One of a small but growing band of men, John Hart gave up a career to look after his son while his wife went back to work. He’s coping well – but what do others think of his new role?
“He wants you.”
“No, he doesn’t. It’s the only word he knows. The cat is Daddy. His bath toys are Daddy. You are Daddy!”
“Then why doesn’t he say Mummy?”
“Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!”
“Babies always say Daddy before Mummy. All the books say so.”
“He only says Daddy because he only sees his daddy.”
It’s an easy excuse for not getting out of bed at 4am, but my wife has a point. Our son gets up when she goes to work and goes to bed when she comes home. She doesn’t see him. He doesn’t see her. Still, it could be worse. Society doesn’t see me.
More men than ever are giving up work for life as a home dad. A recent insurance company survey suggests that a man is now the primary carer in one in seven UK families, a further rise from Office of National Statistics figures that recorded 192,000 British men as the primary carer for children in 2009 and 119,000 in 1993.
Yet, we’re invisible. Just watch any advert. Mums make the ham and lettuce sandwiches. Mums buy the school uniform. Cleaning products are made by “the proud sponsors of mums”. Dads only take care of children as “hilarious” one-offs. My Mother and Baby card gets me 10% off coffee – Tuesdays and Wednesdays only – but it does nothing for my self-esteem.
I am one of a minority. Take the children to the park at weekends and you’re one of any number of dads watching their offspring out of the corner of their eye as they read the paper or check their phone. During the week, you’re a lonely oddity.
That means I’ve had strangers ask if I’m gay. No, I say, a baby is still generally an indicator of heterosexuality, even in 2013. That means I’ve had people pat my arm reassuringly, clearly imagining the Sleepless in Seattle scenario, and ask where the mother is. At work, I say.
And that means I’ve had people tell me I’m just sitting around in my pyjamas all day watching Jeremy Kyle. These people have never had children. No, when you’re looking after what is in effect a witless midget with a death wish, some things go out of the window, including dressing yourself. Also, who watches Jeremy Kyle when Homes Under the Hammer is on!
But there’s one especially common reaction. “I’m a stay-at-home dad,” I tell people when they ask what I do.
“Sorry about your job,” they reply.
Is this the real reason for the explosion in the numbers of home dads? With millions of us out of work, are more dads looking after the kids because they don’t have jobs to go to?
Gary Northeast from the support group HomeDad UK doesn’t think so. “The recession is bound to have had an impact, but it’s not like the downturn has only affected men. A lot of women have lost their jobs too.
“There are a million and one reasons why men become stay-at-home dads. My wife had a more secure job at a higher salary. It was an obvious choice,” he says.
In my case, too, it was pure economics. My wife, a teacher, had a better paid, more stable job. It’s also considerably easier for me to work at the kitchen table when our boy is asleep, than it is for her to teach a class of nine year olds about the Tudors.
This doesn’t stop people assuming I’m some bearded, vegetarian hippy. Admittedly, I am a vegetarian. And I did have a beard for a while.
The thing is that although I have worried what strangers think of me, I’ve never asked the people closest to me. The decision to give up work was so grounded in common sense that I’ve never even asked my wife if she thinks differently of me. Has our relationship changed now that I don’t contribute as much financially? Does being a stay-at-home dad make me less manly? Does it make me less sexy?
She answered with the refreshing honesty I married her for, in principle if not in practice. “Less manly? You shave your chest. You cried at The Notebook. When we started going out you frequently wore mascara. If you not being traditionally manly was a problem, it would have come up by now.”
What about the beard though?
“The beard made you look like Jack Whitehall. He’s hardly Christian Grey. “The only thing I worry about is people thinking I’m a cold-hearted bitch who made you give up your career because I don’t want to look after my own child.”
What about other women, though? The lack of unisex changing facilities still means I haven’t had to sneak into this many ladies toilets since the days when I used to have to reapply that mascara. It doesn’t do much for my sense of masculinity.
“Yummy mummys” – or “yummy mummys and John” as it was known until I complained that the name implied I wasn’t yummy – is what our neonatal class became when it moved from the health centre to a cafe, and our children moved from inside to outside. As the only male member, I asked them straight: Am I less of a man now that I’m one of the girls?
“You’re very brave. A lot of men wouldn’t do it,” said one.
