Real men don’t wear papooses. Can you imagine your grandad wrestling with a baby sling containing your infant father, or taking him down to the park as a toddler and gossiping by the climbing frame? Of course not. It didn’t happen. It couldn’t have happened. And the very thought of taking on that traditionally female role wouldn’t even have crossed his mind. But times have changed.
In April, new legislation came into effect that allowed both parents to share time off during their baby’s first year. But there’s also a growing tendency for men to be full-time stay-at-home dads, while the mother goes back to work. In fact, according to new research by Aviva, almost 1.4 million men in the UK have taken that option. The study also reveals that there are now 10 times as many male primary carers in the UK than a decade ago.
So often the 21st-century father is left pushing prams instead of pens during the week. The obvious initial question is, “Why?” Dr Caroline Gatrell of Lancaster University management school has studied the trend closely, and believes it’s a social shift driven by the fact that many women are now the main breadwinners in the relationship. “A generation ago it was almost unheard of for childcare responsibilities to fall to the man while the wife hurried off to work every morning,” she says. “However, below boardroom level the gender pay gap is collapsing and women in their late 20s and early 30s often have much more earning power than men.” Research by Oxford University reveals that one-quarter of women in the UK are paid more than their other halves, which means while the recession bites, many couples are deciding that there’s no other option than to ignore accepted gender roles.
“The whole approach to family in the UK is becoming non-traditional, not only because mothers are more likely to be better compensated for their work, but also because today’s dads want to have an equally close relationship to their children as their partners do,” says Gatrell. “They want to be there for them growing up, often because their fathers weren’t there for them.” So, after decades of traditional typecasting, how does it feel to step off the career conveyer belt and take over duties at home?
Peter Bacon Darwin, from London, was 28 and working in an IT consultancy firm when his daughter Lily was born. His wife earned double what he did and so he had a decision to make. A surprisingly easy one, as it turned out. “My wife is a barrister, so I took over full childcare responsibilities when Lily was five months old,” he says. “My son Zachary came along a couple of years later and I didn’t like the idea of leaving the kids in childcare. It seemed like quite an obvious choice. Although barristers have control over their hours and holidays, there are always times, especially in court, where you have to be there all the time and it’s not possible to work a part-time week.” What wasn’t so obvious to Peter was what awaited him at home while his wife went off to work.
“Children have a way of getting into your deepest emotions and poking them until you are furious and have lost sight of reality. The time I have now spent with the kids has taught me a huge amount about myself — who I am and how I deal with difficult situations. I read somewhere that kids are our own little Zen masters — the ones that hit you with a stick for no reason other than to trigger you to deal with your own anger.”
His situation is a common one according to research from children’s saving provider The Children’s Mutual, which surveyed male primary carers and found that although nearly two-thirds said they were satisfied with their chosen course, 53 per cent felt they faced unexpected challenges after choosing the role.
Jeff Staddon, 29, from Birmingham, who has only recently joined the ranks of the stay-at-homers, agrees. “I look after our 18-month-old twins,” he says. “I’m quite traditional, and I always thought that the responsibility would fall to my partner. I tried to go back to my work as a catering manager but the childcare costs were crazy. My wife earns more than me and we decided that after her maternity leave was over, I should look after the kids, as my salary only just covered the cost of putting them in nursery. At least that way we wouldn’t be any worse off and they’d have one of us present. I approach it like a job now, and my wife respects the fact that I’ve found a new strength of character that was never there before.”
HERE COMES THE FEAR
But despite more and more fathers doing this, Jeff also admits it’s initially hard to shake the effect it had on his pride: “When it finally sunk in that I was going to be the one struggling around town with them and going to playgroups, I felt totally emasculated. I was more nervous before my first playgroup than I was prior to any business meeting.”
Indeed, the men questioned in the Aviva study admitted that they had difficulty in assuming primary responsibility for their children, and nearly one in five revealed that it made them feel “less of a man”.
However, six months into his new role, Jeff has overcome those feelings. And one way of doing that was by setting up a playgroup with men in similar situations one afternoon a week at a local pub. “We put down play mats and toys and have a pint while they play,” explains Jeff. “I enjoyed the other playgroups, but if I needed to have a moan about the football while the kids were amusing themselves, I didn’t get much feedback. It’s a more complete experience for me. Occasionally, I’m even able to do some networking when someone comes along with a similar work background, so it’s a good confidence boost.”
Jeff’s final comment is especially telling. Conventionally it’s the man who provides for the family and battles his way through the world of business. But, if you’ve eschewed that particular path in favour of looking after your children, your last hard-nosed negotiation is more likely to have involved you talking a three-year-old down from a sugar high than brokering a big-money merger. The key is realising that even though that’s what you’re doing now, it’s not necessarily always going to be the case.
