While fathers are increasingly involved in the rearing of their children, it’s still rare to meet an Australian man who is the primary carer for his baby. Only one man takes paid parental leave during the first year of a child’s life for every 50 women, according to a 2016 OECD report.
Whether the male partner – still typically the higher earner – can afford to take leave is a crucial factor. Many workplaces still fail to offer substantial paternity leave packages for their male employees. But as these factors change, so does one of the ultimate barriers: social expectations of whose job it is to care for young children. We meet three fathers who became the primary carer for their children and ask them how it went.
MICHAEL KWAN, 40, has been looking after Remy, 3, and Coen, 1, for over nine months.
Michael has energy. Lots of it. Running through the rain, he dashes crying baby Coen from the car into the house, returning to do the same with his big brother Remy. Once inside he scoops Coen up. It occurs to him that Remy hasn’t peed for a while. And, yes, he needs to now.
“I thought it would be a little bit, ummm, easier,” says Michael.
When Coen was born, Michael had been working at his IT training company for 10 years and was ready for a break. His wife, Carrie, was keen to return to a new role at a financial firm.
After three months of dual parenting, Carrie rejoined the workforce and Michael was left holding the babies.
The biggest initial challenge was believing he could look after his children by himself. “Confidence is what most fathers don’t have. It can be easy for the father to pass the baby back to the mother and expect her to sort it out.”
Michael’s friends say they envy what he can achieve. He tells them: “Yeah, it’s amazing. But it’s not what you think. Give it a real go, for at least a month. You’ll have a different respect for your partner.” He regarded himself as an engaged dad during Remy’s first year, when Carrie stayed at home. Now that their roles are reversed, he has a much greater appreciation for her.
“I’m boggled by how much you need to do,” he says. “It’s relentless.”
Michael is exhausted. “The house is pretty much always messy,” he says. “And a lot of the work that you do to keep the house clean, the children fed and all that, they’re not tangible things you can show your wife when she comes home. That’s been hard.
“When you’re at work and you reach milestones and finish projects, you just feel this enormous weight off you. “With this, you just get through the day and the next day is going to be much the same.”
When Michael was working, he liked coming home and taking the heat off his wife. He misses being that fun and happy parent. “There are some days, I must admit, when I’m looking at Carrie going ‘Help!'”
They’re both so tired that he can see how couples with less solid relationships break up after starting a family. Patience thins, time is scarce and everything becomes about practicalities. One-time gym junkie Michael sneaks in half an hour of exercise at 11pm, often after he’s fallen asleep putting the boys to bed.
He’s already feeling uneasy about returning to work. “The circles of what I do are so much smaller day-to-day now, that I haven’t been able to extend my learning. I’m lucky if I get to read some articles on my phone in between feeds or whatever,” he says. “I was originally hoping that taking time off to look after the kids would give me more time to think about my career. I literally can’t even look at my feet sometimes.
Would you do it again?
“I’ve had days where I’ve said I wouldn’t. It would depend on the work circumstances of myself and my partner.”
“Thinking it wouldn’t be as hard as it was and that I would have time to do non-child-focused things.”
Best advice received?
“Get a routine in place and be organised. I struggled with this.”
Make sure you get out of the house and engage with other parents or adults. Also learn to multitask … fast.”
MATT CONN, 36, has been looking after Clementine, 11 months, and Emilia, 4, for two months.
Matt Con with daughters Clementine and Emilia. Photo: Supplied
Matt marked his first day of paternity leave with lunch at a craft brewery in Sydney’s inner west. As his wife navigated her way back into the workplace after nine months off, she received a picture of her baby daughter’s bumblebee thermos of purée next to a schooner of ale. “It probably looks a bit irresponsible,” Matt admits. “But [the baby] needs to eat somewhere. It was just a location.
Lush lunches in Marrickville warehouses aside, Matt describes his first week of full-time childcare as a “kind of chaos”.
He had always been engaged in raising baby Clementine and her four-year-old sister Emilia – he did the daycare run, rushed home from his job in finance for bedtime stories as well as the obvious weekend parenting.
“I had always been pro equal parenting, but it never had been equal because I had always worked more,” he says.
