A new breed of man has tip-toed into the home. Rarely seen, often stressed, sometimes bearded, he is the stay-at-home Dad. Nine percent of the U.K. male population are now house-husbands. But this rare species faces extinction, threatened by society's stereotyped expectations and an often hostile female population.
Public figures have been lobbying to increase the number of full-time fathers. Douglas Hurd, former Conservative Employment Secretary and dad of two, has been rallying to their cause. He said that childcare is: "a shared responsibility. It is not just the responsibility of the women".
In Sweden, a quarter of fathers now spend at least a year at home. This has resulted from a successful change in the law that encourages men to spend time with their little ones. And full-time daddies have been the subject of films like Mr Mum and Trading Places.
Gone are the days of the stern Victorian father who made rare appearances in front of his awe-struck children. Today's dads are soft and caring. They will cheerfully change a nappy at 2.a.m. or ferret under a cot for a dropped teddy-bear.
Many wives demand this attitude, believing that child-rearing should be a more equal task and that fathers should be more involved in their children's lives. But the reason most become full-time dads, is a financial one.
If a woman is commanding a higher salary, it makes sense that she continues working. But this financial "no-brainer" is an emotional minefield. The new house husband finds that in one fell swoop, his world has been turned upside-down.
Men are often shocked by the sheer hard slog of parenting - the children that demand every second of their attention, the physical work of changing sheets and hovering up trodden-in biscuits from the carpet.
Outside, they wrestle with back-breaking buggies that have been designed to a woman's height and dodge from cafÃ© to cafÃ© in the search of that Holy Grail of things: the father and baby changing room.
On the street, women may besiege them with unwanted advice. "You need to keep well wrapped up in the weather," a woman might say to a man, nodding at his child. Some men wash off these comments as easily as baby sick. But other men are consumed by such words and work twice as hard to be accepted into their new career.
All stay-at-home fathers are operating in a woman's world — one that can be extremely isolating. One stay-at-home dad confessed: "I feel more lonely with a small child than I have ever felt on my own."
They can be shunned from community activities because women feel threatened by them. Or not invited to coffee mornings at women's houses, the lifeline of any full-time parent. Jes, a West Midland house husband, said: "I tried taking my son Jack to play-group but it was too embarrassing. I only went once.
When I walked in the women stopped talking in groups and just stared at me."
Another man was asked to leave his playgroup because the husbands of the Indian women that went could not allow them to attend if a man was there.
Even worse, in rare cases, men have been suspected of becoming abductors - especially is they are unconventional -looking and in charge of a young baby.
North Londoner, Brian, a full-time parent with dreadlocks, was taking his eight-week-old daughter, Holly, back from the shops when a woman started following him. "She followed me onto the next bus," Brian explained, "and then when I got off near my road, she got off too. I walked to my house and she was still behind me. She watched me go indoors and carried on walking."
Brian is convinced that the woman thought he was abducting Holly. Police have been known to stop house-husbands on the street then ask their child: "Is this your Daddy?"
Such hostility gnaws away at fathers, who are often already battling against feelings of insecurity. From an early age, a message has been drummed into them by the media - that as a male, they should be the breadwinner of their family. Denied this role, full-time Pops often feel that they have lost their place in society and with it their identity.
Friends, particularly the male ones, might fuel these feelings of worthlessness. At first, a man's decision to stay at home is often met with approval by his family and friends. But as the weeks set in, so does their scepticism. One father said that his male friends didn't even consider childcare to be an activity, let alone work.
One study has revealed that 40 per cent of fathers felt that their self-esteem was undermined by leaving paid work. But the same report showed that 42 per cent of fathers reported enhanced self-esteem and confidence, possibly because they were successfully fulfilling a new role.
Either way, daytime daddies need support from their partners. But often mothers find it hard to hand over the job of decision-making about the home and the children, to the man. To them, it is female territory and grrr …. belongs to them. So the poor house-husband still does not have the authority in the house that his wife would have had.
This tension can lead to uncertainty and bickering - especially in the early months, when both parents are trying to adjust to their new roles.
It is no wonder that, for many couples, role-reversal fails and they go racing back to their traditional roles much sooner than they had thought.
This is a shame because the exotic species of stay-at-home dad does a sterling job. He needs nurturing to keep him from extinction. He, like mothers, should be able to experience the bliss of full-time parenthood, of trying to wash up with there is a toddler tugging at your ankles and of putting on your shoes to go to the shops, only to find that crisps have been stuffed into the toes.
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