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: Reuters
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Murder by numbers: the legacy of the Grenfell Tower fire

It is difficult to refute the reality of suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned.

How do we measure human malice? Sometimes it’s all too easy. This summer, British cities are struggling through the aftermath of successive terrorist attacks and hate crimes. The Manchester bombing. The Westminster Bridge murders. The London Bridge atrocity. The attack on people outside the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London and on other mosques. The unidentified young men who are still at large in the capital after spraying acid in the faces of passers-by, mutilating them.

In Britain, we are commendably resilient about these things. Returning to London after some time away, I found my spirits lifted by an issue of the London Evening Standard magazine that celebrated the ordinary people who stepped in to help after these atrocities. The paramedics who worked through the night. The Romanian chef who offered shelter in his bakery. The football fan who took on the London Bridge terrorists, screaming, “Fuck you, I’m Millwall!” The student housing co-ordinator who rushed to organise board for the victims of the inferno at the Grenfell Tower and their families.

Wait. Hold on a second. One of these things is not like the others. The Grenfell Tower disaster, in which at least 80 people died, was not a terrorist or malicious attack. It was the result of years of callous council decisions and underinvestment in social housing. On 14 June, entire families burned alive in their homes partly because, it is alleged, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea would not pay the extra £5,000 or so for fire-resistant cladding. Nor could it find the cash, despite a budget surplus, to instal proper sprinkler systems on the rotting interior of the building.

Kensington and Chelsea is a Tory borough that, in cash terms, cares very little for poorer citizens who are unlikely to vote the right way. In 2014, while the Grenfell Tower residents were refused basic maintenance, the council handed out £100 rebates to its top-rate taxpayers, boasting of its record of “consistently delivering greater efficiencies while improving services”. Some of those efficiencies had names, and parents, and children.

This is a different sort of depravity altogether. It’s depravity with plausible deniability, right up until the point at which deniability goes up in flames. Borrowing from Friedrich Engels, John McDonnell described the Grenfell Tower disaster as “social murder”. The shadow chancellor and sometime Jack Russell of the parliamentary left has never been known for his delicate phrasing.

Naturally, the Tory press queued up to condemn McDonnell – not because he was wrong but because he was indiscreet. “There’s a long history in this country of the concept of social murder,” he said, “where decisions are made with no regard to the consequences… and as a result of that people have suffered.”

It is difficult to refute the reality of that suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned from the towering tombstone that now blights the west London skyline.” As the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

Market austerity is no less brutal for being bloodless, calculating, an ideology of measuring human worth in pennies and making cuts that only indirectly slice into skin and bone. Redistributing large sums of money from the poor to the rich is not simply an abstract moral infraction: it kills. It shortens lives and blights millions more. Usually, it does so in a monstrously phlegmatic manner: the pensioners who die early of preventable diseases, the teenagers who drop out of education, the disabled people left to suffer the symptoms of physical and mental illness with nobody to care for them, the thousands who have died on the waiting lists for state benefits that they are perfectly entitled to, the parents whose pride disintegrates as they watch their children go to school hungry.

We are not encouraged to measure the human cost of austerity in this way, even though there are many people in back offices making exactly these sorts of calculations. This year, when researchers from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine claimed that “relentless cuts” to the health service could explain as many as 30,000 “excess deaths” in England and Wales in 2015, the government denounced this as “a triumph of personal bias over research”, which, however you slice it, is a callous prep school debater’s response to the reality of 30,000 fresh graves.

There is a species of evil in which an individual allows the dark and yammering corners of his mind to direct him to put a blade in a bystander’s belly, or a bomb in a bustling crowd of teenage girls. That sort of monstrosity is as easy to identify as it is mercifully rare, though frighteningly less rare than it was in less febrile times. But there is another sort of evil that seldom makes the headlines. This comes about when someone sits down with a calculator and works out how much it will cost to protect and nurture human life, deducts that from the cost of a tax rebate for local landowners or a nice night at the opera, then comes up with a figure. It’s an ordinary sort of evil, and it has become routine and automated in the austerity years. It is a sort of evil, in the words of Terry Pratchett, that “begins when you begin to treat people as things”. 

The Grenfell Tower disaster was the hellish evidence of the consequences of fiscal ruthlessness that nobody could look away from. Claims that it could not have been predicted were shot down by the victims. The residents’ association wrote on its campaign website after years of begging the council to improve living conditions: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.”

That catastrophic event has happened, and the ordinary British response to tragedy – brave, mannered dignity – is inappropriate. When the Grenfell inquiry launches next month, it is incumbent on every citizen to call for answers and to call this kind of travesty by its name: murder by numbers.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder