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.

Photo: Getty
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Boris Johnson is out of control, but Theresa May is too weak to punish him

Her weary “Boris is Boris” remark after his intervention suggests she couldn’t care less.

Only younger Tory MPs asked last weekend: “Why did Boris do it?” Why did he write a 4,000-word essay on his demands for Brexit, just six days before Theresa May would make a definitive speech on the government’s plans? The older ones knew why: he hadn’t been the centre of attention for a while and wanted to remind people of his existence and that he remained in the game. A charitable fringe of pro-Brexit MPs thought he did it because he is a sincere Leaver, motivated by a desire to ensure the democratically expressed will of the British people is discharged. However, theirs was not a view widely shared.

Others thought they could trace the motivation for Johnson’s intervention back to the events of June 2016. “The reputation of Vote Leave at the moment is a pile of shit,” one told me, referring to the campaign whose figurehead Johnson had been. The metaphor became even more pungent: “Going back to the £350m is like a dog returning to his vomit.” The figure, plastered on Vote Leave’s battle bus, was the amount Johnson and his friends claimed would be available post-Brexit to spend weekly on the NHS. It was quickly rubbished, with Nigel Farage’s Leave.EU campaign dismissing it outright. It was a gross, not a net, figure; it included the EU rebate, which ceases to exist when our contributions stop. David Norgrove, head of the UK Statistics Authority, has repudiated the assertion; and there are many other institutions, such as our tertiary education sector, that will lose EU money and expect the government to make it up. That Johnson should mention this fantasy figure in his article has bemused even some of that dwindling band of MPs who still see him as a possible future leader.

Although the piece was in Johnson’s familiar idiom, others detected in it the influence of Vote Leave’s former director, Dominic Cummings. Further evidence came in a bout of aggressive tweeting from Cummings after the pack turned on Johnson. An MP who worked with Vote Leave told me, “Cummings has returned. He is a narcissist. If he can’t get his own way, then he prefers to destroy: that was how he operated all through the campaign.”

Cummings, a former aide to Michael Gove, is like Johnson a publicity addict: both thirst to see their names in the media. He disappeared from view after Gove’s failed leadership bid, when Gove had to promise supporters that Cummings would not work in Downing Street if he won, so toxic was Cummings’s reputation after Vote Leave. Gove was quoted as supporting Johnson’s “vision”, a further sign of Cummings’s involvement. Within 24 hours, Gove’s friends denied that he supported any such thing but then, as Cummings went into action, Gove confirmed his backing for Johnson.

Johnson’s intervention did not grate with everybody. Some Brexiteer Tories, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, felt that after a party debate dominated by ministers favouring a Brexit that looks like continued membership of the EU by other means – notably Philip Hammond – it was time the Foreign Secretary spoke out for something representing a cleaner break. Some also felt that, given his office, he had a right to have a public say on the matter, after months in which May had done her best to ignore him.

Her weary “Boris is Boris” remark after his intervention suggests she couldn’t care less, and suggestions he might resign are unlikely to concern her unduly. His remarks were not against party policy, but MPs trusted by Downing Street were at pains to stress that his views would have no effect on the content of the Prime Minister’s Brexit speech, for there had “never been any chance of Theresa going off-piste”.

Johnson’s intervention was, however, unhelpful to him and to May. Colleagues saw it as the consequence of his having spent the summer steaming with frustration because he had lost ownership of the Brexit issue. He has also, according to friends, developed a thinner skin of late, and feels wounded by frequent attacks on him in the media pointing out his disengagement, his laziness, his ambition and his generally poor impression of a foreign secretary. For so long the goût du choix of many younger colleagues, he now finds they take him no more seriously than most of his older ones do. He once took for granted that in a leadership contest MPs would choose him as one of the two candidates for a plebiscite of the membership; now few think that likely.

Too many colleagues have taken the Telegraph article as further proof of his inability to be a team player, and of his unfitness for higher office – which was why Gove dropped him last year. Referring to Johnson’s time as mayor of London, a colleague says: “He was a good chairman, when he had seven or eight deputy mayors. But he can’t do what a minister is supposed to do, which is to grasp a policy and deliver it.” Another highlights his skewed sense of priorities and the lack of a deft political touch. “Isn’t it astonishing that just as he should be sorting out all consular and diplomatic help for our people in the West Indies after the hurricane, he finds time to write a 4,000-word newspaper article? As usual, it’s not about what’s good for the country. It’s what he thinks is good for him.”

Yet, as Ken Clarke swiftly pointed out, Boris Johnson has shown that however much he annoys May, she is too damaged and vulnerable to sack him. When Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, started mocking him as a “back-seat driver”, May was seen to be presiding over a cabinet whose most senior members were squabbling. Johnson’s self-indulgence also meant that the expectation surrounding May’s Florence speech, already considerable as she struggled to rebuild her credibility and that of her Brexit policy, became even harder to satisfy. 

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left