Stay home dads

Back in 1987, Australian parents flocked to the cinema to watch Three Men and a Baby – a Hollywood film about three bachelors who suddenly become primary carers. The film was a comedy, mostly concerned with the men’s lack of experience in things like changing nappies. A quarter of a century later, a new generation of parents helped make Channel 9’s House Husbands a ratings hit. Sure, the 2012 series had its laughs – but it also touched on the real life struggles of families where dad stays home. And as is often the case, entertainment usually mirrors changes happening in the real world…

How many are there?

For a long time, quantifying the number of fathers in a primary care role has been difficult as most data collected only focussed on mothers. But it’s clear that Australia’s rise in stay-home fathers is a recent, and most likely, growing phenomenon. In 2003, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that in couple families with children under 14, 3.4% had the father at home, whilst mum worked full or part-time. Eight years later, the Australian Institute of Family studies found 7% of couple families had a stay-home dad, with mum working full-time. In a further 9% of families, both parents worked part-time.

Perceptions – then and now

Traditionally, Australian fathers spent all day at work, whilst mum “ran the household”. Dad’s role was to “bring home the bacon (money)”, and his parenting was limited to teaching new skills, physical activities and handing out discipline.

Now, many fathers share more of the hands-on care, such as bottle-feeding expressed milk, bathing young bubs or taking older children to activities. But when couples take the next step (father as primary carer) old and new perceptions can clash. Family members are often more supportive than society in general, but a recent Australian survey found the harshest critics were often the men’s own traditionalist fathers. Their partners also experience a range of feedback, from admiration for their “outside the square” approach to raising children, to those who disapprove, insinuating some sort of selfishness or failure. Thankfully, anecdotal evidence would suggest the level of positive feedback is slowly growing.

Why are more couples doing this now?

The increase in stay-home fathers can be attributed to many social changes in Australia. Women fought for decades to grow their options beyond that of primary carer and household duties. At the same time, many men have become more hands-on than their own fathers, and in some cases express a strong desire to be a “more hands on” dad than their own.

Although a general gender wage gap of 16% persists, some couples find the mother’s earning capacity equals or exceeds that of the father’s – making new parenting roles possible. At the same time, Australia’s childcare costs have increased, so sometimes it’s more viable to have mum and dad “go part time” and share the caring role. Some couples also feel that two fulltime careers leaves little time for parenting.

Recent changes to laws and employer policies also support the “stay home dad” option. Initiatives include the National Employment Standards (which includes the right for parents to negotiate flexible workplace arrangements) and the Paid Parental Leave Scheme (which is gender-neutral in its reference to primary carers). Some fathers are also now looking outside the “9 to 5 workplace experience”, with new jobs and technology enabling a growth in home-based part time work.

Challenges for dads

  • Keeping one or more children fed, clothed, clean, safe and entertained takes far more time, energy and creativity than many dads think. Yet the truth is their old workplace habits (the morning coffee, to-do lists, reminders) can be very useful when applied at home…
  • Dealing with the “What do you do for a living?” question. A non-traditional answer can be a real conversation-stopper.
  • Coping with loneliness and isolation. He is likely to miss the daily chats with workmates, and whilst playgroups they are wonderful outlets for parents they are very much dominated by women. On the upside there are other stay-home dads out there – he just needs to use his old networking skills.
  • Some employers see time outside paid work as a negative.
  • Unlike workplace measurements of “success”, it’s not uncommon after a day at home to struggle to quantify what he’s done.
  • Dad’s no longer the person “bringing in the money”. This can be an issue for some couples.

Challenges for mums

  • Missing the children.
  • Missing those “significant milestones”.
  • Perhaps some “guilt” if you’re not doing what your mother did.
  • Sometimes, a need to “grieve” the loss of your stay-home role.
  • If baby is breastfeeding, expressing milk, storing it and organising schedules around feed times.
  • Breastfeeding during the night plus full time work is extra tiring.
  • Negative judgements from other people who cannot accept that dad might actually want to look after his children.

Benefits for dads

  • Being actively involved with their children’s activities rather than hearing about them afterwards.
  • Some dads find the role much more rewarding that their old workplace achievements.
  • A 2008 British study found a trend towards increased paternal happiness with increased hours of caring for his children.

Benefits for mums

  • Knowing the child has the best possible care, with someone they trust.
  • Being able to continue a career they enjoy.
  • A special sense of partnership as parents.
  • For some couples, a chance to “take turns” as primary carer.

Benefits for kids

  • Fathers are good at teaching children to explore the world and take reasonable risks.
  • Australian researchers have found that fathers? “rough and tumble play” with sons and daughters improves the parental bond, encourages physical activity, is associated with fewer behavioural problems and may help the child learn self-control.
  • The same British study mentioned earlier also found that “primary care giving fathers and their infants were happier during play (than non-primary care giving fathers)”. This suggests a possible link between the involvement of fathers in the care of their children and their children’s emotional state.

More information/support

If you and your partner are considering being a “stay home dad” family, the first place you might check for support is your local family support or neighbourhood centre

Relationships Australia offers family skills courses around Australia such as “Being the best dad”.

James Wilkinson is starting a list of “dads groups” around the country.

And here you can read interviews with Aussie ‘stay-at-home’ dads.

Article by Gabe McGrath

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