There’s no doubt about it: Mums are amazing! Not only do they carry us around inside them while we take our sweet time (nine whole months) to develop into an adorable functioning human, they also birth us (not always pleasant), feed us, clean up an absurd amount of our poo and spew (sorry) and support us through the awkward teenage phases of excessive black eyeliner and crimped hair—all the while loving us unconditionally. Mother’s Day, which is only a few weeks away, gives us the chance to celebrate, and say thank-you to, our mums and other significant women in our lives. While undoubtedly the most important thing about Mother’s Day is spoiling the significant women in our lives—and we do, Australians spend about $2billion each year—it is also a day that can highlight the forever-changing dynamics of the modern-day family and raise discussions around the expected, and often stigmatised, roles of men and women. Traditionally in the family setting, women have raised the children and taken on domestic roles and men have been the main income providers. But, in an age of increasing gender equality, are these traditional gender roles and expectations changing?
According to the 2011 census, stay-at-home fathers represented 4% of two-parent opposite-sex families in Australia, counting for approximately 68,000 of all families. This information refers to fathers who have children ‘aged under 15 years living with him, he is not working, and he has a spouse or partner who is working some hours’ (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2017). Although 4% may seem like quite an insignificant number, according to Lisa Conolly, Director of Family and Community Statistics at the Australian Bureau of Statistics, more dads are taking advantage of increasingly flexible working arrangements to care for their children. ‘Nowadays, around 30 percent of dads took advantage of flexible work hours to look after young children…compared with 16 percent of dads two decades ago’, she said. Ms Conolly also explained that the number of dads working from home to care for their children has ‘doubled from 7 percent to 14 percent’.
Stay-at-home dad John*, from Melbourne, is one such dad taking advantage of flexible working arrangements: ‘I am self-employed and work from home 3 days a week and I also work after hours and on weekends as my work requires. My wife works full time’. For John and his family, there were a number of factors that contributed to the decision for him to be the stay-at-home parent. ‘My wife had a great opportunity at work which meant she had to go from part-time to full-time [and we also] concluded that the part of my work away from the home was bringing in the least amount of money. We also wanted to put [our 20 month old daughter] in daycare for two days a week to socialise but didn’t necessarily want her to be there every day’.
The number of stay-at-home dads—and the interest in being a stay-at-home dad—has certainly become more common over time, however, there is often still a negative social stigma attached to the role. Often judgement comes from other mothers, leaving dads feeling isolated and without a support network. While John has found that ‘in general, people have not questioned’ his decision to be a stay-at-home dad there has been one ‘slight exception’. ‘When [my daughter] and I go to local group activities such as swimming lessons, there are already pre-formed groups that started as mother’s groups and have become friendship groups. Sometimes these can be a bit ‘cliquey’ and hard to break into’.
These perceived societal norms—mother as a carer, father as a breadwinner—can also contribute to a mother feeling guilty about her decision to re-enter the workforce as opposed to staying home to look after the children. Generally speaking, it is the belief that the bond between mother and child is far stronger than between father and child, perhaps due to experiences such as childbirth and breastfeeding and long-standing associations between femininity and nurturing. Although he is the stay-at-home parent and spends a large portion of his time with his daughter, John believes the ‘stronger bond’ still exists between mother and child. He does, however, think that the bond between himself and his daughter is ‘much stronger than it would be had I been at work full time’.
Society and family dynamics are continually changing and the emergence of the stay-at-home dad has undoubtedly challenged traditional gender roles and expectations. For John, the stereotypes around the ‘typical father’ are becoming less and less and he has found that he comes ‘into contact with many couples who do not fit the stereotypical gender roles’. John hopes that his role as a stay-at-home dad will impact positively on his daughter’s opinions of gender roles: ‘I hope that she will be brought up in a way that teachers her respect and tolerance for many different family structures’.
It is important to remember that Mother’s Day is significant, even for families with stay-at-home dads. For John and his daughter, they will be ‘spoiling mum, because she deserves it! Carrying the child, giving birth, breastfeeding—these all should be celebrated on occasions such as Mother’s Day’. Mother’s Day could also be the perfect time to talk with children about gender stereotypes and societal stigmas around gender roles. With young children, this could prove more challenging, but it could start with something as simple as celebrating milestones and birthdays with gender-neutral gifts as opposed to the stereotypical pink for girls and blue for boys! Undoubtedly, the sooner the negative social stigma stops, the more socially acceptable it will be for men to be stay-at-home dads and women to be breadwinners—change begins with a conversation!
Happy Mother’s Day to all the wonderful mums in the world!
*Name changed for privacy reasons