18 Oct 2013

Why Aren't There More Stay-At-Home Dads?

By Tim Napper
House Husbands
House Husbands

If families can afford to have one parent stay at home, why don't they? Tim Napper put his career on hold to raise his son, and it was an eye opener about relationships and gendered labour

As rising Labor star Tanya Plibersek takes her place as deputy opposition leader, we assume she’s come to an arrangement with her husband on taking care of their three young children. She’s managed to find a way, notwithstanding those who question how she could possibly be both a mother of three and a senior politician. Questions, of course, never asked of a father and politician.

This debate about Plibersek, and more generally about the level of female representation in parliament and business, has made one thing abundantly clear: more men need to become primary carers for their children. I’ve done it, and can report it is the best decision I ever made.

I’m a regular guy who put his career on hiatus for a year or two to raise his son, while his wife pursues her profession.

Yes, I found taking up the role of primary carer quite strange. Even in a wealthy, modern society, in the year 2013, there are certain roles that still doggedly persist as being either "male" or "female". Child-rearing seems to be one of them. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics the father is the stay-at-home parent between 5 to 10 per cent of the time. Although apparently the trend is up — the number of men taking on the role has nearly doubled over the past decade.

But it's fair to say that it is still far from the norm, and unusual enough to take a man into a strange head space when he makes the attempt. There has, for example, been days when I’ve found myself waving my finger at my wife and announcing, “you don’t appreciate what I’m doing”, which is nonsense, or sitting at home and brooding that my role as carer just isn't valued, which is spot on.

Of course "feminised" work is undervalued! It has always been thus. Work traditionally associated with women is either simply invisible, underpaid or – in the case of child rearing – not paid at all.

Raising and nurturing a child is treated by the economy as being less valuable than important male-dominated occupations. Like, for example, being a radio host who regularly denounces climate change as a socialist conspiracy, or a broker selling toxic securitised mortgages to Icelanders, or a TV chef yelling at quavering apprentices on a reality cooking show.

So while I may not be screaming about chaff bags over the airwaves, I am learning the ancient art of child whispering.

When my son speaks, as a talkative boy not yet two years old, I'm the one who translates what he’s saying for his mum. I know the tricks to make him eat when he’s being difficult. I can smell a poopy nappy at 50 paces. I can pick in an instant the signals from a hungry child, a thirsty child, a bored child, or the suspicious quiet of a child who’s carefully placing my limited edition Lord of the Rings trilogy in the toilet bowl.

As an aside, how a single parent does all these things and holds down a job is simply beyond me. There are times when my partner gets home and the dinner is ready and I tell her how many poops our son did that day. She tells me in return about some complex management problem she solved on a multi-million dollar project.

“Oh” I think to myself, my shoulders wilting. But that’s fine, I just crack open a beer, switch the channel to mixed martial arts and feel the surging machismo of my manhood return. 

My wife is educated, intelligent, and well-remunerated, which in 2013 is more common than you'd think. In fact, there are more young women these days with university degrees (30 per cent) than men (27 per cent). Generation X women and the ones who follow are just as likely as a man to want a career, are likely to be better educated than a man, and therefore also likely to have greater earning potential.

If you’re not willing to share professional and personal responsibilities with a woman like that, then something is going to break. Changing social conventions matters. So do the policies of the average Australian workplace.

Most Australian parental leave schemes, public and private, provide leave disproportionally to the mother only. Men may get one or two weeks after their child is born, if they are lucky. At the national level, for example, the proposed Coalition PPL program and the current scheme brought in by the Labor Party offer only two weeks to the father.

While many (although nowhere near enough) workplaces will allow flexible working conditions for mothers, most do not have the same policies in place for men. There is rarely latitude for dads to work part-time or job-share during his child’s early years. This is to say nothing of macho office cultures where staying late is the norm. Nor, in many cases, are the human resources mechanisms in place to ensure a six month or one year hiatus from a job does not equal career suicide (again, we aren’t there on these points with women either – not even close). 

So yes, the barriers to being a stay-at-home dad are many, but these do not explain the dismal figure of 5 to 10 per cent. To be blunt, if you’re in a situation where you can afford to have one parent stay at home, bloody well take it. Forget cultural expectations: man up and take one for the team. The team being your partner, who is just as ambitious and educated as you, and your kids, who’ll benefit from a positive male role model who is present in their lives. 

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Gabrielle T
Posted Friday, October 18, 2013 - 18:10

Staying home to care for children and run a household requires skills that are undervalued by most people. The idea that the parent paid the least takes on the carer role just reinforces that. Surely the role of carer should go to the partner most suited to it; one with supreme organisational, negotiating and multitasking abilities.

Posted Saturday, October 19, 2013 - 17:30

What a stupid article, no one should have to take it for the team, man ot woman if they don't want to, thats why we have child care. I do not know why this debate continues around who should stay home and who shouldn't.

