Stay at home dad rates in sharp decline in the UK – what’s holding us back?

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stay at home dad

Think back to the last time you were at a parent and toddler group or at a baby activity group or in the school playground. How many dads did you see? One? Three? A small handful? Chances are that the number of mums outnumbered the dads by a fair amount. At a time when we fight for gender equality, it is still more usual for mothers to stay at home and look after their children than fathers. Is the world just not ready for the stay at home dad?

stay at home dadHow many stay at home dads are there in the UK?

The latest data from the Office of National Statistics shows that there are 19 million families in the UK and there are currently 232,000 men who are a stay at home dad. That is just 1.2% of all families that have the father as the primary caregiver. It’s also a sharp drop from recent years suggesting that the number of stay at home dads is diminishing.

Was it all just a fad?

Commenting on the recent figures Professor Sir Cary Cooper, a professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester, said it was a “sad commentary on our time”. He believes that the rise in stay at home dad rates at the start of the millennium was because there was a shift in societal attitudes and dads were encouraged to become ‘new men’. He says,

I think at one point in time it was quite trendy and adventurous to stay at home – men thought ‘I should be a new man’.

Cooper also feels that this novelty is now wearing off. Dads who stayed at home to look after their children found that there were not rewarded for their role. This was not just  financially but in terms of the way society viewed them. He said:

I think what’s ended up happening is that dads feel like society doesn’t reward that and doesn’t give them high status. Men feel that they are only valued for their work role.

The pressure to ‘bring home the bacon’

It’s hard to gauge how many dads would like to work less and spend more time with their children if it was a very real choice for them. We do know that since shared parental leave was introduced in the UK in 2015, only a tiny percentage of couples have taken advantage of the scheme. Just 8700 parents used the scheme in 2016-2017. That’s a take up of a tiny 1% of those eligible. Working Families looked into what was stopping fathers taking up their new rights to spend more time at home with their newborn babies. They concluded:

Of those fathers who said they wouldn’t use the scheme, more than a third said this was because they couldn’t afford to.

stay at home dadDo the sums just not add up?

In the UK parents receive up to £140.98 per week for shared parental leave. If a new dad earns more than this, then taking parental leave would mean a real hit to the family income. Interestingly in Scandinavian countries, where new dads receive between 80-100% of their salary while on parental leave there is a very high take up. In these countries as many as 85-90% of dads take up their rights to be a stay at home dad and spend more time with their new baby in their first year. This suggests that the UK’s policy does not offer fathers enough of a financial incentive to stay at home to bring up their children. It seems that the biggest barrier to spending more time at home is the pressure and the very real need to ‘bring home the bacon’. But why is it still dads who are seen as breadwinners in 2018?

Is the gender pay gap holding us back?

It might be 2018 but there’s no denying that the gender pay still exists. The truth is that men earn more than women, even if they do the same job. Recent reports reveal that nine out of ten companies pay men more than women with a gender pay gap of at least 18%. Some companies pay men as much as 60% more. As long as this gender inequality exists it makes little financial sense for dads to take time off work to look after children, even if they really wish they could. Joeli Brearly founder of Pregnant Then Screwed says,

Mothers take pay cuts and demotions while fathers get pay rises and promotions. It is time to change the narrative so that employers and our legislation view children as the equal responsibility of both parents.

stay at home dadHow society views the stay at home dad

Scott Meltzer is the author of ‘Manhood Impossible’, which explores the role of men in today’s society. He has found that men rank the qualities of ‘breadwinner status plus bodily strength and control’ as the most important aspects of their masculine identity. Being a stay at home dad challenges these factors, both for dads themselves and for the rest of society. Meltzer believes it is inevitable that stay at home fathers will face ‘critiques and questioning from others’.

As there are still so many fewer stay at home dads than mums, often they can feel marginalised or even distrusted by mums. Parenting can be a lonely experience anyway and must be even more so if you feel on the fringes. Meltzer spoke to many stay at home fathers. They reported that mums either just didn’t make them feel welcome in the groups or actively left them out by not inviting them to playdates and meet ups. Outside the parenting community stay at home dads need to contend with responses from passers by. Meltzer says the most common reaction “is to look at them and think, ‘It’s Daddy’s day off,’ or to question whether they have some sort of ulterior motive, like picking up mums in the playground.”

He feels that there is a still a long way to go before society sees stay at home dads as the norm. He says:

I think it’s going to take some time and some significant shifts in our thoughts about work and gender roles.

What do mums think?

Money might not be the only factor that decides which parent stays at home to look after a baby. Writing for ‘The Early Hour’ Annie Ridout argues that maybe the majority of parental leave is taken by women because that’s what they’d prefer. She feels that having a baby is an essentially different experience for women and men. This may play an important factor in why mums want to spend more time with their babies, especially in their first year. She argues:

Having a baby affects women and men in different ways. A father can feel emotionally attached to his baby and share the weight of the responsibility but he doesn’t go through the physical changes of pregnancy and birth. He can’t breastfeed. He doesn’t have the same hormonal changes as the mother. And because of this mums find it harder than dads to leave their babies and return to work.

stay at home dadAs babies get older there may be many mothers who would like to work as well as care for their children. This is a time when dads could step in and take on a greater role looking after their children, allowing mums to return to work earlier than they may do otherwise. Again, this decision often depends on what families can afford.

What do dads think?

Although stay at home dads are not the norm in the UK, if you were to walk along the streets of Sweden you would see many ‘latte papas’ pushing prams or carrying their babies in a sling. Sweden has some of the most progressive social policies in the world. It offers parents a very real choice about who will stay at home to look after their baby. Swedish parents get a generous 480 days paid leave per child that’s around 68 weeks paid at 80 per cent replacement wage. Fathers also take at least two months parental leave and so it is a common sight to see dads out and about with their babies.

Speaking to The Guardian, Leon, a ‘latte papa’ says that having the chance to share parental leave is both eye-opening and rewarding. It lets dads find out both how hard it is to be on your own with a small child all day and how rewarding it is too. He says:

You get a whole different understanding of how it is to take care of a child, because work is nothing in comparison. I don’t think looking after a child for a weekend is enough. You have two days of chaos, but you don’t get into the routines.  I’m finding it rewarding in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

stay at home dadThere are benefits to having stay at home dads

When dads get the opportunity to take on the childcare then it seems that not only do they feel a closer bond with their child but they gain a much greater understanding of the demands of being a stay at home parent. This helps them have greater empathy for their partners too.

The 2017 Modern Families Index revealed that in the UK over half of all fathers want to downshift to a less stressful job so that they can spend more time with their family. This figure rises for the younger fathers who were surveyed, indicating a shift in workforce mentality. The report suggests that dads want a better work-life balance and want to spend more time with their children and families. However, right now few employers offer the real flexibility and financial incentive to allow them to do so.

The times they are a changing (sort of)

We are in a time of change where there has been progress towards gender equality in some ways but in others things seem to have stayed the same. More mums are returning to work but there has been no societal shift towards viewing women as the main breadwinners. A stigma still exists towards men who have chosen to leave the workplace to bring up a baby. In some respects we encourage new dads to take on a greater role but in others we do not have policies in place to allow the freedom of choice to do so. So, for now, a stay at home dad is a relatively rare sight.

For more great ideas on how Dads can bond with their newborn babies from day 1, take a look at our article 8 ways to start Dad and baby bonding