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Opinion Stay-at-home fathers are still seen as a 'novelty' but perceptions are slowly changing

In the future we will no longer think in terms of stay-at-home ‘mothers’ or ‘fathers’, and instead just refer to stay-at-home parents.

AS A STAY-AT-HOME home father, one of my regular weekly tasks is a trip to the bank in our local town to lodge the household funds, and I always take my eleven-month-old daughter with me.

There is a routine to follow: hauling the buggy backwards up the steps, interminably waiting for the electronic lock on the security doors to go green, and finally manoeuvring the buggy one-handed while holding the heavy glass and metal door open with the other.

Just inside, there is an ever-present customer service representative, armed with a clipboard and pen, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting passers-by to offer them the latest financial package that the bank has to offer. Every week, I pass by this lady on my way to the counter and, every week, we smile and nod at each other but don’t otherwise interact.

I thought nothing of this until one day, when my wife accompanied me to the bank. I held the security door open while my wife deftly negotiated the buggy through the tight space and we had just gotten free when the customer service rep rushed over to us. Addressing my wife, she said that pressing the button with the wheelchair symbol on it would cause the heavy security door to open automatically, thus making it much easier to get the buggy in. ‘Just a little tip’ she said, smiling, ‘mum to mum.’

As we walked away, my wife sensed my mood and added ‘I’m sure she meant it for dads as well.’ She was, of course, correct, but it was one more addition to a surprisingly long list of comments and attitudes that I have encountered while out and about with my daughter on the streets of our local town.

Paternity leave entitlements are well behind international standards

We find ourselves in a situation which many in Ireland have faced recently: I am unable to find a job in my chosen field, and my wife is busily self-employed. Almost by default, I have become a stay-at-home father. This is not a problem for me, as I thoroughly enjoy spending time with my bright and happy daughter, but I have been genuinely surprised by the reaction to this I have encountered. Whether it is acquaintances who, meeting me pushing a pram in the middle of the day, ask in surprise ‘Why aren’t you at work?’ or family members who express astonishment that I have the ability to make a bottle and change a nappy, the idea of the stay-at-home father appears to still be an unfamiliar one to many people. Why is this the case?

It really shouldn’t be. According to the latest statistics, the number of father-at-home households in Ireland have almost doubled in the last decade, from 5700 in 2001 to 11,000 at present. More than likely, this reflects the huge loss of male employment following the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, as traditionally male-dominated industries – most notably construction – shed hundreds of thousands of jobs.

The rise in Irish fathers becoming the primary domestic carer is in line with international trends, as figures in the UK and the US show similar rises. However, the continuing emphasis on the traditional family model is reflected at government level in Ireland. Paternity leave entitlements currently stand at three days, well behind European and international standards, although it is on a par with the UK. Despite the fact that more and more Irish fathers are remaining at home to care for their children, the dominant family model remains one in which the mother is the primary carer, or both parents are out at work. Stay at home dads still make up only a small percentage of the total.

Change will be slow, but it is already happening

So should I be annoyed because the customer service representative in the bank didn’t give me the handy tip regarding the security doors, only imparting it when she saw my wife pushing the buggy? Or when someone cheerfully says ‘Here comes Daddy Daycare!’ when they see me with my daughter? Of course not. Given that we live in a rural area, the likelihood is that stay-at-home fathers will remain a novelty for the foreseeable future.

The jokes and sometimes insensitive comments that people make reveal only that change will be slow, but it is already happening. There are several parent and toddler groups in the local area and beyond which make a point of emphasising that they welcome fathers as much as mothers. Hopefully this is a glimpse of a future in which we no longer think in terms of stay-at-home mothers or fathers, and instead just refer to stay-at-home parents. And until then, I’ll keep pressing the wheelchair button at the bank with a smile on my face.

Bernard kelly is a historian and author, living in Co Longford.

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