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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.

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

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.