Can you be a breadwinner and the hands-on dad you want to be?

Some men take the all-or-nothing approach to being a dad — full-time worker or full-on father. But what about those in the middle? Can't we have both?

Father Helping A Happy Toddler On A Slide

News that a male politician is resigning to spend more time with his family is never surprising: it’s generally just the cue for public speculation about why he really quit, and what lucrative corporate job he will soon take up.

But a pollie who actually seems to want to spend more time with his family? And who goes further, saying, “I have three little kids who need their dad, and I really need them”?

It’s shocking stuff, but it’s exactly what happened when MP Tim Hammond quit politics earlier this year.

Hammond’s stated reasons for standing down caused much comment, because it has been ingrained in all of us that, while naturally a good father loves his children, for a man to prefer being with those children to the advancement of his career is downright bizarre.

It’s not, frankly, manly, for a father to consider that his fatherly duties lie at home, engaging with the offspring, rather than at work, maximising his earning potential.

Mum is the nurturer, Dad is the breadwinner. That’s the way it’s always been, and to a large extent, that’s the way it continues to be.

That’s a very old-fashioned point of view, of course, and most people would agree that it is. These days we know that parenting roles are not so strictly delineated, and that a father’s job is far more than a simple provider. And yet, though we know it, we don’t really live it.

Men seeing themselves as dad first, breadwinner second still seems unusual. A female MP saying she had to quit politics because she needed to be with her kids wouldn’t shock anyone: a male MP saying the same thing clashes with our deep-seated assumptions about reality.

The numbers back this up. According to the most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics, 90 per cent of dads are employed and 92 per cent of those are full-time.

And other research suggests 25 per cent work weekends while 56 per cent miss family events. Now, if 56 per cent of mothers were missing family events because of work, our delicate Western sensibilities would be outraged.

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As it’s just fathers, we merely respond with a vague sense of “Dads gonna Dad”. Some of us think it makes those 56 per cent of dads jerks, while some of us think it makes them admirable paragons of work ethic, but none of us think it makes them anything other than a typical dad.

Now, societal expectations are changing, but slowly. Dads are still considered “secondary caregivers”. The Federal Government’s “Dad and Partner Pay” is two weeks at minimum wage, while the phrase “parental leave” remains, to most, a synonym for “maternity leave”. (Note: Paid Parental Leave can be split between parents.)

The idea that fathers are equals in the child-rearing business continues to meet resistance, both from people who believe women possess an innate parenting gift that men do not, and from men who are stark staring terrified of having to spend more time at home.

That’s a terror I totally understand, by the way. Being a dad IS scary. Taking on more responsibility for the development of a human being is enough to send chills down the spine of the most battle-hardened corporate warrior.

Work is often hard and exhausting and tedious, but the complete absence of choice our ancestors had in terms of work-life balance can look like a pretty sweet deal when the crippling doubts and indecision of kid-wrangling start eating away at you.

But there’s no real going back for our generation, is there? We’ve discovered that spending time with our kids is rewarding and fulfilling and all that touchy-feely jazz, and so from now on we’re always going to be confronted with that awful decision: breadwinner or nurturer?

But is the choice really so stark? Isn’t it possible to be a loving, caring, present dad, while simultaneously succeeding in the professional sphere? Or to put it another way — and this really will freak out the great Brotherhood of Man — can men really have it all?

I wonder about this a lot, as a freelance writer who works from home and mostly feels like he’s failing as a breadwinner and as a father.

Theoretically, working from home means more quality time with the kids and more flexibility in terms of getting all my work done, whether that work be the business of cranking out quality think pieces or the business of cranking out quality future members of civil society.

In practice, working from home is more likely to mean I kick myself for forgetting to finish the latest chapter of my book because I was busy playing UNO with my daughters, while the next day I’m kicking myself because I spent hours working on a spec script when I could’ve been taking the kids to the zoo.

The trouble is, our lives as professional men and our lives as fathers can both bring us joy, but every time we live a bit of one life we suffer the opportunity cost of the other.

The brutal equation of “more time at home with the family equals less money to buy stuff for the family” extends further than the purely financial.

It’s pretty easy to convince yourself — as we did for centuries — that the best thing a man can do for his family is slave away for endless hours to provide them with the best things in life.

It’s made even easier by a society that tells us that a woman taking time off work for her kids is a great mother while a man doing the same thing is a loser.

The truth is men can’t have it all — nobody can. But we can have some of it all, and we can combine the traditional role of breadwinner and the new-age role of dad in a way that, if not fulfilling every single desire we have, will nevertheless make us happy. We just have to make up our minds which bits of it all matter the most to us.

But to do that, we need an attitude adjustment. We must stop believing that “full-time breadwinner” is the default, or indeed that there is a default. There’s no one way to be a dad, and there’s no single best-practice guide to providing for a family.

If we can bring ourselves to believe this, we can hopefully stop looking at the dads around us — and even more at the dads before us — and feeling so damn fretful that we’ve made the wrong choice.


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