Angela Shanahan

Last year I wrote a column inspired by the imminent birth of the baby of New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern. I mused that it might be difficult to be a breastfeeding mother and prime minister, even of New Zealand. Babies are naturally bonded to their mothers. Indeed, bonding is part of the natural biological imperative of breastfeeding. But Ardern had announced that she would only take six weeks’ leave before passing “parenting” to the child’s father. Well, good luck with that one, I said, because she needed a lot more time off.

The responses I received were pretty virulent, and mostly from various high-powered female types. How dare I criticise the feminist pin-up of the Southern Hemisphere! A woman can have a baby and a job! Well, yes. I know that. I had to do it, and so did my mother, and in both cases it was a matter of dire necessity.

Left-leaning feminist commentators on family issues often can’t see past the flaws in the ideological symbolism to the simple everyday practical realities: like new mothers having to learn to breastfeed and wanting to bond with babies; or what happens at home when the father simply can’t be there, because despite all the hype and wishful thinking on the part of feminists, men are still the main earners in most Australian families.

Annabel Crabb’s Men at Work, which quotes my view of Jacinda as part of the mindset of the “parenthood trap,” is basically about why fathers aren’t mothers. It is a long complaint about fathers not taking parental leave.

It is curious that she uses the word “trap.” Why is it a trap to be a mother or father? Why is it so important, as she seems to think, to get out?

Perhaps, despite her artfully recherché image with matching culinary accomplishments, Crabb can’t stand the heat in the everyday meat-and-potatoes kitchen. Like most of the women – and it is mostly women – who comment on this stuff, she betrays a somewhat scornful attitude to the hard yakka of the domestic front. Many women are understandably resentful of the grubby everyday domestic necessities: the washing and cleaning; the cooking; the changing of the nappies; putting one foot in front of the other through the zombie like days of three-hourly feeds; not to mention that when children are sick, upset or in trouble, it is always Mummy who is expected to be on the frontline. First-time mothers often don’t understand all of this, and they often need much longer leave than they can get; and naturally, they don’t want to do it alone. But someone has to do it, and Crabb seems to think that men taking more paternity leave is the solution.

Her thesis is that women’s exit from dreary domesticity into the workplace (often just as dreary) is not matched by an exit from work by men to support the poor overburdened women. Why should men want to be out of work? The plain truth is that in most Australian families, no amount of take-it-or-leave-it paternity leave or any other inducement will change these arrangements, because most families are still dependent primarily on the father’s earnings, as they have a whopping big mortgage. The family enterprise depends on the main breadwinner, who is usually the man. The consequence of this is that in most families, even if the father takes paternity leave, it is only for a short period. Since nature equipped women to be mothers, and most will take maternity leave, it is imperative, especially if mothers have a long time off, that fathers don’t.

Of course, it doesn’t make it any emotionally easier for men. Crabb interviewed Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg about their family life, which she says is all about “coping with and compensating for absence” and asks, “Why do we expect so little of fathers?” Who says it is “little”? Anyone who observes these men at close quarters knows that what they do is not little. In fact, it is good that they are aware enough to want to manage absence. What is wrong with that? Crabb seems oblivious to the reality of being prime minister and treasurer. Does she think that their wives holding the fort at home is wrong, because it makes it practically easier for these two men, or any man, to do their jobs? Dads should share, but often they just simply can’t. And never mind about the prime minister – ask any tradie trying to build up their business.

What really upsets the commentators is that the general population dismisses the impractical pretence that a father can be a mother, hence the handy gender-neutral term “parenting,” which smothers the difference. That there is a difference between “mother” and “father” doesn’t mean that fathers should not be involved with their children. On the contrary: it is absolutely vital that they are. However, their involvement is different from the mother’s. And sometimes that difference is qualitative, and can’t be measured in time.

Actually, the best way that fathers can be involved with children is to be involved with their mothers. But in the fractured social milieu, where the natural biological bonds of parents and children have been frayed by family disintegration and gender ideologues who would like to obliterate them completely, we have forgotten that good parenting is actually a function of a good marriage.

As far as the solution to the “work–life balance,” as it is sometimes called, the availability of maternity leave and part-time work is a boon for Australian mothers, who have never been keen on full-time work with small children, even mothers with highly paid careers. Two of my daughters – who have five children between them – have been able to take extended maternity leave, and through their generous leave and part-time work provisions have been able to continue their careers, including gaining seniority. But they are fortunate, and not all women can do this. Many first-time mothers I have spoken to, who are usually over thirty when they finally have “the baby,” are not keen to return to the drudgery of work at all.

My own upbringing and experience as a mother of nine children taught me that the ordinary suburban world is full of many different families whose priorities are usually centred on their children’s welfare, while trying to juggle their finances as best they can. But the family is not an ideological construct built around economics. It doesn’t always fit into sociological models. It is a natural thing of flesh and blood. That is why if you ask anyone, male or female, which is more important for a mother, getting back to work or cultivating a warm and lasting maternal bond with her infant child, I think I know which they would choose.

Angela Shanahan


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 75, Men at Work. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 76, Red Flag.


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