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By Harald Breiding-Buss

Dads are spending more and more time with their children alone, but still struggle to be seen by the rest of society, writes Harald Breiding-Buss.

The at-home dad has in the bed of other clearly become a common sight in our society: men pushingprams around their neighbourhoods on an average weekday morning have invaded just about every community in New Zealand.

This includes those cases, where a father works mainly night- and weekend shifts and takes care of his children while his partner is working during the day.

Some of these men do not only spend more time with their children, but they also work more than their wives. They are primary income providers andprimary caregivers.

Then there are the fathers working from home, rocking the baby to sleep in one arm and designing a web page with the other, while mum is out working the checkout at the local Countdown. With flexible and changing working hours for both, who is to say who is the primary caregiver?

Where a man is not in paid employment, couples often find themselves battling all sorts of stereotypes. There is often a lingering suspicion that the word “househusband” or “at-home dad” is just a guise for a lazy hangabout, who gives the kids into childcare and lets mum do the housework when she comes home.

He either spends most of his time hanging around with his mates in the pub – or in the bed of the other houswives. Boyws will be boys after all.

In the newsmedia, the words “Parent” and “Mother” are often used interchangeably; non-working fathers are routinely referred to as “Unemployed”, as if it didn’t matter whether a man has children or not.

The “unpaid work” of mothers is a hot issue for the women’s movement, but men still struggle to get any acknowledgement for the time they spend with children. Somehow society seems to think raising children is work for women, but a hobby for men.

Often it is relatives who show considerable unease, if their well-qualified and reasonably well-earning son/nephew/cousin shows the wrong priorities: his family.

He will hear comments like “you are wasting your life” and “no-one will want to employ you again with this sort of mark on your CV. They are not entirely wrong: a US study has found that fathers who take parental leave end up 25% worse off financially a few years down their career path than fathers who don’t.

Many employers, probably subconsciously, see the the birth of their male employee’s first child as a test
case: will he remain fully committed to his work or will they have to look for someone else now to promote through the ranks? A good father plays with his children, but he does so afterwork.

At-home dads are by no means a new phenomenon. Many authors have pointed out that it is, in fact, a very old model if combined with work from home.

It is the abscence of fathers from home for long periods of time on a daily basis that is a new development in human history, and that was cross-culturally very rare before modern Western societies developed.

Some authors even go so far as to say that the key success factor for Western societies – the drive of individuals to earn money and more money – is really a result of mainly men compensating for a crippled, emotionally distant relationship with their fathers.

Primitive cultures with men as the primary – or near-equal – caregivers are rare, but not unheard of. Babies of the Aka pygmies spend as much time with their fathers as with their mothers, and the men appear to feel more responsible for them than the women.

The boys in this culture display a sense of family and compassion for babies not seen in Western cultures, And the men of the Wayuru Indians in Colombia alsotraditionally spend more time with the children than their partners, who tend to be out of the village for most of the day, often trading with other tribes.

In an economy that requires increasing flexibility from its workforce, and that decreasingly distinguishes between male and female employees, the househusband-working wife family is one model among many others and one that is bound to become more common.

Indeed, our society would severely and permanently disadvantage men if women’s increasing opportunities in the workforce and on higher salary levels is not matched by a social acceptance of the father at home.

But as it is, our society has a long way to go and some say it will require a revolution with equal intensity and drive as the women’s liberation movement in the 60s and 70s. While more and more men find themselves at home with the children more and more often, many of them find themselves unable to take genuine pride in what they are doing.

Society’s focus on the mother-child bond and ignorance of the father-child relationship also impacts on the children. The vast majority of children’s picture books are about one main theme: the bond between a mother and a child.

There are very few – if any -children’s books that show a father interacting with his daughter in the abscence of the mother, and not many more about fathers and sons. A childcare worker, even if aware that a particular child is mainly with his dad, will almost automatically tell him to show the picture he has drawn to his mum.

Children consistently get the message that the father is secondary in their lives than the mother. The result is that an at-home father may not get as much positive emotional feedback from his children as the average at-home mum would.

But this emotional feedback is a parent’s “payment” for being at home with the child in the first place, your trade-off for the hard currency you would be earning otherwise!

