It sounds like a dream for any full-time working mother. You forge ahead with your rewarding career without the worries of childcare, missing meetings or deadlines to look after sick kids or to be the “taxi” service for afternoon activities. You can leave the office whenever you like and go on overseas working trips at a moment’s notice.
How is this possible? You have your husband there for the children 24/7, to look after the home and have a beautiful meal waiting for you when you step through the door. You can pursue your career relatively guilt-free, knowing 100% that your children are getting the emotional support they need.
This is the set-up for Sydney couple Anne and Leigh Audette, who have been married for 21 years. While this arrangement has worked well for them, they have some strong words of caution for other families considering a similar move.
Eleven years ago Leigh gave up his job as a computer systems administrator for Time magazine to become a full-time stay-at-home dad, after doing the role mostly part-time for the previous few years. This allowed Anne to build a successful career as a finance director for a large multinational company, without the juggle of working and caring for their three children, now aged 9, 11 and 18. For all three babies Anne took a combined total of six-and-a-half months’ maternity leave, with Leigh stepping in to take on the role as primary caregiver.
In separate interviews with Women’s Agenda, Leigh and Anne spoke about the highs and lows of their unusual arrangement and how it has impacted them personally and professionally.
Anne: Leigh has made major, major sacrifices. He’s given up on his career. It’s not that he’s had low career aspirations, but he’s held mine as being more valuable. He’s seen the potential of my career aspirations over his and has made sacrifices accordingly.
I have to say, in my personal opinion, any woman who has major career aspirations and wants to have a family should not be looking for a man who is terribly ambitious. What you want is a guy who is quite happy to, you know, not go out killing corporate dragons. It’s just not going to work. The fact that Leigh’s focus wasn’t on career aspirations meant that this works for us.
Leigh: Anne is incredibly successful at what she does. She’s earning way in excess of what I could have ever earned at Time magazine or any other job. To me it makes extraordinary sense for her to continue to do so.
I’ve always been great at what I’ve done but it’s not the be all and end all. If a guy is equally as passionate about his career then being a stay-at-home dad wouldn’t work. He’d probably only do it a short time, I believe. If it’s only for a year or two it’s neither here nor there. But if he ended up doing it for a long period of time, there goes any career really. You’d always be coming back five to 10 years later and that period of time, in today’s technological world, is probably too long.
I do think about trying to get a job and periodically I look. But then I think, my kids are more important. Someone has to be here of a morning to see them off to school and be here in the afternoon when they come home.
Anne: It’s great to have Leigh at home because the house is safe. It’s brilliant when a child gets sick to be able to kiss them on the forehead and just walk out the door and know they’re in safe hands with someone who loves them as much as me.
With two kids playing sport we probably have nine events during the week and there’s only one day when nothing happens. I don’t honestly know, with two parents working, how people do it.
Leigh: I find it rewarding from the children’s perspective and the love that I get from my children. I like the nurturing – the intensity of knowing that my kids love me to death. I know they appreciate the effort I put in for them. I love the smiles that I get. It just melts your heart and that’s what I enjoy about it.
Leigh: It has always been a bit lonely. Because with mothers, you are not really one of the girls and you are not really one of the boys because you don’t work full-time. I’m sure there are lots of women out there who don’t assimilate into groups but they have more of a chance. Women love to chat but they clam up when a male is around.
It’s only been in the last six to eight years that it has become more acceptable. But in the socioeconomic area where we live (on Sydney’s affluent north shore), there aren’t many men looking after babies. You might go out to the pub on a Friday night occasionally but you still are not quite there.
Often I feel “am I doing a good job?” The only person that really will tell you is your wife and sometimes I don’t think I get enough credit for how our kids have turned out.
Anne: Sometimes I feel a loss of control over the family environment: the feeling that I would naturally do it better as a mum and possibly throw a little bit of guilt in there that maybe I should be the one at home. I’m coping with the fact that it’s my natural instinct to be the one who does it and I can’t and I’m battling against what nature would dictate is my role and I can’t do my role. That’s stressful.
I was taught to be financially independent but what I wasn’t taught to expect was to have financial dependents and I’m financially responsible for five people, including myself and that initially was quite stressful coming to terms with that.
Anne: What’s really funny, we’ll go out somewhere and people will meet us and they’ll say to Leigh, “what do you do” and he’ll say “I’m a house-husband” but no one will ever say to me, “what do you do?”
Leigh: When people ask I usually tell them “I’m a Mr Mum”. Even the customs people at airports. I always put “Mr Mum” when they ask on the forms “what is your occupation?”
Often I jokingly say to men “I send my wife out to work.” You have to make a bit of a joke to men about it.
The day-to-day reality
Anne: It’s easier now but for many years when we were growing the business in Australia, I was working long hours. I’ve been at work until two in the morning and I’ve been here until nine or ten at night, night after night.
One of the things I’ve disciplined myself to do is when I leave work that’s it. I turn my work brain off unless I have to have a quick chat about something. At home I’m constantly trying to correct Leigh, as you do right from day one, such as doing the nappy thing wrong but I have purposely tried to stay out of it and just turn my back and walk away so I don’t put him off. It still happens now instinctively: I just jump right in and I say to myself “don’t do that, just let them go”.
Leigh: I volunteer up at the school for reading, swimming, maths, canteen duty. I have also coached the basketball and soccer teams the kids have been in. As a man doing this job you do crave a bit more outside stimulation from being part of a group.
At work you get to talk to, and interact with people all day. Whereas I’m home doing the cleaning, the washing, making sure the shopping is done, thinking of what I can build or doing the garden.
Tips for others:
• I would suggest that financial matters are taken care of and planned for. For example, I pay Leigh a certain amount plus some so he doesn’t have to ask me for money. So he actually gets my salary; some of it just goes directly to his account. He actually then gives me cash back because I don’t have a cash account.
•On the chores, don’t expect your partner to do everything because if the roles were reversed, you would expect him to help and don’t sit around like the queen of Sheba.
•Do some personal development and try and always consider how the other person feels.
•Don’t bombard him with things that have happened at work all day because when you say, “how was your day” and he says nothing, don’t take it literally.
•Learn to live with mess because if the roles were reversed, you wouldn’t want to be stressed every time he comes home expecting the house to be tidy.
•Come home in time to read. It doesn’t matter if you can’t always get home for dinner or bath time – just come home and read the children a book. I think a mother’s greatest gift to her kids is being able to read to her children.
•Chill out. Don’t sweat the small stuff. If a kid vomits all over you don’t get upset about it. Go with the flow. Keep them in a routine.
•Realise there will be loneliness. You’ll feel ineffectual sometimes. You won’t see the results you’d see in a job.
•Get a pastime so you can actually do stuff while the kids are asleep.
•Don’t begrudge the mundane things such as changing nappies, cleaning the house. It’s definitely not a holiday.
If you had your time over, would you do it all again?
Anne: I don’t think what Leigh and I are doing is normal and I would not recommend it to anyone. I think you can make it work but I wouldn’t recommend it.
But would I personally do it all again? Yes, if it was with Leigh, I would. But I’d say having gone through this exercise, if my daughter says “I just want to be a housewife and have kids”, that’s fine with me. I honestly think that.
Leigh: If it transpired in the same way, in the same circumstances, with my wife earning the money she does, you’d be mad not to.
Females have the motherly, nurturing urge and I see that it hurts Anne that she hasn’t had that opportunity. I think she feels like she has missed out but the kids are very loving and doting towards her. They love having her around. Reality doesn’t always fit into what nature wanted.