Stay-at-home dads - Is it for you?
Hadyn Jones compares notes with another stay-at-home dad and finds it may be the best thing they've ever done.
Statistics New Zealand has no record of us but we're out there. We're stay-at-homers - men who park their careers to look after the kids. The day Wellingtonian Wayne Rix quit his job his boss joked, "What are you going to do with all your free time? Daytime TV is terrible!" Wayne has never seen daytime television, he has three children to keep alive until his wife gets home.
Wayne is one of an unknown number of men who choose to stay home while their wives go out and earn a living. Statistics New Zealand has no idea how many men are doing this. The latest census in 2006 has no or too few records of men declaring themselves stay-at-home for it to be a valid statistic.
For Wayne it's a reality he never imagined. He had a busy and stressful IT career but when his wife Joanna started working things got hectic. They went for three years with Wayne working days and Joanna nights but it was a run of bad nannies (four in total) that proved the tipping point. He signed on to be stay-at-home dad to their three children, Seren, seven, Calla, five and Jedd, three.
Like Wayne, I'm a stay-at-home dad who didn't imagine I'd be setting out on this path. I don't think there's a man alive who planned to be at home doing the chores. Imagine the teenage boy who told his high school career counsellor that when he grew up he was going to impregnate his wife and then stay at home, cook, clean and look after the kids.
I never trained for this job. I have no formal qualifications and no previous experience. Still, in some ways I have chosen this route by being a broadcast journalist who moved away from the big buildings in large cities where television usually gets made.
My wife and I escaped to New Plymouth. We wanted the luxury of one of us being at home to parent. Most families used to be like this but big-city mortgages mean both parents work and you hire someone else to look after your children.
Myth 1: it's easy at home
Wayne didn't know what to expect when he signed up for life at home. He was looking forward to playing with the kids but didn't figure on the hours involved.
"It definitely doesn't get easier having three over two and most days it's an early start with the littlest creeping into our bed at an ungodly hour topped off with the eldest trying to stay up all night."
When Wayne started at home, his son Jedd was a very new baby.
"I was terrified of doing something wrong and harming him. What if I didn't provide the right mental stimulation and he grew up stupid because of me? Turns out I needn't have worried, either I have incredible genes and all my children, Jedd included, are going to be geniuses or, I suspect, the more likely scenario, kids have a way of turning out okay as long as you give them love and guidance. Love I have in abundance and, unlike my father, I'm happy to dish out kisses and cuddles anywhere any time and regardless of the gender of my child. I don't think my dad ever kissed me, it wasn't a manly thing to do, you see," says Wayne.
Back home in New Plymouth, I had envisaged coffees in cosy cafes, walks along the beach and children having lengthy afternoon slumbers so I could still do a bit of work on the side. Perhaps, with all this spare time, I would get ft, learn an instrument, read self-help books or master a second language. I was dreaming.
When I started it was just Marley and me. She was nearly two and up for anything. Every morning we would wave Mum goodbye and as she trudged off to work we would plan our day. On Monday it was kindy gym, Tuesday, swimming, Wednesday, playgroup and Thursday, dancing. Friday we kept free for maybe a bike ride by the beach or just a milkshake and some fries. We would not, under any circumstances, tell Mum about our dietary choices.
Then Marley got a little brother, Archer, and it all started looking like hard work. Firstly, they don't sleep simultaneously. On the rare occasion that they do, I strut around the house like a peacock. I call it a double-down. But the standard procedure is scrambling all day to keep the peace, keep the house in order and have some sort of dinner on the table.
Myth 2: others will 'get' it
Wayne Rix missed having a job but not the actual work. He felt pressure to live up to the male stereotype of being the provider for the family.
"Popping out to the library or hardware store, children in tow, during the day when most 'normal' working men were plying their trade often elicited the 'you taking some leave?' questions from friendly cashiers. At first I was a little embarrassed to tell them the true state of affairs and only now am I comfortable with what I do.
"It's weird how social acceptance can cause so much stress, especially when I'm generally not easily rattled."
I know how Wayne feels. Some of my old television colleagues thought I was nuts. One asked if I had moved to the provinces to "find myself". They wondered why I had halted a career I had spent 15 years working on. I had little comeback when they said that.
People I ran into around New Plymouth were equally befuddled. They would ask me what I was up to and I would say, "I'm parenting." There would be a long pause as they thought of what to say next. Men especially struggled.
