CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1 Surveys conducted on fathers (Trellu, 2010; O’Brien and Wall, 2016; Beglaubter, 2019) and mothers (Brunet and Kertudo, 2010) during full-time parental leave [2] have shown that such parents reorganise their everyday life during leave around domestic and “parental work” [3] (Verjus and Vogel, 2009). According to F. Brunet and P. Kertudo (2010), these women’s time investment in educational and domestic work cannot only be explained by the “leave principle” (the “implied contract” of the leave states that the parent who benefits from it is freed from professional constraints for the purpose of raising his/her children), nor by gratifications these mothers receive from this time investment (such as the childen’s “well-being”). Beneficiaries would indeed feel obligated to society for being compensated through the “free choice of activity” supplement (CLCA in French—inset 1) to accomplish what all women do for free, namely taking care and educating their children, as well as carrying out domestic chores. This explains their high level of commitment in parental and domestic activities. Similarly, it is assumed that beneficiary fathers feel grateful towards the state or their spouses (McKay and Doucet, 2010; O’Brien and Twanley, 2016) for being able to take care of their children in countries where the working and providing male figure still prevails (Canada, Norway, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, France, United-Kingdom, Iceland).

Inset 1. Parental Leave in France

In France, parents are allowed extend their childbirth leave (maternity leave or second parent leave) with a childcare leave. This kind of leave can be taken until the child turns three years old, full-time or part-time, under the condition of prior professional activity. The leave is not compensated, but it can be subscribed together with a complementary allowance, a lump-sum allocation depending on work shares, also under the condition of prior professional activity.
At the time of the survey in 2014, this complementary allowance was the “free choice of activity” (CLCA in French), subsidised by the French family allowance fund. The benefit could be paid until the child’s first birthday for a first child or up to his third birthday from the second child onwards. In case of complete work interruption, the CLCA amounted to 390.92 euros.
In view of the low parental leave compensation system in France (compared, for instance, to the Swedish one, which is indexed to the parent’s salary), parents who claim the full rate CLCA mostly earn modest incomes and lower than their partners (Boyer, 2004; Nicolas et al., 2017). Furthermore, fathers are more likely to claim a partial rather than a full rate allowance (Boyer et al., 2013).
In this article, the expression “parental leave” will refer equally to a “childcare leave” and a “free choice of activity supplement”, since men who only benefited from CLCA presented themselves as being on “parental leave”.

2 For this reason, parental leave may be a “temporal socialisation” opportunity, as the beneficiary parents may internalise a specific relation to time during this period (Darmon, 2013). Indeed, the fact that beneficiary parents express their will to enjoy “such a short time” (Martiskainen, 2011, p. 10) of the leave to spend as much time as possible with their children should be linked to actual childcare and parenting norms. Such norms give high priority to respect the child, perceived as a “human being”, to ackowledge his desires and paces of life, and thus pay great attention to the child (Lee et al., 2014; Cartier et al., 2016). This commitment also implies the development of temporal and emotional skills, required in parental care (Damamme and Paperman, 2009; Ulmann, 2012).

3 Although fathers and mothers on parental leave have been presented as a homogenous group, these two categories of parents present significant discrepancies. Beneficiary women are more likely not only to have internalised the model of “permanent availability” [4] compared to their male counterparts (Chabaud-Ruchter et al., 1985; Bloch and Buisson, 1999), but also to have been more socialised in childcare (Cartier et al., 2016). According to B. Fox (2009), maternity leave, in particular, represents a turning point in the differentiated skills and knowledge between fathers and mothers in newborn care:


“Under the pressure from their babies’ crying, women had to learn how to do things that, they thought, would have come naturally […] [On the contrary,]learning to take care of the baby was optional for men. Joanne commented that parenting is “one of those things where until you’re sort of forced to do it, you don’t jump right into it”. Women were the ones “forced” to develop their skills and to take on the primary responsability for their babies’ well-being”
[Fox, 2009, p. 77-78]

5 Furthermore, the model of intermittent fatherhood prevails (de Singly, 2016): when they are at home, men tend to partition space and time, following the model of “a time for each thing”. This “conditional fatherhood” (Modak and Palazzo, 2002) seems to be in contradiction with the availability parents on parental leave wish to show to their children.

6 Fathers and mothers on parental leave also differ in that they present specific social characteristics in comparison with all eligible parents, depending on their legal conditions of subscription (inset 1). In terms of social and demographic characteristics, several surveys conducted in Germany (Reich, 2011), Canada (McKay et al., 2013), Finland (Lammi-Taskula, 2008) and Sweden (Duvander and Johansson, 2012) show that the minority of beneficiary men differs from all eligible men, because they have little to loose concerning their return to employment: they are fathers on permanent paid jobs, who work in the public sector or for big companies, or else in a female-dominated company or sector, that is to say an employment sector where the father will potentially be less penalised for asking for parental leave. They also have little to loose financially, for example for fathers belonging to homogamous couples [5]. Similarly, one can assume that beneficiary fathers (a minority among all fathers—Govillot, 2013) already handled a more important part of parental and domestic work before taking a parental leave, as compared to the majority of men.

