Did you know that among couples with children, for 5% of them, it is the dad who stays at home while his partner works? Some of you might think that this number is a lot more than what they thought, because, let's be honest, a dad with a pram during weekdays is a pretty rare sight. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some of you might think that this number is still way too small, especially when you know that there are 6 times more stay-at-home mums in Australia (2016 Australian Bureau of Statistics).
So who are these 5% of fathers who stay-at-home to take care of the household chores and the children? What difficulties do they face? During a recent episode of the Asking For A Mate podcast, I got the chance to talk to a stay-at-home dad and I had 1,000 questions for him (or pretty close to it).
Read on to find out more from our chat or Listen Here.
Stay-at-home parents around the world: parental leave policies and childcare systems
Parental leave policies and childcare in Australia
First things first, to clearly understand the high number of stay-at-home parents in Australia, it is good to remind ourselves of the current parental leave policies and childcare system.
In Australia, paid parental leave is up to 90 days for the mother (more or less 3 months of maternity leave) and up to 10 days for the partner (so 2 weeks). It is normal for the mother to benefit from a good resting time and learn how to live with the newborn baby; however, it is not quite normal that the partner does not benefit from equal rights to spend time with their child and share home duties with the new (really) tired mum. Of course, Parental Leave policies allow both parents to take additional time off work, but let’s face it, this is unpaid leave, so for most parents, it is not a solution.
Primary school starts at 6 years old so if both parents want to get back to work, there are a few childcare options: home based care, day care centres and family day care. If you are lucky enough to have a trustworthy non-working relative wishing to care for your child everyday for 6 years, then you won’t have to pay a cent. However, if like most new parents you don’t, you will have to turn to daycare centres which charge between AUD 70 and 185 per day, or family daycare which charge a little less but not much lower. Of course, some families can be eligible for government support, but if your salary is quite low or you are facing specific financial issues, you will still have to pay a big part of the childcare cost with money that may not be available.
In Australia, since 1991 the percentage of stay-at-home mothers has slightly reduced (from 33% to 27%) while the percentage of stay-at-home fathers has not increased much at all (from 4% to 5%).
It is easy to conclude that for many families, instead of losing the equivalent of a whole salary to childcare, one of the parents decides to stay-at-home to take care of the children until they enter school (which can be longer than 6 years if you happen to have more than one child). For various reasons, it still tends to be the mother who stays at home - 27% of households to be exact. The percentage of stay-at-home dads has only increased from 4% to 5% in… almost 30 years.
Parental policies and childcare in Sweden and France
To see how much progress can still be made regarding parental leave and childcare, let’s have a look at the Swedish and French systems.
In Sweden, parents are entitled to 480 days (16 months), 3 months exclusive for each parent and the rest that they must share before the child turns 8 years old. Most fathers take leave for about 3 months or more, giving them the opportunity to spend valuable time with their offspring to create a strong father-child bond. Being a stay-at-home parent is really common thanks to the government’s support and tends to be shared between both parents.
In France, school starts at 3 years old so parents only need to find solutions to care for their children during the first 3 years. Childcare cost depends on the parents’ income, starting at a low rate and making it ‘affordable’ for most families. It’s a really helpful solution, the only issue is that placement is quite difficult to get. If they don’t get a seat, parents can turn to ‘Nounous’ or a ‘Nanny’ as it’s referred to in english. Nounous are regulated and certified by the state child care specialists and in this case, parents are also eligible for government help. The Nounou cares for your children from home (yours or theirs, depending on the arrangement). There are very few statistics about at-home parents in France, though it is common for both parents to work.
More stay-at-home dads: more equal opportunities in the workplace
All systems have their flaws, but the Swedish and French ones can be good examples to start guiding Australia towards areas of improvement in ours.
In the long run, if both men and women take the same amount of paid parental leave, it will no longer be a factor to consider when hiring men and women for high responsibility roles in the workplace. Both men and women will have the same probability of taking days off.
There is still a long way to go, as for now women in Australia still tend to forgo their careers to care for their children, or at least make arrangements to work less hours. However, a new generation of dads is starting to prove all social conservatives wrong, by showing that they can take good care of their kids while their partners concentrate on their careers. I’ve met with one of them, and he had a lot to say about his job as a stay-at-home dad.
What are the benefits of becoming a stay-at-home dad?
Peter, an almost 5 years stay-at-home dad of two little girls provided insight and answered a range of questions during our chat on Asking For A Mate. He sets the truth about what it really means to be an at-home father.
Impact of stay-at-home dads on their family
Positive impact on gender equality
First of all, let’s remind ourselves that if the father stays at home, then the mother can go on with her career goals. Slowing their career is currently the main social issue that women face when taking a parental leave. So the stay-at-home dad, by supporting his partner he conveys a great image of gender equality in society. The amazing thing we can notice is that not only does it ensure more equality between men and women in society, but it also has a positive impact on the children.
Positive impact on the children
It has been proven over time by scientific studies that children who benefit from an engaged dad in their education will be more likely to succeed in life. For example, they will tend to have higher-paying jobs, be healthier, have more stable relationships and higher IQ test scores. This is called the “Father Effect”, proving that quality time with children influences their general wellness. It does not mean that the father’s presence is better than the mother’s, only that a shared time with children is really good for their general well being.
