COMMENTARY: Fathers need to rethink family priorities
By Jaakko Lyytinen
Last year 1,236 members of the Finnish Association of Business School Graduates took a family leave of more than one month. Eight of these, 0.6 per cent, were men. These family-focused male business professionals would fit in a single company-owned Skoda Octavia.
The rest of us aren’t that much better. Four out of five fathers do take paternity leave when the mother is at home, but a mere 3.5 per cent of fathers make use of the option for split parental leave.
And the depressing numbers do not stop there. The Ministry of Employment and the Economy asked the parents of small children a few years ago how they wanted to organise their working hours.
One in four fathers of children under eight said that they would like to work part time. How many had actually done that? Just three per cent.
Why won’t we men stand up for ourselves?
Finland is led today by people who are in their 30s and 40s, who have young children. Of the male government ministers, Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen (Nat. Coalition Party), Minister of Culture and Sport Paavo Arhinmäki (Left Alliance), Minister of Defence Carl Haglund (Swed. People’s Party), Minister of the Environment Ville Niinistö (Green), and Minister for European Affairs and Foreign Trade Alexander Stubb (Nat. Coalition Party) have young children.
It is of course unreasonable to expect that the Prime Minister, who has been working night and day with the euro crisis, should make an example of himself by working shorter hours, but the situation is quite similar in other workplaces.
In many companies the career advancement ladder is populated by the parents of small children. Those in their 50s, normally the ideal age for being a boss, are sidestepped. Few will turn down an offer, if something like that comes up, lest the offers stop coming.
In 1968 an organisation calling itself Yhdistys 9 (”Association 9”) called for three-month paternity leaves for men, and freedom from the imposed role of a “standard of living robot”. The association had other demands, such as giving men the “right to show emotion in situations other than hockey games or while intoxicated”.
There has been progress. Men know how to show sensitivity even if they aren’t watching hockey, holding a plastic mug of beer, but in issues of parenting development has been surprisingly slow.
When the children begin to arrive, couples who had previously shared housework in an equitable manner can easily fall back into traditional roles. The woman takes care of the child and the home, while the man goes out hunting. In the modern world, this means working overtime.
The fathers of families work extended hours more frequently than men without children. The fathers of small children also do more overtime than anyone else.
In the eyes of a reactionary employer, small children can continue to be an impediment to a woman’s career, but the assumption has been that a family has a salutary effect on a man.
The fathers of small children are loyal soldiers in the eyes of an employer. They try to fight on two fronts at the same time.
The willingness to do overtime is not always attributable to conscientiousness on the part of a male employee. Many fathers simply like being at work more than they do at home with all of the nappies and leaky yoghurt cups.
There may also be a neurobiological component to the need felt by young fathers to work punishing hours. Researchers have made note that psychological factors dating back to the time of a person’s own childhood can rise to the surface in the brain of a person who has had a child.
If a new father was brought up in a household when his father worked hard, the same need might unexpectedly pop up in the mind of the next generation.
Some dismiss such considerations as the whimpering of an overfed elite. The thinking is that people should be happy to get either a career or a family, and not make a spectacle of yearning for both.
And indeed, many humbly try to combine work and family, no matter how demanding the situation. In homes like that parents leave work at five in the afternoon. When the children go to bed they open up their laptops in a corner of the living room. The parents’ second shift continues late into the night.
Usually the greatest complaints come from those working with information, but most of them actually have the possibility to work at home with flexible hours. It is much more challenging in the service sector, where work is 24-7.
Most parents of young children dream of more flexibility at the workplace. The Finnish Family Federation actually has a project for this, called “family-friendly workplace” in which employers are given detailed guidance on what is ultimately a fairly simple matter.
Who is the enemy of a family-friendly workplace? It is not the Big Boss, who is easily blamed for everything.
It is me, and it is you. It is the father who stays at work too long even today.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 7.8.2012
JAAKKO LYYTINEN / Helsingin Sanomat