During a seven-month parental leave, David Dumas and his son Marcus discovered the laugh factory, an imaginary place that rests behind everyone's belly button.
Whenever his son was in a grumpy mood, the 30-year-old father -- one of an increasing number of Canadian men staying home from work to raise their children -- would cheer up his son by pretending to laugh. The simple gesture almost always brought smiles to Marcus's face and eventually their belly buttons became triggers for the amusement. One push of their virtual doorbells opened up warehouses of giggles and chuckles.
Some of Dumas's "favourite moments" were making his son laugh, but his days at home, while his wife Sarah Davidson was substitute teaching, were filled with less glamorous moments. During his leave, between September 2006 and April 2007, the proud father realized the amount of time and energy parenthood demands.
Important social, economic and demographic changes have blurred the stereotype of breadwinning men who provide for their wives in the past few decades. Since the 1960s women have hit the job market in large numbers, and as maternity leave policies become parental-leave policies, men are playing a much more prominent role in balancing work and family. Between 2001 and 2006, the proportion of fathers who took a leave of absence from work increased from 38% to 55%, according to a Statistics Canada report released this week.
The proportion of mothers remained just below 90%, far ahead of the fathers, but the changes symbolize the evolving roles of men and women. Dumas was surprised by the response he received from the male-dominated staff at Acklands Grainger where he has been a service representative for several years.
"I wondered how people (at work) would take it - me staying home," Dumas said. "I didn't know if I would get the odd wisecrack or joke, but I found that caring for my son far surpassed anything they would have felt was worth giving me a jab for."
The workplace has seen drastic changes over the years. With Davidson fresh from university in 2005, the Bachelor of Education graduate lacked sufficient classroom hours to get a paid maternity leave. After giving birth to Marcus in April of the following year, she stayed at home until hired full-time in the Nanaimo-Ladysmith school district. When September came, Davidson met the demands of her new teaching career at Dufferin Crescent Elementary School, while Dumas spent his days with their newborn son.
"The company didn't have a set policy (at the time), but I wasn't the first to take parental leave," Dumas said. "They were great. I was promised I would have my job or a similar position with the same pay structure when I returned."
Since returning to work the proud father said Acklands Grainger (like many companies in Canada) has created a detailed parental-leave policy. The significant increase of fathers taking leave puts Canada ahead of a number of countries, "but ranks it well behind those where parents benefit from paid, non-transferable parental leave as in Sweden and Norway," according to Statistics Canada. Many parents would prefer to remain at home with their children well beyond their parental leaves, but finances often force parents back to work early.
Despite improved support programs designed to enable parents to spend more time with their children, 36% of parents indicated that they returned to the grind for fear of losing their jobs, whereas 79% returned for financial reasons.
More parents are splitting paternity leave just as Davidson and Dumas. Having Davidson at home with Marcus for the first four months was a blessing, according to Dumas, who was never "much of a baby person."
Davidson's time with her son allowed Dumas to adjust, but before he knew it, he was defrosting breast milk, feeding and bathing his son, finding new attractions for playtime, and preparing dinners for his hard-working wife.
"I was able to care for him quite easily. It wasn't like I couldn't change a diaper, all that stuff comes naturally," he said. "But at the same time, I definitely found that I didn't have a lot of time to do the things around the house, like cleaning or even just getting out of the house. You're just taking care of the kid."
The father-and-son team started their day when mom left for work. They tried to shower together as much as possible to save time.
After getting dressed and a little play session, it was nap time for Marcus and homework time for his dad, who is taking part-time business management courses at Malaspina University-College.
When the youngster woke, it was again time for some defrosted breast milk and a trip outdoors, an event that sometimes takes more time to prepare for than the actual trip, according to a laughing Dumas.
"It took a long time to get pack his bottles and carrying bags, but then if I forgot something I had to take him back out because there's always that question: Are you alllowed to run back into the house and get that item or is that irresponsible?"
© Copyright 2013