Stay-at-Home Dads (SAHD) do it tough. Their social support network, compared to their partner’s, is thin and weak. Their working peers don’tunderstand what they do all day. They make statements like, I so wish I was like you. You can spend the day surfing the net, playing in the shed or watching TV. Their fathers, fathers-in-law and uncles do not understand why a bloke wants to do women’s work. Younger male friends and acquaintances think that the SAHD has given up all ambition and thus can be pitied or ignored.
And what about women’s reactions These are more complex. Some of them understand but others exhibit thinly veiled hostility. Home and children are our domain and our responsibility. Get out! is the message some exude. Others are amazed that a man can do it. How do you cope they ask, forgetting that men fought in the trenches in World War I, showing that men can actually cope with anything!
But aren’tthese reactions similar to when women fought their way into the workforce in 1914 And just as women have demonstrated that their involvement in the paid-work domain is just as competent and just as valuable as the men they work alongside, men too will show that they can work on the home front. However, there is a difference in the two groups working women and men at home and that’s the time they and society have had time to get used to the idea. Women have been in the workforce in large numbers since World War I a period of nearly ninety years. As of August 2007, women make up 45% of the Australian paid workforce.
Men have been at home providing domestic services, in any discernible number, since the mid-1970s and even these numbers are tiny. I spent some time in 2006 talking to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) about how many men were SAHDs. The ABS doesn’tdirectly measure men’s domestic contributions and the best it could do was to come up with the bland statement that less than one percent of the Australian labour force are male carers. This means that ninety-nine percent of Australian men are either working, retired, studying or bludging. Is it any wonder that SAHDs feel like a minority.
So not only does society not have an understanding of the SAHD experience, but at-home Dads have no model to follow when they are taking on the domestic role. The famous American sociologist, Robert Merton, was the first to coin the phrase role model and he recognised how important it was for people to model their behaviours on the behaviour of others. Women, when adopting the parenting role, have their own mother as a role model. Men, when adopting a parenting role, have their father as a role model, but for many SAHDs, the paramount reason they have taken on the domestic role is to explicitly reject the role that their father took. I acknowledge that there are other reasons too, such as financial or disability, but for many SAHDs they do it because they wish to parent differently from their father.
I am unaware of any quantitative research that shows this, but anecdotally all the men that I know who have taken on the domestic role have deliberately chosen not to follow their father’s example of fathering. My own experience highlights this well. My father was a loving man and a dependable bread-winner. He did his best to be a good father to me, but oh how I longed for some of his time. When he wasn’tdoing paid work, he was working for non-profit organisations to improve the welfare of others. He took me camping only once in my life. Most weekends he was attending meetings or conferences. My father was very much absent from my life. My happiest memories of him were when we were doing something (anything really!) together. Other SAHDs I have spoken to have had violent fathers or fathers who abandoned them when they were young. Others had fathers like mine good men but uninvolved traditional fathers who would be somewhat surprised at such criticism. They thought they were doing the right thing. Obviously, consciously or unconsciously, we Stay-at-Home Dads want to give our kids something that we never had. A father figure who is present not absent.
So whom do we model our behaviours on The obvious role model for us is our mothers if they were present and engaged. But men don’twork like that. As Steve Biddulph points out in his book Manhood, at the age of six or seven years, boys primary identification point switches from the mother to the father. He will love and relate intensely to his mother but he is not hers anymore. He actively wants to be with, and like his father.
So where do men get their nurturing and fathering skills from, if their father was absent or too busy, or too tired, to demonstrate nurturing and fathering, to demonstrate cooking and cleaning, game-playing and discipline, and sympathy and empathy Men have to make it up, talk to their mates and partners, or read about it. These are all acceptable ways of learning, but all take time compared to simple role-modelling. A point which was driven home to me last month.
I’ve been a SAHD (on and off) for over six years now and I thought I was pretty good on the nurturing front until a really nasty flu struck. First my youngest son had it. He’s a rather robust little fella so it didn’thit him hard. It was slightly worse for my older boy, but not too bad. I did the fetching and carrying and ensured that they were clean, fed, comfortable and not too bored. Then my dear wife came down with it and it hit her hard. I dutifully ensured that she was clean, fed and comfortable. However, she told me that something was missing about the care I gave her. I wracked my brains. What could it be I changed the sheets. I washed the handbasins. I did the clothes washing. I fed her. What was missing according to my wife Empathy.
I thought that that was asking a bit too much from a bloke! Just get over it, I thought. No need to feel sorry for yourself too. Then I got sick. Oh woe! Oh lamentation! Oh misery! My wife looked after me. She ensured that I was clean, fed and comfortable. She changed the linen and washed the hand basins. And she gave me empathy. What a difference that made to how I felt. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. There is no lack of research evidence showing that empathy from a caregiver leads to a more rapid recovery of the patient than one that is given little or no empathy.
When I had stopped feeling sorry for myself and was in a position to think a bit more clearly, I asked her, Where did you learn to empathise Her answer was simple. I copied my Mum.
Of course when I think back to my childhood, my Mum was also good at expressing empathy. But as a boy I didn’tabsorb those lessons from my maternal role-model particularly well. I remember my father’s care though. He was very good on the practical front. Clean, fed and comfortable. That was his motto. Why should I wonder where my approach comes from
So where does that leave us SAHDs who are marginalised by society, don’thave role models to follow and have sick kids (or a sick partner) Regretfully, popping down to the pub isn’tthe answer. But there is hope. It’s worth recognising that not having a role model isn’tall bad. There are also some great advantages in not having role models. Without a role-model you can cut your own path through the bush. You can be an individual and choose your own route. This can be incredibly liberating. And what to use as your compass Perhaps there is nothing better than to follow The Golden Rule which the Greek philosopher Plato explained as: May I do to others as I would that they should do unto me.
SAHDs may do it tough, but we don’ttravel without a compass, and we know just how greatly rewarding our job is, whether we follow someone else’s path or cut our own.
1 Australian Bureau of Statistics, Labour Force, 6 Sept 2007.
2 Is Staying at Home Ruining My Career , David Vernon, Sunday Life Magazine, 21 Jan 2007. See:http://web.mac.com/david.vernon/>
3 Manhood an action plan for changing men’s lives, Steve Biddulph, Finch Books, 2002, p103
4 For example see: Therapeutic Empathy and Recovery from Depression in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy: A Structural Equation Model. Burns, D in Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, v60 n3 p441-49 Jun 1992
5 Nearly all the world’s religions have a version of The Golden Rule. It isn’tsimply the domain of philosophers. Religious.tolerance.org has a wonderful list of Golden Rule variants. See:http://www.religioustolerance.org/reciproc.htm accessed 24 Sept 2007.?
7 Is Staying at Home Ruining My Career , David Vernon, Sunday Life Magazine, 21 Jan 2007. See:http://web.mac.com/david.vernon/
10 Nearly all the world’s religions have a version of The Golden Rule. It isn’tsimply the domain of philosophers. Religious.tolerance.org has a wonderful list of Golden Rule variants. See:http://www.religioustolerance.org/reciproc.htm accessed 24 Sept 2007.
David is a father of two boys aged nine and six. He has been their fulltime carer since his youngest was three. He has qualifications in economics, science, politics and law and this explains why he prefers growing boys, pumpkins and chooks to being a merchant banker. David is the editor of three great books: ‘Having a Great Birth in Australia’ (2005) ‘Men at Birth’? (2006) ‘With Women ‘ midwives experiences: from shiftwork to caseload’ (2007)