His wife, Trixie, took on the mental load after their first child was born. Only when Matt took three months’ leave to be Clementine and Emilia’s primary carer did he begin to share that.
He realised he had to start thinking two or three steps ahead; having food ready for when Emilia came home from daycare, keeping tabs on what needed washing and when, making sure everything was in place for Clementine. When Trixie came home, she was equal parts shocked and delighted to see the exhaustion on her husband’s face.
Matt feels on top of it now and senses a shift in the dynamic with his wife. He thinks she’s forgotten how hectic a day at home with kids can be – and finds himself nudging her to stop talking about work and to acknowledge the stress of looking after the kids and home. In their nightly conversations, he says, he sounds like a 1950s housewife.
Matt says being a full-time carer has given him not only a greater appreciation for stay-at-home life, but also a stronger bond with his youngest girl. “It has felt like I’m more of a professional parent, rather than a part-time dad.”
Clementine now seeks him out for comfort when she is upset, rather than her mother. It’s clearly a point of pride for him – and almost a little guilt at what his wife has, to some degree, lost. Matt says the policy and culture at his work supported him taking paternity leave. “For guys, you almost get a pat on the back for doing it,” he says.
He was also concerned that his wife taking extended leave might harm her career in marketing. “People gloss over the gender pay gap, and men will say that they don’t take leave because they earn more,” he says. “But it’s better to have two decent incomes than one high salary.” Besides, “I just wanted to do it.” Amid the meltdowns, laundry and shopping lists, Matt is surprised by how positive he feels about the experience. “The more I enjoy it, the more fun we have together,” he says.
Would you do it again?
“Definitely. I wish I had done so with my older daughter.”
“Not staying one step ahead of the kids.”
Best advice received?
“Get out and about and enjoy not being at work as much as you can.”
“You will never regret spending more time with your kids.”
MICHAEL OSMOND, 39, started looking after Patrick, 18 months, when he was eight months old.
Michael Osmond and his son Patrick. Photo: Supplied
Michael had always thought of himself as a confident and engaged father, but after a full-time spell in the role, something has changed.
“I think we’re much closer because of the time we’re spending together,” he says. “Patrick gives me these really loving looks sometimes, which is great. I think that if we weren’t spending all the time together that we are, that wouldn’t be the case.”
Michael and his wife Sophie were expecting total upheaval with the baby, but their son pleasantly surprised them.
“I don’t think having a baby is quite as difficult as society would lead us to believe,” he says. “It’s more joyous than I expected. I’ve tried to focus on how much fun it is, rather than how difficult.”
He meets me on a sunny morning in Sydney’s Dulwich Hill, watching Patrick bumble up and around the playground equipment with more confidence than skill. Michael’s like a soccer goalie, intently watching the action from afar and knowing that a quick reaction could be called for at any moment.
He wasn’t prepared for this constant vigilance. “I just thought, make sure he’s a happy child and not mean to other kids, and that would be all there is to it,” he says. “I didn’t realise how many hazards there are.”
Michael recently bought Patrick a broad-brimmed hat, congratulating himself on being so sun smart.
“Now I find that I don’t like him wearing it when we come to the park because I can’t see what he’s putting in his mouth under the brim,” he says. “It just makes me more stressed.”
He used a mix of leave types to take over as primary carer – he works in TV production, and says his employer has been flexible and understanding.
There has been no stigma. He sees solo dads all the time. And while becoming parents has changed his relationship with his wife, taking over as primary carer hasn’t altered anything else.
He likes his job but isn’t not looking forward to returning there. “I just want to keep doing this,” he says. “It’s really fun. I’ll miss so much when I’m not around him all the time.
“I remember the day when he was able to stand up holding on to a piece of furniture. It was lovely.”
Michael still hasn’t managed to live out his stay-at-home dad fantasy of taking Patrick to a cricket match. As he struggles to replace Patrick’s hat in the morning sun, he says it could be a nice occasion for bonding. “But yeah, that would be more for me.”
Would you do it again?
“I underestimated the amount of close supervision that a small, mobile human requires.”
Best advice received?
“Young children will eat almost anything if it’s in fritter form.”
“Prepare meals while your baby naps.”
*Michael Osmond has returned to his job since this interview was conducted.