Why stay-at-home dads are still the invisible men of the house
Edmund Farrow is facing redundancy. For 11 years he has worked up to 90 hours a week, looking after Matthew, 11, Daniel, nine, and seven-year-old Joanna.
“I haven’t regretted being a house dad, but now we’re at a stage where I have to think about what next. I used to be a computer programmer, so obviously things have moved on a bit in that field.
“I got used to being the only man in a hall of 30 women and learned that if I saw another dad at the school gates he’d probably have a day off. The numbers of dads looking after young children is still very small.”
Small but growing. Whether changing nappies, playing with the children or reading a bedtime story, most fathers are undoubtedly far more involved in their children’s lives than their own fathers would have been 30 or 40 years ago.
New research from the Office of National Statistics suggests the phenomenon of the househusband has seen a rapid explosion in numbers, but experts say the trend is less about choice and nurture than an economic necessity that is not being recognised by policymakers.
Last year 62,000 men were classed as “economically inactive” and at home looking after children, tripling from 21,000 in 1996. The figures did not include fathers working from home or part-time in order to be the main stay-at-home parent.
A survey out last week from the insurance company Aviva suggested there could be 600,000 men, 6% of British fathers, in that role, a further rise from the ONS figures which recorded 192,000 British men as the primary carer for children in 2009 and 119,000 in 1993.
Farrow, from Edinburgh, who set up DadsDinner.com to tackle the gap in services, said: “My wife and I made the decision that I would stay at home because of personality. My temperament meant I’m better with the kids for long periods of time, whereas she can get wound up more easily by them and needs to be out and about. So it suited us. But every other dad I’ve talked to has done it for financial reasons.”
Adrienne Burgess, head of research at the Fatherhood Institute, feels there is little understanding in government about family life and that more men could be househusbands. “What’s changing is not the fathers but the mothers,” she said. “More mothers at the time of their first child are earning as much or more than their partner. So couples make rational economic decisions. By the time the child is 18 months old, three quarters of mothers are back in paid work and those who aren’t tend to be the most poor or disadvantaged who don’t have the options because of the cost of childcare. The fully fledged stay-at-home parent is a dying breed.
“Go to any antenatal class today and there’s a split between the mothers who are going back to work and those who aren’t, each side a bit beleaguered. Motherhood is still in that flux and, while men are seeing being the primary parent as an option, their voices aren’t heard. They are ghettoised. What holds a lot of men back is a lack of confidence and a culture that is sometimes hostile and excluding of men.”
Anne Longfield, chief executive of the family charity 4Children, said efforts were under way to make a transition to equal parenting and for services to target fathers “despite society’s undeniable prejudice towards seeing mothers as the core carers”.
“Whether or not dads are full- or part-time carers for their children, what we have seen is their increased presence, and this is fantastic. However, there is still work to do – while mothers are often involved in their children’s centres as volunteers, fathers are less likely to be, and there are still some who do not always routinely seek to involve both parents in their children’s early education and play. The wider issues of workplace flexibility and the gender pay gap are also still relevant if we are to seek a more even balance.”
But others warn how changing roles throw up new pressures for the fraught modern family. Divorce lawyer Vanessa Lloyd Platt said she was seeing a trend of relationships suffering because of resentment building up between couples trying to navigate traditional gender roles. “I hate to say it but things are changing so fast for women and an awful lot of men are not moving forward. Relationships are suffering.
“I noticed a trend some years ago. I started to act for a lot of husbands who were staying at home. There had been this revolution, women earning more, then children arrive and sometimes they don’t want to give that career up, or the husband just can’t earn as much.
“For some people it worked, it’s essential to say that, but for others there is a pattern of dissatisfaction set off by this reversal of fortune. That resentment builds up after a few years and suddenly the woman is working really, really hard and thinks the husband is sitting around with his feet up, and the man has seen his career fold and his ego is mush.”
It’s a pattern recognised by Andrew Holmes, 52, from Devon. He has started working again part-time now that his children are at school, but remains the primary carer. “Leaving work to pick the kids up still gets comments from other blokes. There is the sense that I’m not putting in a full day. It can be hard going at times. I did feel quite isolated and resentment did build up between my wife and I. She envied me spending so much time with the kids and I envied her freedom when she went off to work. Neither of us was entirely happy with the way things were, but it was the only way financially.
“I value having been at home with the kids, but if I was to do it again I’d do it differently. I’d force myself into social situations a bit more. Mothers definitely didn’t invite me round for a cup of tea and it’s difficult when you go to a toddler group and women sit talking about pregnancy, as invariably they did.”
The rise of the stay-at-home father remains against a backdrop of social pressures on women to be good mothers and on men to be economic providers. Half of fathers still do not take the legal fortnight’s paternity leave because of fears that it will affect their careers or because they can’t afford to.
Men also seem to stay at home for a shorter time than women, said psychology professor Dr Charlie Lewis of Lancaster University. “It’s difficult to do research because they are such a transitory group,” he said. “A lot of people go into it with rose-tinted spectacles and great enthusiasm and then, partly to do with the social isolation, find it doesn’t suit them. They think they are breaking the mould, but then realise what it’s all about and bolt.
“Dads have to surmount a lot of problems, not least that women can be very unwilling to delegate parenting, even to their partner. There is so much pressure to be the good mother that it can lead to them holding men at bay, even when they desperately want to be involved.”
He added: “The economic climate compounds the problem. People are under stress and families are more complex than ever, complexities rarely conceded in statistics. One study five years ago looking at 5,000 households identified 73 different family types. Yet we continue to hold to the simplistic stereotype of motherhood, but there are many permutations of what makes a good parent.
“To declaim role reversal as a bad thing is just as catastrophic as to declaim it as a good thing. When people change roles with great gusto and intent and it doesn’t work out, then that disappointment can destroy the relationship. What we should be thinking about is how can social policy support systems fit all types of families.
“There really has been a seismic shift in gender roles, but really we will only know it’s changed when men start cleaning the toilet. That’s the last bastion.”
But, for most couples, childcare remains a juggle in changing social and economic times. Dan and Ilana Rapaport-Clark, from north London, both work part-time, although Dan is the main parent for Lola, three, and Jacob, one.
“I always wanted to do it, even before we had kids,” he said. “My family was supportive but some of my friends thought it was a bit odd. You definitely have a different experience to mothers and you rarely see another dad. A lot of men who would like to do it are put off by the dominance of women, so it becomes a bit of a chicken and egg situation. I wanted to see them walk and hear their first words, childhood is such a finite time. I love hanging out with my kids.”
Fathers are happier when doing more housework, says study