It’s becoming easier for dads to swap breadwinning for baby-burping – but it’s still a dream unrealised for many couples who would like to swap traditional parenting roles.
It is difficult to know exactly how many stay-at-home dads there are in Australia, but ABS statistics collected between 2005 and 2013 show the number of men not in the workforce who list their main activity as home duties or caring for children has gradually increased.
University of Queensland families and households expert Professor Janeen Baxter says stay-at-home dad numbers are rising because more mums are participating in paid work.
“The availability of paid parental leave may also increase the probability that mothers who are in employment prior to birth, will return to employment,” she said.
A greater social acceptability of dads taking a hands-on role in parenting and changing definitions of “good” fathering and mothering are also playing a part.
“It is also more socially acceptable for dad to be actively involved, as evidenced by public opinion polls as well as media images and TV shows that role model stay at home dads,” Professor Baxter said.
Taking a career break
The stay-at-home dads the ABC spoke to all have one thing in common – they know men who want what they have.
But finances are often a hurdle for couples wanting to switch things up when there is a 23 per cent gender pay gap.
For Tully Johns in Melbourne, money wasn’t at the forefront of his family’s decision to swap roles.
Tully left his job as an elephant trainer four years ago to look after Alfie, now seven, and Ruby, eight, when his wife Kate wanted to start her own business.
“I worked for 16 years as a zookeeper … it was a living the dream-type scenario,” he said.
“Having said that family was always very important to me, so I transferred my skills training elephants to training children.
“It made perfect sense for our family at the time, it probably didn’t make sound financial sense, we took a risk.”
He says some men react to his role with envy, others surprise.
“A lot of dads are envious that you are getting the time with the kids, some are a bit bemused as to why you would do that and not continue advancing your profession.
“The only advice that I’d offer is follow your instinct and what is right with your family as opposed to what society expects you to do.”
Reece Anderson from Brisbane is at home with his 17-month-old daughter Eden, and step-daughter Belle, 10.
He also puts time with his children ahead of having maximum earning potential.
“I wanted some good quality bonding time with the girls, and where my fiancee and I work allows for ‘career breaks’,” Reece said.
“Your kids aren’t going to remember how much money and stuff you have, they remember what time you spent with them.
“Don’t get me wrong, having a single income is hard with a mortgage, but you have to remember what is important.”
Guys, it’s not a holiday
Reece says dads he meets often express a desire to be at home, but for the wrong reasons.
“A guy the other day was telling me ‘I want to be a stay at home so I don’t have to work nine til five’ – it’ll be 24/7 at home mate,” he laughs.
Shane Wescombe on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast has been at home with his 10-month-old daughter Gabby since she was four months and knows all too well it’s not “a holiday from work”.
For him and his wife Wendy, the role reversal was motivated by finances. Wendy earns more money as a teacher than Shane who was employed cleaning carpets at the time of Gabby’s birth.
“At the start it took a month to sort of get used to it, because she knew dad was different to mum, we had to get into a routine,” he said.
“It’s pretty good, but of course it has its days … it can be mentally draining. Sometimes you just need a break.”
But Shane wouldn’t have it any other way, and is considering weekend work so he can boost their income without putting Gabby in childcare.
“We’ve got friends with kids who go to childcare, they are always sick with gastro or a cold, then they have to come home and you’ve already paid for it.”
A balanced family
Professor Baxter says quality parenting can be provided by either parent.
“There are probably no real differences from the child’s point of view,” she said.
Tully agrees, and says the move has benefited the whole family in ways they didn’t expect.
“It has brought a balance to our family, I have a much greater understanding of what it takes to run a house with kids,” he said.
“I think you can do it for a day or a week and think you can do it forever, but when it’s six months of the grind, you get a true understanding.”
You don’t have to ‘fit in’
Professor Baxter says some fathers can feel isolated or self-conscious attending play groups dominated by women.
Shane doesn’t attend mothers’ groups but does get to catch up with mums, including those in his gym class.
“I do my own thing, really,” he said. “By the time you clean the house, get everything done, pick up toys 85 times, you run out of time.”
Tully also preferred to maximise one-on-one time when the kids were small.
“Even when I did catch up with mums, they weren’t cliquey, but they just felt as though they were placed in an unfamiliar situation,” he said.
“But I am fairly confident and introverted, so I don’t mind spending time with myself.”
Reece says the lack of dads at play groups is understandable.
“Initially when I first started there was a bit of a fear maybe, you start thinking they will think I’m being a bludging dad, but then I realised I’m there for Eden.”