Belfast Telegraph

A dad who stays home with baby isn't henpecked, freakish or gay

By Jane Graham

Aaccording to a recent poll, only 41% of fathers are likely to take advantage of the new paternity leave entitlements which kicked in this week. That surprises me.

An unofficial poll of all the dads I know concluded that 0% felt taking six months off work to look after their newborns while their mothers skipped back into the office, was a realistic - or, in some cases, desirable - option.

My first thought when I heard about the change was that I'd have panicked if the father of my children had demanded an equal share of that first baby year with me.

Speaking entirely selfishly, I somehow felt that carrying my daughter for nine months entitled me to take as much time off as I wanted. And I wanted all of it.

Thankfully, my husband felt the same way. I may even have detected a tiny sigh of relief when his three weeks' leave ended and he went back to work, leaving me cooped up alone with someone I couldn't talk to, and who returned my unconditional love and attention by randomly throwing up over me.

It wasn't the life I'd dreamt of when I moved to London to get into the music industry, and I had absolutely no experience of babies before I gave birth to one.

But the weird thing was, I loved (almost) every minute and had never been happier - while my husband, a baby know-all who had changed his youngest siblings' nappies, was equally content not to be there. It had nothing to do with who was the bigger earner, or the state's unwillingness to encourage fathers to get more involved. It just felt right.

The fathers of young children in my circle make up a pretty broad church, which includes teachers, a taxi driver, freelance writers, an IT consultant and a plumber.

When I asked them what they thought about their new rights, almost all of them said they were irrelevant in the real world, either because it wasn't financially viable for them to be on low, statutory pay for six months, or because they thought it would badly damage their standing at work.

Some said they just wouldn't feel comfortable being the stay-at-home parent. One guy admitted when he saw a dad with a pram he thought, 'Poor fella, his wife must be ill/dead'.

Another said the thought of going to a playgroup and talking about sterilising dummies for an hour with a bunch of lactating baby fanatics was his idea of hell.

Which is when I changed my idea about the new law.

Not just because men need to learn that not all new mums are mutton-brained babyholics and that some of us would kill for a decent conversation at those interminable parent and toddler mornings.

But because once in a while I end up chatting to one of those 'sad stay-at-home dads' and, though they're clearly in a minority, neither are they freakishly against nature (or, FYI, henpecked losers or even latent homosexuals), as some men seem to think.

In fact, most of the ones I've met are unselfish, generous men, who have ended up as primary carers as an act of kindness to their wives. Some of them thrive in their roles and some struggle.

But if this new law encourages a change of attitude towards such men - even if it takes years for it to transcend its current, largely symbolic status - then it's a damn good thing.

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