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This Is What It’s Really Like To Be A Stay-at-home Dad

Ari SharpBy Ari Sharp.
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“IF YOU’RE happy and you know it clap your hands,” I jauntily sing, a rictus grin pinned to my face and my palms mashed together. My daughter Amelia, nuzzled in my lap, looks at me quizzically and makes little movement to match my impression of a performing seal.

So goes another Tuesday morning at Dickson Library, where an army of under-threes and their big people take over the mat for a half hour of songs and stories. “Giggle and Wiggle” has become such a hit in this pocket of inner-north Canberra that the library schedules two sessions back to back, and tickets are distributed online at 7am on the day.

Looking out at the few dozen parents whose fast fingers have secured them a ticket, it is evident I am the only dad. While there are sporty mums and homebody mums and underslept mums and juggling-several-kids mums camped out on the carpet with their little ones, dads are nearly absent from the swirling humanity.

Our typical absence from the scene makes us a novelty when we are there. The presence of a father on the carpet is a source of bemusement for many of the kids, who eye me off as if I’m an alien who just joined the checkout queue at Woollies. The mums play it cooler than their uninhibited offspring, but still glance my way to check I have mastered the thumb-and-index finger movements on Incy Wincy.

Such is life as a stay-at-home father. Even in an era when many people gleefully smite stereotypes and where women are making strides in the workplace, it is still rare to see men being the primary carers for their offspring. Sure, there are many hands-on dads on evenings and weekends changing nappies and pushing on swings in a way that would have been an anathema to their grandfathers, but there are few who are filling their days with it as their primary activity.

About 68,500 Australian two-parent families have at-home fathers, compared to 495,600 with at-home mothers, according to the Australian Institute of Family Studies. But after the proportion rose from almost nothing to 4 per cent by 2001, it has since plateaued there. (By comparison, the proportion with at-home mums sits at 31 per cent, with both parents working at 57 per cent and with neither parent working at 7 per cent.) So even over decades when increasing numbers of women are heading to work, the proportion of dads manning the craft box has stayed steady.

In her 2015 book The Wife Drought, Annabel Crabb explored the effort to increase female workforce participation. “What if we are looking at things the wrong way?” she asked. “What if the structural problem here is not just how to get women into the workplace, but how to get men out of it? All this time we’ve been trying to win equality by eliminating the disadvantages women incur when they take time out to have children. But what it we just accepted that people might well be disadvantaged when they take time out of work, and concentrated instead on spreading the responsibility around?” Bingo.

The barrier to more hands-on fathering is not a legal one. Fathers are now as entitled to parental leave and other forms of workplace flexibility as mothers are, and face protections from discrimination should they seek to use them. But having a legal entitlement to it is very different to a social entitlement.

“As a lawyer, I do not know any men that manage to work part time without drawing criticism, and in my view, limiting their career progression,” said Adam, a Melbourne dad who puts his share of the caring load for his 4-year-old son at just under 40 per cent. “It is certainly the case with women also, however there is an expectation that women will be more likely to work part time and that men should ‘want’ to work full time.”

And just what is the source of this expectation? When asked in a HILDA study whether children do just as well if the mother earns the money and the father takes care of the home and children, only 50 percent of fathers and 57 percent of mothers said they agreed. That’s a lot of people who declined to endorse this seemingly anodyne statement. Clearly many people remain uncomfortable with the idea of fathers as primary carers even as they mouth the platitudes of gender equality and progressive social roles. To understand just why men are so rarely being hands-on dads we need to look at the construction of masculinity in Australia, and the way that male identity is often bound up in vocation.

FIRST, though, consider demographics.

Take an archetypal couple: a woman with an older male partner. If both partners are advancing their careers at the same rate, the age difference means the man will be more advanced at any given point. When babies come along, it makes sense that the couple will choose to forgo the lesser income, hence the woman taking the longer period of parental leave and perhaps only returning to work part-time afterwards. Over time the professional advancement gap between the two parents widens, increasing the economic incentive for the lower income earner to be the primary carer.

But fewer and fewer of us are living that archetype. For starters, there are plenty of same-sex couples with children, and single-parent families. Then there are heterosexual couples in which a younger man partners up with an older woman, and the growing number of households in which women are out-earning men.

