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

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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. 

New Matilda

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