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!”