Thursday, October 27, 2011

On the outside looking in ...

... or, the things I didn't say on Sunrise this morning....

“Oh, so you’re looking after the boys three days a week” was a comment I heard a fair bit 9 months ago when Sherrie and I first swapped roles.

No, I’m looking after the boys just as much as my partner did – a bit more in fact. Two days a week they’re at pre-school/childcare, which is when Sherrie used to grocery shop, clean the house and work part-time to earn some extra income. Now I do all those things. Plus a bit more, as Sherrie works longer hours in her full-time job than I did.

No-one ever suggested my partner was 'only' looking after the boys three days a week, but initially some were quite prepared to say that to me. 

I have to say that when a man takes on the role of primary carer for pre-school aged children, it’s almost like a kind of reverse sexism greets him just about everywhere he goes.

Actually, I think it’s more about being an outsider than any kind of sexism. Like a person from another culture feeling as though they don’t quite fit, because of language or religious differences with the people they are surrounded by. Or an older person feeling they quite don’t fit in an office full of twentysomethings who are out for drinks after work most nights when you just want to go home to your partner and kids, or to sleep!

Every outsider feels that way for a reason – be it age, language, culture, appearance, education. In the case of parenting, it’s sex.

Caring for children before they go to school is still a role overwhelmingly dominated by women. So when a man shows up in all the usual places that mums usually interact with other mums, it’s not the norm. Naturally, people react in different ways. 

Most professionals are delighted to see a man spending more time with their kids. I’ve had wonderful welcomes from teachers of childcare students, playgroup coordinators, even swimming instructors and doctors. 

But other mums are another matter. Most will smile, often sympathetically, and a few will say hi. But a conversation is a breakthrough, and a regular conversation each week seems out of the question.

There is one playgroup where I feel most welcome and part of the group. I guess that’s because we have come together with a mutual interest, and part of the purpose is to share experiences with each other as well as the coordinators. I feel much more welcome there, not like Exhibit A from Mars. 

But generally speaking in most other social situations, being male in the female dominated world of caring for young children is often a lonely and isolated existence where more often than not you will be tolerated rather than included. I often get the feeling that it really would be a lot simpler for everyone if I were a woman like everyone else.

Sometimes I sense that certain assumptions are being made which question either my commitment (are you just here for the morning?), my ability as a parent (can’t you control your toddler when he’s being aggressive?), or whether I'm undertaking the full range of responsibilities (are you cooking and cleaning and washing and generally running the household, or just showing up here?).

If there’s some kind of disagreement or incident involving my boys and others (fighting over a toy, pushing and shoving), mums I don't know well will generally remove their child from the scene, as if I’m not doing my part to resolve the situation. Worse still is the look which sends the thinly disguised message: ‘See, this is what happens when a bloke is left in charge of the kids’.

These things happened more 9 months ago at the start, than now. As people get to know you, they usually find answers to these questions that they like, and they become more welcoming. But not if conversations are never had, and men remain isolated. 

Women are generally more chatty than men, but usually they’re chatty with other women. I’m not a naturally chatty person but I have been making an effort to talk to more people than I usually would, as I know that as the outsider I’m the one who needs to make the extra effort. Same as if I’m the only Presbyterian in Utah. Or the only old bloke in a young office. That’s how I know a conversation one week doesn’t mean a chat the following week. I strike up a conversation, then only get a smile the next week and not even eye contact the week after.

“I’m glad you’re enjoying the job and hope that hubby is appreciating all that you have had to do over the last few years” is another interesting comment that my partner receives about our role switch. I didn’t need to quit my full-time job and take on the role of primary carer to know and appreciate all that my partner has done over the past four and a half years, but that’s how some interpret my role change. That it’s the only way I’ll understand what my partner has been through. That my partner is kind of ‘owed’ her break from being primary carer and that any particular challenges I face will be just ‘quid pro quo’ for all those presumably tougher challenges my partner has already endured. 

This “Hope hubby appreciates…” type of comment makes me feel that my performance in being judged in a way that I certainly never judged my partner. I knew it was tough, and always expressed my appreciation and tried to help as much as I could. Now with our roles reversed, these types of comments make me feel that no matter how well or badly I do looking after the kids, it will always be a lesser performance than my partner’s, as she’s already done the hard yards.

And it’s not the kind of job where you get marks for performance. Just being there day in day out is challenge enough. I knew before it was a tough job, and we were in it together. I know now in a different kind of way that it is a tough job, and I still hope that we’re in it together. 

That’s because I was already a very involved dad who did at least my share of household duties, and changed jobs several times to ensure I didn’t have to frequently travel overnight or overseas for work and could be home early from work to help Sherrie care for our boys. I know blokes who've missed more than six months of their kids’ pre-school years through frequent interstate and overseas travel. I read about others who’ve missed even more. I know it must be tough for them. But “hope hubby appreciates…” type of comments cut pretty deep if you’re someone who has already adjusted your work and social priorities and your outlook on life to maximise time with your partner and kids.

So if you’re a bloke planning to be the primary carer of your pre-school aged children, be prepared for the occasional insensitive comment and a generally cool response to your presence from many mums. 

Like every outsider, you’ve got to work really hard to be accepted. And even then you still feel you’ll never really be part of the in-crowd. That role is reserved for mums, and perhaps rightly so. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s not quite what I imagined.


  1. Well put!!!

    There can certainly be a level of "clickiness" with groups of people - gaggles of mums being one and you would think that in this century people have moved with the times. Hopefully your thought-provoking post will get people to think about being less judgemental and more accepting on the choices people make (which isn't their business anyway)...

  2. Cleve, funnily enough I think women and mothers of small children are generally critical of all other parents - male and female. For some reason modern parents love to see others fail, particularly in regard to disciplining children. I see and feel it all the time and some mothers groups are just no-go zones to anyone! If you want to feel depressed go to places with groups of mothers that are not your good friends - more often than not you will get some non-verbal 'comment' about your parenting style. Give me a 'parents' group full of fathers and genuine conversation any day.