This week, the men in my life did the parenting, everyone benefited

'There’s a reason that men reflect on their lives, saying they wish they’d spent more time with their kids. Gender ...
'There’s a reason that men reflect on their lives, saying they wish they’d spent more time with their kids. Gender expectations hurt everyone. Not just women.' Photo: Shutterstock

I was lying in bed sick, when sounds of activity in the room next door made me smile in spite of my pain. I could hear my son having the kind of glorious time in the bath that only a three-year-old can. He was being carefully watched – and washed, I hope - by his father and grandfather. I was struck by the reality that this sort of loving, domestic scene never would have taken place a generation ago.

My father-in-law came to stay with us last week. He was providing a much-needed extra pair of hands around the house while I finish a long course of radiation treatment. I’ve been sick for the better part of two years and during that time, my husband and I have been hugely reliant on the support of family and friends.

Tradition dictates that it will be the women who step up to care and help in such circumstances. That hasn’t been our experience. This has been a gender-equal, all-hands-on-deck scenario, which has benefited everyone involved. Despite having a very sick mother, my son is confident, happy and well adjusted – and the adult men in his life deserve much credit for that.

Historically, our society’s rigid gender roles have meant grandmothers are usually the ones who ease the caring and domestic burden for their working children. One Norwegian study looked at the contribution of 5500 grandparents in 11 countries and found that “norms for caring are clearer for [grandmothers] and she inspires the grandfather”. In other words, grandfathers’ involvement with their grandchildren is far more limited and even when it does happen, it has tended to be led by a female partner.

These past two years I’ve observed my father-in-law’s interactions with his only grandchild regularly. He is kind, nurturing, patient and attentive. He is deeply invested in raising this little person and his influence shines through, particularly in my son’s love of music. Their relationship is one of warmth and respect - despite the rather significant maturity gap.

My own dad was an active and involved parent compared to many men of his generation. However, let’s face it, the bar wasn’t particularly high. Like his contemporaries he didn’t take any substantial leave when my sister and I were born. As we grew up, Dad usually deferred to Mum on parenting decisions. That was her domain. His, was to support us financially rather than emotionally.

His relationship with his grandson is different. Ever since I gave birth, my dad has been completely besotted with the newest addition to our family. Since then, I’ve watched dad’s involvement with caring – and the domestic duties that so often accompany it – grow in line with his confidence.

In retirement he has the opportunity to enjoy his grandchild in a way that perhaps he couldn’t with his own children. A demanding full-time job and the more rigid gender roles of the time prevented a level of involvement with being a dad that would have brought enormous fulfillment.

There’s a reason that older men often reflect on their lives, saying they wish they’d spent more time with their kids. Gender expectations and stereotypes hurt everyone. Not just women.


Beliefs about what constitutes men’s work and women’s work have shaped us far more than we realise, and they’ve shaped our economies too. The standard measure of a country’s economic success is gross domestic product and yet it’s a figure that doesn’t account for unpaid caring or housework. It was considered, mind you, way back when GDP was invented in 1934 but economists decided its value was simply too hard to measure. They left it out.

It’s estimated unpaid caring responsibilities would account for around 50 percent of GDP in most developed nations. If we genuinely committed to calculating its economic value, unpaid child care would be Australia’s single largest industry. It’s worth more than $345 billion a year. Economist Sue Himmelweit says the world’s failure to measure the unpaid work of women is why this work is still viewed as a ‘costless resource to exploit’.

The foundations of our societies were built on and around the unpaid work of women. Economic structures assume this work will simply get done, and without financial reward. That means for many women – mothers, grandmothers and other unpaid carers – caring isn’t a choice but necessitated by circumstance. Of course, it is often enormously joyful work. However, the fact that it’s unpaid and under-supported can erode that joy and steal women’s chance at economic security.

Thankfully, change is coming. Not only for women who are entering the workforce in greater numbers and attracting remuneration that is closing in on equal. Younger men are more likely to take parental leave than they were before. They are demanding the opportunity to be active influences in their children’s lives. For Millennial men, being a good dad is increasingly linked to pride and identity.

What the world didn’t expect is that while we’re making new men of those coming through, we’re also remaking older men. The men, who were once presumed could never change. More grandfathers are spending quality time with their grandchildren - and doing the domestic and caring work that goes along with that. It’s to the benefit of both them and the generation they’re helping to raise.