“Just because you are taking care of the children doesn’t mean that you can’t lay foundations for further career advancement,” says Professor Binna Kandola, a senior partner at Pearn Kandola, a business psychology firm. “More and more HR departments are taking an active interest in the online presence of potential employees.” Research from Microsoft backs this up, revealing that 78 per cent of employers regularly performed background internet checks on prospective workers.
“Your ability to write blogs and the quality of your online network is a further way that a company decides how you can contribute to its success,” says Kandola. So while the kids are napping, Google yourself and see what comes up. If it’s not much, get to work on your ‘brand’. “Start tidying up your online presence by creating a blog on Tumblr that has your name in the URL, or by creating your own website,” says leading social-software expert Suw Charman-Anderson. “By doing this, your site will potentially show up first in a search and this will begin to push other negative, mundane or less-professional links off page one.” Charman-Anderson also advises taking advantage of LinkedIn and Flickr, as their pages rank high on Google searches and will come at the top of a search for your name. Just remember to keep those pictures of you dressed as Igglepiggle to a minimum.
KEEPING YOUR HAND IN
One avenue open to prospective stay-at-home dads is to negotiate freelance work with their employer before leaving. “The consultancy I worked for offered to continue to send me work that I could do in my spare time,” says Peter Bacon Darwin. “At no point has it been much of an income, but it keeps my brain engaged and my CV ticking over.” Peter’s work has ranged from a six-month contract with Microsoft to rebuilding websites for people he meets during his dad duties. “I even rebuilt my children’s violin group website, which was fun,” he adds. “But at no time have I considered myself to be anything but a full-time parent.”
Another is to try to arrange some form of flexible working agreement. Currently, male employees can apply for this at any time while their child is under 16 — but anyone requesting leave must submit a proposal in writing to their employer, and must be able to provide evidence that the change is practical.
“Unfortunately, many employers are not in step with how dramatically roles within the modern family are changing,” says Professor Gatrell, who was also the lead researcher for a study called ‘Work Life Balance: Working For Fathers?’. “Men often find themselves becoming the primary carer because employers aren’t offering them things such as flexible working hours.”
REDUCING YOUR HOURS
However, according to Sarah Jackson, chief executive of charity Working Families, you can take advantage of the economic slow down to make part-time work a realistic option. “Many firms are offering employees the option of a four-day week to avoid job losses,” she says. “So they are more likely to be receptive when an employee approaches them with a request to reduce the hours he works.” This attitude was proved when accountancy giant KPMG introduced a voluntary four-day week and 55 per cent of its male employees opted into the scheme. In fact, flexible working practices have become more widespread over the past five years, with one-quarter of dads in the UK now able to work part-time after having children. Businesses ranging from Sainsbury’s to NatWest have even identified job sharing as a legitimate way of hiring two brains for the price of one.
“Job sharing is becoming increasingly common in teaching, local government and service sectors,” adds Jackson. “If you can present a good case to an employer, they are legally bound to consider it, and in a recession are more likely to agree because it is a good way of keeping its operation streamlined.” The job-share system usually entails working three days a week, which includes an overlap day where both employees are in the office.
It gets better, too. New dads also have the option of taking advantage of the aforementioned new government legislation that will allow them access to more than just the typical two-week paternity stretch on statutory pay. “Working mums will effectively be able to transfer some of their 12 months’ maternity leave entitlement to their partner,” says Jackson. “If they decide to go back to work after five months, the new father will be able to take up to seven months off.”
This additional paternity leave (APL) is extra to the two-weeks standard leave. “I wasn’t able to take advantage of APL as the twins were born before the legislation came in,” says Jeff, “but I’m already thinking of my time with them as a sabbatical, which I would have never have received from my old employer.” Traditionally, the working man has had to stay the course and remain on the same career trajectory throughout his life, without an opportunity to reassess. “Being a stay-at-home dad has given me breathing space to think about whether I even want to go back to my previous career,” continues Jeff, “or whether I should explore other opportunities. While I do so, I’m creating a solid bond with my children that I hope will remain for the rest of my life.”
So it does appear that the initial leap into what is traditionally the female’s role that’s the toughest challenge. And for men like Jeff, the most vocal critic is actually his own father. “My mates have been more supportive than my dad, who still jokes with me that it’s ‘women’s work’,” he says. But he believes it’s typical male bravado hiding a bittersweet truth. “He sees how close I am becoming with the twins and realises what he might have missed out on with me — I actually think he’s really jealous.” So maybe real men do wear papooses after all. We just never realised it before.
Image: SHAUN MILLS @ JAMIESTEPHEN.COM