7 This article aims at understanding the conditions under which French beneficiary fathers on full-time parental leave learn temporal skills, defined as a capacity to differ actions, to develop personal action programmes, to constantly negotiate and adjust their temporal organisation (Godard, 2003, cited by Damhuis, 2017), all of which are necessary skills to assume the role of stay-at-home parent, responsible for meeting the needs of other members of the family, as well as domestic chores. Indeed, the leave amounts to a complete time overhaul for the beneficiaries, a situation to which some parents are more prepared than others. Based upon the study of the parents’ discourse on their leave experience, this research aims at understanding the elements involved in acquiring the skills and knowledge required to be a stay-at-home parent. However, considering discrepancies in socialisation for parenthood, fathers on full-time parental leave are key to understand the learning process of all the necessary “care” skills parents have to acquire, that is to say all the activities included in childcare. This process depends on how the parent relates to the leave time. This article is based upon an empirical survey, made of thirty-eight interviews with fathers (inset 2).

Inset 2. Survey Methodology

This article relies on a corpus of thirty-eight semi-directive interviews, undertaken between September 2012 and June 2017 with fathers on full-time parental leave and/or full-rate free choice of activity allowance beneficiaries (CLCA), and all living as heterosexual couples (with one exception). During the leave, the partner was on a paid job. Interviews focused on the parent’s choice to take a parental leave and on the interviewees’ representations and practices regarding parenthood.
Fathers were recruited through a family allowance fund list, counting full-rate CLCA male beneficiaries living in Paris in January 2015, through day care centres located in metropolitan France and contacted via emails and finally, through mutual acquaintances.
The majority of the intervieweed fathers belong to the middle and upper-middle class (sixteen fathers are executives while eleven belong to intermediary professions). As such, they differ from fathers benefitting from the former activity allowance (Boyer, 2004), who are mainly workers and employees. However, they are also involved in hypogamous unions (the social status of their female partner is higher than their own). Most of the time, the leave is taken at the end of maternity leave (for half of the fathers) or when the child gets older, and for an average period of two years. Due to the interviewees’ recruitment method, fifteen out of the thirty-eight fathers have been interviewed after the end of their parental leave (in general a year and a half later).

8 The first part of this article will detail the different ways in which fathers deal with day-to-day time during their parental leave, depending on the conditions under which they exercise the leave. The second part will study the temporal knowledge and skills fathers had to learn during the course of their leave to assume their role of stay-at-home parent. Considering the nature of the material gathered in this survey, the analysis presented here does not focus on the fathers’ effective practices and learning processes, but on how they perceive their relation to time during their leave or their representations of their own practices.

“To Inhabit” the Parental Leave Period: Fathers’ Relation to Time

9 Not all fathers are equal before temporal socialisation during parental leave. Indeed, the ability to display temporal skills (attention, organisation, etc.) partly depends on whether or not they have previously acquired similar or transposable capacities. In addition, the possibility to assign most of one’s daily time to parental or family time comes from the context in which the leave is implemented, such as its duration and its place within the father’s life course (notably his professional path), the resources available (in particular the access to outside childcare solutions during parental leave) and his relation to the workforce.

10 In her book “Preparatory Classes”, M. Darmon (2013) identifies several relations to time among students from French preparatory classes, from the “time masters” who are in line with the academic pace of preparatory classes and who manage to occasionally “take time” to practice other activities after schoolwork, to the “overwhelmed” who suffer from this pace and run after time, and the “deviants” who decide to withdraw from the good ranking race. In the survey presented here, analysing the discourse fathers on parental leave develop on their relation to leave time shows similar oppositions, depending on several factors, such as the number and age of the children, available resources, arbitrations between several kinds of activities (parental, domestic, personal or professional) and their familiarity with childcare. However, some fathers within the corpus do not fit in these categories, as they present “hybrid” profiles.

The Homemakers: Holding Resources to Keep up the Pace

11 Among fathers on parental leave, the counterparts to the “time masters” described by M. Darmon (2013) could be the “homemakers”. They present their daily time as being under control: although they claim that the days run pretty fast, they also think they have enough time to do “everything”, that is to say meet the objectives they had set for the day. Their available resources and position toward employment can explain this posture of ease: they allow them to dedicate leave time to childcare, but also, for a minority of them, to start a professional retraining more compatible with the parental leave’s everyday rhythm [6]. Previously acquired skills also support this position of ease. Within this category, two kinds of fathers appear: the “dynamic executives” and the “housekeepers”.

