“I think it would work best if I go back to work full-time and you stay at home and look after Maya. What do you think?”
We had sold our flat in Edinburgh two months earlier and ever since had been travelling round the country catching up with friends and family. We had chosen a new city to live in, but we still hadn’t decided exactly how we were going to juggle jobs and the care of our six month-old daughter. And now, after a sleepless night, my wife was standing before me looking rather nervous and asking if I wanted to stay at home and be a house husband. “I think it is a great idea. But are you sure that is what you want?”
The relief was clearly visible on her face. The decision made sense for us on so many levels, especially financially – which I have since learned is the case for many couples who opt for this arrangement. But it wasn’t just the money. After spending the first four months of Maya’s life as a full-time mum, my wife had realised, to her great surprise, that this was not the life she wanted for herself at the moment. She wanted to build on the beginnings of a successful career whereas, career-wise, I was going nowhere fast. I had had a good job in London working for ITN but our move to Edinburgh put paid to that and I had been treading water ever since. Now I had the chance to do something really worthwhile that I was confident I could do well. And so my new career as a house husband began. Three and a half years later I’m still with the same company, although my duties have expanded to include the care of our son, who is now two.
Some people reading this, maybe the men, might ask if I wasn’t just a little bit nervous. Well, the answer is no, and for two very good reasons. Firstly, I had just spent the last two months being with and helping look after Maya every day, so I was very comfortable with her needs and routine. Secondly, and far more importantly, I had absolutely no idea what I was really letting myself in for! I may have known what it was like for two parents to look after a child together, but doing it on your own is a completely different ball game. Any dads who actively avoid being left alone with their children never fully appreciate this. It is an exhausting, soul-destroying, emotional roller coaster of a job. I miss my own space. I miss earning a wage, especially if we are struggling towards the end of the month or if I want to buy my wife a present. And sometimes having to be responsible for two young children every day is overwhelming – there are days when I’d combust without Radio 5 (my lifeline to the outside world) or Aikido classes in the evening (somewhere I can just be me and not a dad). Despite their size, children can bring a grown man to his knees and leave him close to frustrated tears – if you don’t believe me ask any mum!
So, do I enjoy what I do? Of course. It’s the most rewarding and uplifting job there is. Although to be honest, the answer to that question might depend on when you ask. If it was after a rainy day at home with two over-tired whingeing children then I might tell you, with a desperate look in my eye, that I sometimes wonder what on earth I am doing with my life. Then again, ask me after a sun-soaked day in a country park with two children who have made me laugh and smile so much my cheeks ache, then I will tell you in truth that I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life.
On one level, I would say being a house husband isn’t any different to being a housewife. The ability to look after and raise children well has very little to do with gender and everything to do with personality. Last year, Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour asked the question, “Can a father ever really be a mother?” The debate was interesting, but to me it is a ridiculous question – I am not trying to be a mother. The idea that all women are naturally wonderful mothers while men are simply struggling to reach the same giddy heights is ludicrous in today’s world. All the new mums I know, on being left alone with their child for the first time, have had the same reaction as the dads – “Right, what the hell do I do now?!” Every new parent has to learn the ropes; it is not about your sex, it is about time spent with your child.
However, on another level, my experience has been different to that of many mums. Most importantly, I have the huge advantage of being married to a mum. When my wife walks through the door at night it doesn’t matter how bad her day at work has been, she puts the children first, and she wants to be with them. She effectively takes over the childcare from that moment – feeding them, bathing them and putting them to bed – while I retreat to the kitchen to cook and do whatever else needs to be done. Now, don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are men but there are still a few useless ones out there, if recent TV shows are anything to go by. Women don’t need an extra child to look after, they need a partner who can help them raise their children. So what if you have had a hard day at work – just because you get a pay cheque for your hours doesn’t mean that the person at home is any less tired than you are (truth is they are probably more tired!). The way we look at it is this: when my wife’s at the office then I look after the children, when she is at home then we both look after the children, simple as that.
Still, I have to admit that the useless male (whose numbers are seriously in decline by the way) does do me one big favour. He makes me look good – and I am not being flippant. The number of compliments I have had over the years from women, even single mums, is astonishing – and all because I compare favourably to a particular man they know. I know for a fact that mums don’t get these comments; they are expected to be perfect mothers, keep beautiful homes, and provide mouth-watering dishes for their husbands. But as a man, society cuts me a lot of slack, and quite frankly anything I manage to do is seen as quite an accomplishment.
Another significant difference became apparent when our son was born. How on earth do mums cope with their second child when their partner only gets two weeks paternity leave? My wife had five months maternity leave so for the first four months (probably the hardest) we had two full-time parents in the house. And now that she is back at work it still works in our favour. If she has to rearrange meetings or come home early because the children are ill, that is seen as perfectly normal, after all she is a mum. Of course, if her male counterparts want to do the same then the boss isn’t quite so understanding. Sometimes I feel like it is all a big game and we are just playing the system to our advantage.
Does this mean then that all dads should be at home with their children while their partners go out to work? Definitely not. Like I said earlier, it is a personality thing, not a gender thing. A lot of men would struggle with the daily reality of being at home with their children, whereas my temperament happens to suit this role. I am sure that when I am old and grey I will treasure this time in my life and know that I was a lucky man. Being a house husband is my job at the moment and like anything it has its ups and downs. When it’s up, it is the best job in the world; when it’s down, it’s ... well, if you have got kids, you know.
At the time of publishing, Chris was full-time father to Maya and Taran.
Photo by Helena Lopes, for illustration and is not of the author.
First published in Issue 4 of JUNO. Accurate at the time this issue went to print.