The many benefits of the house husband

When I was young I loved the Welsh folktale about a farmer and wife who swap lives for the day.  The wife does well in the field but the husband forgets to dress the baby, nearly strangles the cow and ends up with his head in the porridge pot.

 

The stay-at-home dad arrangement is the most beneficial for the child. 

Hundreds of years on from the first telling of that tale Channel 9 is about to launch House Husbands.  The show features four blokes battling the difficulties of getting babies to sleep, juggling paid work and trying to stay calm outside the Deputy Principal’s office.  Househusbands are now common enough to be represented in popular culture overseas as well.  In the US there’s a reality show featuring daddy day carers with fake tan and large abs; a movie is planned in the UK and there’s a stay at home rabbit dad in my son’s favourite cartoon – The Amazing World of Gumball. 

 

Some will be cynical about the way househusbands are portrayed.  In the Channel 9 series, the dads are gossiping so much they don’t realise danger is looming far worse than a cow falling off a roof and Gumball’s father is, in the words of my son, “a lazy plughole who sits on the couch watching TV”.  But let’s at least celebrate the shift. When my Father saw the ad for House Husbands, he shook his head in wonder - “It never would have happened in my day”.

 

The Bureau of Statistics found only 1% of Australian families have a stay at home Dad.  But as The Sydney Morning Herald revealed recently, in some inner-Sydney suburbs, up to one in four women earn more than men and arrangements are shifting.  With the restructuring of the economy, men are losing jobs and women are gaining, so the trend could continue.  This is even more pronounced in the recession-hit US where one in five households has a bloke doing the hard yards at home.  The trend is also evident at the highest level of corporate success.  Seven of the eighteen women who are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies have house spouses. They put a lie to the old joke “Behind every great man there’s a great woman and behind every great woman there’s a man who tried to stop her”.

 

We have a couple of househusbands at our school. The mothers look at them with a mixture of admiration, adoration and jealousy.  One has taken time off work management to support his wife who is an Oncologist working at the forefront of exciting new research. He finds it frustrating that some men pretend not to cope with the mundane nature of the routine tasks of parenting and finds it no more difficult than women do.  In fact, he’s professionalised parenting.  There’s no TV in the home, an hour of music practice, swimming lessons and joyful kids. The local ladies think he’s a legend.

 

In Sweden, a man isn’t labelled a legend for taking a year off to look after a child. On any day in Stockholm men gather in cafes while bundled babies sleep in prams outside puffing warm breath into the freezing air.  But there’s no Swedish word for househusband.  Or maternity leave.  Instead, there’s Föräldrapenning: 480 paid leave days to be shared.  Let me repeat.  Taking out weekends, that’s nearly two years of paid leave.  To be shared! If men don’t take a certain amount, that leave is lost and couples that share the parenting equally get a bonus payment.  Swedish couples take the leave in shifts and blokes who don’t take it are often eyed with suspicion.

 

Of course, the main thing that stops Australian men taking more time off, apart from the lack of paid leave, is that they usually earn more money than women.  It makes sense for the top income earner to stay at work.  But Sweden found changing the laws to encourage men to do more actually improved equality in the workplace. The local Institute of Labor Market Policy Evaluation showed a mother’s future earnings increase on average 7 percent for every month the father takes leave. 

 

When I wrote about work widows in a previous column, a reader admonished me for marrying an ambitious man and then whinging about it.  She stated that women who want a high-powered career should marry a guy who is less ambitious. But we can’t always decide whom we fall in love with.  Women who want to make it to the top should look for a bloke with a different definition of success but many would like to hope that there can be room for two careers in a marriage.

 

There’s some really interesting research on the benefits of having a dad as primary carer.  American Dr. Kyle D. Pruett found a father's active involvement with his children promotes greater emotional balance, stronger curiosity and a stronger sense of self-assurance in the child.  What’s also interesting is that it seems when a mother works full time the relationships are less skewed.  A Professor of Child Development in Illinois studied families and concluded that women working full-time outside of the home were often more engaged with their children on a day-to-day basis than their male counterparts. The study found that both parents play an equal role in a child's development, but the stay-at-home dad arrangement is the most beneficial for the child.

 

It’s a confronting thought for some mothers.  Yet, I can see the benefits.  Some time ago I returned from an overseas trip to children brimming with joy, confidence and an exuberant energy developed during fulltime fatherhood. They had developed a new language, a deeper trust and a rhythm.  Maybe one day my kids will have a househusband but, till then, I make sure I still go away regularly for them to get their fill.  (I will admit after just returning from a girls’ weekend in Broke there are great benefits for me as well)

There are also undeniable benefits for men.  As I chatted to our local househubbie in a café yesterday, he talked of his new ability to focus, to turn down the volume on his ego, the rediscovery of his passion for music and the wonder of seeing his children develop.  As we spoke a blonde girl leaned over from the next table.  She was Swedish and thrilled to tell the story of shared leave. Her last words sung in my ears “I’ve got to tell you the times when my dad stayed home were a lot more fun!”

 

 

21 comments

  • My dad was a shift worker when I was growing up, he usually got home just before I woke up and while my mum got ready for work, he got me ready for school and then dropped us both off. He was always the one to pick me up from school and take me to my various after school activities, mum always cooked dinner, but dad made sure he ate with us before heading off to work at night himself, I honestly dont know how he did it, but I wouldnt have changed it for the world, I loved being looked after by my dad, it was so much fun, and very very different to the odd days when it was mum, not better or worse, just both were different, but I credit a lot of my own attributes today to my dad and what he passed on to me whilst being my primary caregiver!!! Woulsnt have changed anything and I hope that one day my own hubby will take time off from work to be a stay at home dad, even if its only for a couple of years!!!

