It’s fair to say that for much of my adult life I have not been the most empathetic person. To be honest, I never really had a reason to be. I had progressed nicely in my career, I hadn’t had any major obstacles or challenges and somehow believed that my success was based on my talent and capability. Surely this would be the same for everyone else?
By my mid 30s things began to change, albeit gradually. I had kids. I had a great boss who mentored me, and slowly but surely life’s experiences began to chip away at my rigid view of the world. It was like each time I experienced something different, it improved my perspective on what life must be like for someone else – and my paltry level of empathy began to expand.
And so when my partner Amy was appointed as a partner at PwC and we decided that the best family model for us was for me to be a stay-at-home dad, I finally began to understand the broad imbalances that women face in the workplace as well as the home – every, single, day.
Here’s the rub: up until then I had no cognisance of the many and varied expectations placed on women (that often aren’t placed on men), which get significantly exacerbated and further complicated when they have dependents. Everything from ‘societal norms’, to implications of ‘male-led/male-dominated’ workplaces (including misguided assumptions made about a woman’s motivation and focus).
So with all this in mind, let me share what I learnt during my period as a stay-at-home dad and why I believe more men should give this a go:
There’s a lot of work involved.
I was running our household end to end – planning meals for the family each week, doing the requisite shopping, preparation and cooking (including learning to cook!) and cleaning-up after.
Then there was the laundry that never seemed to end, general household admin and looking after our youngest child whilst getting our oldest to / from school and then onto a wide variety of after school activities. Over the 19 months I did a rough calculation of the direct time for these activities and it was more than 30 hours per week, but this excludes the time actually raising or looking after your kids, let alone the time waiting around at after school activities. Including these, you are well over the traditional 40hr work week. My point here is simple – there is a lot of stuff to be done.
And I make this point because I see many people under the illusion that they are sharing responsibilities (this used to be me!), but with a minimised view of how much work really needs to be done and therefore an ignorance as to the small proportion of the work they are actually doing.
It’s a job in every sense.
This might seem obvious given the above, but what I mean is that to be successful, I approached it as a job. I had a weekly schedule, I had my to-do lists, I had boring Monday meetings with the washing machine … there was rhythm and flow, things you need to do each week (good stuff and bad stuff) – much like any full time job.
When you realise it’s an actual job and not just ‘home stuff’, then how you view and value it changes. On this point, our family has tried many solutions including professional nanny, au pairs, part time work, blended solutions using grandparents, day care, housekeepers and so on. When I costed it, my view is that to buy the services I performed would easily be a $100k a year role!
Yes it’s different from corporate stress, but it has unique frustrations.
A lot of people that knew me commented on how well I looked during this time, which was strange given that my wardrobe now consisted almost entirely of t-shirts, cargo shorts and thongs (or flip flops if you must). But something had changed and that was my stress level. I had lost the burden that corporate work places on most of us… it’s the feeling in the pit of your stomach on Sunday night that you didn’t get through the extra work you had for the weekend and how much ‘game face’ you were going to need to put on to get through the week.
Not to mention the impact on my health of not moving enough during the week and generally eating badly, particularly due to business lunches and travel. So the improvements on my health and physical wellbeing were notable – but this doesn’t mean there weren’t other ‘wellbeing’ issues to consider. One of the most difficult things was that it was lonely – I missed the social side of work and all the adult interaction and banter. I even found myself interrogating my wife about what was happening in her office in lieu of the fact that not much really changes at home. I also found my ‘comfort zone’ decreased and I would get frustrated over small things that just wouldn’t have been on the radar before. And then there was the general banality of a lot it. Whilst I love my kids more than life itself, some of what you have to do, listen to and put up with, is just boring!
You will feel like you are being left behind.
One thing I had not envisioned was the feeling of being left behind. LinkedIn (ironically) became a bit of a tormentor – it was the strangest feeling reading updates from people as they advanced their working career, whilst I had this feeling of standing still.
In fact, I was hugely struck with how little time it took before I felt that my work skills were being eroded, or that because I wasn’t in the market I wasn’t keeping up with the latest trends, knowledge and capability. I clearly remember the feeling of mentally retreating and wondering what type of work would be available for me or indeed who would even be interested in hiring me when it came time to find a job again.
It dawned on me that, if I felt like this after just 18 months, what it must be like for those who have been out for much longer – and sadly how my previous self, when recruiting, would have been dismissive of people who had large gaps in their careers.
Here’s the reality, this journey has grown my empathy and my understanding of what it means to be inclusive far more than a continued slog in the workplace would have, and so I am actually a better version of me. Far from my capability diminishing, I firmly feel that it’s actually been enhanced.
But the value and rewards are absolutely worth it.
This was perhaps my biggest revelation. Simply put, I got tremendous satisfaction from enabling Amy to be the best she could be in her work and as a consequence the things that she was able to achieve.
She herself speaks of the fact that, because she knew that everything was covered at home and that there was little for her to worry about in terms of the kids (basically the same for the majority of senior men, see The Wife Drought by Annabel Crabb), she was free to ‘go hard’ at work. Best of all, Amy understood this team dynamic and her appreciation for the role I was playing really made the whole journey extremely satisfying. On top of this, I got to see close up our kids develop and grow, whilst building a relationship with them in a way I might not have done otherwise.
And lastly, regardless of what people told me, I wasn’t heroic nor was I ‘living the dream’.
Whilst there was a variety of responses from people when I told them I was a stay at home dad, two themes did emerge:
One. From men, it tended to be along the lines of ‘you are living the dream!’. I know that this was usually said somewhat in jest, but there was also an element of what they really believed. But as you have read, I wasn’t living a dream, but simply living a choice – a ‘non-bludgy’ choice at that – which Amy and I made together after much discussion on what would be the best option for us as a family. As for those men who say ‘living the dream’ because they genuinely wish that they could, I want to encourage them to go for it if it’s feasible – indeed many more men need to take primary carer responsibilities to help support societal change.
Two. From women, I was told quite often that I was brave, even a bit of a hero. But here’s the thing, I have never really heard a stay at home mum being called brave or being hailed as a hero. Yes, I appreciate very few men currently take on this role, so perhaps uncommon would be more appropriate, but there’s no way that a man doing any role instead of a woman – outside or inside the home – should be described as ‘heroic’, simply because he’s a guy.
This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Rory’s LinkedIn page. It is published here with permission. Rory’s now the business development manager of Xplore For Success.