"I'm no stranger to children; I'm a consultant paediatrician with over 13 years of training, but parenting and households were largely unexplored territory." Photo: Stocksy
When my son was 9 months old my wife went back to work. I chose, with the support of my employer, to take 12 months leave and become a stay-at-home dad. Suffice it to say, it was tougher than I thought it would be.
The challenges, though predictable, felt daunting. I'm no stranger to children; I'm a consultant paediatrician with over 13 years of training, but parenting and households were largely unexplored territory. Despite increasing numbers of actively engaged fathers, I didn't know any dads who were at home fulltime. I felt confident handling all the medical emergencies (more on that later) and I could cook, but with washing, nap time, tantrums and the countless other daily activities my wife had expertly performed I felt anxious; untested.
The first thing I learned is that paediatric medical training did not prepare me very well for parenting. Even though I've worked 12, 24, and even 48-hour shifts in paediatric units, as a doctor I only spend short periods of time with each child, always to achieve a task and with a parent present. Spending all day alone with my son had frequent moments of pure joy, but somewhat to my surprise there were long periods when there were no tantrums or disasters and it was, dare I say it, a little boring.
Not to squander the amazing opportunity of this time, I started planning adventures. This is how I discovered that I was afraid of taking a baby on a bus. The night before our first outing I lay in bed, sweaty-palmed, mentally rehearsing how to fold up the pram and hold the baby and put the ticket in the machine. It struck me as ridiculous compared to the nights I had lain awake worrying about sick patients, but there I was. Despite my anxiety we caught buses frequently, and I eventually conquered my fear through the time-honoured strategy of surviving public humiliation. One memorable trip my pram became stuck in the luggage compartment of a crowded bus and the driver had to hold my son while I struggled to liberate it. Commuters glared, my son cried and my father-in-law had to fix the pram wheel. Being thus defeated was humbling but educational; on telling that story a friendly parent taught me about wheelchair-accessible buses and I've never looked back.
I took my responsibilities seriously; I set a routine, prepared healthy food and my son had minimal screen-time, but sometimes I just got it completely wrong. One day I was eating corn chips, and my son's 12-month-old eyes beseeched me to try one. "Just a little taste!" they said. This was how I precipitated our only medical emergency, when he properly choked, stopped breathing and needed back-blows to clear the chip. It was a classic "dangerous dad" moment (a term I learned from mums in the playground), and in retrospect it was a silly thing to do. However, having spent over a decade caring for children who were accidentally injured by their loving, capable parents, I know that sometimes these things just happen no matter how vigilant parents are (and some say we already hover too closely over our children).
In playgrounds I learned to make friends with mums, but it wasn't always an easy club to join. There were rarely dads in the playgrounds we went to, and the mums tended to stick together at first. Easy courtesies in a work environment suddenly seemed contrived; would I be perceived as hassling these women? Was it socially acceptable to strike up a conversation? What should I do if the conversation in a group of mums turned to breastfeeding or stitches (and it did)? Being a children's doctor helped give me some legitimacy in those circles, but it could have been quite different if I had nearly any other job. It made me realise there are significant challenges in social interaction for stay-at-home fathers. I will always be grateful to the friendly mums and the mums who became my friends. Those park conversations were a welcome reprieve during long days.
Those twelve months were some of the best in my life. As any parent knows, they were hard too. At times it was boring, stressful and exhausting. In many ways it's easier to be a dad; nearly anything a dad does with his kids is considered progressive and admirable. My wife was often reminded by work colleagues of hers how "lucky" she was to have such a supportive husband. No-one said that to me when she took time off from her career to be a stay-at-home parent. In other ways it can be harder for dads. There are ingrained social assumptions that dads are less capable than mums at parenting. There are few social supports and few role models. In addition, it can be hard for both men and women to adjust to new roles and new patterns of responsibility - with children and around the house. A few years down the track and my wife and I have a new balance, but it stretched us both. We both work part-time and both have days at home during the week with our (now two) children. That's a privilege too; we can afford to live on reduced incomes, where for many families that is not practical.
During my year at home, and since, I've met many engaged dads who have taught me innumerable lessons about parenting, fatherhood, public transport and feeding my children age-appropriate food. No one thing is common to all of them, except perhaps that they have all made a choice and been given the opportunity to be engaged dads.
There are many barriers to fathers taking an even more active role in parenting their children. The willingness for dads to have a go, and be given the space to 'learn by doing' on their own, isn't even the biggest one. But it is a surmountable one. If you know a dad who knows not to feed their infant children corn chips and isn't afraid of buses, they're already way ahead of me; have a think about encouraging them to have a go.
Dr Chris Elliot is a Consultant Paediatrician in Sydney.
To learn more about Dr Elliot and his work, visit drchriselliot.com.au.