The Dynamic Executives

12 “Dynamic executives” form a relatively homogenous sub-group within the sample: mostly executives (five out of six interviewees), they took a six-month parental leave for their first child [7], except for one. They lead continuous professional careers and work under French permanent contracts (CDI in French), which they intend to get back to after the leave ends. They plan to enjoy their parental leave as a way to give priority to the time shared between father and child, a time that was “missing” when they were engaged in wage employment. The short duration of the leave (in contrast to other durations within the sample and described as such by the fathers) means they have to make it “profitable”, by compressing times other than parental time in order to optimise the “quality time” shared with the baby, that is interacting with him.

13 In their narratives, these fathers attach great value to the different activities they share with their child and how it allows them to bond. It mainly means to be “100%” with the child, to prioritise parental time in terms of quantity (to spend as much time as possible interacting with the toddler) and quality, by being as available as possible for the child. These men are the most keen to describe their leave days as “maximised” time:


“These days were divided into several time slots, with very little time to do each thing, things had to be rushed a little and planning was needed to have time to go to the park in the morning, to read for an hour, it had to be done somehow […]… But finally, there was a very organised side to this, quite speedy, a search for efficiency to have time not to do anything.”
[Antoine, public relations and communication executive, executive spouse, one child, on parental leave for three months]

15 This time effeciency approach is allowed first by the fact that these men often care for one single child, which eases family time management as compared to a family with siblings, and second by their professional skills. Indeed, although none of the interviewees in this category link their management skills to their executive career, these men are most probably used to plan their working day to “chase idle times away” and more broadly, to have developed timing abilities than can be transferred within the family sphere (Ponsin, 2018).

The Housekeepers

16 The “housekeepers” (fourteen fathers) include fathers engaged in wage employment that allowed them to largely handle family life before the leave (low qualification “bread and butter” jobs or teachers—seven fathers) or fathers who had switched to a new profession during or right after the parental leave, in order to continue supervising housework and childcare beyond parental leave, and had thus turned to independent work (seven fathers). In general, before the leave, they either belonged to the “workers”, “employees” or “intermediary professions” socio-professional categories. Parents of two children or more, their leave lasts several years and is sometimes renewed after a new birth. By benefiting from a parental leave, they continue to be the “main caregiver” within the couple, or become one for fathers in professional retraining.

17 These men also claim temporal mastery, although it is less based on time intensification—a compression of extra-parental time in order to use the moments when the cared child is awake to share activities with him—and more on organisation skills allowing them to handle more domestic tasks and (for the second category) implement professional retraining. This time management relies on a detailed or even “military” organisation of the day, as in the case of “dynamic executives”, or, on the contrary, on improvisation:


“Since we have children, time flows less and less [quickly]… For instance, I tell them “look for your shoes, we are about to go out”, if he had been on his own, it would have taken him three minutes, but now, it will take him half an hour. In fact, I adjust myself. I target one objective for the day and I hang on to it. Sometimes, it takes longer hours… For example, domestic chores, the ironing I wanted to do in the afternoon, I could not do it, so I do it in the evening! […] I organise my time… At some point, I even had the time to go for a run.”
[Damien, mechanics in professional retraining to become a journalist, administrative employee spouse, two children, on a three-year parental leave for the second child]

19 These fathers’ posture of time management is based on several resources and skills. First, compared to “dynamic executive” fathers, they mention more parental times outside their interactions with the child. Rather than completely separate parental time when the child is awake from domestic or personal time when the child is asleep, the “intendants” mention times when the child experiments autonomy:


“There are moments when there are urgent things to do, I would let her in her playpen, she did not escape, she remained in her playpen. I used to give her some small toys. Sometimes, she was not very happy, but she had to understand that, sometimes, there are important things to take care of!”
[Aurélien, former constable, medical doctor spouse, three children, on a one-year-and-a-half parental leave for the second child, followed by a six-month leave for the third one]

21 As a matter of fact, the “intendants” do not try to optimise parental time, in so far as they consider spending a large amount of their time to the family, beyond their leave time. Then, these fathers mobilise occasional day care services, which “dynamic executive” fathers do not. This shorter period allocated to “active” parental time is based on educational principles: it is less about bonding with or awakening the child, as often claimed by “dynamic executives” (which requires a dedicated and continuous attention to the child), and more about helping him build his autonomy or social skills. The children’s age explains these varied educational postures.

22 Although “dynamic executives” and “intendants” present different characteristics in terms of professional paths, leave duration and age of their children, they also share this position of time managers during the course of their leave. This position can be explained by a temporal socialisation that allows them to display organisational skills, mainly acquired before the parental leave, and more rarely during the leave, when this lasted for several years.