The demise of male-dominated factory jobs and the rapid growth of female-dominated health and education jobs has improved earning opportunities for women, while equal pay for equal work has belatedly permeated parts of the economy that previously hid behind sexist pay policies. Women today have more earning opportunities than did their mothers and grandmothers, so it follows that they are either the leading breadwinner in households, or have a negligible income gap with their partners.

With this archetype slowly being eroded, you would expect more men to become primary parents. After all, if economic logic is guiding your behaviour, when a child is born and the mother is the higher income earner, it makes sense for her to get back to work as soon as possible after recovery from birth, and for the man to take a longer period of parental leave or part-time work.
But that does not seem to be the case. There is evidence that in a vast majority of heterosexual households, it is the woman who takes on primary caring responsibilities for their children, even when she is the higher income earner.

Boffins from the National Bureau of Economics Research in the United States looked at this in 2013. They found that in households where a wife earns more than her husband, she takes on an even greater share of household tasks (including childcare) than in typical households, which are already heavily weighted towards women doing unpaid work at home. “One explanation for the observed pattern is that, in couples where the wife earns more than the husband, the ‘threatening’ wife takes on a greater share of housework so as to assuage the ‘threatened’ husband’s unease with the situation,” the researchers wrote. It is unlikely that things are much different in Australia.

Why are couples so keen to ensure that mothers are taking on primary care roles? Or to put it another way, why are couples so keen to ensure that fathers are spared from primary care roles?

A FEW MONTHS into my time as a stay-at-home dad, my wife and I left our daughter with her grandparents and headed to a dinner party. Much as I love spending time with Amelia, it was a small relief to enjoy the company of adults for an evening, finally spared the need to wipe a snotty nose and interpret babble. It was a fun gathering of people from across Canberra, the usual mix of public servants, journalists and government affairs types, chowing down on a pot-luck selection of risottos, curries and quinoa salads. As the conversation rambled on and people volunteered some gossipy tidbits from their various lines of work, I awaited the question that would inevitably come my way. “So what do you do?” I shared the truth about my circumstances, and was rewarded with some mushy praise from enlightened types for whom respite from the professional rat race is a stated objective even if rarely enacted. But suddenly my domain of expertise was shrunk from the world at large to my home, and at a stretch, to my neighbourhood, with anything I might have proffered on the state of the planet discounted accordingly.

It is a belittling that generations of women have complained about, and right then I was feeling its sting.

For many people, our occupation is an integral part of our personal identity. It informs how we see the world, but also how others see us. It is a reflection of the skills, knowledge and commitment of which we are often proud. Clearly it applies to people of both genders, but for many men, denied the primal capacity to bear a child and give birth, our achievements at work are often the greatest accomplishment we have.

To be a man without work (and the income that goes with it) is a humbling experience that invites a pitied response from others. Couple that with a bread-winning wife who is putting in the hours at work, and the sensation is emasculating – a word that has fallen out of favour in an era of supposed gender-blindness but still carries plenty of heft for a man experiencing it. The data offers some clues in how at-home fathers are responding to that emasculation. When the Australian Institute of Family Studies crunched HILDA data, it found that even in households with at-home dads, mothers are more likely than fathers to take on the lion’s share of housework and getting children dressed.

The obvious rejoinder is for us to mentally categorise child-raising as a form of employment. But such a label is problematic in that it turns an act of love into a burden. Many of us cringe at a father whose looking after his own children is described as “baby sitting”, thereby grouping it in with childcaring-as-employment rather than childcaring-as-love. To extend this mis-description to the primary activity of an attentive father seems wrong.

Perhaps the answer lies in creating the social expectation that both parents will make a significant professional sacrifice in order to take care of their children. Paid parental leave is available to most working parents, and employers are obliged to consider requests for significant extra unpaid parental leave. It is not unreasonable for each parent in a two-parent household to take an extended period of time to be the primary carer for pre-school-age children. Countries in Scandinavia have introduced parental leave entitlements that need to be shared among both parents, and perhaps something similar might work here.

As it stands in Australia, the emasculation of reducing paid work commitments in order to take on parenting responsibilities comes from the sense that not only are you doing it, but you have chosen to do it. Were this to be the default setting for more couples, it would change that parameters of the conversation – a father reducing paid work to care for children would be the standard approach and opting not to do it would be the choice.

