“Do I look professional?”
“Do I look like a stay-at-home Dad?”
That small exchange with my wife this morning marked the final stage of my transition to ‘new man’ as she headed off to work and stayed home with the child.
It wasn’t meant to be like this. Although we may appear a fairly modern middle class couple, my upbringing is traditional working class. My father (a docker) went out and earnt the money so my mother (a housewife, occasionally working a factory line) could look after the home and family. There were clearly defined roles and everyone I knew followed them. The only exception was a friend whose father, not his mother, picked him up from school occasionally. But he was a milkman, so it was OK, his working day was over.
Having had a traditional, but stable and loving upbringing I was all set to repeat the process with my children.
But when my wife was pregnant this childhood programming crashed. Because most of the things I did to bring home the bacon were actually done at home there seemed an obvious solution – she could return to work part-time, and with some clever diary management I could make sure I was working from home when she was working at, well, work. It was win-win-win: we’d still have a decent joint income; I’d get to spend time with our child; and my wife would benefit from adult company and some intellectual stimulation, neither of which I come close to providing.
Even after MiniMe was born (some desire for privacy or impulse for protection means I’ve always used a cipher when referring to my son in public: MiniMe, Junior, the little ‘un – never his name) the plans remained. Babies, it seemed to me, mainly slept. Even nappy changes weren’t as bad as I thought. How lucky was I to be in such a position.
But gradually my childhood programming has returned and started running. As he developed, I realised that my vision of working away happily on the computer while he slept happily was naught but a fantasy. Were I to try he would not be happy unless banging on the keyboard with me. Instead, I find myself in a losing battle trying to interest him in Olly the Octopus to distract him from Elliott the Electrical Appliance. And while I applaud his fine skills in standing up using the sofa, I’m not sure my message that chewing the sofa isn’t essential to balance is getting across.
I’ve obviously looked after him before, but now I know it’s going to be regular I’ve a new-found respect for anyone staying at home to look after new children. I’m also particularly looking forward to working away from home for a few days next month… and that’s in Coventry.
Obviously I jest. A bit. It is a joy to look after him; clearly parental bias plays a part but he is (usually) a happy child and it is impossible not to forgive what is clearly developing into a mischievous nature. Yes, he loves to go places and play with things he shouldn’t – but that’s the burgeoning explorer in him, or intellectual curiosity, or maybe criminal tendencies. And yes, he’s totally changed our lives, but I wouldn’t swap it for the world.
The next few months – or years, or however long this set-up lasts – will be an education for me. I refuse to believe that prolonged exposure to nappies, In The Night Garden and Monkey Music (that link leads straight to the Monkey Music Time song, be warned) won’t have an effect. Indeed, it already has…
Since this first day has really brought home to me is how deeply embedded gender roles are in this country.
Despite my expectations and best intentions, both my wife and I had slipped towards the traditional models. While on maternity leave she took almost total responsibility for MiniMe. My rôle was mainly play, the very occasional nappy and odd bit of baby-sitting. And she also took on elements of the housework effortlessly. I, on the other hand, am finding the addition of a baby makes even the most routine tasks almost impossible. Some skills I will learn, but this morning I realised that it went beyond questions of ability or knowledge and becomes a question of authority.
When a man knocked on the door this morning, drumming up business for the local milkman, I was unable to help. I wanted to, I think there’s something special about getting milk delivered, but I just didn’t feel that was the sort of decision I could take. A shocking admission. But he took it totally in his stride, he didn’t query it or pressure me. Instead he indicated that he knew how it works and will simply come back tomorrow when I can pass on my wife’s answer!