So just like that our first adventure together is over.
After three months and forty-four days of dynamic daytime partnership with Milo, I return to work next week. But not before I try my best to summarise how marvellous this adventure has been and why the concept of a stay-at-home dad must be normalised in Australia; for society, families and the individual.
My antennae has been rather sanctimoniously up over the last 3 months looking for any indication I was not being accepted or welcomed equally as a dad in a stay-at-home parenting world dominated by mums; at swim school, Gymbaroo, the park, anywhere. I was ready to pounce on and document any indication that I was less trusted around other people’s children, or treated as an outsider not worthy of a heads-up from the other mums when the supermarket was having a bulk sale on Covitol. I did not observe even a hint of this.
However, I did count 8 occasions when a well-intentioned member of the public approached me to offer specific praise for taking care of my son. The most predictable was an elderly lady who had just finished aqua-aerobics who told me it was so good to see a man taking an infant to the pool, the most surprising (and my favourite) was a large male employee at Bunnings who, while carrying a bag of quick-dry concrete on his shoulder, said “that’s what we like to see, a man looking after the baby”.
I have as much misplaced narcissism as the next guy so my immediate external response was always one of self-deprecating gratitude coupled with an internal self-congratulatory agreement that, yes, I am the world’s greatest dad since Sandy Cohen. My decision to sit in this cafe with my hilarious son drinking fine coffee at 2pm on a Wednesday is a wonderful sacrifice and I am to be congratulated.
No, the sight of a dad chilling with an infant on a weekday must be normalised to the point where the very kind and well-meaning strong man in Bunnings does not feel the need to compliment me. He should however offer me advice on how to fix my leaking toilet as it has been trickling for three weeks and I have no idea how to stop it.
There are many excellent reasons for all of us to hasten this normalisation, but I present below what I believe can be considered the ‘three Essential Virtues of stay-at-home daddery’:
- Mutual career sabotage; managing stay-at-home parenting in a baby’s first year is a human dilemma not a female dilemma. Both male and female employees should irritate their employers equally during this stage of life.
- Understanding the minutiae of your child leads to family harmony; shared knowledge of the most likely 15 minute windows during the day in which your child will poo brings a couple together, and both parents closer to their child.
- It is great; really, really great.
Essential Virtue #1 – Mutual career sabotage
Most Australians think we in Australia have a Federal Government funded Paid Parental Leave Scheme. That’s because there is a scheme funded by the Federal Government and it’s called the ‘Paid Parental Leave Scheme’. Unfortunately this scheme is somewhat poorly labeled. Like ‘Chicken of the Sea’ tuna, ‘Panther’s World of Entertainment’ or ‘New College, Oxford’ which was established in 1379, it’s just a little misleading.
Australia’s Paid Parental Leave Scheme is in fact a maternity leave scheme; for a father to take any of the 18 weeks paid leave the mother must be eligible and then ‘gift’ the leave to him. If the mother is ineligible, say because she earns more than $150,000, but the father is eligible, he cannot take the leave.
So, if a mother happened to earn $151,000 in the year preceding the birth of the child, and the father earned $50,000 in that year, the father would not be entitled to receive the payment to stay at home with his child. Neither parent could take the leave.
Eligibility for the payment is not based on a household income test however. If the father happened to earn $1,000,000 in the year preceding the birth of the child, and the mother earned $50,000 in that year, the mother would be entitled to receive the payment.
So, it would appear to me the scheme is either unconsciously or consciously biased against the possibility that a woman would be earning more than the father of her child, and certainly the possibility that the woman might be earning more than $150,000 a year. Or it is deliberately biased against fathers.
As Bengt Westerberg, the then prime minister of Sweden, told the New York Times in 1995 “Society is a mirror of the family. The only way to achieve equality in society is to achieve equality in the home. Getting fathers to share parental leave is an essential part of that.” Essentially, unless fathers begin to share the home parenting load with more regularity women will continue to take longer stints away from their careers and will experience continued job discrimination as a result. Women will continue to appear comparatively less attractive to employers; businesses that presume women are more likely to take extended breaks after childbirth will continue to systematically underpay them and overlook them for promotion. If not the answer, mutual career sabotage is at least one of the answers.
This interview was given right before Westerberg instigated key changes to Sweden’s paid parenting leave scheme, which already included a component that couples could share. The changes meant that if fathers did not take at least a month off with their new child the couple would lose a month of subsidized leave otherwise available to them. It also increased the payment to 90% of existing wages, making it more appealing for fathers to take up. The compensation now stands at 80% of existing wages.
Within a few years more than 80% of fathers in Sweden were taking extended time off to spend with their children; and now after a number of further amendments to the scheme the figure is 90%.
As a result Sweden now has one of highest rates of working mothers in the world, around 90%, Sweden’s part-time gender gap (a comparison of what share of the female and male labour force is made up of part-time workers) is the smallest in the OECD and unlike almost every other country male and female part-time workers are paid the same. The key difference is that Sweden’s parental leave policy means that most Swedish women returning to work part-time after having children return to the same job that they left, and eventually to the same full-time position, once their children start school. In 2014 77% of Swedish women had a job, the highest level in the EU.