The Overwhelmed: An Incomplete Temporal Socialisation

23 Contrary to the previous cases, some of the fathers interviewed in this survey present themselves as “overwhelmed” and admit their difficulties in handling all of their self-imposed activities. These are not fathers on “short-term” leaves, who may not have the opportunity to fully develop the required time skills, but rather fathers to whom the leave means “temporal conflict” (Laloy, 2013).

Enduring Parental Leave Time

24 Three fathers had decided to take a parental leave in the context of forced unemployment. Contrary to the “homemakers”, they share a traditional view about the gender division of labor and they struggle to see this period as an opportunity to build a relationship with their child, or as a chance to achieve personal or professional goals. The leave is perceived as a waiting period before returning to work, a period that lasts longer than wished. Their descriptions of a “typical day” at home are lapidary and emphasise the burden of repetition, as well as parental and domestic work constraints. Thomas (architect, architect spouse, two twin daughters in day care, on parental leave followed by a one-year unemployement period) details, for instance, how he felt deprived of his own time, since, despite his daughters being in day care, his days were not “free”: he had to handle parental tasks in the morning and in the evening, to clean up the clutter left behind by his girls, which “also impacted the hours when they were not around”, and carry out domestic chores, all of which are perceived as times “taken” from him. In addition, this unpaid work seems to shorten his temporal horizon during the day, preventing him from what he sees as his high-priority task, namely employment searches:


“I would say that the days are too short, yet at the same time, there are moments during the day when nothing happens […] There are waiting or transition times that need to be handled […]. And when your time schedule is mainly organised around your daughters, you have your entrance point, your exit point, and you have the rest of the day, or your afternoon, or some hours in the middle… […] It is difficult to be thorough, because you already have to deal with your time constraints… it becomes quite difficult to get out of this situation.”

26 These fathers do not seem to have been socially trained to be a stay-at-home parent, as in the case of “homemakers”. Noël (architect, engineer spouse, three children, on parental leave for the past two years for their third child) explains that, before the leave, he never had the responsibility of a child’s “A to Z everyday care”. Catching up during the leave seem unsufficient, as illustrated by his difficulties in time management:


“I often feel overwhelmed. Women say that men are badly organised. It might be true. […] I am less organised than my wife, I think […]. [I wanted to] do crafts, things like that, but I don’t have the time! I don’t have the time […]. Time flies so quickly! The time to bring them to school, to come back, to do what has to be done… Maybe it requires better organisation… […]. [For domestic chores, my wife] helps me because I am always overwhelmed.”

28 For these fathers, feeling “overwhelmed”, which contrasts with the impression of time mastery by the “time masters”, is linked to a lack of resources: the lack of domestic or parental skills for Noël, the spouse’s absence on certain evenings of the week (for Thomas and Noël) and the lack of mid-term re-remployment perspective. They have taken their parental leave during a period of unemployment and their relation to daily time is ambiguous: they think it should be used to virtually search for a new job, while they firstly dedicate it to child management.

The Lack of Temporal Skills

29 Two fathers, members of the working class, express their persistent difficulties in time management despite a long leave (more than a year and a half) and without them being due to employment searches, since they are meant to return to their permanent work contract after the end of the leave. For these men, the day is described as a race against the clock, without respite, childcare being continuous. The day’s intensity is not constructed, as in the case of “dynamic executives”, but is presented as being decided by the children: Basile’s daughter (plumber, accountant spouse, three children, on parental leave for two years for the third child) is said to be “intensely close”, while Nathan’s two children (salesman, chiropractor spouse, two children, on a one-year-and-a-half parental leave for the second child), who are two years apart, are said to squabble over their father’s attention. The children’s call for attention would prevent these two fathers from carrying out activities that are not involving the children. As such, like the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, these two fathers always feel late regarding what they consider the ideal programme of the day, and they attribute this situation to their poor organisation skills, as in the case of Noël. This lack of organisation goes hand-in-hand with a hard time letting go of certain domestic tasks, as Basile explains. He mentions several times during his interview how important it is to “set boundaries” because “there is too much to do”. Their family units can first explain the difficulties these two fathers are facing: Basile has three children (two teenagers and a young two-year-old), while Nathan takes care of two small children. This family structure implies a lot of parental work and, compared to other fathers, greater difficulties in matching their younger child’s pace with other siblings. Second, these fathers seem to lack previous time or relation management skills with children.

30 “Overwhelmed” fathers explain their struggles by blaming their guilt for not handling enough domestic chores or their frustration when they overdo it in order to spare themselves some personal or employment search time. However, conflicts in terms of time assignment based on their temporal and relational resources and skills can also explain their difficulties. Indeed, their past socialisations do not seem to have prepared them to be stay-at-home fathers, including how to find balance between their different objectives.