“It must be intimidating coming here having not given birth.”
OK, I do struggle for something to say when they tell delivery-room horror stories – “Yeah, hospital car-parking charges are a pain in the …” – but I was there!
Would they let their partners do the same? “I wouldn’t,” said one.
“You’re going to build up such a bond with your son. I’d be jealous.”
“My husband would love to do it, and he’d be great,” said another.
“But the fact is I just don’t want to share my daughter.”
It’s easy to forget how much times have changed. “Thirty years ago my husband wasn’t even allowed in the delivery room – you can’t imagine that happening now,” a yummy mummy’s mummy told me. “No man my age would have given up work to look after children. It’s amazing how much has changed in a generation.”
My own father went back to work virtually as soon as I was born. He says: “I was given a day of compassionate leave because you and your mum were sick, but then I was back at work.”
Amazing as this sounds, it’s easy to forget that statutory paternity leave was only introduced in 2002. A friend’s father was even back at work the day she was born. Nonetheless, my dad has always been something of a traditionalist. What does he make of my decision?
“I was born in an era when men were the breadwinners. Your grandma never worked after she married. When I started work, there were no women in my profession – they were never more than secretaries. That isn’t the case today. Now that women earn as much as men, why shouldn’t men take on more of the responsibilities? There’s no reason a man shouldn’t stay at home.
“Deep down though, I worry about your career. I hope all your education and experience don’t go to waste,” concludes Dad.
Like traditional stay-at-home mums, this is my biggest fear, too. Years of building my career thrown away for a co-worker who has a daily screaming fit and regularly soils himself? (It’s not the first time I’ve worked with someone like this, admittedly.)
But like many stay-at-home mothers, some home dads are using their parenting experiences to develop, not destroy, their careers.
Dr Charles Fernyhough is a psychologist who specialises in child development but has also stayed home to raise his daughter Athena. “It was very serendipitous,” he says. “We’d moved to a new area for my wife’s work and it made more sense for me to stay at home than to get a job and pay for childcare.”
Fernyhough used the experience to write The Baby in the Mirror, with Athena as the subject. “I never expected or planned to write a book. It was only when Athena was two that I realised what a fantastic opportunity it was professionally.”
Website designer Dave Hudson had a similar experience when he looked after his daughter Scarlett. She inspired him to create a series of educational apps called Baby Tech, which have been downloaded more than 5,000 times. “Seeing how fascinated Scarlett was with technology got me thinking about the possibilities. I’d never have had those ideas if it wasn’t for her. Of course, I was worried about my career, but my partner has a career too.”
A former colleague, who has a son a similar age to mine, tells me: “My first thought was how brave you were. I looked after my boy for four days when my wife was away and it was exhausting. People call women who don’t work ‘ladies who lunch’ but you’re lucky to get lunch most days. Then I was envious of you. I picked my little boy up from nursery and they told me he’d taken his first steps. I should have been there.”
Envied and pitied: the life of the stay-at-home dad. Sometimes it’s even worse. According to Northeast, some home dads face prejudice, even in 2013. “We live in a women’s world, designed for women,” he says. “We hear horror stories, even now – dads being treated with hostility, being called perverts, just for going to playgroup.”
Fernyhough is more optimistic. “It’s much more accepted for men to stay at home now – there’s been a change in our culture,” he says.
“Ten years ago, I went to what were still called mother-and-baby groups and there was a lot of suspicion. I think that’s probably changed.”
But with more and more women caught between careers and caring too, should we be moving past the idea that one parent raises the children?
Gaby Hinsliff thinks so. In her book Half a Wife, the mother and former political editor of the Observer thinks flexible co-parenting is the way forward. “Sole parenting works for some families, but the danger is when either parent is at home all the time and they don’t want to be,” she says.
“Looking after a child 24-7 is very rewarding, but it’s also very boring and not many people want to stay at home for the rest of their lives, so it makes sense to keep your hand in at your profession by working part-time or from home. There are all sorts of professions that can be flexible; plenty more jobs can be done from home than there are now.”
Being a stay-at-home parent is many things. Boring. Frustrating. Exhausting. Lonely. But today my son and I made a tent out of chairs and a blanket, and hit each other with soft toys. Then he snuggled up in my arms and fell into a contented sleep. I wouldn’t change a thing.