There is nothing wrong with childcare and it means both parents are working which increase a families income security and boosts the economy and means no ones talent or career got to waste/put on hold.

A much better debate would be about lowering the costs of childcare and making childcare more focused on development/education aspects rather then just being a babysitting service.

Posted Saturday, October 19, 2013 - 19:12

My late partner stayed at home with our daughter while I continued to work. He was incapable of holding down a job. Our daughter ended up with pneumonia (twice) and third degree sunburn (once). I would highly recommend childcare or extended family care as a solution for working parents because not every father is cut out for parenting like you are.

Please refrain from commenting on Tanya Plibersek's child raising choices. You are not privy to them. I'm happy that your choice is working out for you, even though you do seem to feel the need to reassert your machismo at day's end. I do agree with you about lowering the cost and improving the quality of childcare. Well spoken.

Posted Saturday, October 19, 2013 - 21:39

in terms of your first para about questions not asked of fathers in political positions but asked of Tania - motherhood is a signifier of femininity and a woman's identity, so when she pursues interests contrary to dominant social feminised roles she is more vulnerable to be ascribed negative attitudes, informal disapproval and her femininity, nurturing capacities and  priorities for others (because women are also expected to nurture others and care for others and not prioritise their own interests) brought into question, under stronger scrutiny.

It is funny that a male putting himself and his intersts "onhold" in sacrifice for the woman in his life is glorified while the multiple numbers of women doing this are ignored, devalued, forgotten and any complaints they express about it are discounted, hushed up or joked about...or from feminist perspecgtives id disempowered or in an unequal relatinship within the family structure and division of labour...

single parents are the most undervalued, othered and dehumanised of all...they don't fit into social situations with families with couples, they are conceptualised as a drain and expense on society when it comes to welfare, and experince a disproportionate degree of surveillance, scrutiny and coercion/force by governance...usually with women far more the target where the male is treaditionally moving into new relationships leaving the duity and attacks to the sinlge mother

it is not a surprise that mention is made here of violence being connected to masculinity as this is often a perception within especially sports and fitness magazines

research has supported that female graduates are paid grossly lower rates than male graduates so even if women are equally represented in professions they are statistically likely to be earning much less

governmental policies express wider social values - men are not valued as or typically represented as main care givers...this problem existed with grandparents caring for grandchildren of parents in jail/drugs/abandoned...not being entitled to parenting payments and privilieges with welfare...gay people still can't marry...

workplaces are simply very rarely family/parent-friendly - this is the age we live in where only economic and business models/values are privilieged...it will get worse...single parents' treatment by welfare/gov't and wealthier working people who condemn them express wider social values about the lack of worth parenting and children have in general...this is a grave concern for the future wellbeing of famiilies parents, children and mental health (and by connection physical health) in general regardless of gender...

Maybe if the females' jobs were equally paid then there would be funds for males to stay home...while pay is still unequal and women's traditional jobs underpaid/ignored there won't be the funds for that women to support a stay at home dad.

Generally i find the lived experiences of people who have wealthy lives are not the sorts of worries that are life threatening or of grave concern, you are in a privileged position already and have the ability, funds, education and social approval to do whatever you want.

I feel sorry for the single dads that are full time carers because their wife died or ran off and no interest in childrearing...

Posted Sunday, October 20, 2013 - 13:31

Good article. The childcare issue is not the point. Many families choose to have a parent at home, for any number of reasons. Cost of childcare, having a kid who doesn't do well in group care for whatever reason... Tim's point is that looking after your kids is rewarding and challenging work. Women know this but men need to know it too. Then perhaps we'll start to see the structural changes we so badly need for everyone to have choices.

Posted Tuesday, October 22, 2013 - 12:53

"Most Australian parental leave schemes, public and private, provide leave disproportionally to the mother only. Men may get one or two weeks after their child is born, if they are lucky. At the national level, for example, the proposed Coalition PPL program and the current scheme brought in by the Labor Party offer only two weeks to the father."

Not true of the Labor Party PPL scheme - the PRIMARY CARER is the one who gets the extended leave, partner pay (mostly taken by dads) is for the other parent.


The proposed Coalition scheme is called maternity leave, not PPL.

Posted Tuesday, October 22, 2013 - 17:04

I've been the out of home worker in my family for 10 years, ever since my partner and I got together. We've got two boys. The choice was simple: I  earn more. He can cook. He's much better at managing the household than me. So he is the "at home" worker. At first we seemed like a novelty but we get sick of my people feeling they can comment on our choices:  "he should get a job" and "you travel too much for work, how can you abandon your kids". These comments are not mentioned to friends in similar circumstances,as the out of home worker is a man and  at home worker female... We just smile and say whatever, it works for us and  I'm happy for him to chose to work or not...we are fortunate to have the choice.