The Deviants: When the Youngest Child is in Childcare

31 Fathers of children in day care during the week (or for one case looked after by the maternal grand-parents) deflect the parental leave’s “tacit contract” (five fathers, usually executives or members of intermediary professions) [8]. They describe the leave as a break while waiting for work, or as a springboard to develop an artistic activity or start a business:


“This is the in-between-jobs time that created a delay. This is not a parental leave I have taken because I wanted to take a parental leave as such.”
[Rémi, territorial administrator, deputy prefect spouse, two children, on a nine-month parental leave for the second child, in day care]

33 Pursuing professional objectives explains the use of external or informal day care support. These men present their daily time during the leave as being under control, thanks to time partitioning. Their discourse on their “usual day”—typical of an ordinary weekday—is brief and silences the heart of the day, dedicated to activities external to parental care. Their relation to everyday time seems to be closer to that of employed parents with “standard” time slots, switching between family time in the morning and evening, and professional time from mid-morning to late afternoon. They are also more concise than other fathers on their relation to time, time they say extensive enough to get bored. Their activities while the children are in day care (employment search, art practice, domestic work) seem to match their time allowed, and they even seem to enjoy some free moments:


“I managed to do some crafts at home. I also did things for myself, it was not only for the children. I was able to have time for myself.”
[Lionel, optician and audioprosthesist, communication officer spouse, two children, on a four-year parental leave for the first and second child, in day care]

35 For this reason, “deviant” fathers do not seem to be subjected to the same time competition than the “homemakers” and the “overwhelmed”, or at least to a much lesser extent. These fathers describe their relation to everyday time as “serene”. External day care of the youngest child represents an important resource regarding these men’s everyday organisation. Besides, although rarely directly mentioned, some of these men’s spouses may be an imporant support in parental activities, as their “typical day” reports seem to imply.

36 The comparison between the “homemakers”, the “overwhelmed” and “deviant” fathers shows that the parental leaves’ temporal socialisation can only happen if the parent effectively assigns their daily time to parental and domestic work, which is not the case for “deviant” fathers. Furthermore, beneficiary mothers emphasise how the parental leave brings greater organisational flexibility (Brunet and Kertudo, 2010), which does not concern parents experiencing “temporal conflict” between two times during the leave. However, the posture of control or, on the contrary, of overflow, which fathers recount during the interview, can also be explained by their ability or inability to develop the temporal and emotional skills and knowledge required to be a stay-at-home parent.

Being a Father During Parental Leave: Learning how to Be a Caregiver

37 For fathers on parental leave who take care of at least one child during the day, their parental leave’s insight highlights how parental care is key during this period. It specifically includes attention to the children’s needs, responsability in answering those needs, delivering care and checking that the needs are answered after care is provided (Tronto, 2009). Yet, providing “care” requires to act “at the right time” (Bessin, 2014) and thus to identify other family members’ time constraints (schooled children, spouse), the pace of the child taken care of (including his biological rhythm and sleep-wake cycle) and to adapt one’s activities and availability to all these parameters. In so far as “deviant” fathers are not under the same time constraints during leave than other fathers, they will not be included in the next section of this article. The fathers’ discourse analysis brings out three kinds of knowledge and skills they have to learn (at least partially) during parental leave: knowledge pertaining to other family members’ time constraints, as well as temporal and relational skills.

Discovering the Child’s “Pace

38 The role of a stay-at-home father requires matching his days with the days of other family members, by taking into account the spouse and children’s activity schedules (school, physician’s office, playground etc.). These family constraints appear in the interviewed fathers’ “typical day” accounts, since they have to deal with them on a regular basis: postpone a parental activity until the spouse comes back, hasten an activity to bring one or several children back from school, etc. However, the young child under his father’s care remains the family member who highly impacts the structure of the parent’s day. One of the key learnings during parental leave is thus to discover the child’s own timing, including the recurrence of his different needs (sleep-wake cycle, recurring hunger, changing diapers, desire to play, etc.):


“During our strolls, one part was dedicated to shopping, and it was often shortened because it was not the time I thought he would sleep, then it is not the right time to bring him to a shop, etc.; so no, we can’t do what we want, all that we have planned for the day. So, I had to adapt. […] We used to stroll quite a lot, and then it was rather interrupted by meals and naps.”
[Justin, project manager, project manager spouse, one child, on a six-month parental leave]

40 Thus, these fathers have to adjust to the child, following childcare norms, focused on the respect of the child’s “pace”, while trying to adjust the child to the time constraints and rhythm of other family members. This includes, for instance, shortening the naptime so that the child sleeps longer at night. One of the main challenges interviewees have to face is the baby’s short cycles during the day. Women who practice upon request breastfeeding (Chautems, 2015) and fathers on parental leave share the similar impression they cannot do anything but taking care of the child, at least in the early days (respectively after childbirth and at the beginning of parental leave). They need time to adapt to the “temporal chaos” a young child represents. As a consequence, interviewed fathers had to identify parental activities that had to be carried out, domestic or personal activities that could be added or done simultaneously, as well as the different times of the day. The “homemakers” learn to adapt their activities so as to match the child’s pace and his need for attention, a need that varies according to the time of the day and a challenging learning process for the “overwhelmed” fathers:


“As soon as I thought I could rest, for example when I was putting her to bed at twelve thirty and him at one thirty, when I was coming down the stairs, after putting him to bed, I would lie down on the coach, bingo, she would wake up. And that would irritate me […], I would tell her “no way, why can’t you sleep more?””

