For the past 10 years I have been the main home maker for our family while my wife has worked full time. I’m not unusual. In fact, there seems to have been a boom in stay-at-home dads. Years ago, they were as scarce as the proverbial hens’ teeth. Today, you see them everywhere: dads pushing prams to school or playgroup, managing tantrums in the supermarket or juggling bottles at the park.
An Australian Bureau of Statistics report recently stated there were now officially almost 40,000 men in the home. Some media reports quote figures that are even higher. The basic fact is that stay-at-home fathers are clearly on the increase. As Perspective reported last year (June issue), everything from television programs to websites are devoted to the phenomenon.
Yet the question continues to be asked: are dads really up to the job? Can they cut it – or rather, can they cut it in a society that places intense pressure on men to be more than “just a home maker”?
Lots of men I know do the job just fine. Men can do most things in the home just as well as women can. But the expectation seems to be that they will do all of them and more.
Like any full-time mother, men in the home face a huge and at times daunting task. There’s the dropping of children at school and all the getting ready. Like herding cats at times: kids not ready, breakfast not eaten, kids to dress, teeth to brush, bags to pack… you get the picture. While, ideally, over time we teach them to perform these tasks themselves, the reality is that library days, sports days, special-activity days, the need for medicine, tying shoe laces, and generally getting out the door can be an exhausting and time-consuming task.
In the six or so hours the older kids are at school, there’s plenty to do, beginning with shopping. This is a part-time job in itself – particularly if, like me, you aim to save the family hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars a year by shopping around and keeping an eye on the specials. Of course, you could always do the food shopping on weekends. But even so, there’s no avoiding the urgent and unplanned: the need for medicines and fresh food, picking up items on special before they sell out, and so on.
Any man in the home soon discovers that the other part-time job is the washing, a task that can seem never-ending. There is also cleaning: vacuuming and dusting, as well as the day-to-day disasters, normally left by others.
Any parent in the home is by now groaning at this familiar list. For the one in the home though, the list just gets longer. That’s because fixing things is a constant chore. It seems sooner or later, everything in the home gets broken, and if you are in the home you are often the only one who can fix it. Even more so if you are the only one who knows how to fix computers and mobile phones. When technology goes wrong in a house full of busy people, everyone wants their problem solved today, now, this instant . . . and they usually communicate the fact with some emotion.
Then there is cooking. I was once given a plaque with an image of a man at a barbecue with the slogan “Dad’s kitchen”. But when you are full-time in the home you don’t have the luxury of rustling up an occasional barbie in the great outdoors. You do it most days, and in a kitchen. While most professional chefs are men, many people still seem to be surprised if dad is the one who cooks at home. Cooking can be fun, but mostly it is hard work, not a gig in “Master Chef”.
A former class-mate of mine who took time off his work as the head of a government department told me: “Mate, I can’t wait to get back to work to have a rest.” But for full-time homemakers there is no break. When you consider the fact that in addition to basic – and at times overwhelming – home duties, when the full-time home maker is a man, more is expected. In our brave new two-income-family world, men in the home tend to be under more pressure to earn an income as well.
How do I know this? Any man in the home can relate to this scenario. You’re at a social event and someone asks what you do. If you say you work in the home, the next question is: “What else do you do with your time?”
Personally, I can mention the part-time employment I have been able to maintain over the years. I can even point out it is a wage my wife could not come near earning in the home if we were to reverse roles. In fact, as I sometimes point out – after tax and work-related expenses, I don’t earn much less than her.
Still the question looms: but what else?
Well, there’s the building work I have done. This includes building an ensuite bathroom, two decks, a two-room extension, four built-in wardrobes, a new kitchen, as well as renovating a bathroom. Eyes glaze over before I can point out that after taking into account the interest and tax we would have paid for the loan needed to hire a professional builder to do the job, it actually works out that I have drawn level with my wife in the income-earning stakes.
Some of us study as well. My homemaker mates are proud about it. One has done an MBA, and another a PhD.
So what’s the problem? If working dads can find the time for all these things, why shouldn’t they? The answer is simple: the kids. Men who feel compelled to carry out these other duties are most likely to neglect the care-giving role of a stay-at-home parent. If you are doing loads of professional work, or carrying a heavy study or home-renovation load – or in some cases doing all three, the time you can spend focusing on your children’s needs is necessarily reduced.
This goes for both men and for women. In a two-income world, women in the home are also under pressure to do more outside work or professional studies to justify their existence. Yet, while women who are in the home full time might complain they have few opportunities to pursue other interests or work, men complain they are expected to.
The men in the home I know feel that they are expected to carry out a hefty load of professional work at the same time as they commit themselves to doing all the things that parents-in-the-home normally do. The result is the same: it is the kids who can suffer. And as long as there is the pressure on dad to forget the finger-painting and to generate the “real work”, they most likely will.
Next time you find yourself talking to a dad or mum engaged in full-time home making, try to resist the temptation to ask them: “but what else do you do?” Ask them about the time they spend with their kids. Ask how they meet all their children’s needs – including their emotional needs. And while you’re at it, ask what they do to look after the other working spouse… and themselves.
And if they are a dad who is only a homemaker? Just leave it at that.
David Vincent is a Sydney freelance journalist and a dad at home. This article was first published in Perspective magazine.