When our baby was born, my wife and I were clear that we didn’t want nannies to raise him. At the time she was in charge of a fledgling business, which she couldn’t exactly abandon. Given that her work had the greater earning potential and that I could do mine from home on a freelance basis, we made the logical decision that when, three months after the birth, she gradually began to go back to work, I would stay home with the baby.
Assuming you have a choice, here are some things for both men and their partners to consider before going down the same route.
Be prepared to become a domestic goddess
The nature of a stay-at-home dad’s role means it’s difficult to stipulate that the scope of your duties extends only to childcare and certain ancillary tasks but no further. Believe me, I’ve tried. If your wife goes out to work all day it’s unfair to expect her to come home, relieve you of the baby and cook and clean while you open a beer and watch Celebrity Masterchef. You’ll have to accept that if you’re the one in the house, you’ll likely be the one doing the housework.
Sometimes I catch sight of myself in the living-room mirror, baby on hip as I whip around with the hoover in the 15 minutes I have before the shepherd’s pie starts to burn, fretting over whether I should have used a fabric softener in that last batch of washing. It’s certainly a surreal experience — hardly the future me I had imagined as a rap-loving teenager, university “football lad” and flash corporate lawyer – but it’s something you have to embrace. You’re being a good team player.
Your career may suffer
Turns out women weren’t being entirely dishonest all this time: taking time out to care for a child may indeed hamper your career. For many that’s a sacrifice worth making — in fact, terming it a sacrifice feels wrong in a lot of ways, since there are millions of people who long to spend more time with their kids — but for those attached to getting out there and earning their crust, it can take some getting used to. Many times I’ve had work come through from a client, or felt particularly inspired to do a piece of writing but have had to push it aside or refuse it completely because I was all-hands-on-deck with the baby.
There are ways around it; I often get up at 5 or 6am and do my work before the baby wakes up. I’m typing this right now in a dangerously unergonomic position with the baby asleep in his carrier on my chest, but it’s difficult to get any kind of flow going when I know that any minute he might wake up and stuff his thumb up my nose. You’ll have to get comfortable with the fact that you have new priorities now, and that your daily efforts (unless you have a particularly generous baby) are not going to be rewarded with cash in your pocket.
You may struggle for a sense of achievement
In the modern working world, particularly if you’re a reasonably high flyer, you become accustomed to achieving. You become almost addicted to being productive. Now, in my new role, there’ll be days when I bath the baby, take the baby for a walk with the dogs, play with said baby, cook him a meal, wash a few nappies… and that’s it; that’s the extent of everything I’ve achieved that day. For the first week it can feel nice and refreshing, but after a month you can begin to feel almost useless.
A bit of respect from your peers might help, but you may not find it in large supply. The phrase “sitting at home” seems to be an infuriatingly common way people find for describing what you do. The fact is, most people think you’ve got it easy, so don’t expect much sympathy. You might just have to get used to reminding yourself that what you’re doing — your new work, as it were — has value and is valued. Indeed, it may well be the most important job you ever do.
You may feel less attractive
I can only speak as a male here, but being a certified domestic goddess doesn't make you feel particularly sexy. While presenting your homecoming wife with a sparkling kitchen and a lovely pasta bake can indeed be met with a warm reception, its strength really lies in its novelty. In general, society and the vast majority of womankind, presumably conditioned by thousands of years of history, seem to admire a man who goes out and works.
In the old days my wife might have missed me if I had to work a long night in the office. Nowadays the poor thing can’t get away from me; she opens the door and there I am in my pinny, pathetic gratitude plastered all over my porridge-stained face. I used to buy her surprise presents, whisk her away on impulsive nights out — if I wanted to do that today I’d have to get her permission to use the joint account first, perhaps ask for an idea of how much I’m allowed to spend.
Be aware that by becoming a stay-at-home dad you are giving away much of what traditionally makes you a man, and therefore potentially much of not only what your partner likes about you but what you like about you. Being caring and considerate and great with kids are good assets, but when they suddenly become all you have to offer, it doesn’t exactly set pulses racing. You might not expect it to have an impact on your relationship — after all, you are doing it for the good of your relationship! — but your partner may well feel something when she opens social media and sees that Steve has just jetted Debbie off to Mauritius again, meanwhile you’re ringing her because the baby just did a poo that looks like Jesus, again.
It doesn’t have to be a major problem, but be prepared that you might feel a bit worthless at times, and that as a couple you will have to work to stay focused on the big picture.
You might even feel guilty
Sometimes, particularly if it’s breastfed, the baby just wants its mum. I sometimes catch him looking at me as if he’s just screamed for an electrician and a bloody plumber’s shown up. I feel guilty, like I’m depriving him of his mother.
Equally, there are times when the mum just wants her baby. When she’s had a bad day at work she’ll say it should be her at home looking after the kid and me going out to earn the money, and when I’ve had a bad day with the kid I’ll say the same, even though we both know there’s no realistic alternative. Again, I feel guilty; like I’m obstructing her natural mothering instincts.
Worse, as my personal income has suffered by virtue of devoting most of my time to the baby, my wife has found herself in the position of primary breadwinner, with all the added pressures and strains that entails. I don’t want that for her. I don’t want to see her dragging herself out of the door while me and the baby prepare for another day of walks and cuddles. If someone has to carry the weight of putting food on the table, I want it to be me. And yet at the same time I don’t want to put my working life before hers. I don’t want her to have to give up the business she always dreamed of having.
Sometimes as a stay-at-home dad you can feel completely helpless; you can feel you’re continually putting yourself second, doing everything to make other people happy, and yet still you’re doing more harm than good.
The key to it all is to stay positive. Focus on the benefits to you as a couple of being able to raise your own child, and remember those people who are forced to send babies off to daycare without really wanting to. But discuss the arrangement thoroughly first and don’t go into it blindly. If both parties know what to expect then there shouldn’t be too many problems. Time with your child is a privilege, and the positives far outweigh the negatives. I know that my baby feels loved and secure. He’s growing up so fast, and it’s great to have the time to actually take him in. And the first name he said was still “Mama”, which is exactly how I’d hoped it would be.