Before it's too late

Chris Ryan is one of the many men who are taking the lead from women who presently dominate part-time work positions. He is determined to spend more time with his children before it's too late.

I work as a senior scientist in a large private pathology company where male employees are outnumbered 3 to 1 by females. Paradoxically, as in many work environments today, upper management is almost exclusively male. Gender Inequity Number Two is also commonly encountered: part-time and job-share appointments abound for women, but do not appear to exist for men. This problem of lack of precedent was not apparent to me until my own thoughts had developed towards working part-time.

Back in 1989 my wife Ged and I did a temporary job swap - she returned to her former occupation as midwife and I became fulltime dad for the first time. Two things became apparent which influenced the devolution of my previous rigid ideas about couples who work: man as fulltime breadwinner, woman as fulltime parent.

Firstly, our three kids accrue major benefits from significant exposure to the complementary but very different parenting styles of mother and father. I was really blown away by the magnitude of the differences, ranging from what constitutes an infraction of The Rules (and what discipline the particular infraction invokes), to the marked contrast between our tenderness displays - I prefer sporty or rough-play methods, whilst Ged likes the soft approach of quiet one-on-one with each child (and shuns my methods!) In our experience kids adapt readily to these "dual standards".

Secondly, the job swap provided a self-esteem boost not only for my wife but also, unexpectedly, for me as well -- I lost my fear of solo parenting in just weeks!

Ged's serious illness in 1990 added impetus to my part-time direction, but I must confess that until September 1994, part of me still resisted that dreaded Loss of Control (political control, career control, self-control!) implicit in forsaking a senior full-time position.

Then along came Steve Biddulph's Manhood. Amongst many other things, this life-altering tome showed me that my involvement with parenting my kids was not merely nice for me and them, it was utterly crucial in their development. Moreover, Steve's ideas suggested that, for my eldest child Thomas, I had already entered a shrinking window of opportunity. The arrival of peer pressure at around 14 years of age would diminish my influence on Thomas' development. Steve's analyses and analogies rang so true with my experiences to that time, that I dared not fail to respond. In 1995, my wife returned part-time to the paid workforce, and I approached my boss about going part-time.

Ged played a major role in this decision. More than merely encouraging me, it was she who first made me seriously consider the part-time option. By giving me two years' notice of her intention to return to the (salaried) workforce, and by being there for me whenever I wanted to discuss this scary transition, she was indeed the prime mover. Yes, there was some initial apprehension about loss of income, but my projections reassured her there would be minimal impact if she worked three days a week (with a tax benefit for part-time) and I dropped to three days a week.

So much for the WHY of abandoning full-time work. The HOW was a matter of gently persisting with the boss, given that the state of our domestic finances allowed a cut in my salary whilst Ged built up her own hours. The boss' reactions were interesting. Initially his response was classic Damage Control: "How can we rearrange your workload so to avoid this terribly difficult option?". This was followed by a long term of doing nothing except avoiding the topic. A later tactic was a hazy reference to "There are others before you in the queue [to switch to part-time] you know", although I was unaware that I had other colleagues with the same aim as I.

Eventually, after telling me that my services are irreplaceable - an unexpected fillip for me as he rarely praises people - he at least acknowledged the validity of my aim to reduce hours. A token decrement in my hours began, the first step to what I hope will eventually be a drop to three days per week.

This has been the key to wonderfully enhanced time I now spend with my children. Tuesday is the best day: leaving work. at 3pm, I pick up the kids from school, pick Ged up and drive her to work in our only car, bring the kids home to some afternoon tea, then we're straight into the homework, until one of the kids (per a roster) helps prepare dinner. Wolfing dinner down, we race out to Irish Dancing classes, and on the way home we stop for an icecream at a particular milk bar, in what is now enshrined as a "family tradition". The kids and I love all this!

My plans to drop back to 3 days per week have still not materialised, mainly because the company hit financial strife. After several worrisome months where the Rumour Tree became the company's major means of internal communication, morale became so low and my own anxiety so great - and ordinarily I am one of the least anxious types you'd meet - that I began to experience physical symptoms. In all this, the pursuit of reduced hours naturally dropped in priority somewhat. Then we merged with another pathology company, and we are now into the first waves of retrenchments.

I could not have chosen a worse time to press home my now longstanding claims to go 3-days-per-week. But last month I did so anyway, reasoning that there would never be a better time than now whilst the workplace is restructuring. I would never resort to using an ultimatum, normally, but, well, it was now or never.

When the boss had scraped his jaw off the ground, his immediate and predictable response was purely economic: "Have you CALCULATED how many dollars this will cost you? Can you afford this?" I replied that from time to time in life one makes decisions that are based on directives from the heart rather than from the bank account. Having said this, I had in fact crunched the necessary numbers and, yes, the old family coffers won't be a pretty sight with this reduction in hours. There were also other unspoken factors involved: for example, a waning will to stay with this new hard-hearted employer; and my desire to support Ged in the expansion of her career, with 15 years' support by her of my fulltime career now drawing to a close.

Since then I have been badgered with pleas to reconsider my decision, which I had elevated to a non-negotiable condition of my continuing employment in the restructured workplace. At present it appears my condition may be difficult to meet, and may ultimately cost me my job in the present uncertain environment. Although a disaster in fiscal terms, the prospect of such an outcome leaves me with an abiding inner peacefulness. This is not a rational peace, but one which I hope will sustain the family and me in whatever lies ahead in our immediate future.

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