I had intended to write on another topic, but then I read a Sydney Morning Herald story, You can have it all, just not all at once.
The piece is about Juanita Phillips from ABC television and the conflicts created by motherhood, family and career. While I was interested in the piece, it was the experiences of her husband, Mario Milostic, that caught my eye, including his decision to be a stay-at-home Dad. I quote from the story:
Unwilling to pass off parental responsibilities to a nanny, as many celebrities do, and with Phillips the better wage earner, Milostic became a thoroughly modern house dad. However, reversing the traditional roles was far from easy. Phillips demolishes the heroic figure of the female as put-upon martyr when she morphs into a breadwinner who expects the house clean and dinner on the table.
"All of the sexist traditions I had scoffed at as a single woman became strangely attractive to me once I became the breadwinner."
Returning home from work, "I was good at eye-rolling, sighing and explosive utterances such as, 'Oh for god's sake, just leave it, I'll do it."'
Their situation remains a "touchy subject" for her and Milostic – he declined to write about his experiences of being a house dad. It worked for them but it's not something she would highly recommend.
Milostic, who collaborated on the book, felt isolated, had to muscle in on the all-female club at preschool and school, and lost touch with his skills while, as a professional woman, Phillips had to weather the social stigma of a full-time career. While Milostic was not as adept as a multi-tasker, he proved a better disciplinarian than Phillips and pushed the children to independence.
Boy, did all that strike a chord. You see, and as I have mentioned before, when we came down to Sydney at the start of 1996, I chose to be the primary child care for our then young daughters. As part of this, I worked from home or in child-friendly jobs. I don't think that my wife experienced any stigma of the type Philips referred to, but I sure can empathise with Mario.
Would I do it again? No, probably not, or at least not in the same way. I gained enormously from closeness with my daughters, while it did give my wife greater freedom, but there were also difficulties and costs. Because I kind of drifted into the role, we did not address those problems in advance. Indeed, in some cases we could simply could not have done this. They are the type of problem that you can only find out through doing.
Mario declined to be interviewed for the story. I can understand that. However, given my own experiences, I thought that I might, in a sense, report on his behalf. This is not a complaining style essay. I thought it might be helpful to outline my own experiences and the lessons that I drew from them for the benefit of others.
The Female Club
Men playing the main child care role do face significant social barriers including the all-female club, barriers that can lead to isolation. These are, I think, worse if you have daughters and work themselves out across a number of often subtle levels.
Start with picking up the girls when young from primary school. You arrive and are one of the few if not only males there. All the mothers chat to each other, getting to know each other. The men stand apart. Then children want to interact, to visit each other. Your daughters ask can they have a friend over. The friend's mother is happy until she finds that you will be the only parent there. Suddenly problems emerge.
Problems continue. Like it or not, many aspects of school life revolve around mothers. There is an automatic and often unconscious assumption that certain things will be done by females, by the mothers many of whom are working part time or not at all. This is not so much a school assumption, as one held by the women themselves.
Even when my daughters were in senior secondary school, email invitations to parent get-together's during the day went to my wife. My wife would get annoyed at the assumption that she would be available on a working day, I would note the assumption that those attending would be female.
There can also be difficulties interacting with male parents. It's partly that you may not have the same things to talk about, but there can also be issues, cautions, about males participating in what are still in fact largely female activities.
Some men, a few, have the personalities required to straddle different worlds. I did not.
Things do get better with time. For example, as other parents get to know you, issues about other children coming over when you are the parent at home largely vanish. However, I think that men who are going to play the primary child care role have to accept that they are going to be treated differently.
Modern life means that most households need two incomes. Generally, not always, the prime child carer will earn less. In households where the man gives up work entirely, then he becomes fully dependant upon his wife's income.
At one level, this discussion is gender neutral. After all, it applies equally to both sexes. However, it is more complicated for men.
The idea of the male as the primary bread-winner is still deeply embedded in our society, including among men. In two income households, the second income earner can still be expected to contribute financially in the same way even though opportunities are reduced. In single income households, both male and female have to get used to the idea that the financial position of the male parent is now dependant on the female. This can be quite frightening.
These issues need to be talked through.
Regardless of arguments to the contrary, society still grants status to men and women in different ways. Women still gain status through their husband's career, men do not through their wives in the same way. I may joke sometimes about becoming my wife's handbag, and indeed I do enjoy elements of it, but male and female handbags are different things. A stay at home mum is seen by many as a socially good thing, a stay at home dad as strange. A woman may achieve status through social activities, a man less so.
While there are similarities in the way men and women accord status, there are also differences. A dad who adopts the primary child care role can lose status with both sexes, but more so with men.
I think that this one just has to be accepted as a real risk.
Both sexes lose career opportunities through child rearing. Both may suffer problems in returning to the workplace or in stepping up their career place again. However, I think that it is again more complicated for the male.
Child rearing takes men or women out of the workforce to some extent at critical points in their careers. In returning, both have to re-establish themselves in a shortening time horizon. The older age at which women are having children allows for greater career establishment before child birth, but reduces the remaining working time. Men are generally somewhat older than their partners. This means that men who opt for the primary child care role are likely to have a somewhat reduced working career than might be the case for their partners.
While both males and females think in career terms, I think that it is generally still true that work is more central to men. At the risk of gross generalisations, men are more likely to get their social interaction through work, more likely to see work as central.
The practical effect of all of this is that adoption by a male of the primary child care role may have greater career effects and may be more deeply felt than might have been expected at the time the decision was made. The status effects have to be added to this.
I think that this is the one I have felt most. I have been able to do some things to mitigate the impact, but it is still there. My advice to men considering the primary child care role would be to consider your own needs very carefully and, if work or career is important to you, to consciously put in place actions to maintain your career position.
Of course I would offer the same advice to both sexes. However, I think that it is especially important advice for men.
As Mario found, being a home dad or indeed working from a home office can be isolating. This needs to be recognised. The type of outlets often available to home mums during the day - friendship groups in particular - are not there. Further, many traditional male outlets such as a drink with mates after work are not available without organisation because that is when kids things are on or, alternatively, tea to be got ready.
It is very easy to accept this, to just go with the flow.
Another factor comes into play here. Kids grow up.
Once school finishes, the things that have been central to your life diminish or may even vanish. I found this profoundly disjunctional. Again, this happens to women as well as men. However, the impact can be greater on men because their networks and resources are less. This can accentuate the effects of isolation.
One difficulty here is that human interaction is a skill that needs practice and may need to be re-acquired. A second problem may be a reduced desire just to get back onto the treadmill, as well as a reduced practical capacity to do so. This links not just to reduced skills in human interaction, but to diminished networks and current skills. Age may also become a problem.
All this makes it important to put in place and maintain activities designed to overcome isolation and to maintain knowledge and skills. In my case, blogging has been one such device. However, at a personal level I would have been far better off if I had done a wider range of things.
I would never discourage any man from adopting the primary child care role because the gains can be enormous. Talking among the small number of men that I know have done this, all point to similar gains in terms of not just their closeness to their children, but also the sheer joy that comes from watching them grow up. However, I did want to use my own experience to point to some of the pit-falls that need to be avoided or at least managed.