Who is Taking Care of Babies?
A wide range of factors have been identified in influencing parents’ decisions on shared leave, including gender ideologies towards parenting and care work. Masculinity is one of the driving forces in changing gender relations within families, meaning how fathers are positioned and their practices inside a household or a relationship. In this context, little attention has been paid to the extent to which masculinity is jointly constructed by both fathers and mothers, and how these constructions are linked to the use of parental leave.
Aimed at filling this research gap, Eva-Maria Schmidt and colleagues conducted 44 pre- and postnatal qualitative interviews in Vienna. They interviewed 11 heterosexual couples during their transition to first-time parenthood, once during pregnancy and once about 6 months after delivery.
Results indicate that parents’ decision to share leave is father-centred, and masculinity is jointly constructed by partners as superior to femininity when it comes to care work and parental leave. Men took parental leave only when external circumstances and conditions were adequate and allowed for it, and when it was perceived as being the most beneficial for them. Both mothers and fathers assumed that parental leave is valuable for the father himself and valued his (potential) parental leave time higher than the mother’s. In addition, only men were deemed to be in the position to agree to an interruption in his career, to claim for system changes in order to boost gender equality, and to claim for and receive external recognition for taking leave.
The father’s wish for parental leave has always been considered by the couples interviewed, but only as far as it could be adjusted to his needs and to external circumstances, such as his professional career. Consequently, the authors suggest that if external conditions strongly supported men to take longer parental leave periods, this would change hegemonic masculinity and gender relations. Men would then have to automatically have parental leave in mind when they decide to have a child (as women do already), and it would not be regarded as a courageous act anymore.
*This PopDigest has received funding from the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement n° 320116 for the research project FamiliesAndSocieties. FamiliesAndSocieties (www.familiesandsocieties.eu) has the aim to investigate the diversity of family forms, relationships and life courses in Europe, to assess the compatibility of existing policies with these changes, and to contribute to evidence-based policy-making. The consortium brings together 25 leading universities and research institutes in 15 European countries and three transnational civil society organizations.