For some families, a reversal of traditional gender roles has worked wonders
The social stigma still faced for some stay-at-home dads
“I’m constantly wiped out. My sleep patterns are shot, and whenever I feel like my work is done, something else happens and I have to roll up my sleeves again. I’m run ragged. I sometimes go entire days without having an adult conversation and everyone thinks I’m weird when I tell them what I do for a job. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Jeff Baynes is 42-years-old and firmly believes he has the best, most important job in the world, despite the long hours and the fact he doesn’t receive a salary. He is a stay-at-home dad – one of a growing number of men who have taken on a life-changing role that society has traditionally placed on the shoulders of women. And he is adamant that this domestic situation should be normalised.
“Why is it that practically everyone I meet or talk to thinks I’m odd?” he sighs. “Who’s to say that my children would be better off being brought up by their mum or a nanny? For our family, this was the most sensible choice and we’re really happy with the way it’s worked out.”
Baynes, who lives in Dubai and has been based in the UAE for nearly four years, says his wife is a legal professional who has always brought in a bigger salary than he could muster in his previous sales roles. “We left the UK for Dubai because she was offered a substantial promotion and a very generous package of benefits,” he says.
“So in many ways we’ve had it easier than other families, to allow me to do what I do. I did go through periods of doubt when I left my job, which was straight after our daughter was born, not really confident I’d be any good at this parenting business. But I’ve approached it like any other job and just got on with it.”
Their daughter is 18 months old, and he says it still feels odd for him to wave off his wife as she leaves their villa for the office, but he is stressing less as time goes on. “We did the maths and it didn’t make sense to either of us to pay for childcare, which would have basically wiped out my earnings,” he explains. “And we’re both firmly committed to bringing up our children [they’re planning to have a second child in the next two years] with complete care and attention. With all the will in the world, nobody apart from a parent can provide that.”
It is estimated that there are at least half a million fathers bringing up their infants in the United States, but figures for the Middle East are difficult to come by. “I know of one other dad in my situation here,” Baynes says.
“There’s a social awkwardness about being a man whose wife is the breadwinner, and my own father can’t get his head around our decision. He just thinks it’s not right, but we have to do what’s best for the kids. As for my career, that’s on hold and maybe I’ll go back into it when the children are older, but we’re not worrying about that just yet.”
As any parent would testify, there is no training course that can ever prepare you fully for the onslaught of bringing up your first child. The needs of a baby become central to your life and you have to adapt to their routines in ways that you would barely believe beforehand. It doesn’t get any easier as they grow up; it just changes. The importance of setting boundaries with children cannot be overstated, though, and any stay-at-home parent can, at times, go through periods of angst, wondering if their methods are doing harm or good during the crucial development stages of a child’s life. Being a parent is hard work, certainly, but the rewards can be incalculable.
For Norwegian expat Eric Teigen, being a stay-at-home dad was a matter of necessity rather than choice, after his wife died suddenly when their son and daughter were both very young. “It was 1985,” he recalls, “and her death was a real shock. Suddenly I was faced with both this horrific loss and the responsibility of raising two little ones. All my family lived many hours away, so I was totally alone, but the one thing that was in my favour was that I ran my own haulage company near Oslo and was able to hand over the day-to-day management to a colleague I completely trusted.”
Teigen says that the hectic life of a single parent was a saviour of sorts, because his mind was constantly occupied – something he credits for him not spiralling into depression. “I thoroughly enjoyed bringing up my two,” he says. “They both developed into very well adjusted adults and have their own families now, and the closeness we have is something I would not trade for all the money in the world. We went through lots of tough times, but I always tried to make sure that every situation was dealt with lovingly. We ended up helping one another.”
One thing that took him by surprise, he says, is that he never felt compelled to go back to the workplace once the children were in school. “I just wanted to spend as much time as possible with them, and that meant taking them to school, picking them up, being at home when they were. So I sold my company and set up as a business consultant, which I did from an office at home. Whenever travel for business was unavoidable, my parents were able to look after the children, but that was fairly uncommon.”
The common factor with both these men is that they haven’t been blighted by money worries. In the UAE, the cost of living is high and there is little financial support for expats who fall on hard times. Add in the reality that men, on average, still earn more than women, and it is understandable that stay-at-home dads are in the minority. But as the gender pay gap narrows, the concept is becoming less strange.
In a recent interview with The National, Dr Walid Abdul-Hamid, clinical director and consultant psychiatrist at the Priory in Dubai, was at pains to point out that studies have proved, beyond doubt, that a father’s impact on a child’s development is every bit as important as a mother’s.
Understanding that will be key to overturning prejudices about a mother knowing best or that men are useless at looking after children. We are all equal in the eyes of a child, and with the pressures and burdens placed upon us by modern life, it is important for the interests of children to always be put first. For some families, that could mean mum going to work while dad cooks, cleans, recites the alphabet, tries not to tread on Lego bricks and binge watches Thomas the Tank Engine.