I wanna be a male model in a Mothercare mag

You can spot South London’s stay-at-home dads by our single scuffed brogues. It’s like a crap middle-class gang sign. The reason, I finally figured out after weeks of Sherlockian puzzling, is simple. Many prams and buggies have their brake lever at foot level. Releasing it quickly requires a swift upwards flick of your right foot, which ensures that you look like a pro whipping the buggy off a Number 37 bus, but over time makes a real mess of your Jasper Conran uppers.

I’ve yet to strike up a conversation about teething with a stranger simply because of the state of his footwear. But since my partner and I decided to go halves on our year’s parental leave, I’ve found myself, when I’m not with my daughter, on the lookout for similar discreet tics and identifiers. Because daytime dads and other male child-carers are a shy bunch. For some reason we tend not to get chatting very naturally at playgrounds and library story sessions. There are a few dedicated dads’ playgroups (most on Saturdays, aimed at working dads), but otherwise few informal networks, no online Dadsnet (actually, I shudder at the thought of what a Dadsnet chat forum might look like). Men looking after young babies in particular, whose range of out-of-the-house activities is more limited than that of toddlers, can easily assume that we’re an exotic and endangered species.

We’re not – quite. Visit any London Stay-and-Play, and you’ll meet a fair smattering of full-time fathers. And beyond the stereotypes peddled by lifestyle journalists and my opening paragraph, we’re not (exclusively) a breed of middle-class ‘new men’, juggling a hot baby-chino while ordering guyliner on our iPhones and booking our part-time hypnobirthing courses. I’ve met fathers who look after their kids because they’re seeking asylum, or otherwise have uncertain status, and so can’t work while their partners can. I’ve met quite a lot of fathers who are staying home because they worked in manufacturing or other private-sector jobs hit by the downturn, while their partners didn’t. Impressionistically, indeed, I have a feeling that the slowly rising number of stay-at-home fathers isn’t a transformation of gender relations; it’s a barely-silver lining of economic crisis and labour casualization, with those casualised jobs now predominating at the bottom of the income scale often being in traditionally women-heavy sectors like care or retail. 

So, for mixed reasons, stay-at-home dads are not hen’s teeth. But not exactly two-a-penny either. The media likes to say that there are a record 227000 stay-at-home dads in the UK. This is, to put it straightforwardly, bollocks. The 227000 figure, taken from government statistics, is the number of “economically inactive” men  (a statistical categorization which beautifully imbricates our society’s rejection of the economic value of care) who give their primary reason for “inactivity” as “looking after family/home.” Indeed, at last count, in late 2013, this number had risen slightly to 233000. But the vast majority of these, in fact, aren’t looking after children at all. When last disaggregated, in 2002, half were caring for a dependent adult or relative. Just a fifth were looking after children under school age – i.e. genuine stay-at-home fathers. Unfortunately these subcategories, the Office for National Statistics told me, haven’t been routinely publicly included in their labour market survey since 2005. [Edit: someone from the ONS kindly rang me to say that the data is still collected, in modified form; but is only available through requesting bespoke analysis of their Labour Market Survey dataset. If anyone wants to crowd-fund 135 pounds to get the data, let me know!]  But even if the number has doubled in the last decade (highly unlikely), we’re still talking about at the very most 0.4% of working-age British males – some 78000 men - who don’t work in order to look after pre-school-age kids, compared to some 6% of working-age women (1.2 million in 2002), and nearly a fifth of all women aged 25-34. As the Office of National Statistics puts it bluntly: “there is very little incidence of men ‘swapping roles’ with the women in their household in order to fill the childcare gap left by mothers returning to work”.

We should then add to these 78000 brave souls those new fathers who since 2011 have taken up their right to ‘additional paternity leave’ (APL) of up to 26 weeks of their partner’s maternity leave (on the princely sum of £136.78 a week for a maximum 19 weeks, and on the condition that the mother returns to work).  

UK government figures suggest just 4000 eligible new fathers – 2% of those eligible – took APL in 2012/13. More British men learned to fly a plane last year than shared any of their partner’s maternity leave.

Of course, none of this captures the division of the care burden in what is probably now the most common situation - where both parents of pre-school children are at work. Nonetheless it’s plain that we are extraordinarily far from any kind of equitable division of the work of childcare between men and women. And despite recent British legal changes we’re not getting better very fast. The primary drivers of this situation are obvious, well-rehearsed and essentially economic: until women have equality of pay and employment opportunity, and until men have equal access to paid parental leave from their employers, most couples simply can’t afford for the (usually) higher earner to take (usually) unpaid leave to share an equal slice of the pre-schooler care burden. Add to this mix (1) rocketing childcare costs, and (2) stagnating real wage levels; and huge numbers of women, once off work, simply can’t afford to go back either.

But the persistence of this economic arrangement seems itself to require some explanation. Because quite apart from its injustice, it’s so staggeringly inefficient. We effectively hold an economy-wide lottery that shortlists individuals to drop out of the workforce based purely upon the shape of their genitals. If we did this based on an equally irrelevant characteristic – hair colour, or shoe size - the waste of money, time, talent and opportunity that this absurd economic arrangement engenders every week, every month, every year would be immediately obvious. The scale of this waste is almost unthinkable once you begin to think about it. Why are the changes needed to prevent it - in employment law, in fiscal policy, in the care sector, and in organizational and corporate structures – simply not on the political table pretty much anywhere in the world, nor seriously envisaged by any major company or organization?

