Why fathers are choosing to spend more time at home raising their children
It is a mild March morning. The shadows of autumn are drawn in dappled patterns on the pavement. A few men make their separate ways to Brunswick. Among them are academics, travellers, coders and teachers. Not that they see it that way. They are tech savvy and they are funny. One is from Russia, another hails from Germany. Some live nearby. Together they gather in the back dwelling of a church with books and bread. It is an airy space with an 80s classroom vibe. They are not here for mass. They are dads, all unique, but not too different, here to spend time with their kids.
“Early childcare feels undervalued these days,” said Mitch at Brunswick Dad’s Playgroup.
“From birth to age five, a child’s brain develops more than at any other time in life! This stage is important, and to me staying at home is like giving them their own private tutor. I’d be happy to work a couple of years extra at the end of my career in exchange for being able to dedicate this time to him now, when he needs my attention the most.”
A fellow attendee, Stefan echoes the sentiment.
“You realise that work is not everything, that it is quality time that you spend with your family. My life has completely shifted from work. I couldn’t care any less about work anymore.”
Leo and his partner have worked out an equal balance that suits their family. Each of them works a part-time week which allows both of them to spend an equal amount of time with their daughter.
“It was a matter of getting the best of both worlds so that neither of us would have a big period out of work and neither of us would be isolated, so we would get a mix of work, socialising and time with the kids.”
“I wish that other people had that option because it was awesome. Neither us would feel like we were overwhelmed with a lot of the tedium and hard physical work, especially when they were really small.”
All of the dads concur that their child’s youth will be very different to their own, as they play different roles to that of their own fathers. Some of them work part time or squeeze in work where they can. As they have discovered, it is difficult, and something has to give. They are still surprised to hear how few dads take time out of work to care for their children.
“I was surprised to learn that, even though there are more dads staying at home, it is only four per cent. It is still so low,” said Mitch.
“I have read in Sweden they have a lot of social pressure on fathers to take proper time off,” said Leo.
“Even in Sweden where there is a compulsory period of parental leave that needs to be taken by both mothers and fathers, many men only take the mandatory parental leave and no more.”
“So it shows that there is still that pressure to conform to traditional gender roles.”
“We know a lot of couples who are very progressive but when deciding on work arrangements with their partner, it is invariably the men who choose to stay in full-time work.”
“I worked in the public service before and I think there were very few dads that chose to stay at home to care for their young children. There were a couple but not many.”
The pressure to be a certain way, to ‘conform’ in society seeps into home life. Work pressures are ever prevailing and are hard to ignore.
“Aren’t we working longer hours than we ever have before? Now we all have mobiles as well so even when you’re home, you’re not mentally home sometimes,” said Mitch.
Mitch has relished time at home. He intended to be at home for six months, he said “not really understanding young children at all.”
It’s now been well over a year and with another baby on the way it could end up being quite a large chunk of time he is taking out of a career to focus on his kids before returning to the workplace.
“I was working remotely at the start and looking after him full-time but I was essentially expected to be available on demand.”
“I was trying to take phone calls and look after him and I felt like I couldn’t do the two things at once- you must compromise. I wasn’t fully giving him my attention.”
Mitch had to find his own sense of balance.
“It can get pretty isolating staying home and that’s something I think about, you almost shut yourself off a little bit.”
Staying at home on a full-time basis can cause cabin fever. Mitch has a loose plan, to visit his father, another friend who is a stay at home Dad and two playgroups a week. He is really enjoying these days with his son.
“Watching them develop so quickly at this age, I’m just taking it all in. He has just started talking a lot more. It’s like having a little buddy around.”
These dads don’t care for stereotypes and carry on living their lives as they wish, in their individual ways.
“There’s no longer that traditional view that the woman stays home and makes the dinner, looks after the house raises the kids while the dad’s off at work,” said Mitch.
Things have changed in the lives of these men, often, sometimes in joyful and unexpected ways.
“I feel like I have become Mary Poppins with this bag full of activities” said Mitch.
“I go to the playground and kids are drawn to you because you’ve got a soccer ball, chalk or bubbles.”
Conversation veers to technology. There is none in sight. A young boy in the background reads almost for the whole duration of the morning, fully absorbed in his books but happily engages when approached.
All the children are relaxed in this setting. They feel free to explore and sink into their own areas of play.
