How did I not see this coming? In retrospect it was, like all things, incredibly obvious. I expected being a stay-at-home dad to be difficult. A lot of parents I knew relished in telling me how difficult it would be. Of course it would be tough. Babies are a lot of work. What I didn’t expect, however, was the loneliness. Nobody ever said it would be lonely.
The particular and peculiar loneliness of the stay-at-home dad is a strange one. It arrives not unlike Hemingway’s description of bankruptcy: gradually, then suddenly. Although your days will be packed, and you’ll be run ragged, and you would pay good money for just 10 minutes of peace and quiet, it creeps up.
I was home alone with our baby. My wife was back in work. All my friends were in work. For the most part, I honestly loved it, and I was good at it. But Irish winters are long, and cabin fever is real. Did I mention it was hard? In fact, if you know anyone who’s a stay-at-home parent, drop what you’re doing and give them a call. Pay them a visit this weekend. Bring a cooked meal and a bottle of wine. They will love you for it.
So yes, at times it can be lonely. I was lucky: my wife recognised what was happening before I did. Being encouraged to get out of the house more, and having someone to talk to at the end of each day made all the difference. The full gamut of human emotion was run every day. There was an intensity of love and joy beyond anything I have ever felt. But, not to put too fine a point on it, when things went tits-up, it was important to have someone to talk to.
The problem is, the inevitable loneliness is not just a by-product of less socialising. It is a feeling constantly re-enforced by other people’s preconception of what a stay-at-home parent should or shouldn’t be. You can only ignore it for so long.
For the two years I was at home with our baby, one trivial social nicety became a dreaded minefield. I would be asked, fairly and predictably, what I did for a living. It happened everywhere: at the barber, in a taxi, at weddings. Almost every time the result was the same. I’d tell them I was a stay-at-home dad; there followed a noticeable delay in their reply and a palpable change in atmosphere. I might as well have told them I had liver disease. So many people genuinely didn’t know what to say. Between the pity and suspicion, there was an unwillingness to believe that someone would do this by choice.
Viewed in isolation, this sort of thing doesn’t add up to much. An awkward conversation here and there never killed anyone. But as a daily experience, it adds to the feeling of operating on the fringes of society. Walk into a cafe with a baby and just look at the fear in the eyes of the customers, pleading for you to sit anywhere else.
All this is bolstered by, and to a large degree exists because of, the media’s portrayal of dads. It wasn’t so long ago that vitriolic online twaddle became headline news when Daniel Craig had the temerity to wear a baby carrier. And God forbid David Beckham kisses his son on the lips. Have you ever seen a Hollywood film where the dad wasn’t a workaholic who had to learn to appreciate his family, like it was a lesson to be taught? Is there an ad on TV which doesn’t depict dads bumbling around the house, making an absolute hames of basic child-rearing responsibilities? The message is clear: Craig is an effeminate doormat, Beckham is weird, and men don’t belong in the home.
There is another side to this coin, funnily enough. Like a snake eating its own head, it is partly a self-perpetuated problem. If there is a general unease at the thought of men staying at home to mind a baby, those same men exacerbate the issue with their own emotional muteness. If two men have the same problem, you can be fairly sure that each is oblivious to the other’s suffering.
Based purely on anecdotal evidence, women understand this and help themselves by helping each other. They talk to each other. Consider the playground. Two dads making small-talk can be a painful experience. It usually goes no further than a few banal grunts about the weather before one of them shoots off, with a sigh of relief, to rescue their kid from some slide-related emergency. Women, on the other hand, are drawn to each other with tractor-beam intensity. There seems to be a common language and understanding that allows them to relate to each other on a level beyond what I, or any other dad I’ve talked to are capable of. I’ve seen this with my own wife and complete strangers. They don’t mince words, either; it’s straight to the good stuff. How much sleep are you getting? How old? How was the birth? Are they in creche? How are the other kids coping? The answers to these questions don’t seem to be as important as the implied meaning: no, you’re not alone. We’re all in this together.
It is a lesson men will have to learn. The attention garnered by the recent news that Diageo is to offer 26 weeks paid paternity leave highlights how strange the idea of the stay-at-home dad still is. It is a small step in the right direction, not just for workplace equality, but for changing wider attitudes towards men’s role in the family. More men should get to experience the intimate joy and challenges of being a stay-at-home parent, a job made exponentially more enjoyable when we ditch stubborn stereotypes and learn to recognise loneliness when we see it.