One obvious part of an answer is that there’s probably insufficient demand for it either from men or from women. My (wholly unscientific) impression is that many otherwise feminist women seem to combine the desire for a more equal burden of childcare with a paradoxical expectation and toleration of fathers’ fecklessness and ineptitude. There’s been a flurry of recent internet discussion about this: how many mothers assume that their partners are hopeless at childcare, endlessly discussing the cack-handedness of their husbands’ lazy, intermittent efforts at putting socks on the wrong way round, or forgetting their children in the pub. By contrast when we’re actually doing childcare, my experience has been that mothers I meet are not only hugely supportive, embarrassingly effusive about my efforts; but give my obvious ineptitudes a free ride.

Being a smug git, I sometimes like to test this out with what I call the Cheesy Wotsits Test. This is a supremely middle-class sociological experiment that requires an empty packet of Wotsits, some organic carrot-stick baby corn snacks – by chance, visually identical to said Wotsits -and the lower-deck passengers of the Number 322 bus to Clapham. I like to put said organic carrot-stick snacks into an empty Wotsits packet, which I then feed gleefully to my baby daughter as she sits in her pram. She wolfs them down. People smile at me. I’ve never once received a disapproving look or comment from anyone, male or female. Yet when my partner feeds our daughter Wotsit-looking organic corn snacks there are audible gasps, a ripple of motherly tutting throughout the lower deck of the bus, and occasionally people actually accosting my partner and trying to grab the bag out of her hand. It seems that fathers just being out with their kids merit some kind of glossy certificate, regardless of whether they’re visibly poisoning them; while mothers with inappropriately salty snacks can expect an instant slap-down. [Edit: my partner claims I've exaggerated this - she's had 'looks', apparently. Whatever. I definitely don't get those looks. But maybe people just feel more sorry for me...]

On the other side of the gender divide, too, I’m continually struck by the way in which some of the most feminist men I know nonetheless naturalise the female care burden once they have kids – without being able to justify our smaller burden except through self-fulfilling prophecies like: “I think my kid prefers her mother at certain times”; “It works better that way”; “I’d love to be the main carer, but sadly someone has to earn the money and someone has to look after our child”, and so on. Their partners often agree. I too probably do less childcare, principally through inertia, than my partner. In short, we’re all getting away with it on a vast scale. How?

I think it has much to do with a staggeringly pervasive iconography of childcare. I only began to notice it when I became a full-time father, and suddenly realized that - for all of the careful gender-neutrality of the ‘carer’ in children’s services and healthcare - nonetheless the way childcare is described, marketed, depicted and talked about everywhere else, from toilet signs to baby formula, has absolutely nothing to do with me. It was so obvious and immediate that I felt inordinately stupid for not having noticed before. Flip through a magazine; browse the packaging in a supermarket’s baby-care shelves; click through a parenting website or web-forum. You’ll see, overwhelmingly, pictures of women smilingly cradling/pushing/feeding/playing with young children. Occasionally, there is a man in these pictures. They’re generally hugging the woman supportively, or sometimes walking hand-in-hand with her, one hand each on a buggy. It seems that fathers in ad-land are just about happy to take their toddlers out for a Saturday stroll, but can’t even bring themselves to do it on their own – and by implication that ad-land mothers can’t bear to let them. If the statistics I’ve quoted above suggest that in the real world fathers are shirking our fair share to an extraordinary degree, nonetheless we’re living in a feminist utopia compared to the lives the childcare industry would have us believe we’re living.

Of course, this is ad-land, not South London. But scroll up to the top of this post and have a second look at the photo: a typical door-sign, this one on a (unisex) baby changing cubicle in Clapham Leisure Centre. Nappy-changing is one of the few bits of childcare, paradoxically, that fathers do often share equally. Either the sign-designer thinks most men wear kilts when they change nappies, or...

In this case, iconography spills over into the real world: more often than not, when we’re out, I have to change my baby on the floor in a corridor, because baby-changing facilities, even in the brand newest of public buildings, are often only put in female toilets.

The shop’s called “Mothercare”, for Christ’s sake.

I’m whingeing. But my whingeing has, I think, a serious point. The iconography of childcare – even more imbalanced than the skewed gender roles of most real families – means that daytime dads believe we’re even scarcer than we really are. And it dampens the demand for life to be any other way. It lets us off the hook. I’ll be honest: there have been many days when I've hated everything about being a stay-at-home parent. When I’ve seen my ambitions and aspirations dwindling and disappearing. If I’m to get over that perennial despair, it would help enormously to believe that it wasn’t just me missing out; that it was a regimen that all fathers simply have to do for a period of time, by social and – perhaps – legal fiat. Just as we have to pay tax, take three years if we want to get a degree, borrow to buy our houses.  Things that may sometimes have inconvenienced and infuriated me, but in which I can also rejoice because of the good they bring back to me and my family, and because I’m at no disadvantage in doing them when everyone else has to do them too.