“He is so good at entertaining himself, he picks up a stick and pretends it is a leaf blower,” said Mitch.
“I grew up in the country and we had heaps of land and that’s where I spent a lot of time outside just being creative.”
One father doesn’t want his son using technology yet. The consensus seems to be that their time with technology will come and they are happy without it for now or supervise the time and content. Some dads have noticed the addiction to the screen light and are mindful of how impressionable their children are at this tender age.
“It takes away that attention,” said Mitch.
“In a way, everything else has to compete. I have to compete.”
“Focused attention is non-existent because you are constantly interrupted. That’s when you achieve something when you go in deeply and understand something. We don’t have a TV but he is so attracted to the phone and the light.”
Mitch’s son is also attracted to the simple joys of learning about the world around him. These activities shared still triumph on the happiness and content radar.
“He is obsessed with garbage trucks,” laughs Mitch.
“To the point where I will ask if he wants to go to the beach and he says no, and I say there is a garbage truck coming at 10 o’clock. We’ve got to know when a garbage truck is coming, and we follow it all the way up the beach and he says Dad I want a garbage truck.”
“All I did was turn the couch into a garbage truck and he loved it, we just play garbage trucks in the couch, we don’t have to spend any money and also time,” laughs Mitch.
“Also drawing and origami are really cool ways to create something from practically nothing.”
Those moments bring about great contentment, yet it is not always easy, for dads and the mums.
“My wife has the problem that men normally have, that she doesn’t have much exposure to the children and she feels very guilty that she doesn’t spend enough time with them,” said Stefan.
So, the guilt traverses both ways.
It causes the men to reflect on their own childhood and their relationships with their dads.
“How I was brought up definitely had an impact on me but the reverse. My old man was always working, and I think as a kid that had a big impact on me. I didn’t want to make the same mistakes” said Mitch.
Yet, that doesn’t mean that being a stay at home dad isn’t tricky when you venture out the front door.
“I remember going to a parents’ group and I really got the vibe that men weren’t meant to be there. The person who was running it said that this group was usually only for mothers! The men didn’t come back the second week,” said Leo.
“I went to a parent’s group and I remember the mums were having a chat, talking about stuff that I just wasn’t really interested in, so I ended up just playing with all of the kids,” said Mitch.
Sweeping public discussion about women in the workplace, women’s rights has come to the fore. The #MeToo movement highlighting aspects of inequality and discrimination. These men are in full support of women and equality. Alongside their partners, they are trying to find their place as dads in the modern world.
One of the dads travelled from Kensington to attend the Dad’s Playgroup, such is the scarcity of fathers groups. Previous members used to travel from as far as Sunbury. Scanning the media, there is little discussion about Dads. Do they feel that they have a voice?
“Not really, because it seems to be such a niche thing in the media. Even this group, we have a Facebook page but there’s not a lot of activity there,” observes Leo.
“I do see dads out but not in the media or online. Maybe people don’t know how they can participate.”
They are participating, as they long have. In varied ways.
The children also put a mirror up to the parents. These dads are in a constant state of learning.
“It’s all so interesting because you end up learning a lot about yourself because they reflect everything that you do. I think, where did you pick that up from? And then I see that’s what I do all the time and my wife does it as well,” said Mitch.
Mitch found that after a year of first-time parents group, a lot of people returned to work but he still wanted his son to play with others and he wanted to connect with others himself.
“They learn from each other. This is a nice way for them to get used to hanging out with other kids and for the Dads to have some adult conversations.”
Mitch also attends a bush playgroup after finding playgroups, mostly attended by mothers, quite daunting.
“I really enjoy that. Just a different attitude and mindset. The kids are encouraged to go off and play. It is a little bit more alternative. People are a little bit more open minded. I don’t get asked that question, ‘Oh do you just look after him for one day?’ it’s more… accepting.”
Time at home has allowed the dads to practice new skills.
“My cooking skills have definitely improved, that’s for sure,” laughs Mitch.
Things that seemed important are not as vital as they once were, and other things that did not seem important, now do.
“It was a quick learning curve,” said Matthew.
“You get more selfish as you get older but having kids has probably reversed it.”
What is interesting is the memories that the dads carry of their own youth.
“My father worked. I still remember situations where we would have a one-on-one outing somewhere,” said Stefan.
Lots of things are forgotten, but that time with your dad, it is imprinted on you in ways that you never shed.
Article by Sinead Halliday