42 The socialisation process at the heart of parental leave is therefore learning time management adapted to the “continous and time-consuming dimension of family work” (Brunet and Kertudo, 2010, p. 19). More broadly, it is also about synchronising it with other family members’ time constraints. The child’s “pace” takes centre stage in the daily accounts of parents’ on parental leave and this highlights how extended availability for the child became a norm, but also their will to make themselves available for their children during their leave, something the “homemakers” and “overwhelmed” fathers consider as short and out of the ordinary compared to the child’s lifespan.

Implementing Organisational Strategies

43 As every caretaker in the private or professional sphere, parents on parental leave must develop temporal skills in order to provide care “at the right time”, namely by enhancing their attention skills, as well as other skills and knowledge pertaining to the child’s temporality and the expression of his needs, but also by developing organisational and implementation strategies, in order to be available for the child whenever necessary. As briefly mentioned earlier in this article, fathers combined domestic or personal tasks that did not involve interacting with the child during naptime, or fitted outings and shopping during wake times. These fathers get used to this rhythmic pace of life, made of short-term action sequences:


“If the nap lasts for a long time and that you don’t feel tired, and that you are done clearing up things… […] There are always things to do! […] The real me-time happens at night actually… When he is asleep, from eight thirty onwards. Then, this time is really for yourself. But honestly during the day… Besides taking some time, one moment, half an hour, one hour, during a long nap and when you have done everything that had to be done…”
[Henri, manager, creative director spouse, two children, on parental leave for the past two years for the second child]

45 In their accounts, “homemakers” often contrast the first period of the leave, when they feel “overwhelmed”, to the rest of the leave, when they have “learnt to be organised”. These fathers claim that, once a routine is “established”, it becomes possible to handle more activities or tasks during the day. This is due to their improved anticipation skills, which show on several levels. First, it is about anticipating the child’s behaviours and to adjust childcare accordingly, as Justin explained earlier. Second, fathers plan or prepare some activities, so that all the self-assigned tasks of the day can be included (especially for the “intendants”), or hasten the implementation pace of some activities in order to keep a longer time period for other tasks (especially for the “dynamic executives”). It can also be about anticipating some activities, in order to facilitate their later implementation, for example by preparing the bag containing all the necessary care items beforehand, something “homemakers” and “overwhelmed” fathers learn gradually. Finally, anticipation also involves managing one’s own energy, since fathers learn how to cope with fatigue, including by taking a nap when the child is asleep. The last kind of temporal skill pertains to learning multi-tasking, especiallyfor the “intendants” and the “overwhelmed”, which often leads to a lesser attention given to the child in order to handle another activity while still watching him:


“I do many things at once, and this is something I have learnt during parental leave. Because before that time, I was fully single-tasking, which is very pleasant. You begin doing something in the morning and you focus on it all day long and by the end of the day, you have achieved one thing. But now, during the day, I do twenty things, twenty at once… [laughs]”.
[Peter, former furniture salesman, medical doctor spouse, six children, on parental leave for eight years from the second to the fifth child]


“I often carried the two of them in a child carrier, so you can do plenty of things regarding meals, I cooked a lot of things, cakes, fresh pastas, pies, things like that, with the little one in the carrier and the elder one on the kitchen worktop, you can do many things, but it remains a mission, you have to put yourself into it, and I feel that the brain, sometimes, does not manage to say ‘hey, you can do this with the both of them around’.”

48 Becoming a father on parental leave includes priority management: since the parent himself sets the level of attention to the child and the level of expectations in terms of cleanliness and domestic order, he learns how to adjust his daily objectives regarding parental, domestic and personal tasks to what is achievable, according to what he considers to be high priority at a given time. Besides, this is the main challenge “overwhelmed” fathers have to face, as they claim to struggle to limit the volume of domestic chores they assign to thelmselves or in achieving as much as they would like in this area. In order handle an activity that does not include interaction with the child (housekeeping, administration, reading, etc.), “dynamic executives” tend to accelerate the pace in which other activities are implemented or to plan during naps in order to do as many things as possible during this time span. “Intendants” learn more to limit their level of attention to the child according to their self-imposed objectives, potentially by using items that keep the child in a safe environment (playpen, baby carrier), a skill they share with “overwhelmed” fathers.

