Stay-At-Home Daddy and Breadwinner Mummy: guilt and the illusion of choice

Traditional gender stereotypes belie the fact that almost everything about parenting is a compromise.

According to figures released by the Office for National Statistics, the UK now has more stay-at-home dads than ever before. Of those caring for children while their partner brings in a wage, almost 10 per cent are male. Way-hey! Take that, traditional gender roles! Before long it’ll be up to 50 per cent and then all hell will break loose and… Well, maybe not just yet. After all, stay-at-home dads just aren’t the same as stay-at-home mums, are they?

The rise in stay-at-home dads is, reports the Telegraph, “down to men losing their jobs in the recession and either failing to find new employment or deciding that it did not make financial sense for them to return to work if their partner was a high earner”. This is of course completely different to what happens with stay-at-home mums, who give in to biological necessity once they realise that they cannot “have it all” (NB economic necessity is only a factor for women who are poor and, as everyone knows, you can’t be a proper SAHM if you’re poor. You’re just a scrounger, or so it would appear). But what, meanwhile, of the Breadwinner Mummies? Where do they fit into this? Are they the new feminist heroines? Sadly, it would appear that they’re anything but.

Having trawled the annals of popular culture – in between “distressing” mince pies, à la Kate Reddy – I can confirm that Breadwinner Mummy is a wannabe hardcore businesswoman who’s ended up a bumbling idiot because she didn’t realize that “having it all” would mean “doing it all” (see photo in Exhibit A). Meanwhile, Stay-At-Home Daddy is the wussy subject-in-waiting of a Rachel Cusk-style dissection of his masculinity (see headline in Exhibit B). Ha ha! Everyone’s a loser (apart from Baby, who gets to fling food around). And so an opportunity to examine changing cultural norms becomes an attempt to reinforce old ones. Social conservatives are nothing if not resourceful.

Of course, back in reality, your average SAHD and his career-bitch partner are probably getting along just fine, which isn’t to say brilliantly. It’s hard to be getting along brilliantly when your normal interactions are being undermined by feeling that actually, everything’s been scripted by the writers of Three Men And A Baby. SAHD goes to toddler group and is patronised to within an inch of his life while Mummy gets home to find her children are not the sweet, cheery Walton-esque cherubs she thought they were. None of this happens because children are children and parenting’s a bit random at the best of times. It’s because Daddy is useless and should be out mending cars while Mummy’s become a cold-hearted automaton who can’t relate to her own flesh and blood. That’s what you end up feeling – and how you end up responding to the ups and downs of everyday life – because that’s what the media, advertising and those around you all seem to insist.

In such a situation it’s hard not to become defensive. I’ve worked full-time both before and after having children. Sometimes I have earned more than my partner, sometimes I haven’t. Sometimes he’s been at home with our children, sometimes he hasn’t. Right now I have the larger salary and spend less time doing childcare (my partner works but is available in the school holidays). I’m tempted to brazen it out and pretend it isn’t a compromise but of course it is. It’s just how things are. I haven’t managed to single-handedly find the magic balanced lifestyle, combining mid-recession financial security, a nurturing home environment, acres of quality time, blah blah blah. Unless you are very rich, you probably haven’t, either. It’s not about gender or morality but it feels as though it is. What’s more, it probably isn’t all that important – as long as you love and support your child, is there a perfect way to raise him or her? – yet it’s increasingly hard to discuss these things in a nuanced manner. I might think I’ve “ended up” playing the career mummy role but I also feel pressured into pretending I bought into a whole ethos. You’re not allowed to show weakness; your frailty is for other to people to spot (usually when they identify Ready Brek splatters on your power suit while you’re doing that imaginary board room presentation).

As for being the partner of a stay-at-home dad – well, for the brief period when I was one, I loved it. Not because it was some kind of gender triumph. It was just nice because we had more space and time. Neither of us were rushing through the door, desperate to cook tea in two seconds flat before our children got too tired to eat. We weren’t finding clothes that smelled musty because there’d been no one around to take them out of the washing machine. Since then I’ve often thought that it would be good to work part-time, just to have a day in which to do housework. Now that doesn’t sound very feminist, does it? But that’s just how, in real life, these decisions are made. It’s about practicalities as much as ideals, for all of us, and besides, someone’s got to do the clearing up (in theory, at least; the state of my house suggests an ongoing attempt to prove otherwise).

Most of us, male or female, don’t get an awful lot of say in matters of paid work, housework or childcare. It just looks as though we do because those who speak for us tend to be the ones with more freedom. Hence the illusion of choice and hence the fact that a combination of parental guilt, financial limitation and straightforward sexism can make us vulnerable to misinterpreting our own motives. It looks like a morality tale, but it’s not. The chances are, wherever you find yourself – and whatever the label – you’re probably not as bad a parent, partner or worker as you’ve been led to believe.

Is there really such a thing as a perfect way to raise your children? Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”