Home is not the answer for all
Stay-at-home fathers are becoming a significant phenomenon in the US and Europe where the recession has hit men harder than women. Forced from jobs in manufacturing, construction, and finance, fathers are taking on the childcare, the after-school ferrying, the cleaning and the cooking while their wives bring home the bacon.
Stay-at-home fathers are becoming a significant phenomenon in the US and Europe where the recession has hit men harder than women. Forced from jobs in manufacturing, construction, and finance, fathers are taking on the childcare, the after-school ferrying, the cleaning and the cooking while their wives bring home the bacon. Stay-at-home fathers are becoming a significant phenomenon in the US and Europe where the recession has hit men harder than women. Forced from jobs in manufacturing, construction, and finance, fathers are taking on the childcare, the after-school ferrying, the cleaning and the cooking while their wives bring home the bacon.A new survey from Aviva, a British insurer, found a surprising 14 per cent of fathers in Britain, or about 1.4 million, were stay-at-home dads. Not all these men have been forced into the kitchen because of unemployment for many it is a choice. In the US where one-third of wives earn more than their husbands, the lay-offs since 2008 have quickened the pace of role reversals.In Australia, too, more fathers, it seems, are taking on the full-time carer role. Richard Fletcher, of the University of Newcastle, the nation's leading expert on fathering, estimates as many as 10 per cent of fathers are their children's primary carer though he wishes for better data.If rigid role divisions are dissolving to everyone's benefit that is cause for celebration. Hasn't the career woman always longed to have a ''wife'' at home? Hasn't the ''absent'' father been blamed for many of society's ills, including the recent riots in Britain?But stay-at-home fathers would do well to heed the lessons of the women's movement: being a full-time, stay-at-home parent often just isn't enough. Remember the Rolling Stones' song, Mother's Little Helper? It referred to the common practice among bored housewives of popping tranquilisers to make life bearable.Many enthusiasts in the past have hailed the arrival of the stay-at-home dad but in reality the numbers have been so insignificant that good research is lacking.What these men do with their time, how long they stay out of the workforce, how hard it is to get back in, whether they are happy or depressed is unknown.A study of American stay-at-home dads - by Dr Elaine Eaker - provides grim tidings which were reported this year at the American Heart Association's annual conference.Men who were househusbands in the 1980s were 82 times more likely to die from heart disease over the 10 years of the study than men in paid work. But these pioneers of role reversal suffered stresses from flouting society's expectations that might be less prevalent today.A small 2008 study of househusbands by Aaron Rochlen, of the University of Texas in Austin, found most of those surveyed were content in their roles and unperturbed by what people thought of them. They were doing what made them happy and what was best for their families where women earned a lot more, the arrangement made sense to them, especially to couples opposed to outside childcare.A similarly positive picture is portrayed in Jeremy Adam Smith's book, The Daddy Shift. Couples clear from the start of their relationship about whose career took precedence and who would mind the children, and were supportive and respectful of each other's roles, were generally happy with the arrangement.Still a word of caution is needed before men volunteer to be househusbands. Staying home alone for extended periods with young children can make anyone depressed. It was Betty Friedan, the mother of the modern women's movement, who identified the ''problem that has no name''. This was the secret turmoil of stay-at-home mothers who were expected to be happy eating peanut butter sandwiches with their kids and ferrying them to activities but in the dead of the night wondered, ''Is this all?''In the baby boom suburbs of the 50s and 60s mothers had plenty of company, played tennis, worked in the tuck shops, gossiped over the back fence. And still many went crazy, their self-esteem plummeting as depression took hold. My own mother, flouting convention, went to work when we started primary school to save her sanity - and never looked back.Maybe the househusbands of the 21st century are made of more resilient stuff. Those who have enjoyed careers and proved themselves in the public world can be happy to downscale. For some couples it's a matter of taking turns. If it's voluntary and short-term, being at home with kids can be as sweet for men as a year's maternity leave is for women. And when children are pre-schoolers, the work is all-consuming yet often enormously gratifying.Yet role reversal can still be a trap. Househusbands who linger too long can find themselves in premature retirement, shut out of the workforce, and quite isolated.Couples work out what suits their families, and some men, like some women, can happily shape a life outside the workforce. But role reversal was never the aim of the women's movement. The ideal was that men and women shared equally the pleasures and stresses of private and public roles. It is an ideal at odds with Australia's long work hours culture, and the paucity of well-paid part-time jobs, especially for men, but worth striving for.If stay-at-home dads start to feel a sense of dissatisfaction, if they dare ask themselves, "Is this all?" it's not they who are at fault. What is awry is a culture that expects every parent to feel fulfilled raising children and doing housework.