Sunday, 29 January 2012

Invisible Men Shouldn't Obscure Invisible Women

I am a stay-at-home dad. Or possibly, I'm a house-husband? I don't really know what to call what I do because none of these labels seem to fit. I hate the moment in a conversation where I have to try and describe who I am, normally to a near total stranger. Sometimes I go with housewife - it gets a smile more often that not and it doesn't seem any less untrue. I have to say something because I am always asked 'what do you do?' whenever I meet someone. I get asked this because I am a man and the expectation is that I have at least a job, if not a career. Women, I have noticed, are asked a subtly different question: 'do you work?'

I've just read this article in the paper about British fathers who stay at home to perform childcare duties whilst their partner works full-time. I'm still trying to understand what I think about it. It seems to be suggesting that this is something that is happening under the radar, a phenomenon which requires attention by policy-makers to avoid men becoming 'ghettoised'.
Adrienne Burgess, head of research at the Fatherhood Institute, feels there is little understanding in government about family life and that more men could be househusbands. "What's changing is not the fathers but the mothers," she said. "More mothers at the time of their first child are earning as much or more than their partner. So couples make rational economic decisions. By the time the child is 18 months old, three quarters of mothers are back in paid work and those who aren't tend to be the most poor or disadvantaged who don't have the options because of the cost of childcare. The fully fledged stay-at-home parent is a dying breed. [...] Motherhood is still in that flux and, while men are seeing being the primary parent as an option, their voices aren't heard. They are ghettoised. What holds a lot of men back is a lack of confidence and a culture that is sometimes hostile and excluding of men."
And then there was this:
[A man] has started working again part-time now that his children are at school, but remains the primary carer. "Leaving work to pick the kids up still gets comments from other blokes. There is the sense that I'm not putting in a full day. It can be hard going at times."
I have nothing but respect for men - and women - that juggle working and parenting, either individually, or as a couple, or whatever. But the subtext of this article seems to be 'Gosh, these men have it tough'. And this is something I take issue with.

Before I was a stay-at-home dad, I worked part-time. Thanks to flexible working legislation brought in by the Labour government I was able to halve the hours I worked when my wife's maternity leave finished. She went back to the job that she loved and I was delighted to get out of the office at lunchtime every day and pick up my son from nursery. I loved it. My immediate boss was brilliant. He backed my application and continued to support me throughout the remaining five years I worked with that company. But that didn't mean that it was easy.

Upper levels of management (both male and female) seemed bewildered at my choice. I was made to feel that I had somehow offended them by suggesting that I would rather have less money and more time changing nappies. Once, at a Christmas office dinner, I mentioned my wife's career to a member of senior management. There was a frosty silence, the implication being apparently that if my wife had a career then I had abandoned my own. And, beyond my immediate team, colleagues were perplexed that I wasn't around in the afternoons. I was made to feel that I wasn't pulling my weight and eventually work started to bypass me entirely and I ended up with almost nothing to do, as if I couldn't be trusted.

That could have gone on indefinitely I suppose. Luckily my wife's career meant we ended up moving abroad and here I have no work visa. It seemed a good fit - the children, still small, would benefit from having me at home full time whilst we got used to our new surroundings. Furthermore, my wife would have to travel quite a bit and I would be able to be the permanent presence for them. That was four years ago.

I can't say there aren't downsides to this arrangement, and the article mentions some of these, but I can't support the idea that the experience of being a male stay-at-home parent is somehow worse or harder or uniquely challenging when compared to that of a mother.

When I was working, there were many female colleagues who had to leave early to pick up their kids, or who worked part-time. They suffered the same criticisms and aspersions that I did - the only difference is that both they and their employers expected it to be this way. The women knew they were expected to work harder; the company probably felt, having given these women jobs, that they were a necessary evil. Being a man, it never occurred to me that I would be treated differently once I went part-time. But the anxieties, the pressure to be in two places at once that I felt were just the same.

And it's the same for stay-at-home parents. Speaking to other mums it's clear that we both have the same problems. The article talks about men resenting their wives' freedom, feeling their 'ego turn to mush'. You think this doesn't happen to women? This has been most women's lives in the developed world for generations. We're all swirling above the plughole of an existential crisis, trying to cope with the threat that our identity as individuals could be entirely eroded, that our domestic role could subsume us. The sense I get from these conversations is that I, somehow, have the right to complain about this because I am a man. Like me, these women also get uprooted from their friends and support networks when their husbands relocate them. They feel the ludicrous pressure to keep up appearances at the school gate. They get defined and identified by, even measured against, their children, their spouses, or their homes. And all this is worse where economic factors force someone to be an involuntary stay-at home parent. 

I have it easier than them. I have a suspicion that I get away with murder because people's expectations of me as a stay-at-home parent are not those they would have for a woman. I think I feel less guilty about marking out time for myself, about saying 'screw the housework today'. If I ever went back to work (please God no) I'd get paid more money than them.

This isn't a criticism against working parents. I know they have to, you know, work really hard and that they suffer tremendous guilt at not being with their kids as much as they would like. I am not, either, saying that I have a hard time. Now both kids are at school, this is (on the whole) a cushy number, let's be clear. And, yes, this can be a disorientating and demoralising experience for men who have been brought up to think that self-worth can only come from a rewarding career. But do these men need special help? Do we need targeted government policies to help us? No. Social policy should be aimed at helping families, whatever the permutation of workers and stay-at-homers, men and women, adults and children. And it is still women that have the hardest time of it. They face the greatest expectations, required by society to be perfect mothers as much as productive workers, whilst continuing to be undervalued thanks to the gender pay gap.

It's great that more men are occupying this traditionally female role. I hope the trend continues because I think it will help improve legislation and make things easier for parents, men and women, working and stay-at-home. But whilst this social change is unfolding around us it would be a crushing disservice to women, to our wives and mothers and grandmothers, to claim that men have a tougher time of it just because this is, for us, uncharted territory.      

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