We could and should envisage an entirely different balance of parenthood, with an entirely different iconography of parenting. Men must build this iconography – those of us who undoubtedly control the retail industries, public services, building standards and ad campaigns that inculcate the current view. Mothers must do it too – including by thinking more critically about the particular brand of ‘separate spheres feminism' promoted (with the best of intentions) by purveyors of modern motherhood like Mumsnet and Netmums: cheerleaders for mothers’ employment rights and the valuing of unpaid care, yet also deploying and propagating precisely the ‘celebration of mum power’ that I’m coming to believe is part of the problem.

And yet. And yet. One moment, from one of the worst days of my life, bookends my memories of full-time dadding. My eleven-month-old daughter had been admitted to hospital for the first time ever, hypoxic with the bronchiolitis that has rocketed through London’s pre-schoolers this winter. She wasn’t eating, wasn’t drinking, her cough hacking, exhausted, hating the oxygen canula the nurses had just tried to tape to her face. My partner was at home trying to snatch the first few hours’ sleep she’d had for days. I was standing in the children’s general medical ward at King’s College Hospital, desperately bouncing my hot, coughing daughter in my arms as she screamed and screamed and screamed. Tears were running down my face too. And to my eternal discredit they weren’t tears of anxiety, or love, or pity. They were tears of pure shame. For all my hubris at ‘doing dad differently’, at that lowest of all low moments I couldn’t comfort my daughter like her mother could. And, entirely selfishly, I couldn’t bear the screaming like her mother can. After several hours I called my partner back from her bed. And when she arrived, my daughter finally, finally fell asleep on her chest.

We can’t ignore our own capacities; our own ineptitudes; the slivers of cultural and, yes, biological difference that matter in how well we can look after a child. They’re real. But they’re far narrower than our own prejudices or the childcare industry would have us believe. I’ve thought hard about it, and I think I was probably right to feel shame at that moment in the hospital; just as a woman deciding not to apply to a traditional ‘male’ job, for instance, would be right to feel shame. I think it’s not just legitimate but essential to struggle against even biological difference, in parenting as in every other part of life, when winning that struggle could be an extraordinary advance in social justice.  But fathers and mothers don’t have to pretend we’re entirely substitutable, because we’re nowhere near there yet. We haven’t even started trying.


Edit: I should have said: this post's title comes from the wonderful Old Rope String Band's wonderful song "Bloke". All their songs are wonderful. The Old Rope String Band is now the New Rope String Band. Extraordinary musicians, miraculous clowns. Go, go, go to see them.


  1. You are spot on here. For years I've been particularly sensitive to the iconography of mothering and especially the adverts for 'Mothers who care', etc. Gag me. Your statistical research is interesting - my own informal survey suggests most stay-at-home-dads are so by choice but still, we are small in number.

    By the way, there was a Dadsnet but it didn't take. There is, however, www.dadzclub.com based in the UK, which isn't bad. In the US there is Good Men Project and a vast Dad Bloggers page on facebook. But if you're not into the whole sharing thing then don't waste your time.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. Thanks Jon! For South Londoners - I've also been a few times to the excellent Friday morning dads' club in Streatham, though it hasn't always worked out with our schedules and my daughter's nap times...http://www.dadsandlittluns.co.uk/brockwell.php

    Interesting about Dadsnet (though perhaps its demise was a good thing...)

  3. Thoroughly enjoyed this.

    As a childless American living in the US, I probably have no business commenting on this article - but since it made me laugh out loud multiple times on the train ride home tonight, I feel that means I "get it" and will use that as my excuse to do so.

    Shades of grey, of course - but curious whether you lean toward the side of the chicken or the egg here - i.e. are men so inept because society enforces that notion; or are we naturally inept and society reflects that?

  4. Thanks - glad you liked it! And absolutely you should comment - one of the few things that makes me more curmudgeonly than society's prejudices against male childcare is society's prejudices against people without children. (And as a parent I'm wholeheartedly supportive of child-free spaces - I'd love to be able to get a quiet drink in a pub without a screaming child (usually mine) trying to eat the beermats next to me).

    For what it's worth, on chicken/egg, I'm not sure it matters - we don't let biology constrain us in other areas of human progress, so why should we in parenting. That said, I think we can't deny biological differences of aptitude; but they are far smaller than the differences generated by society. There's nothing biological, I think, that makes men bad at looking after tiny babies. (Don't get be started on breastfeeding... ;) )

  5. Great post. I was once called out by a health visitor (at Brockwell Park One O'Clock club!) for feeding my daughter wotsits. "But they have 0% junk!" I said feebly.

    1. That's awesome! Brockwell is my favourite One O'Clock Club bar none. (And I have a suspicion that there's very little nutritional difference between wotsits and organic carrot-stick corn snacks. In fact, I suspect that organic carrot-stick corn snacks are actually just wotsits that have been sucked on by a badger, or doused in dandelion juice, or something).

  6. Go live in Sweden. They say it's all equal there.