Queuing in A&E with a broken hand in my first week of full-time responsibility for my baby son wasn’t the best start to my new role in life; it was also the first time since giving up full-time work that anyone had asked me what I did.
‘Occupation?’ ‘Your occupation please,’ the nurse repeated.
‘I er… I’m a stay-at-home dad’ I replied.
To my ears, that sounded good. No more trailing across town at the stroke of five-thirty to collect a rather forlorn child from the child minder; no more racing to get to work on time in the morning after waving goodbye at the school gates. No more lying to the boss about who was ill when the kids were sick.
On the other hand, I was a man – in a minority of one at all the toddler groups I went to and one of very few dads doing the school run.
I gave up (paid, full-time) work five years ago just after our son was born. I’d reached the stage in my career when I needed a break and at the same time my wife had recently been promoted and was keen to return to work full-time after maternity leave. That combination of circumstances led to me becoming daddy day-care. Before then, careers were fresher and childcare was cheaper.
My wife (Sarah) is Head of Sixth Form at a local girls’ grammar school. It’s a demanding and time-consuming job and she appreciates the fact that with me running the house (doing the shopping, cooking, cleaning as well as the childcare) she can spend some quality time with the kids when she comes home from work.
It’s an arrangement that suits us perfectly. And yet so many of the dads I meet react with horror when I tell them what I do. ‘I could never do that,’ they invariably say followed by something along the lines of not having the patience or finding it boring/emasculating/depressing or all three.
I must confess to having similar feelings myself on occasion. There have been times when telling people I’m a stay-a-home dad hasn’t seemed enough. During the last five years I’ve also written five books, I write regularly for the media and have won numerous awards for my parenting blog. The ability to work from home while raising my family means that I’ve got far more to show for what I do than my three happy, healthy kids (and an untidy house!). My ‘extra-curricular’ activity certainly means I have a fairly strong sense of fulfillment and haven’t felt ‘lost’ without a career to define who I am. But that’s not the same for many men and it’s a problem becoming more acute now that the number of dads in childcare is rising.
And it is. Locally, more and more men come along to the toddler groups I now attend with my youngest. Some are juggling childcare with shift-work; others have found themselves as the primary carer because other options have failed.
But it’s probably easier for dads to do what I do now than when I started. Five years ago, working from home was perceived as ‘skiving’ – now technology means we can be connected wherever and whenever we choose to be. I take on the projects I want, when it suits me. The extra income is nice but not essential. What working from home enables me to do is strike a balance between family and things I am passionate about.
Five years ago, the very mention of my being a ‘stay-at-home dad’ may have caused consternation.
At A&E the receptionist sighed when I told her what I did; ‘I can’t possibly put that down. There isn’t a code for it.’
‘But that’s what I do’ I said. ‘I used to be a teacher… Now, I’m well… I’m a stay-at-home dad.’
She glanced down at the push chair for a moment, then back at me. ‘I know what’ she said at last. ‘I’ll put you down as household management.’
My first (and only) promotion!
So what advice would I give to stay-at-home dads? Top tips
1. Firstly, being a stay at home dad doesn’t mean giving up paid work, it’s more about balancing responsibilities of managing a house and giving children the best home environment. If you’re effective at managing your time, then there are plenty of opportunities to work from home – don’t view it as giving up work, rather creating a more balanced work/life environment.
2. Don’t be afraid! Get involved in the parents (mums) and toddler groups. Go to as many sessions and groups as you can until you find the one that’s right for you and your child. And don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself singing ‘the wheels on the bus’!
3. Managing a household is no simple task and the more practice you get, the better you’ll get at managing your own time. It’s about when and how you choose to work, not necessarily ‘if’. A home office is usually an important first step – a personal space where you can focus when you need to but keep work and family separate.
4. Don’t micro-manage your kids. Structure is important, but so is free time. Give children the time and space to be bored and they will learn to be creative and resourceful as well as develop wonderful imagination. You can always watch through the crack in the door!
5. Invest in the technology that makes life easier. This may sound like an expense, but the reality is that the right tools save you time and make you more productive. A tablet with 4G signal means you can keep up to date with the world, whether you’re sat at home or in the car park waiting to collect the kids. And don’t forget that smartphones and tablets, open up a world of great apps not just for working but also for parenting – ones which you can explore WITH your children and help you engage and teach them.