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Handling unconscious bias when your husband is the primary caregiver

By Jo Lahman, Managing Director, Health & Public Service, Accenture Consulting, Brisbane

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I have been told that my non-traditional family setup is the “new normal.” However, as I look around, I still see significant differences between my family situation and that of the vast majority of my friends and colleagues. Since the first of our two children was born 11 years ago, my husband has been the primary caregiver. While we both assumed our roles with relative ease and comfort, surprisingly, our home arrangements are still unusual, and we are often the recipients of unconscious bias.

The decision for my husband to stay at home was an easy one. I loved my job; he didn’t love his. I earned more than he did; and I was excited to go back to work (part-time to start with), and he was excited at the prospect of staying home with our daughter.

One of the many benefits of our family arrangement is that work is more straightforward for me compared with working mums who also take on the primary caregiver role. Travel and weird working hours are not an issue for me, nor are school holidays and sick children. I am also extremely lucky to have a great deal of flexibility in my job to work from home reasonably frequently, so even though I’m working, I’m still around home a lot of the time.

But as with all things out of the norm, there are a range of different attitudes and judgements from others on our family situation. My husband and I have both experienced unconscious bias in different forms. Typically, it is not unkind or judgmental, it merely hangs off the traditions of a “normal” family makeup of mum being the primary caregiver. The text messages to me instead of hubby asking for play-dates when it’s known I’m working out of town. The term “Mr. Mum,” like being “Dad” isn’t quite enough. The raised eyebrow when the response to “What does your husband do?” isn’t what is expected.

"As with all things out of the norm, there are a range of different attitudes and judgements from others on our family situation."
Our family

Our family

Occasionally, there are those comments that hit a bit deeper and give us pause to think if we are doing it “right.” The comment that “children need their Mum around more than their Dad,” or “it’s a shame you miss out on your children’s life because of work.” Ouch.

I feel strongly, however, that these comments are a reflection of each person’s own situation and beliefs, and I try not to take them on board as judge and jury of what works for my family. However, they do prompt me to reflect on our situation and continue to check that it’s meeting the needs of all of us. This check is a worthwhile exercise for all families—no matter what the arrangement.

My husband now works as a teacher’s aide at our children’s school. Another non-traditional role for a man, yet one that he loves and that works to a “T” for our family. School drop—offs and pick—ups—tick. School holidays—tick. Work that makes a difference—tick.

While our family situation will continue to evolve (hubby is exploring studying for a teacher’s degree now that the children are getting older), there will continue to be one constant, which is our focus on each individual in our family getting what they need for a balanced and happy life.