The face of fatherhood is changing – but children still need more 'Daddy days'

Nikki van der Gaag
Between 1997 and 2012, in 23 countries with data, the gap between women and men in terms of who does the unpaid care work declined by only seven minutes - Getty Images Contributor

Nikki van der Gaag, co-author of the latest State of the World’s Fathers report, has seen first hand the benefits of shared parenting

When my partner Chris and I had our children 30 and 28 years ago, he was the only father in his large public organisation to take a day a week specifically to look after our daughter and then our son. Such was the strangeness of the idea that the BBC interviewed him for being an ‘involved father’.

Our children were in nursery three days a week. Of the remaining two working days, one was my day and the other was their dad’s. These are still referred to as ‘Daddy days’ and ‘Mummy days’, and both children remember those precious times.

Things have changed a lot in the last 30 years, not just in the UK, but in many countries. In the Global North, increasing numbers of dads are seen with prams in the park, in cafes with their babies, and changing nappies. In the Global South too, younger generations of fathers are more involved with their children. And dads and family formations come in ever more diverse shapes and forms.

I am noticing this once again as my daughter and son-in law have just had a baby. But also because of a strange serendipity: while they were becoming new parents, I was co-authoring the third State of the World’s Fathers report. The evidence for what I was writing about – the importance of father’s involvement with their child from an early age – was being played out again in real time right in front of me.

The arguments for fathers’ involvement from a feminist perspective are clear. Women and girls in every country still do between three and ten times more unpaid care and domestic work than men and boys. And this has changed very little in 20 years. Between 1997 and 2012, in 23 countries with data, the gap between women and men in terms of who does the unpaid care work declined by only seven minutes, according to a recent report by the International Labour Organization.

Part of the reason is that around the world, the overwhelming expectation is still that caring is women's work, while men’s primary role as breadwinners means they have little responsibility for providing care or doing household chores. Although this is changing in some countries, data from 23 countries show that significant proportions of women and men agree that “changing diapers, giving baths to children, and feeding children should be the mother’s/woman’s responsibility.”

No wonder that fathers who look after their babies are still praised for being the exception rather than the rule. As Seamus O’Reilly, who blogs about being a dad, wrote recently: "I sometimes get looks of approval from people just for pushing a pram. Some poke their heads inside, delighted I’ve refrained from cramming the baby beside 40 cans of lager and a few copies of Loaded. My wife has never had someone reach across a bus seat to say how wonderful she is for looking after our son, whereas it’s happened to me twice."

I hear the same thing from my son-in-law now that he has become a new dad. But I can also see just how much of a joint venture parenthood is for him and my daughter. She did the hard work, but he was there supporting her through the birth, rejoicing in the little miracle that was their son, getting up in the night, doing the shopping and cooking, cleaning the house, changing nappies, taking the baby to a coffee shop so his mother could sleep.

Our daughter is quite clear about the benefits of this sharing. And research from around the world backs her up. Engaged fatherhood is good for the mother’s physical and mental health. Girls are more empowered, and boys with involved fathers are more likely to believe in gender equality and to share the unpaid work with their own partners if they saw their fathers doing the same.

What is more, men’s involvement in unpaid care work has important benefits not just for individual couples and family relationships, but for gender equality too; for women’s ability to be part of the paid work force on a more even playing field with men. In countries where women do twice as much unpaid care work than men, their average earnings are less than two-thirds of men’s.

Being an involved father is clearly good for men as well. In every photo of my son-in-law with the baby, his pride and love for the tiny being shows clearly in his face. In the report I had written about the way in which father involvement with a new baby increases oxytocin and other hormones, and now I had shining evidence of that fact. Fathers who are involved in the home and with their children say it is one of their most important sources of well-being and happiness.

Having shared everything about the baby except breastfeeding, my son-in-law is now back at work. Luckily his studio is 10 minutes from home so he can pop back for a cuddle or to give his wife a break. A month felt like the minimum they all three needed to be together at the start of my grandson’s life. Like many other dads who are freelance or working in the informal sector all over the world, he had no paternity leave. Unlike many other dads, he could afford to take the time off. And he is hoping to be able to work four days a week once my daughter goes back to work. Their experience has made me even more convinced that the messages we are putting out in the State of the World’s Fathers are so important.

We need better statutory paternity leave everywhere in the world. We need to recognise the vital importance to a child of fathers as well as mothers, and that fathers are not just ‘helping’, but equally responsible with mothers for the physical and emotional support of their child. And we need to value dads as carers as much as financial supporters of the family.

Things have changed for the better in many countries since Chris and I had our children. But they have not changed enough. The evidence in this latest State of the World’s Fathers makes the case for change very clear. And I am more sure than ever that all children need Daddy days as well as Mummy days.

Are you a father who takes 'Daddy days'? Would better statutory paternity leave help facilitate men's involvement in childcare? We want to hear from you in the comments section below and in the Telegraph Family Facebook Group