49 Apparently, adjusting everyday targets results from the parental leave socialisation process, as Armand’s testimony shows (fundraiser, highschool teacher spouse, one child, on a four-month parental leave). The interview took place two weeks after his parental leave began [9]. During the interview, he mentioned different “projects” he hoped to complete during parental leave: sports and non-profit activities, garden and vegetable garden landscaping, support to a friend who recently opened a restaurant, etc. However, when he described his leave days, he acknowledged that these activities remained occasional and that his days were more structured than expected: they were paced and passed by “very quickly”, and the moments when he could enjoy “some free time”, when his daughter was on her playmat or napping, were dedicated to domestic chores or gardening. Armand’s temporal ambitions seem to translate an interiorisation of other family members’ time constraints, as well as the need to adjust his day to these constraints, which he did not fully grab yet.

Adjusting to the Child’s Temporality

50 Being reponsible for a child not only requires learning specific task skills, but also managing one’s own emotions, as children tend to “strain” on the parents’ nerves. Adjusting to the child’s temporality means to contend with his pace, slower than the adult’s one, in terms of physiological activities for instance. More broadly, childcare requires, depending on fathers, to express some emotional states (such as availability or benevolence) and repress other emotions that are perceived as incompatible with the child’s care (such as exasperation). As such, fathers on parental leave learn to repress their anger when they perceive it as illegitimate, that is excessive or provoked by something the child is not responsible for. This learning process is often summarised as “patience”:


“Patience, you learn it, because you will ask a child to fetch something, and he doesn’t know what it means [and he says to himself]I was never told to fetch’, [to him], you throw and it’s over! Yet, you have to make him understand that ‘he has to fetch’, there you go, it will not happen the first time, you know it will take about maybe twenty times. […] Me, I worked on my patience. I am immune to their tiny foolish behaviours, I know how to put things into perspective and I know how to make them fix their mistakes, this is how patience is gained.”
[Idriss, manager, public service officer spouse, three children, on a six-month parental leave for the second child]

52 Hence, what fathers designate as patience learning refers to emotional work: learning how to repress one’s annoyance when facing the child’s lack of cooperation, his slow task fulfillment or potential clumsiness and, instead, express or show a positive attitude toward the child.

53 In parallel, fathers learn to lower their availability to the child, namely to manage attention requests expressed by the child at the time when they take place (La Valle, 2009). As a complementary skill to the capacity to adjust one’s level of attention to the child’s requests, they discover how to choose activities that allow them to listen to these requests:


“I have banned video games […] In fact, I even had banned television, computer, when I realised the child was coming to me and that I was focusing on something else. I wanted to give him his time, it was more fair […] I can bake cakes, quickly watch a film I have already seen, but I cannot read, learning foreign languages is not possible… Learning in general is impossible, because they will keep on asking for something…”
[Sébastien, policeman, administrative employee spouse, two children, on a one-year-and-a-half parental leave for the second child]

55 Yet all fathers do not share the same objective of availability. Some declare to have learned to limit their attention to their children’s requests, for educational purposes (including “overwhelmed” fathers): “I [bring my daughter] to day care services once a week, because we had become so close to each other that I could not do anything in the house. So I decided that it was best for her” (Basile).

56 Fathers claim to have developed time skills during parental leave, which mainly includes a capacity to organise tasks to be done, namely working on their own time and availability: in the case of “dynamic executives”, this means planning the day in order to be freed from other activities when the child is awake, while for “intendants” and “overwhelmed” fathers, this means selecting activities and developing emotional skills in order to respond to the child’s requests. It also means to be able to manage the child’s time, and this includes strategies to adjust their pace to the parent’s rhythm, as well as selecting requests the child expresses and receives.

57 Studying the male interviewees’ learning processes during the course of their parental leave shows that part of the skills and knowledge necessary to parental care is difficult to learn without “a deep immersion into parenting” (Beglaubter, 2019, p. 7). Indeed, developing a specific expertise in child pace or in his own means of expression seem to be closely related to the parent’s ability to pay attention to the signals emitted by the child, and thus to be in a situation that allows attention enhancement. As Justin asserts:


“This is funny, by the end of this period when we were meeting other parents, etc., I was the one who knew best [our son’s] pace, I was, so to speak, holding the reference position, a bit on how he behaves during the day, what he can or cannot do, my wife knew as well, but I was the one who knew precisely at what time he eats, etc.”

