Can dad become the perfect mum?

Parents who reverse roles are all the rage in popular drama. But in real-life households where he bakes while she earns the bread, social conditioning often dies hard. Lucy Lamble reports

Role reversal is back in fashion. No, not men doing a little more about the house, but the full-blown exchange of traditionally defined male and female roles. Alan Bleasdale's Jake's Progress (co-starring the real-life role-reverser Julie Walters) erupts on to our screens tomorrow, while Gary Brown's anarchic Any Bloke has recently returned to Radio 4. In both series, we are entertained by fathers who turn the running of a household into an art form.

Jake's Progress reinforces role reversal as a new social norm. Robert Lindsay plays Jamie Diadoni, the financially hopeless and idealistic house- husband and rock star manque. His wife, Julie, is a hard-working NHS nurse torn by the demands of work and family. Meanwhile, their devilish five- year-old son, Jake, resents his mother for not spending more time with him, but adores his father, with whom he enjoys an exclusively close relationship.

But how representative of Nineties families are these dramatisations? Can role reversal prove a liberating experience for women and men, or is it more challenging than everybody has imagined?

Lucy Selleck, a counsellor at Relate, has advised role-reversal couples in crisis. "For one woman, things came to a head when she walked through the door to find her husband in the middle of the ironing. Was this really her partner, or was he emasculated by the new role? But with five children in the family, she would, equally, have been furious to come home and find that the ironing had not been done."

Is this the reaction of a control freak, a woman who's had her cake but doesn't want the calorie content? "Women are still entrenched in their old roles," says Ms Selleck. "It's one thing for a woman to go out to work and another for her to give up her role in the home - he's in her territory." Elizabeth, 24, a merchant banker whose husband is a full-time house-husband, admits: "I know the children are in the best possible hands, but if I'm honest, I get quite jealous of how close they are and sometimes just wish he could stop playing Mr Responsible Home Manager and devote a bit of his energy to being Mr Ideal Partner for me, too."

How do the brave men who embrace role reversal deal with the reactions it arouses? Robert Lindsay achieves cult status as Jack the Dad in the local play area. But Peter, 26, a real-life father who looks after his three-year-old twin daughters, finds he fluctuates from amusement to exasperation.

"Women and older people tend to make a fuss of you, but that wears off once they get used to you coping rather than being a male equivalent of the dumb blonde. Many blokes, though, apart from the ones that say they're jealous, either give you grief about being a kept man, or just don't want to deal with it. I suppose some of them see you as some kind of threat - perhaps you'll give their partners ideas! Others can't understand why you don't seem to have their career ambitions - even though I run my own business part-time from home."

How happily couples reverse roles often depends on whether they do so through choice. "With what Mark earned, we couldn't afford child care, and that meant I had to come straight back to work," says 27-year-old Anna, a nurse in London. Mark, 29, formerly a sporadically employed actor, relishes his new role, but Anna is less than delighted.

"It has left me very little time with my son. I still get tearful some days when I leave the house. I don't think it's ideal for any of us." Does she fear that the family is suffering long-term damage, or is it merely that she feels she is missing out? "I certainly don't feel my son is getting a worse deal than with a child-minder, far from it. I'd just like more flexibility in employment opportunities."

But Lucy Selleck is reassuring about the impact of role reversal on future generations. "Children are much more adaptable than adults," she says. "They don't mind as long as they're clear about who's doing what."

For 13-year-old Charlie, daughter of a role-reversing couple, it's "no big deal". She admits that her home set-up causes comment from friends, "but it's more that my dad's more laid back than their parents and we have more freedom. We have to do housework and shopping, which I hate, but we all do take turns."

Meanwhile, Rachel, a 26-year-old teacher, feels her parents' mid-life swap-over provided her with positive role models during her teenage years. Rachel's brother, Tom, now 28, found it harder when their father took up the vacant position of house-husband in the family, but recognises that there were some advantages. "My girlfriend says I'm much more open- minded about how couples should behave than her exes. The problems I had were more to do with seeing my dad change from an absent achiever to this awkward guy wearing an apron. Sure, it's rich pickings for a comedy series, but it's not easy to live with, especially when you're an adolescent trying to sort out who you are, let alone how your parents are coping."

In the decade of downsizing, role reversal is affecting more than the young and trendy. "For people in the 25-60 age range, their parents were not doing this when they were growing up," says Lucy Selleck. "We're brought up in set role patterns and there's a lot of ambivalence about what couples really want to be doing. The key is clarity about who's doing what and then communication, being able to admit it's not easy."

For Anna, the experience has made her reassess her own childhood. "Now I understand why my father was such a distant figure, why he never really established a close relationship with us, in the way we want to with our son. He was just too exhausted and there was nothing that made him question his established role as family provider."

Bleasdale's Boys from the Blackstuff gave us the Eighties catchphrases "Gizza job!" and "I can do that." It is tempting to predict that five- year-old Jake's ironic take-off of his mother, "Too tired, too busy to play" may prove the touchstone of the Nineties.

All first names have been changed.

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