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As International Women’s Day approaches Susha Chandrasekhar writes about how her experience illustrates how working dads are vital to women’s equality
In or Out? For years that question has prompted lengthy and volatile discussions about Brexit. And as a government lawyer it’s dominated my professional life. But I might not even be at my desk wrestling with those issues if I hadn’t asked the same question in a different setting six years ago.
For me, it was about whether to return to the workplace after becoming a mother. And I couldn’t have done it without my partner taking seriously the ‘dad’ part of his role as a working dad.
For a while I thought about becoming a stay-at-home parent but realised that I wanted to go back to work to achieve balance in my life.
Unfortunately, there was worry over placing our son, Axel, in a nursery even though it was a happy, kind place. Although my progressive employer offered super flexible hours, there were intermittent doubts that gripped me when I thought about slotting back into a professional setting after a year of nappies, Tellytubbies, and Rhyme Time at the local library.
As a lawyer at the Department for Business, I always juggled a full inbox and schedule of meetings. I thrived on that before, but now I felt daunted. I know from speaking to other mothers that I am not alone.
For my husband my intended reappearance in the office provoked no soul-searching whatsoever. Of course he would become the primary nurturer. “Why wouldn’t I?” he asked in a mystified manner. He is Swedish and our Nordic neighbours are far more advanced with such matters.
But he was astonished by his lack of rights in the UK. When Axel was born, statutory Shared Parental Leave had not yet been brought into force. So my husband’s absence from his duties as a Professor of International Political Economy was a pretty-please arrangement with his employer, King’s College London.
Enthusiasm did not mean that my husband was 100% prepared for the immense fulfilment and exhaustion that such a decision entails (no-one is, not even Swedes), but he was 100% committed. This approach did not make my woes suddenly evaporate, but it did make them more manageable.
It is, quite simply, easier to vault over the high bar of returning to work when your child is left with the best co-carer in the universe – Dad. This is childcare at its most reliable, protective, compelling and devoted. For mothers, this is the stuff that low stress levels are made of.
Axel went to nursery when he was older, which made it easier to drop him off there. I could focus clearly on my job and on reintegrating myself into the professional world; a process which was far less angst-ridden than I had anticipated. In fact, I quite enjoyed it.
There were moments when I rang home in a mild panic, but I learned to let go. I experienced joy at the blossoming relationship between father and Axel. It may only have been a few months but that period reset our family dynamic, and my attitude to work, at a more positive point. I also felt that my husband actually understood what it is like to be the full-time, stay-at-home one with the feeding, playing, and so on. After a while, my husband admitted that he “got it”. We were both on the same page. That’s a good place for parents.
Of course, fathers take sizeable time off for the purpose of caring for their child rather than as some altruistic gesture to make society better. But, the more they do it, the better for society. Children get the social and emotional benefits of bonding with both parents. Axel is at school now. But he turns to his father just as much as his mother when he wants to play, cuddle or chat. On the financial side a family gets the benefits of a smoother re-entry for mothers to pay, pensions and career prospects. This has a knock-on effect on the economy as a whole.
When an employer is reduced to gazing at a crystal ball to predict which parent will be absent and for how long, we all get closer to the nirvana of equality. And that equality means fathers really do get to take parental leave just like mothers.
Susha Chandrasekhar is a lawyer in the civil service, advising on high profile and novel challenges such as Brexit and Shared Parental Leave. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a past Chair of the Association of Women Solicitors. She is also a former trustee of the national charities, The Fawcett Society and Grandparents Plus.