'Companies are gaslighting working parents – it needs to stop'

Yahoo News – Insights speaks directly to the people with an inside track on the big issues. Here, journalist Orlando Crowcroft explains why businesses must be more flexible on childcare

Orlando Crowcroft says companies may tout their pro-parent stance but fail to follow through with genuine support. (image provided)
Orlando Crowcroft says companies may tout their pro-parent stance but fail to follow through with genuine support. (image provided)
  • Orlando Crowcroft is a journalist and father-of-two based in London after several years working abroad mainly in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

  • As new government rules for childcare provision come into force – seeing free nursery hours extended to two-year-olds – Crowcroft argues companies must do more to support working parents.

About a decade ago I returned to London to take up a desk editor job after several years as a reporter overseas. My hours were 8am to 4.30pm, and I had a colleague — let’s call him Alex — who at 4.30pm on the dot, got up, put his coat on and walked out the door.

I can tell you how we talked about that guy back then. He wasn’t dedicated. He was a clock-watcher. He was out to pasture, already, and he was younger than I was. I remember thinking: I will never be like that. I was a journalist, and journalism didn’t have fixed hours.

I was fresh from Jerusalem, where editors in London would routinely call at 5pm to tell me to go report on a shooting or a murder and then file it for a 10pm deadline. I’d usually just be settling in to an evening of boozing alone — my main hobby back then — and I was happy for the distraction.

So people like Alex were anathema to me.

Later we became friends, and I asked Alex about the 4.30pm thing. He was honest. I have kids, he said, and I have a schedule. If I don’t leave here at 4.30pm I can’t pick my kid up from the childminder at 5pm. My wife does the mornings, I do the evenings. That’s the deal.

I was an a**hole to Alex. We all were. Even after he explained, I didn’t really hear it. I still thought he was only half there. I know he felt our collective scorn as he shuffled out of the newsroom. I know our comments about his dedication weren’t as discreet as we thought they were.

I know this, because now I am Alex.

Given the endless press releases about companies being pro-parent, flexible and understanding as well as the hand-wringing on social media about the gender gap in tech and journalism, you might think things have changed in the past 10 years. Well, they haven’t.

Since I became a father in 2019 I’ve experienced nothing but inflexibility and hostility to my situation as a parent. Even if it was packaged as something else, I’ve had to leave two jobs I loved due to my childcare demands, even as said companies touted their pro-parent stance.

It is vast system of corporate gaslighting, and it needs to stop.

If you’re forcing men to sit at their desks until 7pm at night, or refusing to give them flexibility in the afternoons, then you’re hurting women. If I can’t collect my kids and take care of them when school finishes at 3.15 pm, who do you think has to do it? My wife, who torpedoed her own career having our children and has fought like a lion to get it back.

A self-employed father sitting at the table, daughter sitting on his lap and son watching him.
Companies may tout child-friendly policies but are they sticking to them? (Getty Images/posed by models)

And you’re hurting men. I scroll through Instagram and I see parenting meme after parenting meme showing hapless dads unable to satisfy the basic demands of their kids – and I resent it. I know it can be true: I know there are dads who are not hands-on with their kids. But I don’t think it is only their fault: the system, and their bosses, are responsible for it too.

I was lucky to have my kids during COVID, so I was at home – and aside from a few absences, I’ve been at home ever since. As a dad, I feel neither hapless nor overwhelmed (okay, sometimes a little overwhelmed). But lots of dads don’t have that option. They have to work until 6pm, 7pm, 8pm at night so they are seen to be at their desks, and are not being given a chance.

It is creating a culture where men can’t be equal or primary caregivers. And until it stops, men will never be given the chance to be present and involved fathers.

So if you’re an employer maintaining this system, then own it. Or change it.

We fawn over tech companies that oh-so-graciously offer six weeks parental leave to new dads so they can get to know their little ones at such a formative time. I can tell you that going back to full-time work six weeks into parenthood is the equivalent of the British upping sticks in 1915 and saying to their French allies: "We’re off, good luck with the Kaiser."

How about giving both parents nine months paid leave? That would move the needle.

How about letting your employees of both sexes work around school hours and the school term?

That doesn’t mean forcing them to ‘make up the hours’ in the evenings (when they deserve a break) or bounce their poor kids on their knees at 5pm while sitting through a Zoom call that could have been held four hours earlier. Accept that they can do the job without doing that.

I am a better journalist since I became father. You want to talk about organisation? Try raising two kids under five. You want your employees to be dancing into the office on a Monday morning? Hire more parents. Because when I leave those kids at the school gates, I'm all yours.

Nothing has given me drive and clarity like parenthood. I have books written by my father, grandmother and grandfather on my shelf. I am acutely aware that one day my kids will reflect on how I’ve spent my time on Earth. I want them to feel the same way I do about my dad: proud.

I know I am guilty too, because I once did to someone else the very thing that has now been done to me. And my managers have done to me what will one day be done to them. And so the cycle continues.

But that is the thing about generational trauma, isn’t it? We pass it down. Onwards and onwards. And so what I want to say to my former managers is the same thing I say to myself as a father, very, very regularly: Acknowledge the cycle of trauma, confront it. Break it.