We all remember watching Michael Keaton bumble around attempting to be Mr Mom. I was only about seven or eight at the time but I always remember seeing a flannel-clad and frazzled Keaton attempting to drop the kids off to school, cook and keep the house clean while his wife dominated the boardroom. I can’t help but wonder now if something in that hapless ‘80s flick, and the myriad of other 1980s politically correct role-reversal flicks, affected the way I would later view traditional gender roles.
What I remember seeing was Keaton making friends with the neighbourhood housewives, swapping coupons and becoming hopelessly addicted to daytime soaps. I realise now that what I was seeing was a man being slotted into our idea of what a housewife is and does without much regard for the uniqueness of the situation. Most stay-at-home dads (SAHDs) have approached the role with a fresh outlook and it would seem that kids are thriving.
Compared with children raised in households with only a mother as primary caregiver, children who spend prolonged periods with both parents perform better in school and have higher IQs, as well as a more well-rounded emotional development, according to studies carried out at Newcastle University. Evidence suggests children do require the prolonged input from both parents, rather than simply the mother in order to thrive.
What this tells us is that something fundamental was missed during the women’s lib years. Recent studies show women are on average less happy than men, and definitely less happy than they were 30 years ago. Why? Because we haven’t swapped one role for another, there are just more balls in the air and less hands to juggle them with. Instead of delegating domestic responsibility we just ended up with work on top of work because we ignored the fundamental missing component in the equation: men. The catch phrase of the 1990s was the work/life balance but, strangely, the endless debates on how to best juggle boardroom and baby never factored in the father and certainly never assumed they would be happy to pick up some of the slack. We challenged women’s roles but left men’s roles relatively untouched.
Yet, not so surprisingly, men are just as dissatisfied with their role as breadwinner and absent dad as women were, and are, with being chained to the kitchen sink or with trying to have it all and failing miserably. In a recent survey the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) revealed that incredibly, 80 per cent of men would rather stay at home and raise their kids.
It begs the question, how much of what we do is of our own choosing and how much comes from what we believe society expects of us? While we overdosed on work in the ‘80s and then tried to have it all in the ‘90s, perhaps the 21st century should be about understanding that having it all won’t look like we imagined. Men already know there is little joy in working 90 hour weeks and women realise that a life of their own only makes them appreciate their kids and domestic life more. What’s missing here is a little pow wow between the sexes about pros and pitfalls of work and family. Why haven’t we had this conversation sooner?
Unfortunately it takes more than talk, and it can take a while for the rest of society to catch up. Although there are nearly 350,000 stay-at-home dads in Britain, an increase of 80 per cent since last year, and in countries like Sweden 20 per cent of men choose to stay home, at this rate is its estimated to take 211 years before child-care is split evenly between parents.
Why is progress happening so slowly? The system as it stands punishes women for leaving the workplace while placing the father on the periphery. At present fathers may take only two weeks paid maternity leave compared with 39 weeks for women and Britain is the worst offender, lagging far behind the rest of Europe. Under the proposed system, 39 weeks would be stretched to a year, with only 26 weeks compulsory allotment to the mother. This has been lauded as the preferred option compared to mothers transferring some of their leave to their partners.
Acting Chairwoman of the EOC, Jenny Watson, says current policy is lagging far behind the needs of the modern family. Ms Watson was quoted in Britain’s Sunday Independent as saying,
“While the Government’s transferable maternity leave is a step in the right direction, it only gives fathers access to leave where the mother has been working and has maternity rights to share. Shared parental leave, as we are recommending, enables dads to play a greater role in caring for their children during their early years.”
A recent policy change in Germany has seen male paternity leave applications jump from 3.5 to 8.5 per cent. The “babypause” scheme is aimed at getting women back into the work place faster and encouraging men to stay at home longer.
Social isolation plays a big role. Unfortunately SAHDs are experiencing ignorance and even vilification from close friends and family, while their partners are being made to feel guilty for shirking their domestic responsibilities. Perhaps this is the reason most couples find themselves conforming to society’s moulds, however ill-fitting. Even those of us born to Baby Boomer parents remember a family with a mother as primary caregiver, showing us that even the most radical men and women often eventually yielded to convention.
Full-time father, David Worford, says patience is the key to dealing with ignorant questions and comments, often from complete strangers. Top of his list include people assuming he was fired (there’s Mr Mom again), would rather be at work, his wife would rather be at home or he watches sports all day. The worst is also the most common: you are not masculine.
“This is the granddaddy of all stay-at-home misconceptions. Watching the kids is a woman’s job. Men are supposed to be the breadwinners. You are not a man. It’s enough to make anyone unsure”, says David.
This is where it can seem easier for many to simply revert back to their accepted role as breadwinner. In a role that isolates, social stigma just removes Dads further. An outcast amongst the outcasts and why perhaps so many of them choose what seems to be the easier road.
Susanne Seyda, an analyst in family economics at the Institute for Business (IW) in Cologne, said also seeing the powers moving us closer to true equality has given them the confidence to move away from the role of breadwinner. No mean feat when you consider how long male identity has been tied to this ideal. Men, just like women, need to know that choosing to stay home won’t kill their career.
“Now they are in a stronger bargaining position when they go to ask for the time off. The employer knows there is financial incentive, and they find it easier to understand”, said Ms Seyda.
While policy and society play catch-up, those men who choose to go against convention, their choice has rejuvenated them. British SAHD, Mark Merson, says, “You need to be at home to help the missus, do the chores and care for little ‘un. Not many people think that a father needs time to bond until they’re in our position.”
David says, “A big defence is to show you have a grasp on the important task of making sure the kids are growing right is as important and rewarding of a job as any. You are taking care of your family. Doesn’t that fall under the umbrella of what a man is supposed to do?
As their numbers start to rise father’s groups are the next logical step, helping to stave off some of the isolating affect.
Steve from West Sussex says women’s groups are the only option and women can strangely be some of the worst offenders when it comes to understanding SAHDs. “Making a network of friends to do things with during the day was probably the most difficult thing because most other main carers are women…the first time I went to the local parent and toddler group, I was asked, “Are you in the right place?” I found that I had to arrange a meet up or an outing rather than others asking me.”
What we now need to do is make sure stay at home dads don’t fall prey to the same no-win situation as women. As David notes, “Face it: being a stay-at-home parent is a job, much more so than the 40-hour-a-week variety your golfing buddies have. With additional pressures facing a stay-at-home dad, such as social misunderstandings or a perceived lack of masculinity, burnout can happen quickly”.
Let’s not vilify them for working part-time, working from home or not ‘working’ at all as house fathers. Maybe having men pipe up and say how much work it really takes to raise a family might help validate this form of labour and perhaps also encourage people to lay down their torch and pitchforks when it comes to working mothers.
There are a number of support groups for full-time dads in the UK and Europe.