By Lauren Keenan
This week, my baby girl reaches the age my son was when what I like to think of as the Great Swap Over occurred – I went back to work, and my husband became a stay-at-home dad. It was a couple of years ago now, but I’ve been reflecting on the experience of being a woman in the workforce when my partner was at home, and what I consider the benefits and challenges of the arrangement to have been.
First, the benefits:
- It was great for my reintegration into the workforce.
Having my husband at home made the transition back to work so much easier without be having to worry about leaving work in time to pick up my son from nursery, or dropping him off in the morning. Not to mention only having to get myself ready in the morning, and not having to worry about the chewed food or boogers that always somehow make it onto my clothes after leaving the house. And, unlike when my son went to nursery, I didn’t feel bad for calling him every two hours for the first week for a complete blow-by-blow account of everything my baby was doing.
- My husband really liked it.
He thrived as a stay-at-home dad, getting to know some of the local shopkeepers, and singing along with the other parents to ‘The Grand Old Duke Of York’ at the local library. He still considers his four months at home as being a really special bonding experience with our boy.
- He understands.
After his stint at home, my husband wrote in his blog: “Anyone who thinks that being the stay-at-home parent is a cruisy deal, hasn’t done it.” This makes things much better for me, now I’m at home again. Not only does it mean the dreaded question “What do you do all day?” never gets asked, but he also understands what suburban neurosis can feel like. You know the feeling: when the thought of dealing with another nappy gives you a nervous twitch, and when you swear that the house has shrunk to Lilliput-esque proportions after a spell of rain. Or the sense of immense pride from finally having tackled Mt Washing-ton, only to be quickly followed by feeling like a total lame-o for caring so much. It’s lovely that he gets what that’s like.
But there were also challenges:
- I had to stop micro-managing the supermarket shopping.
Sounds petty, but it was actually really hard. I’d been what my sister refers to as ‘Captain House’ for eight months, and was intimately acquainted with the contents of the fridge and cupboards. It was harder to hand the reins over to my husband than I’d expected. Especially when I opened the fridge, only to find that he hadn’t bought something I consider an Essential Household Item, in spite of going to the supermarket that day. And then, him pointing out that my Essential Household Item isn’t something he thinks we need at all. Or, all of a sudden having green olives in the house instead of black ones, and other such First World Problems.
- The attention!
I’d been a stay-at-home mum for months, trudging around the suburb with my baby in the buggy and attending local groups. But I was invisible. As a woman with a baby, I was one of many. My husband, on the other hand, stood out. Shopkeepers talked to him, one even giving our son a soft toy as a present. When I went out walking with my son in the weekends, shopkeepers would coo at my son and say “Where’s your Daddy today?” The same shopkeepers who’d barely noticed me when I was at home. Perhaps, it was because my husband’s a pretty friendly dude and I have a Bitchy Resting Face without realising it. Or perhaps it’s because I’m a woman.
- Realising my way isn’t the only way.
Along with Captain House, I’d been my son’s primary carer his whole life. I knew him better than anyone. But then, when my husband was at home with him, I quickly learned that my way isn’t the only way. It turned out that the jersey I’d discarded on the grounds of it being aesthetically offensive actually didn’t look too bad. And the book about farmyard animals that I’d dismissed as silly became a firm favourite of my son’s after my husband retrieved it from the back of the cupboard.
- Different housework priorities.
Before then, I was vaguely aware that we didn’t rate chores the same. I always think the bathroom needs cleaning days before he’d do it, but become visually challenged whenever the rubbish bin is overflowing. But once he was home, it became much more apparent.
- The raised eyebrows.
While lots of people have this sort of arrangement, it does still raise eyebrows in certain quarters. My husband reckons that there were ten women for every man at the music groups he went to. A straw-poll of my friends showed that many of their husbands would love to do a stint at home, but it wasn’t feasible as the man earns more. I think it’s a terrible shame that regardless of all the progress in women’s rights over the past 50 years, this is still the case.
On balance, it was a fabulous experience for both of us, and well worthwhile. We’re lucky to live in a country where splitting statutory paternity leave is an option at all, and unlike when Mothercraft was published in 1945, a time when the decision for me to work wouldn’t stigmatise us. However, we won’t be doing it again this time round. Totally selfishly, I can’t stand the thought of going back to work before I have to. Maybe it’s because it’s my second child, but my baby girl seems so much younger than my son did at the same age. Or maybe, I just don’t want to give up being Captain House again.
Lauren is a Wellington mother of two. She blogs at Modern Mothercraft, where she applies a 1945 handbook on motherhood to parenting in the modern day, as well as writing about other topical issues.