Author Tim Winton has spoken out recently about the rise of toxic masculinity among Australian men, in which rank displays of misogyny have become pervasive. “So often I see boys having the tenderness shamed out of them,” he put it. Much of that toxic masculinity is grounded in enduring perceptions of the rightful roles of men and women, with a generation of men feeling threatened by the challenge to their position of cultural privilege, and so lashing out in a desperate bid to reassert their waning dominance. While calling out displays of toxic masculinity is a worthy endeavour, it does little to prevent the rise of future generations of boys adopting these behaviours.

Far more constructive is an effort to broaden ideas of the rightful roles of gender. Already this is happening in the advancement of women in the workplace, but it is only in its infancy in the advancement of men in the domestic sphere. Making emphatic the idea that real men play with their kids may open the eyes of many young men to their full potential. What better way to preserve the tenderness Winton observed?

BUT THIS furrowed-brow approach to the issue ignores a central fact of which I have become deeply aware this past year: hands-on parenting is a heck of a lot of fun. Rather than grinding through the hours and days like I imagined I might, parenting my daughter has been a joyous experience in which many days have flown by in a whir of galleries, parks and libraries.

To be a hands-on parent is to be the biggest single influence on the life of a child, and to instil the behaviours that will last a lifetime. Perhaps the most satisfaction I have got out of the experience is to see the best of my actions reflected back at me – Amelia mimicking my habit of returning things to their right place by volunteering to put away her scattered Duplo – while the biggest disappointments have been to see some of my worst qualities on display in her – Amelia letting his frustrations show just as I occasionally let the angst of the day get to me.

Days out and about with a child allow you to rediscover the place you call home. While revisiting places of culture (high and low) can become tiresome on your own, done in the company of a child it offers a whole new perspective. It is a simple pleasure to wander through Canberra’s underappreciated National Portrait Gallery, as we have done many times, pointing out the quirky details on the works on show to a little person eager to see the next one and the next one and the next one.

Even the most unpleasant parenting task can become a thrill if framed the right way. What if a dirty nappy in a shopping centre prompted not a resigned shrug about the necessary course of action, but instead a Mission: Impossible logistical stunt, in which the two of us dart around for a flat surface that could suitably act as a change table while considering what toiletries supplies we can repurpose? We all need ways to make ourselves the heroes of our own lives, and as I successfully wiped away the detritus from my daughter, I’d briefly found mine.

Watching mums and dads with their offspring in a busy park, you cannot help but notice the different parenting styles each gender often adopts. Many mums linger close to their children, conditioned to be on hand for any contingency, while many dads hold back, giving their children space to move and figure out things for themselves.

It can be tempting to perceive the fathers taking this approach as distant, physically and emotionally, failing to fulfil the parental obligation to shield their children from the dangers of the world. But look closer and you will see that these are just fathers with their own style, showing their love for the children by allowing them to make their own mistakes and discover things on their own terms. If we want dads to play a more active role, we need to accept that they will often “do” parenting differently to mums, and spare the tut-tutting that may be tempting.

There’s plenty of evidence that a hands-on father can make a positive difference to children’s lives. According to Dr Leanne Lester’s analysis of the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, the presence of a father (or father figure) can be correlated with higher NAPLAN performance, greater rates of school attendance and even lower body mass index scores. “Children have significantly better health, academic, social and emotional outcomes when their fathers have a consistently warm parenting style,” she found.

AS I GOT ready to return to work part-time after a dad break, I looked back on how I had invested the past year. My wife and I had had some grandparental assistance, and I had taken some time to study, but a majority of my waking hours had been spent looking after Amelia. I’d seen her grow from an adorable infant into an insatiably curious toddler, full of her own ideas about how the world should be.

The morning of my first day back at work, I was getting Amelia dressed for preschool and we were having a standoff over socks. She thought they were unnecessary, but I demurred. When tasked with selecting a pair from sock drawer, she opted for a garish panda-themed pair, that even me, as a helplessly unfashionable type, could tell was a bad fit with the rest of her outfit. “I want these,” she implored with a doe-eyed plea. Fair enough.

As she marched out the door in her panda socks, I hung back and admired. It had been a damn good year, and there were plenty more like that ahead. Wouldn’t miss it for the world.