Stay at home dads? A long post about equality and childcare

Research came out this week that tells us around 10% of dads now stay at home to look after the children while their partner goes to work. This has, inevitably, led to a slew of articles interviewing a stay at home dad and finding out what their life is like. I find these as depressing to read as I do the articles interviewing women astronauts. (“She’s a woman AND an astronaut????? How amazing!!!!!”) Modern life has moved on to the extent where men are starting to share responsibilities that used to be the woman’s domain but in order to even things up they apparently have to be patronised as well. I didn’t burn my bra so that men have to go through the same shit as women did – this isn’t what equality means! (Note: I didn’t burn a bra at all (and neither did the bra burning feminists of the 1970s if we’re splitting hairs) no one who has breasts my size would be so silly. Anyway.)

Worst, Barbara Ellen in the Observer said that the positive thing about a rise in stay at home dads is that they could revolutionise childcare in the same way that male chefs revolutionised cooking (another previously female domain). Essentially, if Gordon Ramsay made cooking cool, what’s to say stay at home dad can’t make childcare cool?

Excuse me while I bang my head against the table in despair at this viewpoint. What we definitely need is another stick to beat women with. Couldn’t make childcare cool? Couldn’t deal with the tedium, clearing up the shit, dawdling to walk through puddles on the way home from playgroup for four hours, rereading Beaky the Greedy Duck for the 17th time today? Don’t worry dear, Men are here. We’ll show you how to do it well.

Anyway, we get these stupid articles instead of kicking off a sensible debate about childcare. It’s increasingly clear that it’s a task that needs to be shared between you both (and ideally with as many family members as want to help and live nearby – none in our case) and that flexible working and affordable professional childcare are desperately needed in this country. The party that brings in a sensible solution that businesses and families can work to has the next election sewn up.

As it happens, unless things change in the next two months I will soon be a partner to a stay at home dad myself. So we should start by examining whether they are stay at home by choice or by necessity. Those who choose it obviously have a very different mindset to those by necessity. By necessity risks resentment at having your options narrowed – resentment at the baby, at your partner, at the world. In our case it’s a bit of both – choice and necessity. We don’t fancy putting E in a nursery five days a week though if we have to, we will. S isn’t the most talkative of people but I think that he may suffer some sort of identity loss if he doesn’t have a job. It’s not that he sees looking after E as a bad option; working is just what he’s used to.

S has a job interview tomorrow. It’s a part time job which would suit us best, but only if the part time hours include him working weekends and a set day or two in the week. (We’ll just see each other in the evenings, assuming we can stay awake that long…) Set hours in advance, so that we know when we will need childcare and can try and make arrangements accordingly. I’m not sure this is what’s going to be on offer. Essentially the lower down the pay scale you are, the less flexible the employer will be. They have no need to be helpful – they can fill the vacancy with someone childfree tomorrow if needs be. And yet, for those who will always work in lower paid industries, what’s the option? Stay at home with the children yourself and risk having trouble finding another job later down the line or put the baby in childcare all week on the off chance that you’ll get some work and cripple yourself financially.

I needed time on maternity leave to adjust to not being at work. But I also knew I’d be going back to work. And as much as I’m dreading returning to work, I’m also glad that I won’t be stuck at home with E all day every day. Because it’s exhausting and you need to have a bit of adult time. If S doesn’t find work, he may have to do the childcare five days a week every week and I’d really like for us to be able to afford him to have a day off in the week. He’ll need time to apply for work but he’ll also need time just to stop going mad. I don’t know if we’ll manage the nursery fees but we’ll certainly try.

And so that may leave me with another dilemma. How best to appreciate his childcare efforts? I don’t want to patronise him and I definitely don’t want to be like my father – coming in from a day at work to a dinner that’s been cooked for him, sitting down in front of the TV in the evening, feet up and not a word of thanks. (He only noticed if things were dirty – one day my mum and a friend spring cleaned the whole house so it sparkled and his only comment was that the tassles had fallen off the lampshades when they’d been washed.  God forbid.)

And so here we are, back to the opening point. Women have complained about housework and childcare going unappreciated for so long that we need to make sure we don’t fall into the same traps of doing that to men. But surely this would work itself out if it was easier to share the burden?

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