Dr (John) Tregoning and Dr (Charlie) Tregoning discuss roadblocks and solutions to equality in childcare.
We have as a couple, tried and sometimes succeeded but most often failed to share parenting fairly. Drawing from our own experience and a very shallow skim read of how to books, here are what we consider to be some of the major problems to equality at home as two working parents and some possible solutions. This is not to say every parent should go back to work; do what is best for your own family, but remember to be honest with yourself about what you really want and include yourself in the ‘what is best for my family’ calculation.
What society wants
Since the introduction of split parental leave in the UK in 2015, only 1% of fathers have taken it (based on 2015/16 figures). Why is this? Societal expectations are the major barrier to equality in childcare (in 2014 – 33% of people thought mums should stay at home compared to essentially 0% who thought dads should stay home: the flipside 73% thought dads should work full time and 28% thought mums should work full time – but only after the kids go to school). Going against the societal norm is tricky and requires reserves of energy, time and self-belief that you are doing the right thing. When the right thing is also difficult and financially unrewarding these reserves can be depleted, eroding your will.
JT: “Ooh, hairy knees, we don’t see them often”, thus began, and ended my time as a stay at home Dad. I was at baby-rhyme-time at the local library, failing to sing along to any of the songs. The librarian looked scornfully at me, made passing reference to my aforementioned knees and then ignored me: I in turn never went back. But societal pressures are only part of it. Staying at home with a small child sucks. It is both boring and difficult, with the attendant loss of identity from Dr Tregoning to Jamie’s Daddy. I did one whole week on my own and even with considerable grandparental support that was frankly enough. I was glad when Monday morning came around to be back in my lab.
CT: It took me till my son’s ninth birthday to openly admit my struggle with societal expectations for me, as the mother, to be the main care-giver. I had always given the reason that due to financial pressures I ‘had’ to go back to work. What I can admit now, but couldn’t when I first had children, is that I always wanted to go back to work. It was easier and less guilt inducing to say that I ‘had to’ rather than I ‘chose to’ – even to myself! That it was my choice has not made the endless juggling act easier, and has sometimes made reaching out for help more difficult.
It’s the economy
The average age in the UK to have children is 29. Often at the point of conception, fathers and mothers are on equal salary and have equal status. But the early thirties is a time of logarithmic career acceleration; within the timespan of the maternity leave, major promotions, partnerships and pay rises can occur, which can make the childcare vs income maths skewed towards the parent not on leave (most of the time the father). This can be exacerbated by the arrival of a second child, essentially putting the stay at home partner back by three or more years (including the time it takes to adjust from work to stay at home back to work again). Taken as a single data point it makes sense if parent A is earning more than parent B, then parent B should stay home. But it needs to be considered over life time earnings.
CT: In her book, Lean in, Cheryl Sandberg describes childcare costs in the same light as university fees, an investment in future earnings rather than being viewed as a one off cost and in the long run women who return to work earn more than those who take longer breaks. We invested in childcare so that when the children were older I still had a career. Nine years and two children later, I have not only caught up with my husband financially but have actually overtaken him. You don’t need 15 years of academic and pharmaceutical training to mush up vegetables and then watch the same vegetable mush being thrown across the room. But as a professional the skills, networks and kudos you have spent those years developing are easily lost.
JT: This year, for the first time in our working lives, my salary is less than Charlie’s. People have asked whether it makes me feel emasculated and unempowered. The truth is that it has been liberating. I have colleagues who are the sole bread winner, exponentially increasing the pressure of failure at work. I on the other hand have a fall-back position, if my job collapses, the mortgage will still be paid and food will still be on the table. This has given me creative freedom, and actually made me more productive.
Bring balance to the force
So what can be done?
- Stop maternal gatekeeping. CT: Allow dad to do things his way – let him be in charge and organise the day – even if it distorts the whole schedule that you have spent weeks carefully putting in place. It is frustrating, annoying and I have had to walk out of the room when he has got cross after our 8 month old rejected food that I would not eat myself (pasta with bisto – a classic). Even if it goes against social norms of the mother being the one in charge or child related matters, shared ownership and decision making in childcare empowers both partners to do more childcare. JT: An analogy – I don’t like doing the dishes, getting told I am doing it wrong does not encourage me to do it better next time, it induces the phrase “well you do it then”. The same applies to childcare, there is basically no right way to look after kids, so if I have to be in charge, it will be my way!
- CT: Expose your husband to the ‘fun’ of full time parenting with a baby for a sustained period. Leave the baby with your husband for a week and then he will hopefully really ‘get’ what it is that you do all day! This was a revelation and turning point for our relationship, John did not want to do childcare full time and therefore never expected me to.
- JT: We are all selfish. Level the playing field so no one feels they are sacrificing too much. Test yourself against these thought experiments to test how equal your careers are:
- You are offered a dream role in a new city, but taking it would put your partner out of work…do you take the job?
- Your commute is half an hour long, your partner’s is an hour and a half…do you move?
- For one intensive month your partner has to work long days to finish a project and you have to do 90% of the childcare with a negative impact on your job…do you take the hit graciously?
So far, so easy? But now shrink the margins – the difference in commute is only 15 minutes, the unbalanced childcare extends to 2, 3, 6 months. Who gives first, whose set point is lower, to whom should it be unbalanced? Like salaries, the snap shot is probably misleading and career balance should be viewed as a career average rather than a single point in time. This does have an implication, if your partner took at least 6 months off as maternity leave, you will probably have to swallow the odd solo bath time! Removing friction can help here, big holidays are nice but using that money to get someone else to clean the house means fewer arguments about the dishes that neither of you want to do after a long day.
- CT: Pay dads more! The second six months are expensive. At the moment, the paternal part of shared leave is only covered by statutory pay by most companies. This makes it economically unviable for many families. We should learn from Scandinavian countries, where parental leave is shared in the fullest sense with full pay for a year, to benefit all of society.
- Finally, guilt is a wasted emotion. There will always be compromises in the choices you make, and it is not possible to give 100% of your time and ability to being both a mum and a professional. I feel guilty at work for not being at home and guilty at home for not being at work. This is normal and unavoidable but doesn’t help me do either job better. JT: I confess that I too feel guilt (I have pretended to Charlie that I don’t). But it is a worse kind – when I take time off to be with the kids I feel like I should be at work which takes away from the fun of being with them. Turning the phone off helps.
In conclusion, we are in no way saying that having both parents work is best, what we are saying is that for those of us who choose this path, it would be nice if it was a bit easier. We believe there are ways of making it more straightforward with more productive and happier workers and parents. Ideally, there would be less pressure on mums to stay home and not work; but equally importantly there should be more support for dads who want to be involved in raising their own kids.
Dr John Tregoning is a Senior Lecture in the Department of Medicine at Imperial. His research focuses on the development of vaccines for respiratory infections, and on understanding why some individuals get more severe disease following respiratory infection.
Dr Charlie Tregoning joined the Wellcome Trust in 2014 and is currently Head of the vaccines priority platform after leading the funding response to the Ebola epidemic and overseeing the Immunology portfolio. Charlie has a PhD in Immunology and investigated mast cell function in respiratory disease and parasite infections as a postdoctoral fellow at Imperial College London. She then continued her interests in respiratory disease as a laboratory head at Novartis in target identification and validation on innate immune responses in respiratory exacerbations before joining Wellcome.
Following the launch of the Faculty of Medicine’s reorganised academic structure on 1 August 2019, this post was recategorised to Department of Infectious Disease.