And yet, at-home dads are badly needed to fill a lack of male role models for our children. Fathers who get involved in Playcentre or primary school often find themselves surrounded by children hungry for male attention.

These are not only children of single mothers. Some researchers suspect that boys watch more TV than girls because unlike girls they do not have enough real-life gender role models. As a result boys’ main role models are men like Batman, the Ninja turtles or the cool teenagers from the Cartoon Network, and girls get a rather distorted view of what men are and aren’t.

A father is but one male role model, but children of both sexes need many more.

At-home dads have an opportunity to be out in the community, meet the needs of other children to talk to a man, to let them be challenged and supported by men. Men come in many different varieties, from dangerous to protective, from playful to serious.

Our children need to meet many men in their lives in order to pick the role model that suits their own unique and individual makeup, and to learn to tell the dangerous from the safe…

“Im More Or Less Their Mother”

Househubby Wayne Murphy started his stint as an at-home dad shortly before his son, Seamus, was born about two years ago.

“I was made redundant to start with, and my wife and I talked about it and came [up with] the idea that she would go to polytech to further her education, – and I would spend a couple of years at home with the kids.”

They also have a four year old daughter, Danielle.

Wayne did not find it hard at all to get used to the idea of being the primary caregiver and very much enjoys it. “We had discussed before Seamus was born to change our roles around.”

“It’s very much the other way around – I’m more or less their ‘mother’ as it is, and Mary more or less takes on the role that dad used to. I get them up and give them breakfast and get them dressed and washed and off to kindy or creche, and they come running to me when they get hurt.

They do go to their mother as well, but mostly they come to me. I would say they’re more attached to me – unless they get angry and then they go to their mother.”

Mary says that originally she very much liked the idea of Wayne staying home with the children, but “when it came to the day when I went to the polytech, I found it very hard to let go, and when I got home I found myself trying to rule the household and the children as if it was still my role to do that.

“I used to feel a tinge of jealousy when the kids went to dad but I sort of make up for it when I’m at home in the holidays and that.”

Wayne says Plunket and other mumand-baby organisations treated him “a bit better than a mother would be, because I was a male”, but,” I found the mothers were fairly stand-offish actually. It’s taken about 18 months for them to get used to seeing me in their group.

“I did tend to find myself getting stuck at home. I tried to go to playgroups and things like that but all that were there were mothers so I tried to find someone else to go, meet some fathers.”

Meeting Other Fathers Helped

Mike Cook came to be a fulltime housedad when he, wife Sabine and son Dominic, then 3 years old, moved to Christchurch from Auckland. “We were both looking for work and Sabine found work before me, so I decided quite happily that I would stay home and look after Dominic.

“It was something I thought about quite a lot and was quite looking forward to it, and when the chance came along, I just grabbed it with both hands.”

Mike doesn’t believe it is generally harder for a man than for a woman to be at home. “There are aspects of it that are harder for a man that are not socially acceptable, but as far as looking after the house and the children – no, not at all.”

However, he says it was an adjustment process at first.

“Sabine found it really hard being away from Dominic going to work. As far as me looking after him – I was surprised that she had just complete faith in what I was doing, and I found it really really hard to take over that role fulltime, and I was really scared when I started doing it.

Also at the time we didn’t know any people in Christchurch and I was quite desperate to meet fathers in that situation as well. Which I did and that certainly helped a lot. A hell of a lot.”

When Dominic started school about four years ago, Mike went back to work, part-time at first but fulltime for the last three years. “I miss those times with Dominic”, he says. “I’m glad I had that time and I wish I still did. I see him when I come home in the afternoon, but by the time dinner is organised and he’s off to bed – it’s not enough, they grow up so fast.”

His relationship with his son has developed over the years, in fact changes year by year.

“At the time I was looking after him, I found he was exposed more to adult company, a lot of men, a lot of fathers and their children. I think he is quite mature for his age. As far as his reactions to Sabine – I think Dominic still looks at me as though I have the final word.

At the moment he’s going through a phase where he likes to impress me and do things that find my accept once.

On the other hand with Sabine he seems to be battling her a lot at the moment. He competes with her
on everything, even my attention.

Next: The Four C’s Of A Housedad

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