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Amy Downes draws on her own experience to consider if working dads will do more childcare after the Covid crisis
2020 has been one of the biggest tests in parenting I have ever had.
When I fell pregnant with my youngest almost two years ago, I could never have imagined that by the time he was less than six months old, I would be at home with him and his older brother: 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Parents up and down the country were forced into a situation we hadn’t planned for. We were having to work from home whilst bouncing the baby on our knee, having to break away from our laptop to go and get the toddler his snacks every five minutes and some of you were even having to handle home-schooling too.
Earlier this year I wrote for workingdads.co.uk explaining how my fiancée, Luke, and I had managed to find a routine where we would have half a day each. One of us worked in the morning, then we’d swap over and the other one would have the afternoon.
Luke is a teacher, so his hours were considerably reduced. I work for myself, so my hours are flexible and designed to fit around whenever the kids need me.
Fast forward to September, and there is relief all round as the eldest starts school and the youngest heads back to nursery.
Within two weeks, though, we were forced to face the realities of this ‘new normal’, as we all had to isolate: first my youngest had a temperature, and the weekend after my eldest had a cough.
We seem to have become quite well-practiced at rolling with the punches, adapting to the different situations that the pandemic is throwing at us week after week. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is difficult when the routine that works so well for us and our kids is disrupted. In an ideal world, I’d drop them both off in the morning, come home and do a few hours work before having to do pick up again in the afternoon. When that changes due to circumstances beyond my control, it’s had on me because I am the one that takes on the bulk of the childcare responsibilities.
For example, this Sunday I was laying in bed at the end of a rare, kid-free weekend, when I rolled over and checked my emails. Next thing I know, the air turns blue as I read aloud an email we have received from James’s nursery: ‘We’re very sorry, but due to two positive cases of Covid we have made the tough decision to close the setting for two weeks.’ His bubble wasn’t directly affected, thankfully, and my thoughts immediately went out to the wonderful staff who are now without work. But then I entered sheer, blind panic mode: 14 days at home with a 14 month old? When was I going to have time to work?
How on earth was I going to keep the momentum of my new business going with him climbing up for cuddles or trying to press the buttons on my computer all day?
The worry subsided into anger: why is it me that must drop everything for the kids?
This, for me, is a long-standing grudge. I find it hard that my career must take second place behind Luke’s work, behind the boys’ lives and often behind my own self-care.
Of course, it’s common sense that this is the way things have to be. Luke earns more, and the whole reason I chose to be self employed was that I could work at home and be there when our sons needed me. We’ve got a mortgage to pay and so we absolutely have to prioritise him. But it’s hard when I’ve been to Uni, when I’ve dreamt of a good a career and when I’ve spent the last four years trying to make freelancing a success.
It really hurts that I must be the one to put all of that to one side.
After the initial panic over what on earth I was going to do about work, followed by an almighty feminist-fuelled strop that ended in lots and lots of tears, Luke reminded me that he has extra childcare days he could use.
Every year, his school provides parents with two days leave which they can use to take care of their children when needed. As a result of Covid, an extra three days have been made available for any childcare related issues that the pandemic causes.
This goes one step further than the government guidance for Mums and Dads at the moment. That says that if no childcare is available, we are advised to work from home and if that is not possible we could instead be furloughed. The fact Luke’s employers have shown an increased amount of flexibility has been a huge relief and, though our routine will be thrown out of the window for the next fortnight, I am at least reassured that I will be allowed enough time to look after my clients.
All this did make me wonder how other parents are finding the ‘new normal’? How are we coping with the constant threat of schools being closed or bubbles being sent home?
It’s like waiting for your child to realise they don’t actually want to go to bed: you know that paddy is going to happen, but you don’t know when and you can’t plan how to deal with it until it happens.
For me, Covid is the final proof that we needed that flexible working is what this country needs.
Not just parents, but people who struggle with their mental or physical health, people who have to care for someone else, even those who want to get home before it gets dark so they can go out for a jog.
This year has shown that we don’t need to be in the office Monday to Friday, 9 – 5 and that we can put the wellbeing of employees first without seeing productivity suffer. Yet we are still battling the outdated misconceptions around flexible working requests and the desire to find a better work life balance. A survey by YouGov and Working Families recently revealed that 2.6 million parents feel they have been treated less fairly at work because of their childcare responsibilities.
Despite all the positive news that has come out about flexible working this year, despite so many of us having to work from home for the majority of it, a huge number of Dads are still unaware that they have a legal right to formally request remote working permanently, as many as 1/3 according to one report. In fact, it was even recently revealed that 19% of Dads have pulled a sickie so that they can get time off work to look after their little ones!
At the start of this year I wrote about my hopes that 2020 would be the year flexible working becomes the norm. My hope was that this would mean Dads feel less ashamed about asking for time away from their job to look after their children.
I can see the concern in Luke’s eyes whenever I ask him to change his hours at work. I can hear it in his voice that he’s nervous about putting in the request because of how it will reflect on him, and because he knows they will probably say no.
But if flexibility was available for everyone, no-one would have to fear their career being restricted because they have kids. Mums and dads would be able to share the parenting-load evenly between them.
It needs to be seen by employers and employees alike, not as a perk that some jobs happen to have, but as a standard that we all have a right to.
You can read more of Amy’s thoughts on flexible working and parenthood on her blog www.mumfullofdreams.com