There are other fine examples of how policies designed to entice men to take their share of stay-at-home parenting are good for economies, families and workplace equality; Iceland and Quebec for example. This article “the economic case for paternity leave” provides a useful and informative summary. It even includes a photograph of Wayne Rooney who has always done his bit for family values.
So in the absence of any government policies in Australia that encourage or even support men to take extended time at home with their babies, if you are lucky enough to have an employer that offers any paid leave for this purpose, take it. All of it. If you are not lucky enough to have such an employer, like most Australian males, scrap together whatever annual leave, long service leave, leave at half-pay and any unpaid leave you can afford and spend some time in the cafes and bowls clubs of your neighbourhood with your infant. You will not regret it.
Essential Virtue #2 – Understanding the minutiae of your child
When Milo was around 5 months old we met my family in town to take some photographs. Afterward I suggested since we had all made the effort to get together we should have a coffee. Kuepps glanced at me with calm incredulity and suggested that no, Milo was nearing his nap time and we needed to get home. I protested and said surely we could stretch Milo a little and have a quick coffee and be on our way. Kuepps escalated the matter and said she was going home and I could stay if I wanted to. We all departed and I confronted my wife somewhat on the way home, suggesting that she was not allowing Milo to develop the resilience he needs by pandering so heavily. Quite reasonably Kuepps was not impressed by my antics.
In hindsight I believe this insignificant event best highlights Essential Virtue number 2. My wife was patently correct but at the time I had no idea, and I behaved like a bit of an ass. Until I was completely responsible for my baby for hours on end, without lifeline, I found it very difficult to completely grasp what he was going through and what he needed.
I now respect and worship Milo’s schedule and would only allow an unplanned deviation for something as significant as the re-opening of Leyland Brothers World in Tea Gardens. In fact as I tell people “it is not Milo’s schedule, it is my f*****g schedule” (I use the explicit language to let them know I mean business). Of course this is false bravado and Milo does what he wants but I do know precisely the ramifications of unnecessary intervention and exactly where we’ll likely be at 3 in the morning.
Being at work while your partner is home with your baby can be difficult and stressful. Being at home with your baby while your partner is at work can be difficult and stressful. It is an emotional business and can easily lead to arguments among couples. Having both parents experience both sides of this equation does not eliminate these arguments, because it’s an emotional business, but it can help to smooth their resolution.
Here’s how such arguments are usually resolved in my house; “you don’t know how difficult it is to stay at home with an infant all day while you’re off pursuing your career and having adult conversation. It’s not like I stay in bed all morning playing NBA Jam, you don’t know how much work it actually is.” Response; “sure I do”.
Or, “you don’t know how difficult it is getting up every morning and having to leave my baby behind so I can fight traffic and then have endless meetings. And then when I get home there’s baby feeding and bathing and settling. I feel like I only get the most difficult times of the day with him. You don’t understand”. Response; “sure I do”. Of course that’s not the end of the story, but most of the heat is taken out of these usually irrational interactions before they begin, allowing more precious time to catch up on the West Wing.
In late 2011 (the year 3 BM – Before Milo) one of my friends who lives in the UK had a baby girl. He was planning to take several months leave with her once his wife went back to work but unfortunately the timing of this plan meant he would be off for a month prior to the Olympics, the entirety of the Games and a month afterward. His company, like many in London that were involved in delivering the Games, had cancelled all annual leave for that period. However, in the UK (as in Australia) every worker has the right to take a period of unpaid parental leave, and he decided to exercise that right.
As he explained it to me he had witnessed several male friends of his who had excellent relationships with their small children when everything was relaxed and comfortable. However, in moments of adversity, skinned knees, Spongebob Squarepants movie tickets sold out, their children instinctively sought out their mothers for comfort and consolation. My friend was determined to build a bond with his daughter such that he would be considered an equally palatable option when times got difficult, and he believed that would be forged before she was one. Whether my friend is correct or not he felt strongly enough about it to really inconvenience his employer; and when he returned he told me it was the best thing he had ever done. That was the moment when I started thinking about this as a concept. I renounced my membership at our local sauna, sold all my tight trousers, quit horse riding and began researching and scheming.
From my limited experience I do not believe there is such a thing as a natural-born parent. I believe there is a broad spectrum of styles, and within that spectrum perhaps a tiny minority that might be considered less suitable than others; the enormously tattooed man who lives his life as a leopard in a remote hut on the Isle of Skye in Scotland may fall into this category.
But like most things in life this is a game of repetition and a desire to win. This is Kobayashi doubling the World Record by eating 50 dogs in 12 minutes in his first Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Competition in 2001. This is Jeff Hornacek shooting free-throws, waving hello to his three children before each one. Practise, repetition and learning from mistakes. Surely giving yourself an opportunity to have uninterrupted time with your child gives you the best chance to build your skills, techniques and perhaps most importantly, your confidence.
