I recently started reading a book called Eternity Leave. It’s written by long-term stay at home dad and author Simon Kettlewell.
Often humorous, it’s a reflection on his 19 years as the main carer for his kids, a role he fulfills while his wife, who has a senior managerial role in the NHS, goes out to work and provides financially for the family. The book instantly appealed to me because I’ve been the main carer for my kids for the past decade.
One chapter was striking for the way it reflected my own life. The chapter focuses on a wine-fueled discussion Kettlewell has with his wife. After a long, tiring day, she takes her husband aside one evening and asks him what his “plan” is. After nearly 20 years of looking after children, the eldest of which will soon be leaving home, she feels he should be giving more thought to his future.
Her sentiments are entirely understandable and she clearly had the best of intentions. Alas, her attempts fall more than a little flat when she tells Kettlewell about an acquaintance who had been caring for his elderly mother for many years.
The mother had recently died, releasing her son from his caring responsibilities at the age of 75. Looking for something to do, he had started working with the League of Friends as a volunteer. Kettlewell did not appreciate the comparison with this older man and made clear to his wife he had no interest in joining the League of Friends.
It was a typically dreary, small domestic dispute but for one thing: I’d had a very similar conversation just a few weeks previously with my wife. She wanted to know what my “plan” was (yes, she used exactly the same word as Kettlewell’s wife).
When I embarked on this stay at home dad adventure, there was a vague plan that it would come to an end at some point. It was a slightly naïve approach as neither my wife nor I appreciated quite how demanding life is when you are focused on family and home or how much family life changes as children grow up.
When I gave up full-time work, we only had the one child. We then had a second and, surprise surprise, both kids started growing up. I hate to break it to anyone with young children, but life does not get easier as kids get older. The challenges may change, but those challenges get no easier to deal with.
The other thing neither of us accounted for was that I would launch a blog and that I would start running it as a business. The vague plan had assumed I’d spend several years as a stay at home dad and then find a job that I could fit around school hours.
In launching my blog, I accidentally deviated from the plan we had. It’s grown to a size where these days I refer to myself as a work from home dad rather than a stay at home dad. In asking about my plan, Mrs Adams wanted to know if I might, at some point, consider getting a job with a steady income instead of the roller coaster income of a freelancer (a freelancer who can only dedicate so much time to earning because the kids need looking after).
As any caregiving parent will tell you, having kids is a bit like the Hotel California. You can check out, but you can’t leave. I may work for myself, but I fit it around the family. Play dates, birthday parties, remote learning dealing with emails from the PTA, medical appointments etc. they are all my responsibility and I don’t see that changing.
I eventually told my wife I might become a mumpreneur and make a living selling jewellery made from freshly delivered placentas. She found that quite funny, but it didn’t deflect the question and she still wants to know what my long-term plan is.
This makes me wonder, do we, as a society, have different expectations of men and women who are caregivers? It may be that I’m living an incredibly sheltered life, but I’ve never heard of a husband asking his homemaking wife what her “plan” is?
Are men expected to have a plan because they’re supposed to spend most of their life outside of the family home earning a living? Are men like Kettlewell and I supposed to see through our years looking after the kids and then get back to full-time employment just because it’s what men do?
I think there’s possibly something in this and there’s even academic research to suggest my theory could be correct. Last year sociologists from the University of Surrey published a book called Sharing Care Equal and Primary Carer Fathers and Early Years Parenting.
As you can probably gather from the title, it’s a study into men who are the main caregivers for their young children. I found it fascinating reading, but there was one quite surprising finding.
The men who participated in the study were split into three groups: Primary caregivers, who were taking on the bulk of childcare for the medium to long term, parental leavers, who were taking shared parental leave, and equal care sharers, who shared caring responsibilities with their partner.
Most of the men in the second and third groups had a plan. While very committed to their families and in their roles as caregivers, this caregiving-dad-thing was not going to define them forever. They had every intention of getting back to full time employment when it became a viable option. I’m not saying these guys shouldn’t feel this way, but isn’t it interesting they felt compelled to get back to earning? They seemed to be putting themselves under pressure to get back into the world of work at the earliest opportunity.
One of the most common questions you get asked when you’re a stay at home dad is whether it bothers you that your spouse outearns you. There’s a pressure on men to be a go-getter, to be out earning, not to be at home and under your wife’s feet, to have a “plan.”
I’m not suggesting mothers have an easier time of it. I think women face some very big pressures. They’re made to feel like they’re choosing between work and family if they go back to work after having kids. Nonetheless, I think for women it’s easier to say “I’m quite happy looking after the kids thank you.”
I now put a challenge to you. If you speak to a woman with children, do you expect her to have plan for the future, or is it acceptable for her to be focused on family for as long as she wants? What about a man who is the main caregiver for his children? Would you think differently about him if he said he wants to concentrate on family and home for the long term? I’m not saying there’s a right or wrong answer, but it’d be interesting to hear what others think.