Is a father’s place in the home?

The idea of the stay-at-home dad is older than we think.

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I used to blame the baby-boomers for the idea of the “stay at home mother”. The mother-blaming psychologist Oliver James and his ilk were, I thought, mistaking their own upbringings for a global and trans-historical norm. The idea of women immured in a house devoting all her energies to childcare is geographically and historically specific, and could be located in the drive to get women out of the workplace after the Second World War. Before that, even in the minority of households that could support an economically inactive adult, shopping, cleaning, laundry and cooking were so labour-intensive that childcare manuals of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries assume that babies and toddlers will be safely stowed in prams or high-chairs most of the time so that their mothers can “get on”.

Yet as any stay-at-home parent will tell you, housework and childcare are different and not very compatible forms of labour. You cannot devote yourself to the hour-by-hour development of an infant while scrubbing a floor, making a fire or kneading dough. Motherhood was a biological state, not an occupation; the cultural obsession with child development took root as part of the feminine mystique post-1945, when the popularisation of psychoanalysis coincided with the need to present domestic labour as sufficient for women. Get back to the house, not because running a house continues to be complex and needful work but because if you don’t your children will turn out badly and it will be all your fault. Thus the stay-at-home mum is born, and her children grow up to announce that she has always been there and that her continuing existence is essential to the nation’s wellbeing.

Like most narratives in cultural history, this story of the twentieth century works well enough. But as with most narratives in cultural history, if you go digging you find deeper roots.

Childcare manuals go back a long way. It’s not very hard to argue that Plato’s Dialogues are in this category – I know many people who take a Socratic approach to parenting – and certainly Machiavelli’s Il Principe is at least partly a guide to raising boys. Like Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, written in response to Machiavelli, most Renaissance childcare books assume that the reader is a father, and that the men of Europe’s ruling class are closely involved in rearing their sons. An interest in replicating the hierarchy is not the same as changing nappies and soothing night-time fevers, but the idea that dads are too busy and important at the office to be involved in childcare tells us more about the invention of the office than about fatherhood. There is no golden age of fatherhood or indeed of anything else – though I’ll take sanitation and antibiotics over any nostalgic vision of the past – but in the era when many households were units of labour, childcare was less gendered than it is now. Rural homes across Europe were workplaces as well as dwellings for centuries. If everyone is weaving in the attic or hoeing in the fields, it’s not obvious that the one with the vagina ought to change the next nappy. Which comes first, the stay-at-home mother or the absent father?

So it’s not surprising that in fact the history of the stay-at-home dad can be followed at least as far back as the eighteenth century. The boom in literacy and rise of print culture in the 1700s offers a view of aspects of life much less documented in earlier years. Many of the books published in the eighteenth century relate to conduct and self-improvement: cookbooks, guides to etiquette, pornography, pregnancy advice and childcare manuals. As with today’s soaring sales of cookbooks, you can’t assume a direct relationship between what people read about doing and what they actually do, but the ideal fathers glimpsed in these pages are interestingly similar to today’s metrosexual dad and quite unlike the post-war patriarchs. William Cobbett’s hugely popular Advice to Young Men (1829) adjures:

“Let no man imagine that the world will despise him for helping to take care of his own child: thoughtless fools may attempt to ridicule; the unfeeling few may join in the attempt; but all, whose good opinion is worth having, will applaud his conduct, and will, in many cases, be disposed to repose confidence in him on that very account. ”

The negotiations that Cobbett recalls around leisure time and social life are familiar to many modern couples:

“How could we visit then? Why, if both went, we bargained beforehand to take the children with us; and if this were a thing not to be proposed, one of us went, and the other stayed at home, the latter being very frequently my lot. From this we never once deviated. We cast aside all consideration of convenience; all calculations of expense; all thoughts of pleasure of every sort.”

The stories and advice in the Lady’s Magazine, widely read by middle-class women of the late eighteenth century, also glorify the man who will deal with the rough end of parenting: “He would still them in the night, nurse them in sickness and study their accommodation and amusement.” Watching a man caring for children is one of the best ways for young ladies to identify a good husband in the novels of this period.

We can’t know who did what in the middling households of the eighteenth century, but it’s clear that the new man has been around for longer than his dad might like to think.

Sarah Moss is the author of The Tidal Zone, published by Granta