In Australia, it’s been a great week to take a dump on stay-at-home dads

It was 6:15 AM and I was throwing a ball with a bouncy 14-month old when my phone started pinging.

My mates and family had seen the headlines. Stay-at-home dads are doing less housework, at home, than employed mums!

No way, I thought. This is a snake oil charlatan flogging a self-help book, or something.

I was wrong. It was the Australian Institute of Family Studies. It was legit — at least, on the surface.

But it isn’t the whole story. And that matters, because there’s a huge stigma around being a stay-at-home dad.

I was getting all those texts because for most of my friends and family, 
I’m the only stay-at-home dad they know.

That made it much more difficult when I first looked after my daughter, two years ago. I can still remember a family lunch where I outlined the plan. The immediate reaction was not one of encouragement. It was one of horror.

Can you imagine how it feels to have some terrific news, and make the exciting decision to share it with your loved ones, only to instantly feel demoralised?

I don’t blame my family. I get it — they were shocked. They thought I was committing career suicide.

But that reaction, more or less, continues to this very day as I look after two little kids.

This week, I was at the playground when I was told, “oh, you’re babysitting today!” It’s something I hear reasonably often. It’s well-intentioned, of course, but the subtle message is clear; mothers are the main game. 
You’re minding the shop for today.

Back to the lazy stay at home dads thing.

I’ve been a journalist for 10 years. And this is a brilliant topic. I went back to playing with the little one.

Later that day, I got lucky — both the 3-year-old and the 14-month-old were asleep at the same time. That meant I had a bit of time to read about how lazy I was, after I’d cleaned the benchtops and mopped the floor, and put the toys away. And hung the washing out. And put another load of washing on.

Turns out, when it comes to dads, kids, housework and data, everything is not what it seems.

Yes, stay-at-home dads do indeed spend much less time doing household chores than stay-at-home mums. Even worse, when a dad’s at home but a mum is at work, the mother will spend more time looking after the kids than the bloke who doesn’t work.

It’s understandable for stay-at-home dads to be wincing at those results.

But they shouldn’t.

Those figures are skewed by two critical factors, both overlooked so far.

Firstly, when one parent is employed, Average Dad will do almost 30% more hours than the Average Mum. That means Average Mum has more time, every week, to do other forms of work — including, yes, childcare and housework — in doing so, helping the dad who’s at home. In other words, the headlines compare apples and oranges.

Secondly, Average Stay-at-home Dad will look after older kids, compared with Average Stay-at-home Mum. This skews the results even more, since littler kids inherently require more looking after.

Does this mean stay-at-home dads do enough housework and childcare? Probably not. There’s always room to improve.

But does it mean those stereotypes — “Mr Mum fails!” — are justified? Absolutely not.

The results this week also showed the number of stay-at-home dads is flatlining. Is it any wonder why? Stay-at-home dads are forced to prove themselves in ways that would make people’s eyes water.

I know of one library manager who, when asked why there was no program for dads, replied that fathers simply weren’t interested.

That remark would provoke outrage if it were directed at, say, an ethnicity.

But that sort of thing is par for the course when you’re a dad at home. Again, I don’t think it’s done with any malice — but imagine how that feels to a bloke looking after his kids.

Headlines like those this week are a sensational sugar hit, but the underlying facts paint a more complex story. It’s one that stay-at-home dads can be proud of.

Tom Nightingale is a journalist from Melbourne, Australia. He looks after his two kids part-time, and he writes for DadStuff.com.au — a website for fathers.