Positive impact on the father himself
It is already clear that a dad engaging time with his children is great for them. However, it is also proven that it helps the dad himself bond better with his children, and feel better the importance of his role among the family.
Being a stay-at-home dad means spending long periods of alone time with the children, sometimes very young ones (a few months old). A study about Swedish fathers showed that when both parents are home, the father does not feel equal responsibility as a caregiver. However, when the father is alone, taking care of the primary needs of the children by himself, such as feeding and bathing, he builds a deep bond and feels a higher sense of responsibility, a sense of equal responsibility in caring for the children. Indeed, if you know your child’s well-being depends on your sole actions for the next few hours, you will definitely realise the importance of your role as a caregiver.
The most important job in the world
As Peter reminded me a few times in the podcast episode, being a stay-at-home dad is for him ‘the most important job in the world’. He states himself ‘it is so rewarding and enjoyable and at no time in my life I think it was not worth it.’
What are the difficulties of becoming a stay-at-home dad?
Being a stay-at-home parent means facing numerous challenges in caring for the children, dealing with housework, communicating with your partner and also finding time for yourself. But being a stay-at-home dad raises its own specific struggles, Peter told us all about them.
Stigmas & struggles of the new stay-at-home dad
There is a general idea that men are less capable of caring for the children. A great example of that is how praised men are when they are seen alone with children in public places, playing with them or simply taking care of them. Peter explains that it is a common thing to have people come to him and tell him how he is doing a good job. Well, the truth is, as Peter likes to highlight it, 'I’m doing what all fathers should do in my situation, taking care of my children'.
Would people make the same comment to a mother alone with her kids? Most certainly not. It seems to be a common expectation that fathers are not as capable as mothers of doing a good job. Raising children is, indeed, an extremely difficult job.
However, fathers are totally capable of raising children as well as mothers. At the end of the day, if the kids are fed, clothed, alive and asleep, you’ve basically done the job, right?! Well, maybe not job done, but it’s an essential place to start. So, thinking men are unable to take care of the kids by themselves, partly acts as a reason why there are so few stay-at-home dads.
Another issue is gender norms. It is traditionally assumed that men should be the main acting role to support the family, meaning the one that brings money, authority and a good role model. On the opposite, women are expected to be comforting, in charge of cleaning, cooking and overall caring for the home. Being a stay-at-home dad usually means being financially dependent on your partner which can be hard to stomach for many men.
Society is still not totally accustomed to this and might judge the new family organisation, asking awkward questions around family income, considering the father as a lazy man who does not want to work, or bringing pressure on the parents. This can refrain many men in their decision to become stay-at-home dads. Overall, friends and family support are key elements to make this work. Many fathers who do not feel the support of their relatives will not consider being a stay-at-home dad as an option.
Mental support for new dads
Another main struggle for new dads can be the lack of mental support. As Peter clearly explained, there are many mother’s groups for new mums but there is no real support for new dads. Also, the medical institutions seem to care less about the father’s well being, mostly focused on the mother’s health and mental state (which is already a great step forward).
New fathers also have many questions about their parenting capabilities, wondering if they are doing the right thing but cannot easily find a good support network. Peter joined a few mothers groups (actually named ‘parents groups’ but only attended by women), but he never felt accepted. Listen to him relate his detailed experience on the podcast.
Helping struggling new fathers starts by asking them questions. Wherever they become stay-at-home dads or get back to work, they deserve to share their stories and receive competent help. Men tend to have a hard time sharing their feelings face to face, so a good way to help them could be by bringing them online solutions: group chats, blogs or podcasts. Generally, the more we talk about equal help for new parents, and spread the word, the more things will change and move forward.
Fortunately, things are gradually changing. The Australian government just published a Mental Health Enquiry report (16 nov 2020). One of the priority actions is supporting the mental health of new parents. It explicitly plans to include fathers and partners in the screening process and support actions.
Burdens of the traditional education for new parents
Though much less challenging than the lack of mental support, a few traditional education burdens also come into account when taking the decision to become a stay-at-home dad.
Many fathers believe, from their education, that their role only starts when their children are old enough to talk, listen and understand well. This totally takes away the possibility that fathers can affectionately bond with their children from day 1. A 2013 UK national study gave proof of the opposite: father’s postnatal engagement is strongly associated with better cognitive and socio-emotional development of children.
Ask yourself: why would the mother stay-at-home and not the father? Talk about it around your social circles, shake some minds, open new discussions. You will have already made the first step. A first big step into more equal opportunities for men and women in the workplace, but also and mostly, more equal opportunities in their future as parents.
Some companies offer a few months off for new dads, so if you have the opportunity, I truly invite you to step into the shoes of a stay-at-home dad without fear. You will understand the challenges and difficulties of this job, but also and most importantly, you will have the chance to spend wonderful and incredibly joyful times with your child.
Want to know more about Peter’s experience as a stay-at-home dad? Listen to his podcast interview with Asking For A Mate!