Australia: Paternal instinct (Maternity Leave for Fathers)


Chris Marsden, with wife Kudzai and son Tasimba, says ‘unlike some, I have had the chance to enjoy the day-to-day activities of parenting’. Picture: Stuart McEvoy Source:TheAustralian

AS a new father, Chris Marsden was literally saved by the school bell. If Tasimba hadn’t been born in the holidays, the secondary school teacher would have been unable to spend the critical time bonding with his son.

The arrival of Tasimba 2 1/2 years ago had been the biggest in a series of huge life changes. In the space of two months Chris had started a new job, moved from Sydney to Melbourne and, with his wife Kudzai Kanhutu, endured the sleep-deprived tumult of a new baby. He had no paid leave, as his accrued NSW leave entitlements could not be transferred to his new job in Victoria. And the federal government’s Dad and Partner pay, which now gives new fathers a fortnight of leave at $622.10($ a week before tax, was just a twinkle in a politician’s eye. Marsden and Kanhutu, a doctor, were preoccupied with finding accommodation and the myriad practical aspects of setting up a new base, with baby.

The first six months seemed a blur. “It wasn’t until some friends of ours had their third child and their parents took the first two kids off their hands so they could have some time alone with the new baby that the concept of bonding really hit home to me,” says Marsden. “There were just other more pressing considerations.”

Now as they settle into the house they bought recently in Melbourne’s inner city, the couple feel life is settling into a comfortable rhythm, just in time for the arrival of their second child in December. “We will do things very differently this time,” says Marsden. Kanhutu will take another year off work on maternity leave, while her husband will take a fortnight off on his Dad and Partner pay.

If the Coalition wins next month’s federal election, Chris will be eligible for two weeks’ leave at his full salary for any babies born after July 1, 2015, as part of an overall 26 weeks of paid parental leave promised by Tony Abbott yesterday. Marsden sees paternity leave as important to his long-term relationship with the child, not to mention to help his wife.

He could take more unpaid time off as his employer is sympathetic and flexible, but in practice he appreciates it’s difficult to organise appropriate replacements and he feels a sense of duty to provide continuity to his Year 12 students. He says he’s luckier than most men because he gets to spend school holidays with his family. “The work-life balance has certainly been made easier,” he says. “Unlike some, I have had the chance to enjoy, and be challenged by, the day-to-day activities of parenting.

From when we arrived in Melbourne and Tasimba was only a couple of months old, I would jog with him in the pram. We would explore the city together, and visit family and friends.” Since January 1, new fathers have had the Dad and Partner pay, and according to figures provided to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, 38 per cent of workplaces with 100 employees or more offered paid paternity leave in 2011-12.

A survey before the payment was introduced found that 92 per cent of fathers with access to employer-paid paternity leave took it up. However, only 45 per cent used unpaid paternity leave provisions, compared with 81 per cent of women.

Society is the poorer for it, according to Barbara Pocock of the Centre for Work + Life Balance at the University of South Australia. The first few months of a life offer a rich opportunity for bonding between new parents and their children but many men still rush back to work, seeing their nurturing role as secondary, she says. Pocock suspects many men take the paid time because of the “use or lose it” provisions.

According to a recent Oxford University study, three-month-old children with less engaged fathers are more likely to be among the 10 per cent of children who display the beginnings of behavioural problems at one year old. This can lead to lifelong behavioural problems, scientists say. This is especially true for boys, as the study found that loving contact in their earliest days helps produce calmer, happier children at age one.

A strong paternal influence helps to reduce stubborn health and psychological problems in adulthood, according to Paul Ramchandani, who led the Oxford University study. Richard Fletcher, who leads the Fathers and Families Research Program at the University of Newcastle, believes fathers are just as important as mothers in the development of a new baby.

The author of The Dad Factor, Fletcher says that in the first few hours after birth a baby learns to react to the father’s voice, after hearing it in utero. The way a father interacts with a baby can literally shape the structure of the baby’s brain. So being around in those first weeks is more than just being politically correct about gender equality and handing around the post-natal cigars. It’s not only the quantity of time spent with babies that is important, but the quality, he says.


For instance, studies have shown that if a father is depressed in the early months of his child’s life, that child is two to three times more likely to have behavioural issues. In the long term, “social competence” derived from the home environment is just as important as IQ in determining life outcomes for babies. Pocock says having both parents engaged with child rearing has critical effects on society and even the economic wellbeing of nations. She points to studies by Nobel laureate economist James Heckman showing the family environments of young children are major predictors of cognitive and socio-emotional abilities, as well as crime, health and obesity rates.


Discussion of the father’s role in caring for newborns is now a feature of media reporting of celebrity births, such as future British monarch Prince George Once upon a time the divine right of kings held that a monarch was subject to no earthly authority. He changed diapers  for no man. The raising of heirs was left to others in the royal household while he occupied himself with affairs of state and other kingly matters.

How things have changed. Prince William reportedly took his two-week paternity leave for the arrival of Prince George, pocketing the less than princely sum of pound stg. 136.78 ($230) a week as gazetted by the government.

He seemed somewhat relieved to be returning to his day job as a search and rescue helicopter pilot in north Wales. He reportedly got one leave pass for a game of polo, but complained that he had been distracted, “in baby mode out there, thinking about diapers “. Still, Wills had managed to knock in the winning goal before rushing home to be with Catherine and baby George.

William is tipped to leave the RAF but don’t expect him to become a house husband at Kensington Palace. As with many men, career will come first and he is expected to return to the Household Cavalry. Pocock says economic pressures and male stereotypes prevent many men from spending more time with their children.


Many men feel that they will lose their place in a competitive work environment if they leave their post, she says. Kudzai Kanhutu says paid paternity leave will encourage more employers to consider incorporating the concept of paid and unpaid paternity leave into their thinking. “It’s about employers realising that the father comes with a family. This is a long-term relationship between us and the employer,” she says. Paternity leave • The Federal Government’s Dad and Partner pay gives new fathers a two weeks of leave at $622.10 a week .

The Coalition has announced a fortnight of paternity leave at full pay, starting on July 1, 2015 • Before the start of Dad and Partner pay a survey found 92 per cent of fathers with employer paid paternity leave took it. Only 45 per cent took unpaid paternity leave, compared to 81 per cent of women •


An Oxford University study has found that three-month-olds with less engaged fathers are more likely to display behavioural problems at age one • In the first few hours of life, a baby learns to react to the father’s voice

By Adam Shand/The Australian