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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear