Fathers: Dads army

More and more fathers are choosing to stay at home to look after the kids full-time - and they're not all New Men in touch with their feminine side.

Michael Booth
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:51

So a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, does she? Not as far as the wives and partners of these eight hard-working dads are concerned. Forget New Lad, he'd no more change a nappy than he would change his aftershave. And as for New Man, he may well talk the talk, but how's he going to react when a toddler up-chucks on his best Gap V-neck? No, these aren't New Men, they're the New Supermen, attempting to grasp in weeks the roles that women have had millennia to rehearse, and challenging convention to watch their children grow.

Aside from a small blip in the early Eighties, the number of working mothers has been rising constantly over the past 25 years, particularly those taking on full-time careers (we're not talking dinner ladies here). Well over half of all mothers in the UK have some kind of employment. That, combined with the shift from a manufacturing to a service-industry- led economy, plus child-care resources that are stretched to capacity, has inevitably led more men to swap jobs with their wives to stay at home with the kids. Today it is estimated that 17 in every 1,000 fathers are full-time, stay-at-home husbands. That's a total of 110,000 nationwide. The Office of Statistics believes that the number of house husbands has doubled over the past five years. And that's not including the part-timers.

The benefits of being able to stay at home with your children are obvious, being with your children as they grow is many fathers' dream. But seeing the first smile, the first steps, and hearing the first words (more likely to be "Daddy", don't forget) and even witnessing the first successful potty/bottom interface are one-off joys that most fathers miss.

However, this role reversal does bring problems. Loss of self-esteem is common among men who have prematurely terminated careers. Then there are the more immediate stresses of being lumbered with what, at times, amount to little more than miniature Beelzebubs. These problems, of course, are no different from those experienced by mothers who make the same sacrifices. Where domestic dads suffer more tellingly is in society's attitudes. A lack of changing facilities that admit men in shops and restaurants is an irritating obstacle, a negative response from friends and family can be more emotionally damaging. Perversely, the most significant opposition to the overturning of prehistoric gender stereotypes, at least according to these dads, has come from full-time mothers who don't work. And mean mothers they can be, too. Shunned from play school, given a stony silence at toddler group, and facing a barrage of indifference at the PTA, these fathers sometimes experience isolation and loneliness that few mothers do.

If the current trend continues, that will prove to be short-sighted, at least as far as future career mothers are concerned. In the world of child care and parenting, New Supermen could very well be the shape of things to come, and they and everybody else had better start getting used to it.

Simon Prentice, 38, father of Molly, 4, and Fergus, 2: Simon's wife works full-time as a teacher, while he stays at home. "It can be hard being a bloke bringing up children because there are aspects of child care, like mother's groups, that are not at all welcoming. At play groups it's almost as if they turn their backs on you, you feel like you're on your own. I don't think being at home is unnatural at all. You're only made to feel it's unnatural by other people. My in-laws, they're very nice and friendly, and I'm probably imagining it, but I always think they're thinking that I should be working and bringing in the money. My friends probably think I'm a lazy bugger! But I don't find it embarrassing telling people what I do, though I do put a little gloss on it to make it sound better. I have gone absolutely nutty at home in the past with cabin fever. But there are rewards. The best thing is getting to know your kids better, seeing the little changes, like when Fergus suddenly put two words together - "bottle-brush" - or when they learnt to climb stairs. Now I've only got to be away for a couple of days and they seem to have moved on so much. There are some roles that don't change though, even though I do most of the cooking and cleaning, I'm still the one who fixes the car." Simon Brown, 28, father of Beth, 5, and Georgina, 2: "I very proud of what I do. I like the idea that I'm different, that I'm not conforming to what society thinks I should be, but in the beginning it was just out of convenience that my wife ended up working while I became a house husband. I lost my job as a printer and we both felt it would be better if she worked and I looked after the house because, and she'd agree, I'm more house-proud. She's more academic ... There were many times when I got funny looks at toddler group, still do, I am the only man there. There's still this stereotype that men are child beaters or something, and I think some thought I was infringing on their responsibilities, that this wasn't something that a man should be doing." Despite having two daughters to cope with full time, Simon says his only stresses are financial. "And when they go to school and I have to get a job I will miss this very, very much. I love being with my children, some fathers miss out on so much, you know."

Paul Challis, father of Alfie, 11 months: Paul's partner Kate, a civil servant, had two daughters aged 12 and 10 when he met her. They have since had a son, Alfie, whom Paul has been looking after full-time for the past six months. "Quite naively in the beginning I relished the idea, even though giving up work was an enormous step - there's all sorts of emotional stuff that goes with that, about being useful, a significant wage earner. Initially, being in the house sent me stir- crazy - the monotony and drudgery of it all is quite unrewarding for the first six months until they start exhibiting signs of intelligence, and doing tricks. Now Alfie's interesting and demanding. At toddler group there seemed to be a hierarchy. There are the `hard women' for whom it's a second home and they're quite intimidating, I was aggressively ignored until I went along with a woman. In my paranoid mind I imagine they're very suspicious. Some female friends, too, I almost feel, want me to fail. I also get that `Oh, you've been left with baby' or `I see you're holding the fort' response from some, but as far as I'm concerned most attitudes are fed by social myths. I actually believe that women and men learn child care at similar levels, there's nothing innate about it." Simon O'Donnell, 28, father of Samira, 11, Roxane, 8 and Loveday, 4: A typical day: "I work nights at Tesco stacking shelves from 10pm to 6.45am. Return home to wake my wife and kids and prepare them for school. Cook breakfast - porridge because they like something hot when it's cold - make their lunches, take them to school. Return home for five hours, sleep. Alarm goes off at 2.30pm. I pick up kids from school at 3.10pm - sometimes friends' kids too, up to seven at a time - then it's home from school and sometimes off to ballet classes, tap lessons, gymnastics. Home to do housework, prepare dinner; pick up kids from classes; return home to cook dinner; get the kids ready for bed for 7.30pm then have a tidy up, do some housework, maybe grab a couple of hours' sleep if I'm knackered, then it's off to work at 10pm." Though this Sisyphean task renders Simon "a zombie most of the time," he wouldn't have it any other way. "It's the little things they do that are the most rewarding and I love knowing that I'm instilling positive views into another generation. It's a bit lonely sometimes because the other house husbands you bump into are weedy, vegetarian hippy types and I'm a really clubby raver, I used to be a DJ and I've always taken my kids to raves and festivals. I don't think my doing this will have any long-term effect on my kids. I certainly don't worry about that, I've never felt it's unnatural or anything."

Alan Leslie, 39, father of twins David and Katherine, 5: "My contract ended and my wife was earning one-and-a-half times more than me so it was a simple practical decision that it would be better for her to be the one to work. I wasn't too proud to insist that we move to a smaller house and live on a smaller income. I did think it'd be a doddle looking after the twins, though - they'd be sleeping all the time, I could put my feet up - but with our parents living too far away it was much harder work than I'd expected. When you're tormented by a little howling face that can't be appeased at three in the morning you almost despair. There have been times when you just have to leave them strapped into their chair screaming, while you go into the kitchen to take a deep breath and count to a thousand. One of the positive things is that I think I've been more strict with the girls than my wife would have been and as a result that's paid dividends in how they behave and their manners - they're welcome pretty much anywhere." Having worked on major construction projects Alan did find he missed the comradeship, "I guess people would call it male bonding, but generally I missed having a laugh with the lads, the craic. I don't like cleaning baths and toilets much." Dominic Kynaston, 34, father of Bonita, 5, and Charlie, 2: Dominic still works occasionally as a supporting artist (TV extra) but spends the rest of his time looking after the children while his wife, Jenny, works at a nearby university. "We'd both like to be at home with the kids but that's not possible. My wife and I have always been fairly equal about things, I hate this male/female divide. I've never really been a lad. And I think we've knocked any ideas of social conditioning on the head, it seems to have had the opposite effect - a more girlish girl and boyish boy than Bonnie and Charlie you couldn't meet. Watching them grow has been quite amazing - small things, like Charlie mastering the potty, are wonderful and you'd miss them if you were working. With only one earner in the household, money is tight. We are broke all the time and I can fully appreciate people who have to go out to work, but at the same time I'd rather be poor and struggling and be with my family, having them irritate me all day." Michael Sene, 34, father of Charlotte and Francesca, 15 months: Michael was already working with under-fives as a play worker with Save the Children before he took on full-time parenting of his twin daughters. "It was natural, as my wife was earning more than me and wanted to carry on teaching. I wanted to be here, and I've had really good fun so far. This job never stops, but the bonuses are better. The first smile and when they've managed to sit up without falling over have been highlights. I'm really proud of what I do, I feel privileged. I'm used to working with women and children so even though I'm the lone male at toddler group, it's not a problem, and the twin factor is always good for breaking barriers before they start thinking, `Here's a man interfering in our work.' I've always been in touch with my feminine side. And as for the kids, they've had the experience of seeing that a man doesn't have to be out working all the time. Quite a few of my friends are in similar positions and I have a rule that each day I will talk to an adult, even if it's the man in the paper shop, just to maintain sanity."

Chris Joseph, 38, father of Mia, 4, and Zak, 2: Chris's partner works full-time and Chris, though he has recently returned to working part-time, looks after their two children. "We just made a positive choice, I wanted to spend more time with my bairns and my partner wanted to carry on working. I think it strikes a balance because initially you feel that the woman, because she bore the child, is closer to it. So me looking after them now redresses the balance. More often than not I'm mingling with women during the day and I would say from their point of view there's a curiosity about me: can he cope? To a certain extent they think that I'm some sort of wonder dad, but I'm still a bit slack on the domestic front. I'm not as good a cook as I should be. I thought doing the chores would be laborious, but now I like to know that, when people visit, the place will be looking nice and tidy. I think me looking after them makes my children more flexible, more open. I love it when my kids say they want Daddy, not because they think I'm going to side with them but because I'm the one they want to comfort them. They don't see Dad as someone who demands food and doles out money. Ah! That's the thing I do feel bad about, though. I still feel as though I should be the one with the change in my pocket, but that's just me being brainwashed from a youngster. That gender stuff is going out the window".

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