Initially I considered myself a bit of a failure as a man. Days spent at play groups in community halls making sure my daughter didn't choke on a plastic toy seemed a bit of a waste of my skills. I know I sound like a jerk but I thought about what better things I could be doing with my time.
My wife gives pretty direct feedback at the best of times. She told me to get over myself and slowly but surely I did. I got past the bit where I worried about what others thought. Work will always be there but my kids are only going to be kids for a short time. I've seen my daughter learn to crawl, walk, run, speak, eat and laugh. I've played a part in helping her reach those milestones and occasionally I see little things in her that have come from me. Some good, some bad.
Myth 3: men can't do it
Wayne says the cooking is not so hard if you're organised. He has meals planned a week ahead and up on the board and he knows a special when he sees one.
"The obvious drawback of being a stay-at-home dad is the single income. My job isn't just about looking after children. It's also about planning, budgeting, hitting the sales and basically trying to make up the value of me working by being frugal and doing home-baking, cooking, gardening and other odd jobs about the house. Being able to shop during the week at "slow times" I get to save quite a bit and I still boast to Joanna that I'm able to save at least a minimum wage worth of salary a month by staying home."
Wayne adds, "I shop by list with each item carefully controlled to stay within our budget and both my wife and I use Google android phones where I have access to her calendar and everything the kids or we do is shown well in advance so we don't miss anything."
In the Jones household I think slowly I've got better as a parent. I know if I don't get my 10-month-old son Archer to bed at 10am for a morning sleep he will be trouble for the rest of the day. I know I can bargain with my daughter about what clothes she has to wear. I know not to sweat the small stuff. If Marley wants to wear gumboots with a dress, that's cool with me.
You need a plan for the day or else you end up just chasing your tail. I try to get out every day even if it's just for a walk to the park. I know I'm not the domestic goddess my wife is. My cooking is a work in progress but I can now bake muffins with my daughter and have an opinion on what colour her hair clip should be. I've actually enjoyed rolling out a few new recipes. My speciality is presentation. Making meals look like faces or houses or boats.
I think my wife is proud of what I've done. She knows I was very career-focused and this is quite a change for both of us. She reminds me from time to time of my domestic commitments because I do let them slide in favour of fun with the kids.
Myth 4: it's unrewarding
Joanna gets all the attention when she arrives home from work, Wayne says. It's disconcerting given the effort he's put in with them during the day. But he says there are rewards also with being the parent that's always around.
"Because I am their first port of call and open to anything they want to tell me, Seren regularly tells me of secret crushes and things of that sort at school. I've read that when young children confide in you it's a good thing. As a dad, though, I grimace every time they mention boys."
He adds that the women he meets at play group are happy to chat but he's resisted the urge to join one. He says if you want to see how men and women parent differently, have a look at your local playground.
"If you go to the park or Chipmunks or those sort of things you'll see that mostly the mums are chatting together or standing back watching over their kids, whereas us guys we're in there, on the play gym, on the swings, crawling through the tunnels, chasing the kids around... I guess we're just big kids and still enjoy getting in touch with that inner child to have some fun."
Wayne says staying at home has taught him a lot. "I think the biggest change for me was that I'm happy with who I am and I'm extremely grateful to be so close to my children. Jedd, who is almost three, told me recently, 'I'm going to be a good daddy one day. You're a good daddy' and that just made everything seem worth it to me.
"Would I do it the same way all over again? No, I'd have done it sooner."
And I have to agree with Wayne. On the odd occasion when shop assistants have complimented me on my daughter and her please and thank-yous it makes the months and months of not giving in over manners worth it. And the other day Marley told her mum that she loved her special dad. I was stoked when my wife told me.
So I'm not going to tell you doing the dishes and changing nappies is satisfying but there are rewards in seeing your kids grow before your very eyes. I still work a bit and my work means I have to travel quite often. The first night I am away I really enjoy my hotel room but by night two I miss the family chaos; the tears, complaints, giggling and melodrama over vegie consumption. By the third night I can't wait to get off the plane and see my family waving from the airport window.
I'm hoping all this parenting effort will pay off when my daughter is 16 and still wants to hang out with me. I'm realistic this may not be the case but I'm not in it for the results. I'm in it for the journey and the one I am taking with my kids is pretty special. Being a stay-at-homer isn't for everyone but surprisingly it's for me.
Hadyn Jones is a husband, an apprentice father of two, a stay-at-home dad who never stays home and an occasional journalist.