-paid professions, whereas collective bargaining is what can really support a reduced gender pay gap, shorter working hours, more secure employment conditions. And in Ireland, the proportion of workers who are covered by collective bargaining is really low.”

Instead, what the NWCI has seen is that the pandemic has reinforced and exacerbated existing gender inequalities, with unemployment rates increasing by 23% among men compared to 54% among women towards the third quarter of 2020. Meanwhile, 70% of those categorised as essential workers are women, many of whom faced particular difficulties when they were unable to access childcare, not least considering lone parents are disproportionately represented among essential workers.

What Sandra would really like to see is a lot of what the Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality has recommended: a shift towards a public model of childcare, collective bargaining rights, a right to flexible work as well as a right to disconnect from work… “No one piece will act as a panacea for everything,” she says, adding that a public childcare model shouldn’t be a women’s issue. “As we’ve seen over the past year, if we don’t have childcare services, people can’t work. It’s an economic issue, and it’s something everyone should be concerned about.”

The NWCI is also pushing for a four-day working week, which Sandra believes could help men play more of a role in child rearing. Moreover, to improve the uptake of parental leave, the payment must be increased. “Families can’t afford it,” she says, comparing Ireland’s rate of 27% of the average income with Germany’s close to 75%. Personally, I barely dare to utter the words anymore, but I know a place where families are financially incentivised to share the parental leave equally…

My prophecy, alas, was overly optimistic, but there are perhaps reasons to feel hopeful that the culture is changing. Whether or not their motivations have anything to do with parenting or not, a whopping 95% of workers in Ireland would like to keep working from home to some extent. For work places willing to walk the talk for immediate impact, Sandra says: “This comes from the top down. Companies need to foster the kind of culture that supports workers to vindicate their right to flexible work, where everyone works flexible hours and it trickles down. No more cultural presenteeism – it has to be visible among senior management and promoted for everyone.”