When new dads take longer leave ‘everybody wins’

Experts say the benefits of new dads taking parental leave should not be underestimated, with the whole family better off immediately and in the long run.

dad and baby smiling

Fatherhood educator Keith Read has heard the sentiment often from new dads: “What am I doing here sitting at work while my beautiful child is at home starting to do all these amazing things?”

He’s also seen the other member of the parenting team – in many cases mum – stressed, under pressure and in need of help when work commitments have prevented dad from being as present as they both would like.

While new fathers at the Best 20 Australian Workplaces for New Dads have great opportunities afforded to them, not all families are so lucky, and the financial strain of the secondary carer taking unpaid leave can be too much.

Read, who provides support and education for new parents at WA institution Ngala, says the ability for dads to take paid time off – particularly straight after the birth of a child – should not be underestimated for the lasting benefits it can have for the whole family.

“Dads who get the opportunity to spend more time with their children immediately following the birth become more confident and develop a greater sense of competence in caring for their child,” Read said.

“That means mum and dad learn each other’s way of parenting, they start working as a team, and there’s a greater understanding of each other’s roles. That of course benefits the child.

“It’s a framework that can set you up for years to come, and that’s why it’s so important.

“One of the big issues we see is parents who don’t really lock in with each other and form a cohesive team.”

The example Read provides of a frustrated father stuck at work and a mother under pressure without adequate support is one he has seen at Ngala many times.

He stresses that many new dads simply aren’t aware of the importance of taking leave straight after the birth, while for others the requirement to provide an income is simply more important.

“We’ve seen situations with fathers that aren’t able to take leave where they just aren’t confident with their children, and that places extra pressure on mum,” Read said.

“They’re sitting at work working long hours and they just feel they’re missing a big part of what’s happening with their family.

“That’s where the stress and anxiety starts arising, because they just feel like they’re not doing what they need to be doing.”

Australian research in 2014 found that a majority of new fathers (92 per cent) experienced minimal distress in the first year of parenthood, with this decreasing over time. For the 8 per cent that experienced moderate distress, however, this increased over time.

“Low parental self-efficacy, poor relationship and job quality were associated with ‘persistent and increasing distress’,” the research found.

Those three factors creating this stress in new dads were all related, Read said, with poor work/life balance both preventing a feeling of parenting competence and placing a strain on their relationship.

“If dad’s unable to share as much as he’d like to in terms of the parenting, that’s putting extra pressure on mum, which means she’s becoming more and more preoccupied by stresses around parenting because it’s not shared as much,” Read said.

“That effects the relationship and we certainly see stressed parents that haven’t been able to get the balance right.”

While finding this balance is importance for relationships, it is also important for a new dad’s identity.

Dads no longer see themselves simply as ‘providers’, Read said, and they want to be equal caregivers, seeking out ways to fulfil both of these identities.

“Dads want a greater involvement in their children’s lives and the parenting of their children than previous generations, and they are seeking it out more actively,” Read said.

“When they’re unable to reconcile those two roles as a father and a financial support then that creates stresses and dads can suffer anxiety and depression.

“So by allowing fathers this greater opportunity to engage in this part of their life that they know is so important, workplaces are providing a preventative strategy for the possibility of stress and anxiety.”

As well as taking secondary carer’s leave at the birth of their child, new dads working for forward-thinking companies also have the opportunity to take primary carer’s leave at any time in the first 12 months of their child’s life.

As companies make changes this change to their parental leave policy and open the door for dads, mums and children benefit.

“When dads take on the primary carer role everyone wins,” said associate professor Richard Fletcher, who leads the Fathers and Families Research Program at Newcastle University.

“The father-baby bond matters and being together all day fast tracks the connection.”

Fletcher said research had shown that children who start with a positive relationship with their dads do better in the classroom and in the playground, while mums get more credit when dads experience first-hand what is involved in “being on call emotionally as well as practically for whole days”.

And the benefits for dads?

“Dads on carer duty learn to multitask in a way that usually doesn’t happen at their paid work and many dads discover joys in things that they wouldn’t have ever dreamt of.”