The number of stay-at-home dads is on the up. Charlie Swinbourne finds out why more dads are opting to care for their children
I still remember the shock my wife and I felt one day when, after our youngest child tripped over and started sobbing, she ran straight past her mum’s open arms, to me.
Maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise – I was doing the majority of the childcare at the time – but it had never happened before. Fortunately, my wife burst out laughing at the sudden role reversal and saw it simply as a sign of how close we had become.
Dads now make up nearly 10% of stay-at-home parents, and this number is set to rise with government plans for flexible working and much better parental leave rights for men, which will allow more dads to opt to care for their children soon after they are born.
A variety of reasons has been put forward for why more men have started staying at home to look after their children – from losing their jobs in the economic downturn, to more women being the higher earner, to dads wanting to play a more active role in bringing up their offspring. For me, there were two factors: wanting to look after them more, and realising that having two children in childcare would mean making a financial loss after a day at work.
For one year, I looked after them for three days a week, splitting childcare and work almost equally with my wife, and it has transformed my relationship with my daughters.
I can see the difference most clearly with Edie, now two years old, because shared parenting is all she’s ever known. She often calls me ‘Mummy’, or my wife ‘Daddy’, because she seems to see both terms as simply meaning ‘the person who looks after me’ rather than indicating a gender difference.
The admiring smiles I often got from older women as I pushed the pram down the street made me realise how unusual I would have been only a few years years ago. But the bond I developed with my girls outweighed any desire for a return to a traditional role.
Joe Parkinson, 37, is a writer. He says that the thought of looking after children ‘would have caused my younger self to weep’. Yet Joe became a stay-at-home dad when he and his wife realised they didn’t want anyone else to look after their son. ‘Before he arrived we thought it would be easy – you get a childminder and carry on working,’ says Joe. ‘The fact is when you have a child you aren’t prepared for the emotional impact.’
They then had to decide who would stay at home. ‘My wife owned and ran her own business with a staff of more than 30 people,’ says Joe. ‘No debate really – I would do the majority of childcare.’ At first he felt self-conscious. ‘I just took my son to the park and saw my mother-in-law everyday,’he says. But now he is looking after their second child he is more confident. ‘I have my older son as a constant reminder of why it’s an amazing thing to look after your children as best you can.’
Like us, Tom Brooks, 39, and his wife Anna share the childcare, a situation prompted by ‘redundancies and a career change’. Tom is a freelance project manager, and says of being a stay-at-home dad: ‘It’s hard work, but worth it. We now feel very lucky that, despite debt and forgoing things we previously took for granted, we’ve been able to have all this time with our kids before their schooling.’
Tom says he does feel dads are treated differently sometimes. ‘There can be an assumption that we’re either on holiday, covering for an unwell partner or enjoying visiting rights post-separation,’ he says. But despite often being the only dad at playgroup, Tom goes along and speaks to the mums, childminders and nannies. ‘They comment about how unusual it is, and how lovely it must be for the children and me,’ he says.
I now look after my girls for one-and-a-half days a week. Although the world doesn’t always make it easy for stay-at-home dads – I’ve lost count of the number of grimy men’s toilets I’ve had to change our girls in – I feel I’ve had the best of both worlds.
And because I’ve looked after them on my own, I know them inside out. I know how to calm them, and how to make them laugh. I know when they’re tired, and when they need to let off steam. I sometimes even know how to get them to eat their vegetables. My wife and I both have so many precious memories because we’ve both been there, day in, day out.