Home alone: dads
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Did you become a father today? Well done. Now put the paper down and make yourself useful.
In Britain, it is, in theory, easier than it has ever been for you to become more involved in the care of your shiny new child – so you’d better get some practice in.
Employed parents of children born or adopted from today will have the right to chop up 50 weeks of “shared parental leave” between them as they wish.
The aim, as Nick Clegg stated on announcing the policy in 2013, is to “challenge the old-fashioned assumption that women will always be the parent that stays at home”. Good luck with that. In 2011 there was a round of legislation encouraging dads to linger at the nappy bucket beyond their statutory two weeks’ paid paternity leave; a TUC survey found that of the fathers qualified to take advantage of this, less than 1 per cent did so.
That’s not because the fathers of Britain do not wish to be bothered by their children until they can tie a reef knot and sing the National Anthem. According to the report in our own news pages today, the reluctance is in part to do with justifiable confusion about legislation in the area. Based on my experience of 11 weeks’ paternity leave a few years ago, it’s also work pressures, low statutory rates of pay beyond the first six weeks, pay inequality between mothers and fathers, and perhaps a dash of ingrained social attitudes.
I was fortunate. I had a partner with a secure, well-paid job, and I was in employment myself, paid enough to save up a few thousand pounds to fund the leave I took to look after my daughters, then nine months and rising four.
The majority of fathers are not so lucky. Much has to change to shift this depressing state of affairs. But if you happen to have the means to take up shared parental leave, I say grab the chance. What’s it like? Here, prospective stay-at-home dads, are some lessons I learnt. Take them or leave them, and please ignore the stains…
PREPARATION During your partner’s maternity leave, you might well find yourself in a 1950s fantasy, with your partner at home somehow doing everything: cooking, cleaning, mothering your child, mailing you documents you left on your laptop, keeping your cigarillo box topped up… Be careful of the domestic karma you store up in these nether months: you’re about to be that home-maker.
MEALTIMES The stomachs of my sub-one-year-old and four-year-old ran with the accuracy of an atomic clock. If I missed tea by five minutes, they would appear at the kitchen door, like a very small but indignant protest march, and demand their nutritional rights. Then, as often as not, they would choose to exercise this right to eat by declining to eat. Meals are a power game, and you are the gimp.
IMPROVEMENTS You will harbour theories as to how all this parenting fuss could be done more simply and logically - now’s your chance to put them into practice. Good luck. I’m sure the world urgently needs your visionary reworking of household recycling boxes. (Unless single parenthood is a challenge you’re keen to embrace, best not to stick these “thoughts” in an email to your partner.)
THOSE LESSONS If your children don’t want to learn to swim, dance or play football, have a heart. I ditched swimming lessons when I caught myself physically dragging my four-year-old by one ankle down the hallway to get to her lesson, with the 11-month-old strapped to me. Swimming lessons sank without trace for a year. The sky did not fall on our heads.
THE FULL-TIMERS As word gets round that you’re doing “pat leave”, expect no compliments from the local full-time moms (and they are mostly women). Think about it from their perspective: a) “You’re doing this gig for a few months, a blink of my sleep-deprived eye”; b) “You’re just a reminder that my own partner can’t or won’t apply for paternity leave - thanks for that”; c) “You are a parent, this is your responsibility, what do you want, a big shiny chufty badge?”
OTHER WORKING DADS They will assume that you’re bashing out a bestseller/binge-watching whatever sweatfest Sky Sports is showing/in bed/all of the above.
YOUR COLLEAGUES As above, with the bonus of deciphering your handover notes.
YOUR OWN PARENTS Mom and Dad will approve heartily: your mother will repeat ruefully, “My, how things have changed,” and look at your father a bit scarily; your father will think you have been sacked.
FOOD WASTE A hierarchy of consumption will emerge in your house. In descending order: what your children eat; what your partner eats; what you will eat just as it’s about to go in the food composter from off the floor/plate; the food composter; what you will eat directly from the food composter because, “I can’t believe that’s going in the food composter.”
