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8 reasons why it's time fathers were filling the 'paternity gap'

Dads should be seen as equal parents and not babysitters, the authors of a new book explain to Lisa Salmon

On average, dads spend less than half the amount of time mums do with their kids, often not having full responsibility for their children at all during the week.

While many surveys suggest most people support the idea of equal parenting - around 60% of people back each parent doing an equal share - less than 4% of new dads take any shared parental leave. Shockingly, a third of new fathers don't use their two weeks of paternity leave.

Dads David Freed, who writes the parenting blog Dads Turn and James Millar call this the 'paternity gap', and they've written the new book Dads Don't Babysit to offer solutions to help close it. "We want a more equal society, as surely most people do," says Millar. "In this year that marks 100 years since the success of the suffragettes, men might just be the final piece of the puzzle. Women have been fighting for equality for decades, now it's dads' turn." Here, Millar and Freed offer eight simple steps for parents and parents-to-be to work towards equal parenting:

1. Challenge the idea that dads babysit

Freed and Millar stress that dads are just as responsible for children as mums, yet their book takes its name from the number of times they were told they were 'babysitting' when looking after their kids.

"The word 'babysitting' means temporarily looking after someone else's children. No one would tell a mum she's babysitting her own kid," says Freed. "When someone tells me I'm babysitting my own kid, they're unwittingly buying into the idea that I'm doing it as a favour to the child's mum. I'm actually just looking after my own kid."

He points out that the latest research shows that what makes us naturally better parents isn't our sex, but the time we spend alone looking after our babies. "So if you hear people talking about dads as back-up parents without real responsibility for their own kids, challenge them on it. Ask if they'd say the same about a mum in that situation."

2. Change the way you approach baby groups

Men aren't brought up to sing in public, Millar points out, and this means rhyme-time type events are off-putting to dads. There are two possible solutions to this, he says. Men can do more singing with their kids in the house, shower, car, etc, or they can try to set up events that appeal to men more.

"Instead of calling it Rhyme Time, call it Mini Rock Club," suggests Millar. "Whatever it takes. It's dads and mums who can make the change happen."

3. Give nursery or school dad's number

Make it normal for both parents to field the nursery or school calls. When your child starts there, put dad's name and number first on any forms so both parents can call the shots and step up for childcare emergencies.

4. Use your leave

Freed says the evidence is clear that, when a dad takes full responsibility for childcare on his own, he's significantly more likely to continue that caring responsibility as his child grows.

"If dads take shared parental leave alone, use flexible working to care for their kids, or even alternate with their partner at weekends to take the lead on caring for the kids, it can benefit the whole family for a lifetime," he stresses, pointing out that dads who are more involved with their families are happier, healthier and live longer, and mums with partners who do their bit enjoy better mental health and higher earning power.

5. End double standards

Freed and Millar say parents are faced with double standards because fathers aren't usually expected to be responsible for their children, but mothers are.

"A mum taking six months' maternity leave is told she's coming back to work early," says Freed. "Would we say the same to a dad taking six months' parental leave? We should be willing to challenge people who put these sort of negative judgements on working mums."

6. Watch for 'dumb dad' stereotypes

Millar says people, especially children, often form views from what they see on TV, and points out that Homer Simpson is "probably the most famous father on the planet", yet he's a terrible example of fatherhood.

"From Homer to Jim Royle to Peter Griffin, and even Daddy Pig, dads come across as buffoons who can't be trusted with the baby. How about some likeable stay-at-home-dads on our TVs?"

He says last year the Advertising Standards Agency announced it was looking to outlaw lazy gender stereotypes from adverts, and Millar would like Ofcom to do the same for television programmes. "But until they do, parents have the power to be discerning about the sort of dads we want role-modelling fatherhood on TV."

7. Contact your MP

Politicians won't act unless they think there's votes or publicity in it, stresses Millar, who says people "should get in their MP's face about this. Become a keyboard warrior to demand change".

8. Challenge the idea of having to 'man up'

The authors say what it means to 'be a man' holds a lot of men back, especially when it comes to being a nurturing and loving dad.

"But childcare is as manly as a dad wants to make it," says Freed. "The publicity campaigns to promote parental leave in countries like Sweden showed tattooed, bearded and butch men looking after their babies - and loving it. There are dads out there who are owning fatherhood, willing to 'man-up and change the nappy'. If you're not already one of them, join them!"

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James Millar

Belfast Telegraph

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