My dad was the coolest dad at the school gates. That’s because he was the only one. The other mums assumed he was a mysterious divorcee with joint custody, or a tragic widower raising his daughter alone.
With those scenarios in mind, many tried to woo him. But, in fact, he was something even more mysterious: a happily married stay-at-home dad.
In 1988, when my parents found out they were expecting me, they faced the decision that many face – particularly in the UK, where we have the second most expensive childcare system in the world. Who is going to look after our child?
My mother was an assistant headteacher, a position of huge responsibility and a job that, crucially, she adored. But my father, a publishing sales executive, was the higher earner.
Unlike the 1.8million couples in the UK who follow the framework of a father in full-time employment and a mother working part-time, it was ultimately my father who decided to leave his job to bring up baby.
Earlier this week, as one of her final acts as Prime Minister, Theresa May announced plans to extend existing paternity leave to enable new fathers to take up to 12 weeks’ leave. During the first month, 90 per cent of his salary would be paid for by the employer.
The news got me thinking about what it was like to have my father as my primary carer. To be honest, it was brilliant and, I suspect, no different from having a stay-at-home mum. Certainly, I remember how much he stood out – the only man at children’s birthday parties, the only man carrying a tutu to my ballet class.
Yet he didn’t stand out to me. To me, it was completely normal to have a father who made all your meals, who helped name your teddies or made you sit through French art house cinema on a sick day. To me, it was stranger that my school friends did not have this set-up. They had fathers they saw rarely, if at all. They had fathers they were scared of; the breadwinners, the disciplinarians, the slippers-and-golf types.
This was alien to me. To me, my father was my best friend, the person who built tents with me, the person guaranteed to get emotionally blackmailed into dressing up with me when I wanted to stage mortifying at-home musical productions. (I reckon I could get him to do this again.)
As wonderful as my childhood was, it was also spent explaining or defending my family. Teachers frequently could not grasp the fact that my father was picking me up from school, not my mother, that my father would collect me if I was sick, not my mother.
I was confused when teachers used traditional family set-ups as the basis for maths questions or stories. Struggling to compute the “when Mummy picks up five more oranges” format, was not my inadequacy with arithmetic, but my lack of experience with a world in which Mummy did the groceries.
The traditional set-up was so ingrained, even in the minds of my classmates who are now in their early thirties and modern, liberal-minded millennials. It was simply unfathomable to my fellow four-year-olds that my mother was not my primary caregiver. This was so much the case that they more readily assumed my mother was dead – as a child in my class once terrifyingly asked me – than the reality of a happily married man voluntarily parenting his child full-time.
Because, let’s not forget, it was a revolutionary move in the late eighties. Stay-at-home dads were the stuff of legend, or straight out of Three Men and a Baby. Baby changing facilities were only found in women’s toilets, there were no “father and baby” playgroups my father could join, and men were so scarce in park playgrounds, they were viewed with heavy suspicion. My father recalls multiple occasions – once in the doctor’s surgery – when he had to provide evidence he was my parent.
But where he most had to defend his chosen situation was within our own family. Jokes at his expense were commonplace, with less-enlightened male friends and family members finding him a source of comedy.
Jokes about aprons and “who wears the trousers” wore so thin that I developed an argumentative streak I still possess. Once, overhearing this ribbing, I furiously demanded that a male friend of my mother’s get out of my house. I was nine.
For her part, my mother shared my fury and is immensely proud of our family dynamic. She is an exemplary, heavily involved parent and yet, for her, the dynamic was also one that she was permanently on-call to explain. I know she felt the backlash that women face when they do not drop everything to stay at home with their children. The idea that she had somehow chosen her career over her child must have rankled, not only for its blatant untruth, but for the fact that no one would have raised an eyebrow should my father have kept his job.
My father wasn’t making a political stand when he made his decision, he wasn’t attempting to make a bold, feminist statement. He was doing something that he simply wanted to do, something that, in fact, feels more shocking for its rarity: he was just being a parent.
Thirty-plus years after he became a stay-at-home dad to me, I know precious few fathers who’ve done the same, and I find this truly sad. But then I also find the huge societal imbalance when it comes to raising children baffling.
Currently, 1.8million couples in the UK follow the framework of a father in full-time employment and a mother in part-time employment. Some 54,000 women a year drop out of the workforce after having children, but data on “working fathers” is scarce to non-existent because we fail to register it is even as a thing.
Much like this late-arriving paternity legislation, we are playing catch up when it comes to recognising men as parents and allowing them to be so. Employers, policy makers, politicians, like my childhood classmates, too frequently assume children are the primary responsibility of women, while men are lauded to the skies – often by other mothers – when they “babysit” their own children.
It is, in part, why the Advertising Standards Agency recently brought in legislation around gender stereotyping in commercials – to consign the “comically inept father” trope to the dustbin of history.
I attended my first baby shower this week, attended by a room full of women. As wonderful as it was, I couldn’t help but wonder why we hadn’t invited the father and his mates, too.
Though it is my dear friend and her fantastic husband who are both expecting – the traditional assumption still lingers, that it is only the woman having the child.
My partner already knows that, when I have a baby, I expect him to take full paternity leave, that I expect him to play as equal part raising his child as he did conceiving it.
But I also hope that he has his own baby shower. And that my stay-at-home father will be the guest of honour.