There is a question I have come to dread, at parties, social-events or whenever we meet new people. The question is simply the innocent-enough ice-breaker, “So, what do you do?” Truth be told, I don’t actually dread the question, but I have come to anticipate people’s reactions with a large dose of nervousness. The problem is, most people simply do not know how to respond to the revelation that I am an At-home Dad.
The worst responses have come from people who have coupled together very strong assumptions about gender roles, with a view that child-rearing is a lower or lesser activity than say dentistry, or banking. The ruder of these types assert their sense of superiority abruptly, while the more socially literate check themselves and manage to say something like, “Well how lovely for you” – with such a strong emphasis on those last two words that any hint of interest is immediately dissolved into patronisation.
More nuanced responses have come from other people who have done this job. Women’s reactions have been fascinating. Some of them, who feel trapped in a domestic role and share a low-view of the value of child-care, express genuine sympathy and enquire as to my escape-route. This I suppose I expected. What caught me by surprise though, was the hostility of one or two women. Their initial withering comments about the inability of a man to run a house properly (let alone clean it!) have been thinly veiled masks covering the fact that my presence in their world threatens their claim to owning unique, irreplaceable skills, which no man could possibly possess. In such places I am regarded as a ‘scab’, as non-Union labour, undercutting their bargaining power.
Then there have been those in high-pressure jobs (often men), who have reacted with an entirely unjustified
Most people react by simply asking me to justify the arrangement. I used to indulge them too, telling the story of the company I worked for going out of business, of the unaffordability of child-care for three kids, of my wife’s successful career and so forth. I no longer bother – I have long since learned that anyone who sees running a home and caring for children as being “beneath a man”, is not the owner of opinions which I respect sufficiently to care much about.
That awkward moment when… the house insurance salesperson says “Can I put you down as housewife?” thankfully doesn’t occur much anymore. The one piece of offensive terminology that has tried to make a comeback has been the ghastly American-ism, “The Dad-mom”. The offence of this phrase isn’t that our transatlantic cousins can’t spell “Mum”; but that it describes my role as pretending to be a Mum; and that in taking responsibility for feeding, cleaning, clothing, nurturing, educating and protecting my children (and I should add, looking after my wife!) that I have become in someway feminised. I am not a Dad-Mum, I am just a Dad. The implication in that nasty phrase, is that there is something inauthentic about what I achieve for my family. However such a view is based on the flawed assumption that parenting is a predominantly female skill. Historically these assumptions do not apply where there is no workplace-home divide or where parenting is more of a
Parenting is an unpaid job, not because it is of no value, but because it is so fundamentally important that we humans will do it anyway – whether we are paid for it or not. That, and the fact that being able to take care of children is an enormous privilege. I am thankful for every stone that I have skimmed with my boys, (thousands), for every time I have read The Gruffalo to my daughter (hundreds); for every castle we have explored, every river we have dammed, every waterfall we have seen, every train we have waved at, every game of cricket we have played, every song we have sung and every DVD we have watched (actually that last statement is a barefaced lie, my daughter went through a High School Musical phase). I am both honoured to have been present when goals were scored and solos sung; as I am to have been on hand to clean up cuts and grazes, or offer a hug when games were lost, or friends were mean.
Being an at-home Dad has not been without its challenges though. Before my own children were born I had never handled a baby, made baby-food or changed a nappy. Adapting to life at home with the ceaseless demands of children wasn’t straightforward, it was, as they say, a steep-learning-curve. At times when the babies were small, our house resembled the scene of a robbery, and our aspirations to provide home-cooked healthy meals were sometimes jettisoned in favour of the supermarket freezer section. Yet – getting on top of all these challenges is possible “even for a man” (cue the usual jokes about men and multi-tasking).
For the vast majority of the time, being the Dad at Home has meant simply relentless hard work. There is a standard sit-com gag, in which a husband returns from work to find a less-than-perfect house, and exasperatedly exclaims, “Well what have you been doing all day!?” At such times, my sympathies are very much with the on-screen wife.
The physical effort of parenting and house-management is punctuated by some peculiar problems if the parent happens to be a Dad, though. The first is the relative isolation that Dads-at-home can experience. While I am content to be fairly anti-social most of the time, I was aware that my children needed to be socialised and interact with their peers. There are a few hurdles to overcome here for the committed Dad. The playpark for instance, contains some particular social mazes to navigate. The key for a Dad, I have discovered, is not to let the children run ahead of you and start playing on the swings and climbing-frames without you. This is because that would leave you as a lone male, walking into a children’s play area; an action almost designed to make other parents nervous, twitchy, worried, or even to start rounding up their children. I have sometimes thought I needed a badge which, if it didn’t say, “I have never worked at the BBC”, would at least have said, “Don’t Panic – I’m here with my kids”. But what I really want to tell them is that Fred West and Ian Brady used female accomplices to exploit exactly this kind stereotyping, and that just as Mrs West and Ms Hindley were not safe by virtue of their femininity; so I am no threat to their kids just because I am a man.
