Enjoying lunchtime chaos at Wombat Bend are members of the Northern Dads playgroup, including Dan (far right) and Simon (centre). Photo: Meredith O'Shea
THE cluster of fathers gathered around a barbecue at midday draws a few odd looks in a playground full of mothers and small children.
But these stay-at-home dads are used to that. And the awkward questions that go with being the only father in the waiting room at the Maternal and Child Health Centre. And the sideways glances at kindergarten drop-offs.
But for most of them this Father's Day, the hardest part about being a stay-at-home dad was negotiating how to become one.
According to Sydney University Associate Professor Marian Baird, a researcher in the fields of women, work and family and industrial relations, only 16 per cent of Australia's 2700 enterprise agreements have a paid paternity leave provision and the average is just five days. And while only 22 per cent of enterprise agreements have paid maternity leave clauses the duration is much longer, ranging from six to 14 weeks.
Of the six fathers wrangling children at Wombat Bend in Lower Templestowe on Friday - all members of the Northern Dads playgroup - only one is officially on paternity leave. Some were offered a few days paid leave when their children were born, but most had to quit work or change to part-time employment to become principal child carers.
Since 1990, Australian men have been entitled to 12 months unpaid paternity leave but fewer than one in 10 use any of it. Instead, 80 per cent of working men take two weeks' paid annual leave when their child is born.
Dan is the only father in this group on paternity leave and he can understand why men shy away from it. ''A lot of the time it's a psychological or cultural thing, men are just not used to doing it,'' he says.
Dan believes fathers' reluctance stems from uncertainty about their parenting role, ignorance of leave entitlements, and career and social pressures.
He and his wife have the same leave entitlements and similar wages, so deciding who would stay home was easier for them than most, but he says he still faces obstacles.
''The whole preschool system is geared to women being at home,'' Dan says.
''You don't go to a parental child health centre, you go to a maternal child health centre. You can go in and think, 'Is this really for me, would they really prefer the mum was here?'
''I've had a few people make comments to me like, 'Oh your poor wife, is she at work?' and I think that wouldn't be an uncommon view in the community … and I think in the early years there would be quite a few women who would prefer to be the ones at home.''
Fellow playgroup dad Simon says his ideal situation would be for him and his wife to both work part-time, but her workplace wasn't willing to let her reduce her full-time hours. So he found himself on full-time nappy duty.
But according to Professor Baird, most men who do have access to paternity leave choose not to use it. Like Dan, she believes workplace expectations and societal pressures are the main reasons for this trend.
''There is very slow change in terms of men's willingness to force employers to see they have a role in parenting and paid leave. They are quite happy to leave that up to women,'' Professor Baird says.
Not Rob Catchlove. The social researcher at Melbourne Water, opened the floodgates when he applied for three months' paid paternity leave when his daughter was born two years ago.
''Within our employment agreement paternity leave was available, but no one in the organisation had ever taken it … When I put forward my application they were a little bit confused,'' he says.
After much paperwork, Mr Catchlove took three months' paid leave, then returned to work part-time for six months, before resuming full-time work.
He says the company was very supportive and now it was commonplace for new fathers to take paternity leave.
The Federal Government's new shared, paid parental leave scheme, to be introduced on January 1, 2011, is aimed at giving more fathers the chance to stay at home. It will enable the stay-at-home parent to receive taxable payments at the minimum wage level - currently $543.78 a week - for up to 18 weeks.
But Professor Baird doubts this will be enough to encourage men to swap suit and tie for stroller and nappy bag, because they're not prepared to risk the career repercussions women have endured for years.
Professor Gillian Whitehouse, a parental leave researcher at the University of Queensland, agrees, saying overseas experience shows fathers remain reluctant to take on day-to-day care of their children under shared paid parenting schemes unless the paternity leave is non-transferable.
Several Scandinavian countries have adopted use-it-or-lose-it paternity leave to encourage fathers to play a greater role in raising their children.
''What we have to do is legitimise fathers' use of leave to look after children,'' Professor Whitehouse says.
But Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry workplace policy director David Gregory believes stigma associated with taking parental leave has gone.
''There is a much greater understanding now about the need to maintain an appropriate balance between work and family,'' he says.
There is currently no mandated paid parental leave in Australia.
Unpaid leave up to 52 weeks is available in some cases.
Up to three weeks' concurrent unpaid leave for both parents.
Eligible employees to request 12 extra months' unpaid parental leave, giving up to 24 months shared between eligible parents.
18 weeks' paid leave for primary carer.
Unused balance can be transferred to another care-giver.