It’s been a big week, even for this family.
Media headlines arising from the recent study by the Australian Institute of Family Studies into stay-at-home-Dads include ‘Working Mums Putting Stay-At-Home-Dads To Shame’, ‘Stay-At-Home-Dads Do Less Housework, Childcare’ and ‘Housework Study Highlights Mr Mum Fails’. Even the AIFS’s media release itself has the dreaded ‘Mr Mum’ in its title (Australian Dads Not All ‘Mr Mums’).
And I’m just like, faaark.
The crazy push (or unconscious tendency) to spark gender war outrage is clearly driven by a competitive media landscape devouring likes and share and views and comments on their way to the first page of Google results, but it doesn’t make the simplifying of family life and family dynamics any easier to bare.
The selective sound-bites of information from the majority of media sources lead the conversation, often narrowing it down to pointless reinforcement of old-world ideas. Men are like this and women are like that and we should all be relegated to certain tasks because of it. A panel segment on Sunrise did just that, starting with ‘Do stay-at-home dads need to lift their game?’ and resulting in Larry saying, ‘I can barely look after myself’; his co-panellist Anna using mother guilt to explain how mums feel compelled to clean a messy house as Dads can walk through it asking, ‘Are there beers in the fridge, Darl?’
There are some more involved questions that could be asked about some of the findings outlined in the AIFS Press Release, even if we focus just on the media hype around housework and childcare in stay-at-home-dad families.
“Stay-at-home-dad families account for only 4% of two parent families…stay at home mum families account for 31% of two parent families.”
Is this an indication that stay-at-home-dad families are falling out of favour? Or is the fact that only 35% of Aussie families have a stay-at-home parent of either gender an indication that the stay-at-home-parent model has limitations in the modern world and is not the preferred model it once was? The study also shows that 57% of families comprise of parents sharing outside work and work at home. Most parents are negotiating on the run as circumstances change depending on an endless array of external and internal factors.
“For many, becoming a stay-at-home-dad is an economic decision driven by unemployment, underemployment, or disability…’
What extenuating factors are impacting on these families? Disability impacts on the ability to participate domestically. Loss of identity and social support, self-esteem, disillusionment, depression and perceived public pressure can impact on a dad whose work/family life has suddenly changed. How difficult is it for dad to adapt to the home/school/childcare routine – with all its support networks and professional contacts – that has been organised and structured by mum for the past ten+ years? The change in structure might also be difficult for mum to adapt to. In many cases the housework discrepancy found in the study might be coming from mum’s difficulty in ‘releasing the reigns’ and accepting that dad will be doing things a little differently.
“Fathers tend to be older, with older children, and they don’t tend to pick up the full domestic workload that stay-at-home-mums traditionally have.”
How much of the difference in time spent on housework can be attributed to the fact that the majority of women in the 31% of stay-at-home mum families have babies and toddlers and are responsible for all the extra work that comes along with that age bracket? Would the discrepancy in housework/childcare be similar if we compared stay at home mums with young children to stay-at-home mums with older children?
“Despite dividing their time differently, parents in these families were the most likely to agree that children do just as well if the mother earns the money and the father takes care of the home and children.”
Is this the most relevant finding from the study? The one that should have informed the majority of headlines and reports? Of course it is. It tells us that families can structure themselves in different ways, based on the myriad factors that make up their unique circumstances, and find a way to similar, positive outcomes.
Is there any chance we can promote the diversifying of the family model instead of referring back to the way it used to be? Can we start promoting the choices available to families, and individuals within families, instead of pushing the narrative that traditional gender roles make one model the best option for the majority?
Media images and influence have a significant bearing on how families and individuals view themselves. The constant societal whispering that one way is preferred over another does limit the ability to choose.
Families are like fingerprints. No two are the same! I really hope we’re not too far away from a future where the diversity of individual families is acknowledged before traditional gender roles, before studies are discussed, before headlines are written, before funding is allocated in any direction. But, you know, for the time being…