59 Skills concerning all “homemakers” and “overwhelmed” fathers are thus different from those specific to some sub-categories. Overall, all the fathers in this survey had to learn the pace of the child under their care and how to match their everyday schedule with this pace. They also learned emotional skills to adjust to the child’s pace and reduce their availability towards him. However, these emotional skills can differ between “dynamic executives”, who only have one child, and the others, who have at least two children. Indeed, “dynamic executives” mention the arrangements they had to implement during the day (such as planning outings according to the child’s biological cycles), rather than the choice of activities that would match the child’s availability. This can be linked to the age of the children during the leave, as compared to other fathers. Similarly, the struggle “overwhelmed” fathers deal with concerning their daily planning can be understood as a challenge to face the many children’s requests or to practice domestic or personal activities compatible with them. This situation is due to the large amount of parental work within their respective families. Their difficulties are higher when they are less prepared to the role of main caregiver or when their leave is shorter than that of the “intendants”.


60 This analysis of how French fathers on parental leave deal with time serves to complement the outcome of the surveys conducted by B. Brandt and E. Kvande (1998), and by J. Beglaubter (2019), who respectively studied Norwegian and Canadian cases of fathers on parental leave. These studies identified three categories of fathers: those engaged in prestigious and lucrative wage employment, who describe themselves as being in a posture of time mastering (the prevailing category), a minority of fathers engaged in more insecure employment, who claim to be “overwhelmed”, and another minority of fathers (only mentioned by J. Beglaubter) also engaged in less high-ranked professions, yet representing themselves as being against the flow of male norms and at ease with their role of stay-at-home parent. Although these authors interpret discrepancies between these fathers as a result of their differing relations to their own masculinities, these differences can also be understood as the result of differing temporal socialisations in regard to their daily organisational resources.

61 Indeed, the parental leave’s temporal socialisation on beneficiary fathers is connected to their former socialisations. For the “homemakers”, it takes the form of reinforcement (following on from previous socialisations) or transformation socialisation (resulting in an inflection in relation to previous socialisations, and this inflection can be of limited duration in the area impacted or in its effects) (Darmon, 2012). The transformative effect of the parental leave is particularly noticeable in the case of fathers retraining during this period: for such fathers, the leave represents an opportunity to reconnect with previous tendencies, such as an appetite for parental care or, more widely, former tastes or skills that were unfitted to their professional activity before the leave (Denave, 2015). In the case of “overwhelmed” fathers, the leave’s temporal socialisation looks like a conversion socialisation (estranged from previous socialisations), at odds with their primary socialisation prioritising traditional parental roles (for Noël and Thomas), or lacking any specific organisation skill (for Basile and Nathan). However, the challenges “overwhelmed” fathers face in time management can also be interpreted as the consequence of their dealing with “temporal conflicts”, in between unemployment time and stay-at-home parent time for fathers in long-term unemployment, or between intense parental time and domestic and personal time for “overwhelmed” fathers.


  • [1]
    The original version of this article was published in French in 2020 in the n°135 issue of the RPSF journal,,+%22Apprendre+à+être+«+père+au+foyer+».+Le+congé+parental+à+plein+temps+ comme+socialisation+temporelle%22 (accessed 8 September 2021).
  • [2]
    In the rest of this article, the expression “parental leave” will systematically refer to full-time parental leave.
  • [3]
    It includes all material tasks pertaining to childcare and education, the “mental workload” (Haicault, 1984) such activities imply, as well as the emotional work required to childcare, the acquisition of childcare and education knowledge and skills, etc.
  • [4]
    Women internalise the social injunction to place their entire time at the service of other family members, in order to suit their needs.
  • [5]
    A couple is said to be “hypogamous” when the female partner belongs to a higher social rank compared to that of his male partner. This kind of union remains a minority (Kaufmann, 1999).
  • [6]
    Trainings and paid activities, which they can carry out occasionally and/or that mobilise some of their skills acquired or consolidated during parental leave.
  • [7]
    Six months being the maximum compensation period for a first child at the time of the survey.
  • [8]
    Although his daughters are in day care, Thomas has been included in the long-term unemployed category rather than the “deviants” one, due to his time management during his leave.
  • [9]
    Other fathers met during the course of the survey had spent at least three months in parental leave before the interview.

Research conducted on parents taking parental leave, mostly mothers, have underlined the socialising effects of this provision on its beneficiaries. From a survey carried out among thirty-eight fathers on full-time parental leave in France, this article extends that research with a study of this minority population to highlight the skills and knowledge they acquire during parental leave, and how this temporal socialisation depends on the conditions in which the leave is exercised and the men’s previous socialisation. After categorising fathers according to their perceptions of their time constraints’ management during their parental leave—“homemakers”, “deviant” fathers, and “overwhelmed” fathers, various temporal aptitudes and knowledge that the fathers state they have acquired during their leave will be investigated, in particular knowledge linked to the child’s own time pace and to managing its solicitations, as well as the organisational skills needed to simultaneously deal with parental and domestic work.

  • fatherhood
  • parental leave
  • socialization
  • temporality


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Myriam Chatot
Post-doctoral researcher attached to the French interdisplinary research institute in social sciences (Irisso in French).
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
Uploaded on on 23/08/2022
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