Among Australian two-parent families, only 4% of dads look after their children full time.* Surprising? Well, my family of four has operated under this minority statistic, with me as the breadwinner, for over a year now.
This is how it happened. Mid last year, I took the opportunity to take on my own business, moving from Melbourne to Sydney in the process, and work on this as a full time gig. This meant that we made the decision that I would work full time, and my husband Bruce would care for our six year old daughter, Charlize, and two year old son, Judah.
Michelle with her family – husband Bruce, daughter Charlize and son Judah.
However, getting to the point of making that decision was not easy. It was six months of an almost traumatic weighing up of the pros and cons – mostly because of my own neurotic emotional journey.* Sure, I’d read Lean In. I come from a long line of strong, independent women. I even managed to choose a husband who is secure enough in his own identity to actively champion me and foster my strengths.
But still, it was a big call – given 96% of Australian families work differently to ours. Here’s just a taste of what went on in my inner world…
GUILT. Of course, I instantly visualised my daughter Charli, aged 23, in a state of torment meeting with her psychologist. “My life is in shambles because my mother wasn’t there for me. Oh yes, she had a FULL-TIME job.” [Side note: If you ever meet my daughter, you’ll realise in about 23 seconds that she is an independent go-getter who is destined to rule the world regardless of any parenting mishaps.]
REGRET. “They grow up so fast!” **Silent scream** So, if I work full time during this period when the kids are young, I’ll miss this beautiful time together. I won’t ever get that cute toddler stage back (and it truly IS adorable). I’ll be on my death bed wondering why I ever thought working with another client was more important than hanging out at the playground with my most special little people.
COMPARISON. In my network of friends and colleagues, I can barely think of a handful of mums with young kids who are working full time with a stay-at-home Dad. As much as I tell myself I don’t care what people think, I realised in this process that I kind of do. I would hear in my head what I felt sure other people were saying in their own minds: “I could never do what you’re doing.” “Imagine missing out on that special time with your kids – it goes so fast.” “I’m worried she’ll lose respect for Bruce if he’s not working.”*
These reflections were equal parts tormenting and equal parts valid. And yet there were some glaringly obvious reasons for us to make the swap, including:
PURPOSE. From our very first date over 17 years ago, Bruce and I have been very upfront about what we feel called to do in life. Bruce is happiest when having a meaningful chat with one person, encouraging them towards their life purpose. I just want to change the world. No biggie. So, when Bruce was coming home from work saying he missed the kids and felt like he was missing out on their development, all I was thinking was “Really? GET ME OUT OF THE HOUSE. This to-do list of nappies and housework can never be crossed off. I just want to make a difference. Ideally OUTSIDE of this house.”
SKILLS. Without a doubt, Bruce is a better parent than me. He has oceans of patience; he takes the time to answer 523 daily questions. He is firm with discipline but also spends ages explaining the ‘why’ so our kids understand the reasons for the rules. Even after being woken at 4.45am, he still has the energy to give horsey rides before bedtime. I have much to learn in this space; it doesn’t come as naturally to me.
MONEY. Quite simply, I can earn more than Bruce. I’ve been the main breadwinner for most of our marriage. He studied for the first three years and then changed careers again, pursuing a mature age apprenticeship and working for peanuts for another three years. I was originally in a graduate position and then worked with not for profits – so it’s not as if I’m a high flyer. But when you boil it down, the long days Bruce spends doing carpentry on the worksite doesn’t add up to what I can do taking on a new client.
Eventually, we managed to drown out the other voices and look at what was best for our family. So, we jumped in and did the role swap. And we also threw in an interstate move – just to make it a little more interesting.
So, what does life look like with a full time working mum and a full time stay at home dad? The best thing for me has been getting my headspace back. Do you realise how much of your brain gets taken up with all the little logistical life stuff to keep everyone functioning? Of course you do! Groceries. Bills. Dinners. Washing up. Lunches. School notices (we are now glorified PAs for our firstborn!) Weekly swim classes. Vacuuming. Cleaning bathrooms (while astutely ignoring mould in the shower). Endless clothes washing. Car maintenance. Countless social activities (mostly the kids, of course). Struggle through to the end of the weekend, then hit REPEAT.
Now, I no longer bear the responsibility for most of these things! I don’t have to think about lunchboxes or dinners. At all. I’m serious. Bruce does the grocery shopping and he packs Charli’s school lunch each morning and he gets dinner ready for the family each night. I cannot describe to you what a relief this is. While I still get involved in with some of the housework and homework, it’s so different being the helper who chips in rather than the person ultimately responsible.*
I get to focus on two key things: doing my job and being a Mum.
Michelle’s daughter, Charlize and son, Judah, playing dress ups.
What an absolute privilege it is to have quality time with each of my kids. We are fiercely protective of our weekends and prioritise time as a family unit. I’ve also had to let go of how (I think) things ‘should’ be done. Bruce is far more spontaneous than me and only thinks within a three-day radius (yesterday, today and tomorrow).
Job flexibility was one of the critical factors for me, which helps to minimise the feelings of guilt and regret. I co-own a business and therefore have flexible hours so there are amazing moments with my kids in the middle of the day – and at other times, I’m interstate for a whole week and only chat via FaceTime.
We regularly check in to see if the current set-up is working. It’s incredibly important that we have open dialogue with one another. And it’s a conversation that never actually ends. We aim to drown out all the commentary and the comparisons and just focus on what’s right for our little family at each stage of our lives. Obviously, it’s not always practical or possible to change it. But if it is, then why not?
Very soon, we will be mixing it all up again. Bruce has been going mildly insane being at home all the time, especially as we are starting from scratch in a new city. Plus, who knew Sydney was so expensive? (Oh wait, everybody knew that. Yep, everybody told us that.)
As of next week, Bruce is going back to work two days a week. Argh. I have a sneaking suspicion I’m now back on the dinner roster.
Michelle started out as a PR gal, working in a Melbourne sky scraper and deeply committed to champagne lunches. About 12 years ago, she shifted gears to shake up the not-for-profit world with strategic planning, branding, communications and advocacy. Last year, Michelle became Director of The Future Leader Group to channel her passion for organisational development: cultivating emotionally intelligent leaders and culturally aware teams. She loves red wine, a wicked cheese platter and red velvet cupcakes. Oh and she also adores her gorgeous husband (married 14 years) and two cheeky children.
*(first paragraph) 1 Australian Institute of Family Studies: Stay-at-home Dads Fact Sheet, May 2017, https://aifs.gov.au/publications/stay-home-dads
*(third paragraph) 2 MASSIVE DISCLAIMER. I’m incredibly aware of what a privileged position we are in. To be able to choose to have a full time stay at home parent, regardless of gender. To have two people in a happy marriage. My absolute admiration to everyone out there making parenthood work in any and every situation.
*3 (seventh paragraph) I actually heard people articulate each one of those comments.
*4 (14th paragraph) For more on this phenomenon, Annabel Crabb’s The Wife Drought is a must read!