I like knowing the best place to park at the Supa Centa to achieve easy access to the lifts, I like knowing that if you don’t pull the first leg of Milo’s tights all the way up over his knee he will simply kick it off when you turn your attention to the second, I like knowing when it is wise to wait 8 more minutes before going out because there is a 70% chance Milo is going to poo in that time period and you are better off dealing with it at home, I like knowing there is no point trying to get Milo to sleep with the pram seat fully reclined, the second lowest recline setting is best, I like knowing that before launching himself under a billowing parachute Milo will sit quietly on your knee for at least a minute surveying the environment and the other children before bellowing and charging in, etc, etc. Repetition.
Whatever the baby equivalent of figuring out the enormous time-saving benefit of eating the dog and the bun separately is, that’s what stay-at-home daddery can offer you.
Essential Virtue #3 – It is great; really, really great
I feel like more of an adult than I did 3 months ago. I think the feeling is somewhat akin to the first time you invite your grandmother around after you have moved out of home and you are able to offer her a cup of tea.
That experience was soured a little for me because my brother (with whom I was living) and I discovered belatedly that we did not have any tea. So I dashed out to remedy the situation, but given it was my first experience of such matters I did not realise one could buy tea in bag or leaf form. I was naturally drawn to the most cost-effective choice which was of course a box of home-brand leaf tea. I arrived home just in time and opened the box expecting bags. Finding leaves my brother and I looked at each other quizzically, we were out of our depth. Of course we had no straining implements of any kind so I did what any young man eager to impress his grandmother would do and strained our tea into a teapot through a white sports sock. Our grandmother complimented us on our tea and how much we had grown up.
I have tried hard to have fewer sports sock moments during this adventure with Milo, and although there have undoubtedly been some, I feel more confident and adult-like than I did at the beginning.
One of the aforementioned 8 unsolicited compliments I received was from a lady standing next to Milo and I while we all awaited coffees one morning. After we had chatted a little about our respective circumstances she said to me “it is so wonderful what you are doing”. For me this comment was akin to purchasing an ice-cream on a warm summer’s afternoon and having the ice-cream vendor (a brrrrista perhaps?) hand you the double-cone pistachio and coconut and say “it is so wonderful what you are doing”.
This comment may be controversial, but stay-at-home parenting is not difficult. I must preface that comment by noting my sample size is 1, the second half of the first year is far easier than the first, and I have to think Milo is above average on the wrangleability scale; he sleeps reliably during the day, he eats well and he is comfortable in the car and pram.
With that preface noted; if you are prepared to give in to a little chaos, set only modest daily goals and move slowly, being a stay-at-home dad is an overwhelmingly positive experience. There are no men that I know who would not thrive under such circumstances, if given the opportunity.
As this blog has probably shown our days have been spent enjoying each other’s company, planning and executing small adventures, visiting friends and family, browsing aimlessly in shops, discovering new animals and plants, walking every corner of our neighbourhood, sipping coffee while pining for positive attention from baristas, scheming, cooking, throwing food, eating, building, tumbling, chasing, leaping, learning and giggling.
With such a short time together, and with a camera always nearby, my instinct has been to record everything. And I have; thousands of photos and videos, an enormous oversupply of Milo images. However, among all of these I still do not believe I have adequately captured the joy we have shared together. He is genuinely hilarious, adventurous, joyous, inquisitive, hungry, unusual, noisy, gentle, violent, careful, reckless, athletic, resilient, boisterous and fragile.
Due to an overwhelming demand from my mum and her Bridge group I will continue to write this blog once a week on my day off with Milo but for now that is all, I have achieved my goal.
Years from now when Milo turns 14, gets his second big surge of Testosterone and wants to get a tattoo of Wario on his neck because in 2030 Wario will be considered an edgy antihero from the mid-90s much like Che Guevara’s image is used today, and I say he can have that tattoo but I am getting a matching one and he says he hates me because I am a loser and I don’t understand him, I will be able to print out this long, rambling, oft non-sensical record and present it to him to show that indeed I do understand him. That in fact I was there with him as he was figuring out how to be a boy. And he was there with me as I was figuring out how to be a dad.
- Number of minutes playing NBA Jam – 0
- Episodes of Game of Thrones – 3
- Episodes of West Wing – 33
- Total seconds of planking – 57
- Number of pallets up-cycled – 2
- Total number of push-ups – 10
- Number of Spanish words learned – 2
- Letters written to council – 0
- Total hours planting trees – 0
- Total beehives installed on our balcony – 0
- Total items fashioned out of reclaimed timber – 0
- Total hours researching family tree – 0
- Total hours on bicycle trainer – 0
- Hours spent re-oiling outdoor furniture – 0
- Hours spent communicating with Eastern European hobbyists via Ham Radio – 0
- Number of large Big Mac meals eaten in the car while Milo napped – 3
- Duets sung with a stranger in the supermarket – 1
- Minutes spent alphabetising our DVD collection – 0
- Hours spent volunteering as life drawing model – 0
- Hours volunteering for the ‘Urban Bee Society’ – 0
- Podcasts listened to – 27
- Number of total cafe visits – 52