The playground is only the start of it though. You would think that the delicate matter of the disposal of human waste would be something that we would have mastered by now. In practice it seems that this fairly straightforward process becomes complicated for the Dad-with-kids. An alarming number of architects seem
Thankfully the days of nappies are now past and my three are now fully housetrained; but public toilets provided an unforeseen obstacle too. My first two children were boys, so taking them into the gents was no issue. When we procreated for a third time we produced a girl – which didn’t cause any further difficulties until she was old enough to realise that she shouldn’t be going into the gents, and demanding that I take her into the ladies! Persuading some shops to let us use the disabled loos as a sensible alternative wasn’t always easy either. M&S did well here, allowing us to use their disabled facilities so regularly that in the end my
Poo and puke are quickly dealt with, but isolation persists as probably the hardest element of Dad-parenting. There are a few Dads who brave parent and toddler groups, but these can be quite intimidating for a lone-male. If you frequent such places, you may have seen one of us edging nervously into an oestrogen saturated room, holding tightly onto a two-year olds hand for security. When you sit down with a cup of tea and realise that the conversation you are about to become ingratiated in, is about the pain of cracked nipples, it is never going to be anything but slightly awkward. Should the girls accept me as a fellow-parent, and just keep going, with verbal descriptions of their nipples which at the very least seriously distract me from my cup of tea? Or do they stop in mid-conversation, making it very obvious that I am interrupting their group bonding?
The other odd thing about female-dominated groups is a verbal game I have witnessed which I call, “My husband is worse than yours”. The rules are that one Mum complains about something her husband/partner doesn’t do in the home. The participants then take turns outdoing each other with tales of woe and inconsideration on the part of absent men who have (apparently) gone to work to rest, and have no idea of how hard it is to raise children. As a hands-on Dad-at-home, I can’t join in this game. Having so deliberately bucked the traditionally assigned gender-roles, I am nothing but grateful to the wife who has worked to allow me to be here with my kids. To re-cast this privilege as an ordeal, or to scorn the person who pays to make it possible seems absurd. Perhaps an advantage of not merely following pre-conceived assumptions about the division of labour means also not swallowing pre-conceived criticisms of the other gender. The bread-winner in our house is not lazy, she is exhausted. If she drops her stuff in a room I have just tidied, this suggests to me that she is stressed more than ungrateful. It certainly doesn’t make me want to head to the parent and toddler group to initiate another round of ‘my-spouse-is-worse-than-yours’.
For all these reasons, many times, I have simply hoisted the little ones into baby carriers, put them on my back and gone hillwalking instead. It has been exhilarating, and beautiful – but I have sometimes questioned whether such solitary pursuits have been the best thing for my children’s social development.
It has been interesting to observe the pressures which earning and parenting this way have placed upon our marriage. In most cases these have been nothing more than role-reversed reflections of the traditional dilemmas in which the at-home parent doesn’t fully understand the pressures and frustrations of the office day; while the at-work parent cannot grasp the extent to which housework can be a demoralising treadmill and children can be physically and emotionally wearing. Such pressures usually surface at the dinner-table, where both assert that they have more than earned an evening off from further effort, and express frustration at the other’s inability to see that.
At its worst I have felt that I have robbed my wife of being involved in precious moments of our kids development; school concerts, sports-days and the like. There is no way to pretend otherwise, especially when my wife is out with her girl-friends who have been able to attend these events. At such times I have had to choose not to beat-myself up about this – but to realise that our children are fortunate to be able to have had one parent at all their milestone events, when the financial reality is that if I was working there would have been none. At its best, I am aware that I have saved my wife from a lot of frustrating and mundane work, which is well-below her potential and capacity. She is talented and highly skilled, and I am sure would have become depressed if limited to the endless cycles of washing, tidying and cleaning that have been my routine for the last few years. During times when her work has been enjoyable, and the children particularly difficult, I have felt as if I have given up a lot to pursue this role. However, when her work has been stressful and arduous, but I have had fun with the children, making new discoveries, or going on outings during the school holidays – it does seem as if she has had a rough deal and that a more traditional arrangement would have been better. Strangely at times like this, I feel compelled to do a huge amount more in the house than my female friends who are housewives. While many of them relax at coffee mornings, I find myself assaulting the housework with military strategy, because however much I might wish to pretend otherwise, even in the 21stCentury, I still feel the need to justify my position here.
The Dad-at-home does bring one great advantage to the family though. I worked outside the home full-time when our first was born, part-time when our second appeared, and was full-time at home with the children by the time we had three. This meant that for the whole of my wife’s long 3rd maternity-leave, we were all together as a family. When we look back, those months of managing the children and running the home, familiarising ourselves with a new baby and handling the changing dynamics of an expanding family together turned out to be a wonderful time, a really significant period of consolidating our marriage and binding us together as a unit.
Most people who look after small children full-time, intend to do so for a limited period, perhaps intending to become “economically active” again once the children have started school. I have discovered recently that Dads face some specific challenges in re-joining the labour-force, which their female counterparts do not. The embarrassing silence which follows the “So, what do you do?” at a party can be relatively easily
I wouldn’t want to admit this publicly, but just sometimes Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour is actually quite good. At its best it is really a wrongly labelled Person’s Hour; lively, informative and stimulating; but at its worst it consistently confuses role and gender. The very real difficulties of returning to work after child-rearing, are indeed compounded by the phenomenon of the double-shift, in which the lesser wage-earner is expected to continue to manage the home plus earn. These things obviously affect more women than men – but are not in themselves gender issues, but are tied most fundamentally to the role of home-maker. I cannot count the number of times speakers on that programme have made sweeping statements about the cost of childcare and the difficulties of re-entering employment as being exclusively “women’s issues”, when they apply – perhaps even more strongly, to a Dad-at-home, than to his female equivalent.
The many challenges of being an at-home-Dad have been in turns, fun, infuriating, stressful, tedious, exhilarating, joyful, perplexing and very, very tiring. Parenting is a high-stakes game in which the outcome