Being a "hands-on" dad from the beginning helped prepare John Espin for solo parenting when he lost his wife to breast cancer last year.

The Te Puke man said children are a gift and a privilege, he encouraged any father to get involved in the day-to-day care and running of the household. As you never know when you might have to step into the primary care role.

Espin spoke to the Herald as part of a look into paid parental leave and whether fathers were taking it.

Read more: NZ can do better for families, especially dads
Read more: Few Kiwi dads taking paid parental leave for fatherhood

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The 43-year-old was working at a Christian radio station when his wife Esther fell pregnant with their first child. After Hannah was born in 2009 Espin took a month off. He was able to do some work from home.

John and his wife Esther Espin who died in 2017 from breast cancer. Photo / Supplied
John and his wife Esther Espin who died in 2017 from breast cancer. Photo / Supplied

When Espin went back to work he kept an active role in the running of the house doing cooking, cleaning and caring for the kids.

"I've been brought up that if someone is working and you're sitting down doing nothing you better get up and help them.

"So that was important to me. I just have this overwhelming sense of guilt I've got to get up and help."

Espin again took another month off when his son Sam was born in 2013. Both times he was paid for his leave but he can't remember if it was through the Government or his supportive employer.

It wasn't until Esther was diagnosed with breast cancer around the beginning of 2015 that he left work to be a full-time carer for the whole family. He was off work for over two years until Esther died in July last year.

"Cancer was like a brick in the face," Espin told the Herald.

"It's a continual grind that never goes away. The cancer is an elephant in the room. It dogs you at night, it dogs you in the day.

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"I just started taking care of everything. It was a gradual process of her getting sicker and me taking more things on, plus we had amazing help from family and friends."

John and Esther Espin with baby Hannah in 2009. Photo / Supplied
John and Esther Espin with baby Hannah in 2009. Photo / Supplied

Even with his hands-on dad experience it is hard being a sole parent. Espin struggles to keep the house tidy, the "washing mountain" never disappears from the lounge and the garden is always having a "bad hair day".

But it's the emotional support of having another parent back you up that Espin misses most.

"I haven't had a sleep in a long time. It's just continuous.

"When Esther passed away I had to be prepared to do everything myself. I can't depend on people to come and rescue me to do daily tasks. I have to be responsible."

People offer to help but Espin only draws on them when he really needs a favour for fear of wearing out his welcome.

Fortunately his workplace, a timber mould processing factory, has been understanding and he has returned to work two days a week.

While Espin respects and encourages men who are primary caregivers he doesn't believe they are as good as women.

"Women have been given a very special gift of being the heart of a home. In general, a woman's natural propensity for nourishment and caring is just fantastic ... I do the best I can."

​Working dads part of a 'broader issue'

The Government believes the increase in paid parental leave this year may encourage more fathers to take it.

This comes as new figures show the number of men taking paid parental leave has hardly changed in a decade.

In 2008, 220 dads took paid parental leave. Last year that number was 324. When the number is compared with population growth it has increased only by a fraction.

Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety Iain Lees-Galloway. Photo / Duncan Brown
Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety Iain Lees-Galloway. Photo / Duncan Brown

Minister Iain Lees-Galloway said dads can already take paid parental leave and families were in the best position to make their own decisions about how to care for their own children.

"It's not a fault in the legislation that's stopping men from taking leave. The fact that few men take it up is a broader issue around perceptions of male and female roles than what legislation can fix.

"The gender pay gap is an issue, because if men are likely to earn more in the household then there may be more pressure for them to stay working. This Government is determined to close the gender pay gap."

Parents will have 22 weeks of paid leave starting in July this year and 26 weeks' leave by July 2020. The current entitlement is 18 weeks.

Minister for Women Julie Anne Genter. Photo / Dean Purcell
Minister for Women Julie Anne Genter. Photo / Dean Purcell

Minister for Women Julie Anne Genter, who is currently pregnant, said mothers being the main caregivers should not be the default position.

"I am concerned that about a third of babies (20,000) don't get any Paid Parental Leave or Family Tax Credit when a baby is born. I am concerned that New Zealand families are not getting the support they need and am focused on improving outcomes for babies."

She cited the Best Start payments of $60 a week to all families as a way to provide support universally to families.

Genter's husband will be the primary caregiver for their child when it is born later this year.

Meanwhile, other countries and organisations are going above and beyond to include fathers in their children's lives.

Canada introduced five weeks of paid leave for dads, or the non-primary caregiver, in their 2017 Budget. Mothers are eligible for 15 weeks of maternity leave followed by 35 weeks of parental leave which can be shared with the other partner.

New Zealand company Salesforce offers 12 weeks of paid paternity leave for dads or the non-primary caregiver. It also offers primary caregivers 26 weeks of paid leave and if a family adopt they can apply for a reimbursement of up to $10,000 per child for expenses related to adopting.

The Hawaiian word "ohana", meaning family, is one of the company's core values.

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