PLAY DATES Before your children are old enough for you to ditch them at their friend’s house and run for it, you get to hang out with a new mum pal in her kitchen. Meanwhile, your child ignores her child and goes through an exciting new toy box like a hungry rat in a skip full of old sandwiches.
DIY As a stay-at-home dad friend of mine said to me only last week, “The first one just sat there, so I could do loads of DIY. This new one actually wants me to do stuff with him. It takes me ages to build anything now.” I’m not necessarily ruling out power tools and childcare, I’m just saying… know your toddler.
‘MoMMY…’ You will be called “Mommy” absent-mindedly by your children – take this as a compliment and reward yourself with a discreet fist pump.
BREASTS Your children might criticise your deficiencies in the boo-boos department when it comes to cuddles. Another fist pump.
COMMUNICATION Remember those evenings when you returned home from work to acknowledge, subtly but with compassion, your partner’s childcare woes? When the tables turn, be prepared for your partner to follow your lead and make sympathy grunts while checking Twitter in front of the telly.
THE WASHING MACHINE It’s not turned on? Why not? The soundtrack to your life is now the 40C cotton wash.
JUSTIN OFF OF CBBC If he’s not on now, he will be in a moment. Kids’ telly Marmite. Me, I always look forward to an invite round to Justin’s House. For what it’s worth, my kids’ telly greatest hits: Hey Duggee, OOglies, Sarah and Duck, 3rd and Bird (RIP).
PRAMS The baby carrier feels like a rucksack with a child in it. The pram is unwieldy, clogs the hallway and represents the fundamental compromise of child-rearing I struggle with every waking moment. Did I say that out loud? Anyway: baby carrier, the choice of a man.
UNIFORM This is messy work. Dig out two pairs of old jeans, old T-shirts, some sweatshirts and a pair of old shoes (I preferred Blundstone boots: easy on, easy off, wipe clean).
SNACKS A subject of high status anxiety - this is where the world gets to see what you feed your kids: so, whole almonds and rice cakes and insanely expensive slices of dried mango are to be waved about before insertion.
OH YES, THE RICE CAKE Deserving of its own entry, by virtue of the mystery of its popularity – reconstituting bits of toasted carbohydrate into a disc shape is, to someone, somewhere, “a cake”, is it?
MONEY You are probably going to be living on your meagre savings and your partner’s salary. Impulse purchases of cycling kit followed by panicky emails to your partner requesting emergency back-up funds will be used as evidence against you for the rest of your life.
BABY-POSTING Want to baby-post on social media all day long? Go for it - just be aware you might end up in a dark feedback loop with other baby-posters involving the phrases “Too cute!”, “Awww!” and “Too cute! Awww!”
FOOD (AGAIN) Cut out and keep any newspaper guides to improving the variety of your children’s diet and developing their palates with new cuisines. File carefully. Never read again. Cook the same four meals for ever.
TODDLER CLUBS I loved these. Go to local hall, chuck your child in some sort of baby pit, drink tea, eat biscuits, talk in full sentences about non-CBeebies related issues, absolve responsibility for an hour. Everyone’s happy.
Pack! Pack! Pack! Food, wipes, spare clothes, wipes, more food, nappies, did I mention wipes? Put the prep in and you’ll almost – almost – want a significant bodily liquid incident to go down in a high-profile cultural-arts institution.
CUDDLES Listen carefully: cuddle cuddle cuddle cuddle cuddle cuddle cuddle cuddle. Happy to repeat if you want. At some point, your growing children might not want to cuddle back so get them in as often as you can.
NAPS Don’t stretch the children’s naps, dude. You will pay, heavily and on punitive terms by the day’s end when your child realises that the wooden hill to Bedfordshire is for loser kids who have missed the party bus to Wazzingabouttilmidnightshire.
FINALLY Your baby is on fast-forward (with no rewind). None of these moments is coming back. As often as you can in the next few months, stop whatever head-screwing chore you’re doing, and just roll around with your child. Because your paternity leave will end and you two might never again be part of one another’s days in quite this way. *
The Independent on Sunday