'Back at work yet?' I asked Steve* while keeping an eye on our pre-school daughters who were running in circles and squealing with delighted fascination at each other on the busy café strip. It’s the middle of January and the end of the long summer break was in sight.
'Yeah. Went back yesterday,’ he replies, adding ‘Thank God!' with a roll of his eyes.
Perhaps it was meant as a male bonding moment. It wouldn't be the first time I’d missed cues of male bonding and I’m sure it won’t be the last. But I think he was sincere: he really did want to go back to work in order to get a break from home.
The strange thing is that he’s made clear to me in the past that he doesn’t really like his job. Actually, that’s putting it mildly. He loathes his job.
He has every reason to have gripes. Despite hitting — and handsomely exceeding annual targets — and moving his family around the country for the greater good of his company, he’s been repeatedly declined a promised promotion.
And it’s not as if he works for a small business struggling to make ends meet. His employer is one of Australia’s largest firms — the kind that boasts about their flexible, family-friendly policies on its website.
It came as a shock, then, to find that he prefers to spend time with a group of people who obviously do not have his best interests at heart instead of his daughter.
Outside of holidays, he barely sees his little girl. Like many corporate soldiers, he can go five days in a row without seeing her awake.
Steve’s experience isn’t uncommon. A 2009 survey conducted by the Australia Institute found that men with young children do more overtime than any other segment of the workforce. They put in an average of 71 minutes of overtime per day. In contrast, men overall do 63 minutes overtime in a typical workday.
That’s a startling figure. If any group of men had a good reason to leave the office on time, it’s those with young children to bath and tuck in at night. Yet they’re doing more overtime than any other segment of the workforce.
For Steve, at least, time at the office is an oasis from the chaos of home. And, let's be honest, meeting the needs of young children isn't always as straightforward as meeting those of clients.
Sure, some clients — and even colleagues — may have the emotional range and temperaments and communication skills of toddlers, but at least in professional settings, the challenges can be defined. There are processes for dealing with problems. And there are people who can be called in at a moments’ notice to do specific jobs.
Not so with pre-school age children. Especially over the long summer break, many of the structured activities for children dry up. No storytime at the library. No kindergym. No regular playgroup. No music lessons. No childcare.
This lack of structure may be one reason why men who become fathers work the longest hours out of all workers. No doubt some of the longer hours are to pay for the children. But it may also be to escape.
And some of this time may not even be spent at the office. In his book Fat, Forty and Fired, Nigel Marsh confessed that he would sometimes wait in his car outside the house after work so as to avoid the evening chaos of getting his four children fed, bathed and in bed.
But even granting that parenthood isn’t always a picnic, what’s the point of a few moments of silence if it means you’re missing out on being part of your children’s life? Sure the peace and quiet may be nice, but it’s temporary. Your bond with your children is going to be much longer.
Of course, everyone’s situation is different. Some jobs don’t permit a great deal of flexibility. People who work in small businesses and independent contractors often don’t have the same luxuries enjoyed by salaried employees.
But most men who are putting in overtime are in the high-income bracket — jobs that typically allow greater opportunities to work where and when you want, compared to most jobs.
Dads need to remember that providing for our families isn’t just about the paycheck. It’s also about being present as much as we can.
* Name has been changed
Christopher Scanlon is a Melbourne writer and a co-founder of www.upstart.net.au, the website for emerging journalist