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Joint Custody (2003)

Discrimination Sex Discrimination

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Joint Custody

Opinion piece by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward. Published in the Sydney Morning Herald/ The Age, 7 August 2003

Fathering is back in the news. And for once it is not about conception. It has been discussed in a number of contexts including the Parliamentary Committee considering the feasibility of equal residency for parents after separation and the current shortage of male teachers. There has been talk of a crisis of under-fathering and a lack of male role models for boys.

Certainly there is unlikely to be much argument from sole parents about the need to share the parenting load. No woman I know who has been a single parent, for a week, a year, voluntarily or not, says it's anything other than hard. Crazy brave more like it.

When I say "woman", I mean woman. The parenting load is currently borne heavily by women - 83% of sole parents are mothers. Only 4.1% of the Child Support Agency's total case load is equal-shared care. The result for women is fewer job opportunities, low paid part time work, all round low incomes and low superannuation entitlements. Encouraging men to be more directly engaged in parenting potentially gives more women a chance to provide for themselves.

There is widespread agreement that having fathers more often and more directly involved in parenting would make a lot of men happy and in most cases benefit children. Nobody disagrees that it is always preferable for boys and girls to have strong male relationships and for all to benefit from family life and the love and attention of both parents. Even after marriage breakdown.

But there is a catch. A cost. Those who wish to be more engaged as parents and still participate in the world of paid work will find (as men who have done so attest, and as women well know) that it may well mean giving up over-time, promotion opportunities, often full time work, a decent amount of superannuation, business travel, most of your leisure and even some of your sleep.

The majority of fathers however choose not to undertake this task. Over recent weeks a number of men have argued publicly that undertaking the same sort of parenting load as mothers just isn't practical. They've pointed out that men generally earn more and so it makes sense for them to be the full time earner. They've argued that men don't have access to the same degree of family friendly work practices and that men who attempt to be more engaged as parents are viewed less favourably for advancement and employment. But surely this is the point! We do not have to acquiesce to arrangements that patently disadvantage men and their children. We do have a choice.

We need to enable more men to take advantage of family friendly workplace policies more often. After all, men currently have access to a year's unpaid parental leave, just like women. Ditto paid carer's leave. We need to encourage them to take them. We need to challenge the work cultures that frown upon and discriminate against men who seek flexible working conditions or shorter hours, just as we need to continue this battle for women.

Yes, as some argue, there are women who try to keep the parenting for themselves, acting as the gatekeeper and the arbiter of "good" parenting. Just as some men over the last couple of generations have been slow to accept that women have a legitimate place in the workplace, so, no doubt, women will need to be encouraged to abdicate some control of the domestic sphere.

We urgently need to address the work-time sacrifices parents will be required to make, remembering that you need to spend time with children to develop strong bonds and a sure hand at parenting. You need practice at solving a fight between two children about sharing the computer, knowing who has eaten their lunch and who threw it away, learnt their three times tables and what is really bothering them when they start skipping school. Let's not even contemplate the solomonic qualities and all round academic knowledge required for teenagers.

Without acknowledgement of parenting as a skill and a patient art, as well as an act of love, then all that encouragement we give women to go part time, leave off worrying about the career and instead to put their families first will look like malignant posturing.

We all know how much most fathers love their kids. That's not in doubt. This debate is not about proving that. It is primarily about the interests of the child but it has a challenging and timely subtext; to disprove the old formula that women care for kids and men care about them. Equality of parenting is the greatest remaining barrier to equality between the sexes.