It’s nearly a year since Mr P and I ‘switched roles’. When our twins were five months old, I went back to work and he officially became a stay-at-home dad. We pride ourselves in being a pretty forward-thinking society but Mr P and I are still in the minority and people often have a look of surprise when we tell them what our family set-up is.
The most common question is: “Does he enjoy being at home with the little ones?”
Which is funny, because I’m not sure anyone asked Mr P that question when I was off on maternity leave with our eldest. “Does she enjoy it?” (It’s probably just as well no one asked him, because the reply may well have been: “Well, she often pounds the streets with the buggy for hours on end, just to get out of the house, break up the day and stop herself from going mad. She misses adult interaction and isn’t sure she’s doing a great job at this motherhood lark at all. But! That aside, yes! Loving it.”)
Granted, my first experience of motherhood, nine years ago, was tainted by post-natal depression and probably some form of birth trauma (all self diagnosed, I should add), but back then, I had this overwhelming feeling of ‘This is so unfair. Why do I have to be off for a whole year with my baby, and then go back to work part time, while my husband gets to swan off to work every day?’ Of course, I didn’t have to do anything, but I felt pressure to do what everyone else was doing. ‘It must be the correct thing to do, if everyone else is doing it,’ I’d think. So I took the year off work, and when I confessed sheepishly to my NCT friends over coffee, that I was looking forward to returning to work, they all looked at me like I’d lost my mind. In contrast, they were all counting down the days to the end of their maternity leave, with dread.
So I went back to work – three days a week at first, and then four days a week. I’d have loved to have gone back full time, but the mum guilt was too strong. It felt wrong, to me, to put my toddler into nursery five days a week, when everyone around me seemed to be doing fewer days.
Of course, hindsight and experience is a wonderful thing, and I’d love to go back in time, and tell 2011-Alison that if the right thing for her mental health is working full time, do it. And maybe she could look into other options like Mr P working four days, or other childcare options or grandparents helping out or… basically I’d tell her that there are options, and that it’s not her sole responsibility to sort out childcare for her daughter.
So, this time around, we’ve done things differently. And so far, it’s working brilliantly.
When people ask “Does he enjoy being at home with the little ones?” I tell them that yes, he’s enjoying it. Like most people who are at home with small children, he can find it tough day in, day out, so we try to plan in time every week – whether it’s a whole day or just a few hours – where he gets time off. He can go out and watch a film, get some coffee, have a walk, whatever he wants to do, but it’s a break and some headspace for him.
And if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this: In a family unit where one parent goes out to work and the other is at home with small children, I reckon the person who goes out to work has a cushy little number! This article on The Daily Mash sums it up well – it’s meant to be satire but it’s actually true.
Every weekday, I do the school drop off, leaving behind the chaos of the morning – breakfast bowls piled up by the sink, porridge splattered on the worktop, rogue pieces of toast on the floor – and closing the front door behind me, it’s feels like walking into a spa. I mean it! You know when you walk into a spa and all of your senses have to recalibrate – it’s darker, your nose detects soothing essential oils, you hear plinky plonky music – and your brain just knows it’s time to relax? Well, it’s a bit like that. I close the front door behind me, the fresh air hits my face, the silence hits my ears, I breathe in the air around me, and my brain knows that I don’t have to think about the needs and whims of two small children for a few hours. After the school run, I head to meetings or a podcast interview, or I find a coffee shop to work from. In the middle of the day, I often head to the gym for a class and do some more work from the gym cafe. Then, late afternoons I head home where I’m greeted by small people with a look of utter delight. They couldn’t be more pleased to see me! I spend some time giving cuddles and playing with the little ones, chatting to the nine-year-old about her day at school, and it’s honestly so so lovely after a day at work.
The parent at home? That’s the tough gig, if you ask me. Less headspace, fewer breaks, less interaction with other adults, unpredictable, physically and emotionally demanding…. and often under-valued.
Even if the working parent has a really demanding and tough job – and I’m well aware my job isn’t either of those in comparison to many – they still get that freedom, that headspace and that adult interaction. All things that you don’t know the real value of until they’re gone.
But I guess I’ve also learned that both roles are as important as the other. We need money to live off (my role) and we need to care for our children and keep the home running (Mr P’s role). The wheels would fall off if we didn’t have both roles covered in some way.
There’s no right or wrong way to navigate all of this. Whether it’s you bringing home the bacon or your partner, it’s about finding a balance for everyone, even if that’s a totally different balance to the people in your ante-natal group, or the mums you follow on Instagram or your school mum friends.
But if you do know any women who are taking on the childcare role, be sure to ask them if they’re enjoying it. If they’re happy. We shouldn’t just assume that all women are loving being at home with the kids. Many do! But it’s not a given and some could probably do with a cuppa and chat, or a couple of hours break to catch her breath. And just for a short while, exist in a space that isn’t dominated by Octonauts, nap times and soggy half-chewed breadsticks.