    Commenter
    So much love for dad
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    August 14, 2012, 8:26AM
    • I look forward to the day when being a parent is not governed by who makes the most money. Plus I look forward to the day when parents consciously give up better "things" and make sure one parent is fulltime. In our household we have different views on parenting. I like the fact that the swedes frown on parents that don't use the free time to engage their kids, brilliant. If we are supposedly affluent enough to bring in a carbon tax, then why not the swedes deal

      Commenter
      Average guy
      Date and time
      August 14, 2012, 9:13AM
      • I found it interesting that only 1% are house husbands. I would have thought it was at least 5 times that. Unemployment of men is. I am guessing that even though many fathers are currently the primary caregiver due to whatever circumstances such as "between jobs" they don't like the tag of house husbands even more so than women and housewife. The 4 stay at home dads I know are good parents but have poor job skills. Reinforcing my belief that the number one reason for choosing the stay at home parent is income. An important factor in mens self worth and among peers Sadly IMO we are at least a generation away from viewing these mens decisions as anything other as a second choice and recording it on the census correctly and with pride

        Commenter
        Average guy
        Date and time
        August 14, 2012, 9:40AM
        • It is so very telling isn't it. Discussion of stay-at-home-dads and it is all warm fuzzy feelings. For stay at home dads going out to lunch or having coffee is all soft and sweet, I can hear you oohing and ahhing. Mention a mother staying at home and we get hysteria, harsh sarcastic nasty stories about mothers having lunch, terms like lazy, doing nothing, living off her husband, opting out, come out and the fight begins. Children are much better off seeing mummy walk out the door it reminds children that they must not need their parents they must look after themselves. I hope that there are more stay at home dads, I know a few and it is a great step forward but sadly and most revealingly of all, it will give the position credibility which is something working mothers often refuse to give it. Now that is irony.

          Ultimately children need parents and whilst there is room in a marriage for two careers, it is not always the case where there are children. Children need one of the parents to be more focused on them than on their careers. You say you can't help who you fall in love with, I say that marrying someone is not just about love, it is about compatibility and future plans. Love runs out but compatibility and the decision to work towards common goals is forever and often fosters a better sort of companionship and a kind of love that may well be longer lasting.

          Commenter
          Belinda
          Date and time
          August 14, 2012, 9:44AM
          • Great article Sarah, and so true, it is better for everybody; the kids, who get to see both parents play both roles, mum who has a career and doesn't have to choose between continuing it and having kids (like so many do...), and of course the dad's themselves, when men share the burden of childrearing and have a period in their lives when they're house-hubbies,when they will forge a bond with their child that the remote, sole-breadwinner-style dad's never have the chance to do. And of course, as in so many areas in these modern times, the sensible, practical Swedes lead the way...

            Commenter
            Sam
            Location
            Here
            Date and time
            August 14, 2012, 10:21AM
            • No doubt that fathers are very important to their children's development, perhaps as important as mothers. However, I feel shows like House Husbands will do more harm then good. I can't see it doing anything other then following the stereotypical lines about how incompetent and useless men are at parenting; just like every other depiction of fathers on TV (especially in advertising).

              Commenter
              Sam
              Date and time
              August 14, 2012, 10:52AM
              • Perhaps? Of course fathers are as important as mothers! I agree with you about the rest. Sexism towards men does nobody any favours. The more men are portrayed as incompetent the more pressure is put on women to be the main carers of children.

                Commenter
                Pecan
                Location
                Sydney
                Date and time
                August 14, 2012, 1:17PM
            • My husband stays at home 3 days, works 2, while I'm full time. I earn more, it's that simple. He works in education (secondary) and although he was the first man to ask for a part time position so he can stay at home and look after the kids, it's a bit easier to provide him with part time work. I don't know of any man doing it in IT, my field, I only know female part time workers. I hope more men will take this option in the future.

              Also, I will take more time off to have our second soon and I want to keep my job for security, I don't want to have to give it up in case we need a larger salary or 2 jobs in the future. My husband preferred to take the time off to reassess his career and spend time with our little one.

              Commenter
              Working wife
              Date and time
              August 14, 2012, 11:46AM
              • This is the point, your decision for your husband to stay at home was financial, Nothing wrong with that. I am just saying house husbands only exist because women are starting to earn enough even with career glitches for pregnancy and birth to be the better bread winner. It rarely sounds like both parents sit down and decide who is better at parenting irrespective of income. Good luck and remember you never need to have two fulltime jobs, that is a want you create. You are never forced to buy a house, car etc

                Commenter
                Average guy
                Date and time
                August 14, 2012, 2:04PM
              • Arghh, don't say that! My husband and I earn an almost identical wage. We're having a baby in November. The intention is that I will take the first year off, then I will work 3 days and he will work 4 (luckily the grandmas have offered to mind him for the two days we both work).

                I thought it would be really nice for him to get a day at home a week to look after his son, and since we have no carer for that day and we earn the same wage, it seemed logical.

                He works in IT though. I just think that unless they want to pay him a wage that is high enough for him to reasonably be the primary wage earner, I shouldn't be the only one applying for part time hours. I hope you're wrong about men in IT!

                Commenter
                Sally
                Location
                Sydney
                Date and time
                August 14, 2012, 2:08PM

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