Ken Phelan has the following advice for stay-at-home dad newbies.
There was a time when fatherhood was easier. Men were men with well-defined, ‘manly’ roles; they would work on the railroad, dig the mines, wrestle alligators – anything, in fact to provide for their families while asserting their innate ‘manliness’. A ‘stay-at-home dad’ only existed as such if he had perhaps lost a leg during some manly pursuit.
In the twenty-first century, such blatant gender stereotypes have long since been banished to the annals of history; we now live in more enlightened times, when sexism is no longer tolerated, the workplace is more equal, and traditional notions of parenthood are being challenged. Despite this progress, however, there is one particular cohort who have sadly been left behind – the stay-at home dad (SAHD).
‘Dad’ is the new ‘Mum’
Given that the archaic concept of fathers as ‘sole providers’ still prevails, stay-at-home dads have it tough. SAHDs are lone crusaders, secure enough in their masculinity to redefine it as, mop in one hand, baby in the other, they challenge popular gender roles by proving that ‘Dad’ is the new ‘Mum’. Stay-at-home dads face almost insurmountable odds – the sneers, the ridicule, the pity, the stares, the contempt from in-laws.
To add insult to injury, they face the humiliation of accepting their partner was right all along – looking after junior ain’t easy. Whether by accident or design, however, they have been set the task – to singlehandedly look after their offspring without imploding, going crazy, or even worse, becoming feminine or ‘womanly’. Thoughts of being emasculated beset their every move; where once they had perhaps likened themselves to a Clint Eastwood-type figure, the relentless nappy changes, domestic demands and household chores leave them feeling somewhat confused. Sure, they’ve done this before, they’ve even pushed a buggy (at arm’s length) but is this what a ‘real’ man should do?
Latest figures from the Central Statistics Office show that 10,150 Irish men classify themselves as being ‘stay-at-home fathers’, though it is believed the actual number could be much higher; in 1986, the number of ‘stay-at-home fathers’ was just 445. Mass unemployment and redundancies in traditionally male sectors of post-Celtic Tiger Ireland has meant that a growing number of dads have been thrust into the role of caregiver while their spouse goes to work.
Exorbitant fees for crèches and playschools have also led some couples to decide that one of them must stay at home, which depending on circumstances, can often be dad. Making the decision to become a stay-at-home dad, however, is one that you ought to be proud of – it takes a brave man to challenge gender stereotypes, and a braver man still to look after a child. However, bravery alone will not serve you in your new role; before you get too carried away, it’s worth remembering a few key points.
Looking after a child full-time can be emotionally and physically demanding. Of course, you have been used to working 50+ hours at the office, but you’ll find that looking after a child is a little ‘different’. During your now customary 24-hour shifts as SAHD, you will be cook, cleaner, teacher, medic, counsellor, entertainer, artist, storyteller and, time permitting, dad. By the time your child has eventually been tucked away with the obligatory bedtime story, you will more often than not find yourself in an exhausted, semi-catatonic state. It is therefore strongly recommended to avoid driving or operating machinery while working as an SAHD, as it is known to have a strong sedative effect.
Luckily, people tend to have very low expectations of stay-at-home dads – if you manage to change a nappy all by yourself or even just take your child to the supermarket you’ll be hailed as a hero. Generally speaking, the public are quite supportive of stay-at-home dads, and so dressing your child or brushing their hair will be held as significant accomplishments. The general public, therefore, are quite forgiving of SAHDs – although there is an assumption that dads are, in fact, inherently stupid or incompetent, they remain somehow endearing for their efforts.
Looking after a toddler can be quite lonely and isolating; you’ll miss the office banter, the cute girl from H.R. and even the annoying guy from accounts; by week six you may even miss your boss. To prevent yourself going insane, it is imperative to have some form of adult social contact outside of the home. Parent/toddler groups are an excellent way to meet other desperate parents – you may only exchange stories on pregnancy, breastfeeding and whooping cough, but at least you will get to speak to real adults while your child has fun beating up the other kids.
Other social outlets include the postman, your rather strange next-door neighbour and perhaps even the annoying salespeople who frequent your front door. Such suggestions may seem flippant or insensitive, but rest assured after a few weeks of Care Bears, Mickey Mouse and the Smurfs, you will willingly attempt an adult conversation with a teapot.
Children thrive on routine, so try to have a regular daily schedule including meal times, activity times, bedtime, etc. In terms of housekeeping, it’s worth noting that children are remarkably gullible – tell them Santa won’t come unless they tidy their toys (or fetch Daddy a beer). Again with housekeeping, beds are going to be slept in again, so it is therefore obviously foolish to waste time making them. To avoid conflict, keep the dog’s lead on the kitchen counter as ‘proof’ you have taken him for a walk. Lastly, ensure your toddler gets enough exercise to tire him out before bedtime.
Remember that the best dads are simply the ones who care enough to be there; becoming a stay-at-home dad allows you to form a special bond with your child and to be an integral part of their lives. It may not sit well with your fragile male ego, but you will soon realise that traditional notions of parenting roles are just myths – social constructs from a bygone era that serve little or no purpose in modern society.
Finally, in terms of fears of losing your ‘masculinity’ just because you’ve taken to applying face masks and wearing your wife’s fluffy pink slippers doesn’t make you any less of a man – just a more interesting one. Now, turn off the television and finish the ironing before the real boss gets home.
Advantages of being a stay-at-home dad
Being a stay-at-home dad is not all doom and gloom; indeed, working as an SAHD compares very favourably to having a ‘real’ job, and, approached correctly can even be enjoyable. Once you manage to survive the first few weeks, you may even decide that becoming an SAHD was one of your finer moves. Of the advantages, here are a few:
- You are your own boss (though your toddler may disagree).
- You get to introduce your child to new things every day.
- You decide when, or if it is necessary to get dressed.
- You are the biggest influence on your toddler and get to teach him funny stuff such as how to be rude to Grandma or various insulting and amusing phrases.
- You will have great memories of cuddling on the couch, painting pictures together, and of laughing at each other breaking wind.
Psychologist David Carey says:
“It may not be what you planned for your life, it may cause you to be on the receiving end of some unfortunate jokes and mean getting your hands dirty with nappy-changing, but your children will benefit greatly if you decide to be a stay-at-home dad.
There is ample evidence in the literature that fathers are equally important in the lives of children as mothers. There is research evidence that proves there is only one difference between male and female parenting; the amount of physical play and activity children experience. Dads play more physically with their children then mums. On all other factors; nurturing, comfort, love, caring, fathers are just as capable as mothers.
Interestingly, there is evidence that suggests the role of the father in the lives of children can be more influential than the role of mothers. For an example, take literacy development. Research has demonstrated that the absence of the father has a negative impact on this area and subsequently on the social development of children, because literacy and social development are intertwined. Another study found that the father’s role in the self-esteem development of daughters is more influential than the mother’s role.
So, what can we conclude from all this? Being a stay-at-home dad is important, very important. Be proud, stand up tall and wear your daddy’s hat like a badge of honour – you are doing your children a great service that will enhance their lives forever.”
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