Are you man enough to be a stay-at-home dad?
While mom brings back the bacon, many SA dads are rearing their children full-time. We look into this trend.

Stay-at-home dads may still be relatively rare in South Africa, but there is a growing trend of fathers bucking the traditional breadwinner role to raise their kids. And they’re loving it.

The trend is being fuelled by difficult economic times when which partner can earn more in the workplace is becoming a deciding factor in who stays at home to raise the kids.

“Many more women are educated into professional occupations, which means it is very easy for the female partner to earn significantly more,” points out Jacques Taylor, a counselling psychologist at Cape Town’s Crescent Clinic.

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Balancing out the cost and quality of childcare versus two incomes also plays a crucial part in the decision making process. “When we weighed up the cost of the kind of childcare we wanted — an educated au pair who could drive — versus me staying at home, it made financial sense.

And it’s much nicer if one of the parents can be the primary caretaker,” reckons Thomas Cleghorn, 50, who aside from being a full-time dad to six-year-old Hannah works freelance as a DJ, sound producer and computer programmer in Cape Town.

While it may make practical and financial sense, becoming ‘Mr Mom’ can be a difficult adjustment. “The first two years were tough,” recalls fellow Capetonian Thomas Cartwright, father of Maya, now eight.

“It was a huge shock realising I didn’t have my own life anymore and that my time and every movement was dictated by this little person I couldn’t even reason with. I felt trapped.”

Thomas, who “jumped at the chance” to go back to work when Maya was two, says that in hindsight he struggled with the role of stay-at-home parent mostly because he was hugely underprepared. “That can happen to anyone, man or woman – we all get ‘baby blues’.”

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No one says being a full-time dad is an easy ride, but those who’ve gone the distance say the rewards are worth it.

Thomas Cleghorn believes the benefits of home-parenting are invaluable to a child’s development. “I spend a lot of time reading to Hannah and teaching her things, and I’ve noticed the difference in her compared to other children her age.

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For example, she’s able to do maths that her peers haven’t even started. “And it’s fun,” he adds. “Time goes so quickly; I figure I have another six years until she becomes a surly teenager, so I may as well make the most of it.”

Eric reckons the close bond he formed through staying home with his son played an influential role in the engaged relationship they still enjoy:

“Sure, we have our issues, but overall our relationship is a lot stronger and closer for it. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I won’t deny it was a hard job but being there to watch my son grow from an infant into the man he is today has been the single most wonderful and rewarding experience of my life.”

Redefining manhood

For men, however, baby blues can be compounded by feeling emasculated. “Men have become so used to being the provider of security that too many men associate the meaning of masculinity only through these indicators,” explains Jacques.

He believes the link between being the breadwinner and notions of masculinity is programmed into men’s genetics because, as far back as the days of the caveman, a man’s role was always to protect pregnant and childrearing women against the elements of nature and to provide for them.

He stresses that “the challenge for modern men is to figure out how they can adapt their instinct to provide and protect in ways that fit modern expectations.”

Fellow Cape Town-based family counsellor, Shaamiela Safodien-Ras, agrees that being the primary childcarer goes against most men’s natural instinct due to hundreds of years of cultural and societal programming. “It takes a very evolved man to be completely okay with being at home and for it not to affect his sense of manhood,” she says.

“Some men are perhaps too caught up in their own macho image and wouldn’t be able to cope with it, but for me it’s never been a problem,” says Eric Miller, 55, who was a pioneering stay-at-home dad when he gave up his job as a photographer for a major news agency to look after Joshua, now 22, for the first year of his life.

Also read: When mom and dad parent differently

“People used to ask me if I had issues with the fact that my wife earned more than me, but I never saw why I should have had a problem with it,” he says.

Thomas Cleghorn has also experienced his fair share of digs and judgement but shrugs it off: “I’m not too bothered by what anyone else thinks. Besides, when people who try emasculate me find out what it’s really about, they usually eat their words.”

“It’s more hard work than anything else I’ve ever done — it’s certainly not emasculating in any sense,” agrees Thomas Cartwright.

While these stay-at-home dads are all comfortable with their non-traditional roles, Jacques warns that not all men may adjust so easily, especially in the face of societal prejudices. He says men who are “not comfortable in their own skin,” or who feel forced to stay at home to raise their children could easily end up resenting their life, their partner, their children and even themselves.

“Resentment can lead to various behavioural problems and other mental health issues. These dysfunctional behaviours can easily rub off onto the children and spouse, leading to family and marital problems.”

To counteract this, Jacques advises men struggling with their new role to “own the decision”. “If you are proud of the decision, then the chances are better that others would respect you for it,” he says. “Never apologise or rationalise the fact that you are doing something honourable and rewarding.”

Evaluating your own beliefs about manhood and masculinity is also a helpful exercise, adds Shaamiela.

“Men need to identify these beliefs and examine where they come from – whether these are their own beliefs or if they have been forced into them, and whether their self-worth is attached to them. Through this, they can establish their own, stronger sense of identity.”

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