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Is Ireland ready to accept house husbands?

DOES anyone ever plan to become a stay-at-home parent? Every time I find myself, on my hands and knees scrubbing the toilet bowl, with three days of ironing stuffed into the nearby hot press and kids due home soon, wanting hot dinners, I inevitably remind myself that this was not the type of work I had envisioned I would be performing after years studying at university.

Bluntly? I have never understood how anyone with half a brain would voluntarily choose to be a stay-at-home parent. The loneliness, the banality, the mind-numbing repetition of household chores, the thanklessness and lack of respect or wages make most other employments look attractive in comparison.

Yet, the current Mr Hunt disagrees. From his enviable – I think – 48-hour week spent in an office, with real people, no children and a decent coffee machine, he sees fit to lecture me on the benefits of being able to work from home, mind the kids and look after the house, all at the same time.

"When you get a job that will support us all in a manner we'd like to get used to, I'm going to give up work and stay at home," he insists. "Really?" I can't hide my scepticism. "Like a shot," he says, "I can't wait."

I suspect he thinks that stay-at-home parents have the life of Reilly. And if he ever got a chance to give up work, he'd be able to simultaneously write that best-selling novel, cook up gourmet meals; keep the house spotless – it's just a simple matter of organisation – while educating the kids.

But, as he's rather an alpha male, I doubt he'd be able to suffer the fact that his wife was bringing home all the cash – and, despite the fact that I regularly bemoan that, culturally, our society still sees men as bread-winners and women as carers, and that I call myself, proudly, a feminist, I do wonder how I'd cope with supporting a man who is contributing nothing financially to the home.

DOSSERS

But, increasingly, there are Irish men who, by choice or circumstance, are house-husbands or stay-at-home-dads. "Dossers" is the title a less sympathetic friend gave them.

"Would you say the same about stay-at-home mothers?" I ask her. "No, but that's different," she answers. "Aha! Caught upholding the macho, patriarchal status quo," I say. She didn't like that. She would consider herself a feminist too. But certainly for some women who would consider themselves liberal and modern, swopping the traditional roles, having a man depend on them for money, would be a step too far.

And there are other women, very successful professionally, who seem more than happy to support a bloke who chooses to stay at home. I know a few women in this position and I also know that many of their friends think they're being doormats.

But what about the men? The ones who stay home, while their partners earn the mortgage? Do they feel they're discriminated against? Or do they enjoy it?

If you were watching last Thursday's 21st Century Child on RTE, you would have met Frank Mahon, a plasterer whose work has ground to a halt post-recession. As a result, his wife Carmel returned to work in 2008 after her maternity leave and – after assessing the cost of childcare – it was agreed that Frank would stay home and mind their three boys; Colm, Stephen and Richard. We saw him looking very comfortable in the kitchen making cookies and doing the hoovering.

I asked Frank how he felt initially about being the main carer in the family. "Initially I think I was bravado-driven with a 'how hard can it be' attitude, but as reality set in (it took just 10 minutes!) I would have to say I was quite apprehensive – although both myself and Carmel knew it was the best option for us at the time."

He tells me that Carmel was always the main earner though as "the building trade has never been reliable".

GENDER

Frank says he was never a traditionalist where gender roles are concerned.

Some men get embarrassed when asked in public what they do, but Frank says: "I'm rarely in company outside of the family but when I do get asked it's along the lines of, "Have ya enough dossing done now?" And "When are you going to get back at it?" [paid employment].

"Looking after the three boys has been very testing at times, very difficult often, but always rewarding," Franks says. "It is far easier now than a few years ago when Richard was in nappies or being toilet trained – as this was the first time for us, with the two older boys doing all that messy training in a crèche environment – boys are lazy as hell!" he adds.

Personally, I believe that in order to become an unquestionable part of life that parents can decide between them who stays home with the kids – if either of them – compulsory paternity leave needs to become the standard. This would mean that fathers are involved with the rearing of their children from the get-go and get to learn the basics of nappy changing, burping, feeding and lullaby singing at the same time as mothers.

Latest figures from the Central Statistics Office say that there are now at least 10,150 who classify themselves as 'stay-at-home' fathers. However, it is probably higher as some men I know who work in the home did not say as such in the 2011 census – preferring to cite their earlier occupations.

I ask a colleague, who left a job as a diplomat (see Emaon above)to work from home while caring for his two children, how he is finding life as a stay-at-home parent. He's just "bathed the two kids, put them to bed and then cleaned up all the mess – while my wife was at her violin orchestra class!" "Grrr," he jokes. "Feminism has a lot to answer for!"

Another friend however, whose husband is a stay-at-home Dad, does not advertise the fact that she has a high-powered job while he minds their three children. Why not? "Because I don't want people to know what an inadequate mother I am," she tells me.

Despite the fact that her husband is happy to stay home, my friend is embarrassed that she feels she couldn't do what he does. "I'd hate to stay home," she said, "and I feel guilty about it every day. Many people consider it unnatural, that I actually enjoy working while my husband minds the children – but I'd go mad if I was at home 24/7, I'm just not cut out for it. I don't think any less of him as a man for doing it", she adds. "I'm just grateful that he does."

It would seem that old prejudices die hard and the belief that men should be the providers while women are the carers lingers on – even in the minds of the most outspoken of feminists. However, men like Frank show that times are changing, albeit slowly.

Yet social acceptance of fathers who choose to remain in the home as carers is essential in breaking down the old chestnut that the domestic sphere should solely be the domain of the woman. You go guys ...

21st Century Child concludes tonight on RTE One, 10.15pm


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