21st Century hands-on Dad…and loving it!

The latest research reveals that 11 per cent of Australian men have given up work to care for their kids. Carla Grossetti talks to Richard Rees about what it’s like to be a man in a woman’s world.

Seven years ago, Richard Rees, 44, worked as a horticulturalist in Capetown, South Africa. Although he loved his job and worked fairly reasonable hours, a lot of the work he did was physically demanding and the pay was decidedly average.

Now, on any given weekday, Richard still gets up pre-dawn. But instead of pulling on crusty old work boots, he’s more likely to be padding about the house in his slippers, coaxing his children to eat their cereal and packing their bags for school.

In 2003, Richard migrated to Australia with his wife Dawn, now 43, when she was offered a job as CEO of a major marketing and distribution company. Soon after, the couple made the decision that Richard would give up his day job to take over a fulltime parenting role for their first-born son Fynn, now 6.

“The decision for me to stay at home and for Dawn to continue working wasn’t something we had talked about before Fynn was born. We had never thought that far down the track. But it just made sense. It was a very quick decision for both of us,” says Richard.

Richard says he believes the resolution was a relief for his wife Dawn. “If she is not busy, she is not happy. She knew she would be more comfortable in the marketplace earning money and we both knew she could do a better job of that,” he says.

According to Richard, the decision was largely financial: Dawn makes about one-third more as a CEO than he did as a horticulturalist. But he adds they also came to this conclusion because their son Fynn was born two months’ premature and required a lot of extra care and attention, something his wife Dawn found difficult to deal with.

“It was the usual premature scenario. Fynn weighed about 1.5kg so they needed to insert tubes down his throat to feed him and he had to have hourly injections. He also had a double hernia operation, a tear duct ball and a multi-cystic kidney and all of that combined meant he really needed a fulltime carer and I was happy to assume that role,” Richard says.

“Dawn’s very gender, her predisposition to being the nurturer, puts her in a very tough position. It’s much harder for a mum to deal with something happening to their kids whereas a dad can look at it objectively. I could handle him better. I had a steady focus. I could handle all the necessary operations and be there and help and not be squeamish,” he says.

The September 2007 Australian Bureau of Statistics Persons Not in the Labour Force study revealed that Richard is part of a growing trend of men who have given up work to care for their kids.

In 1983, ABS figures showed that 2.7% of males aged 15-64 years who weren’t in the labour force said their main activity was ‘childcare/home duties’. In 2007, the figure had risen to 11% as more males than opt out of the labour force and put their kids before their career.

Though Fynn now attends a local primary school near their home in Cronulla, in Sydney’s South, Richard has again put his ideas about rejoining the workforce on hold since the birth of their daughter Gracie, 2, who now attends daycare three days a week.

Richard acknowledges there have been many positives to be gained by being a stay-at-home dad: he has the time to catch up with friends for a coffee and a chat; he has been a welcome addition to a local mother’s group with whom he calls on for support and advice; and, most importantly, he spends a lot of quality time with his kids. But despite other dads suggesting he has got a good gig, Richard reckons, like the majority of women who are the primary caregivers for their children, the reality is it is sometimes “a really hard slog”.

“You have to have a fairly broad perspective not to get bogged down in the mundanities of being a fulltime parent. A well-rounded parent would say to me, ‘Wow, good on you’. Younger dads say ‘You are so lucky.’ One or two say, ‘Loser’,” Richard says.

“About 10 per cent of dads last longer than six months in this job. I’ve done it for about seven years and while lots of other males come and say to me, ‘Oh, what a lovely job you’ve got’. Closer to the truth is that – like most women know – it’s endless work. Dawn works about 70 hours a week so it’s really up to me to keep the house clean, organise all the shopping and the cooking and ironing and the mountain of kiddy things that you have to deal with every day and it can be very emotionally draining,” he says.

Despite the figures which show an ever-growing trend for dads to forgo their career in favour of childcare, Richard says being in the minority has been a challenge and he is anxious to return to the workforce and regain his financial independence.

“It can be interesting being in the minority. When Fynn was little I attended a local mother’s group and I would be there talking about breastfeeding and childbirth and getting a lot of support from a sea of women. But now as the kids have got older I am alone for three days of the week pushing an iron around on the iron board and I sometimes think ‘What have I done? Was it wise to do this?’

“When I think about it I know my contribution has been immense but I need to earn some money now. It’s fine to be a pioneer in a growing trend but I need to get back into a socially acceptable framework. I know I have added true value to my children’s lives, but I am ready to do something else now,” he says.

Richard says his challenge now is to find a nanny that he and his wife are happy with so he can fulfill his dream of running his own nursery.

For more advice on being a hands-on father visit the DadInc section of MotherInc.com.au