On my next day off, I will try the dad approach to childcare: focus on my sons, watch DVDs and let the coffee mugs fester

28th April 2006 at 01:00
You may remember that I am struggling a bit with my wonderful stay-at-home husband. It doesn't work like this in the films, where hunky men stay at home while their wives work and it doesn't seem to affect their relationship in the slightest. Somehow these high-achieving career women don't mind that their children seem to prefer dad to mum, or that dad is blissfully oblivious to the routine they spent two gruelling years on maternity leave creating. They don't notice that the rest of the world thinks you're an evil, self-centred woman who's forcing your husband to squander his life just because you have the temerity to want to maintain your career.

I used to think naively and arrogantly that my husband and I had got everything sorted, but the realities of swapping traditional gender roles has been more complex than I imagined. Try as I might to be fair-minded and supportive of my husband, there are certain qualitative differences in the two days that he spends with our sons, compared with my day at home with them.

I take advantage of any spare time when one of them might be asleep to have a quick Hoover, load up the washing machine, make a start on the never-ending ironing. If we have a walk we might go via the shop so we can stock up on whatever we need for supper, or pick up the dry cleaning. I wash up as I go along through the day. By the time my husband comes in from work, the house is vaguely tidy, supper is at least 10 per cent prepared and we've got the requisite nappies, washing up liquid or loo roll to get us through the next 12 hours without having to make a dash to the 24-hour Tesco. It's hardly domestic goddess material, but it keeps us on an even keel.

When it's dad's turn, however, I come in to contented children, contented dad - and a house that looks as if it's been on the receiving end of an atom bomb. Spontaneity rules the roost. Ad hoc is de rigueur. Somehow, in one day, we've managed to run out of everything. It's child-friendliness gone a bit too far. Having a domesticated, stay-at-home husband means, in short, that your children are brilliantly looked after, but when it comes down to it, even if you're working longer hours, it's still the woman who has to sort the house.

Do I try to address the issue and risk seeming ungrateful that my husband has put his career on hold in order for me to continue with mine? Do I make a few remarks about the piled-up dishes in the sink and end up ruining the end of the day with a tired, bad-tempered argument? The truth is that if a man stays at home and brings up his children, everyone thinks he's such a saint that they don't notice if the walls are smeared with peanut butter and the bins haven't been taken out for a week. He's the modern equivalent of that poster of the naked guy looking adoringly at his baby. I bet no one ever thought to ask whether he was doing the washing up as well as the childcare.

When a woman stays at home to bring up her children she's expected to cook every meal she eats from scratch, present her children like models for the latest Boden catalogue and run a home that's the domestic equivalent of a well-oiled machine. My husband actually had the cheek to tell me the other day that he never understood why I found staying at home so difficult.

Reader, I had to bite my tongue. Perhaps on my next day off, I will try the dad approach to childcare: focus on my sons exclusively, watch DVDs and read mags when they have a sleep, let the coffee mugs fester, and see if my husband notices the difference when he walks through the door after a day at work. Maybe there's a lesson here just waiting to be learned.

Gemma Warren is head of inclusion at a London secondary school. Email: gemmablaker@hotmail.com

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