Stephen, whom I was introduced to through Bruce, seemed to enjoy the opportunity to discuss his time as a dad whilst we sat in the park beside his house, as the home renovations could wait awhile longer. A teacher and more recently the co-author of Man With A Pram: The Bloke’s Guide shared his views, in retrospect, of his time spent with his daughter.
Jules: Could you perhaps start by telling me the motivation to write your book, Man with a Pram…
Maya (his daughter): Do I have to stay here and listen to this?
J: No you don’t… [laughs]. You’ve heard what dad’s had to say?
M: [to her two guinea pigs in her arms] Come on.
Stephen: There’s an ant on your bum.
M: Dad don’t joke.
S: Seriously. Just brush it off.
J: So what was the motivation to share that information. Why didn’t you just…
S: It was basically… a friend of mine is a male midwife, so we were having a beer, a sort of men’s group/meeting.
J: I’ve been to one of those groups called Beer’n’Bubs…
S: [Smiles] This was just us having a beer. [Laughs] We just called it a men’s group. We were just lamenting the fact that there’s all those books for women and they’re kind of like kryptonite to men, in a way. Do you know what I mean? You read them and they’ve got that sort of tone and it’s a bit sort of… I don’t know… soft and la-di-da. I’d just flip through them and think it wasn’t the sort of style that men like. So fundamentally we said, there should be a book for men, not so much ‘blokey’, but just a bit more ‘snippety’, that has the practical information and is maybe a bit funny…
J: You also described it as a ‘how-to’ manual.
S: Yeah, it’s a bit like that. And we also put in a load of factoids. Because the other thing is, I think I remember when my wife was first pregnant, going to this barbecue and all your friends are pregnant, and the conversation—it’s enough to scar an adolescent. So we put in a lot of other curio facts. So you could actually participate in a more interesting way. Did you experience that? Do you have kids?
J: Yes, we’ve got two kids…
S: There’s that phase when everyone just talks about breastfeeding…
J: …and you reach saturation point and you just turn-off.
S: It was a bit like that too so there lots of things about sex and animal behaviour and all that sort of stuff in it. Like one of those boy’s-own manuals.
J: Your involvement has carried across from writing the book, and obviously taking a great interest in the time of pre-birth, to post-birth and being a stay-at-home dad. You have two kids?
S: No, one.
Well, I think, unfortunately I wrote it [A Man With a Pram] after we had her.
J: Really? So, all in hindsight…
S: So we said, “Let’s do it”, me and this mate of mine. And it was like, we’re too busy to write a book, because we both just had kids. So in hindsight it was very good…
J: How soon after the birth did you start the real process of writing?
S: Oh, it took forever. The co-writer couldn’t do it, he actually… It actually came out seven years after. But it wasn’t so much motivation related. He’s got four kids. I finished most of my part and then he caught up.
J: I suppose what I was trying to get at with the question, was that I’ve got my motivations with this project; to show other dads that there others doing this not so common practice of being the primary carer. And not so much to provide direct support but more of an indirect kind. Was there a motivation along those lines to do the book?
S: I think the motivation is it’s actually quite interesting: birth. As it should be, if it’s presented right to men, then in some ways it is interesting. And also your partner wants you to be involved.
But I did find with a lot of these huge tomes that were left around the house… [grimaces and motions turning pages]. You kind of read it and you cop a bit of, “You’re not interested”, and so forth.
In fact the feedback we got through the publisher was lots of guys ringing up [the publisher] and going, “Oh, this is great, this is what we wanted—she’s asking me questions now.”
So it was just balancing out that sort of information with making it readable.
J: You mentioned needing to couch a lot of the book contents with technical terms, trivia and stats. Do you find you need to couch any of the single-handed parenting with a greater male element?
S: We didn’t cover that so much in the book.
J: Sure, but from your personal perspective?
S: Ah, back in the day. I think men are a bit more casual. I don’t know if you find that? You don’t have to feed the kids at a certain time and… that’s what I sort of… that’s the feeling that I got. With men things just… “whatever”, it’ll happen …and if you want to go for a swim…
I think women are more regimented…
J: From your experience…
S: At least my wife is slightly more regimented that I am [smiles].
J: How did you actually come to be the primary carer? What instigated that arrangement?
S: It just so happened that I was teaching graphic design at TAFE and I managed to be able to cram all my hours into two days, so then I had three days looking after our daughter. It was kind of cool. But it was two eleven hour days and then… I was brain-dead. You are brain-dead when you look after kids of that age [both laugh]. So the next few days I‘d look after her.
J: What age was your daughter then?
S: I think my wife went back to work after six months [from daughter’s birth]. For about two years. It varied; some school terms it would change but they [the college] were quite good because they’d shove all my hours into a short amount of time. So it was quite good. You’ve done that haven’t you?
J: I’ve been doing it and still do. Now two days a week, but initially five days a week—literally from the birth of our first.
S: I must say that the company thing; occasionally you’d meet another guy in a park, and it’s like, “Great!”, “How are you going?” [laughs]. But towards the end of it I was totally over parks—going to them. You know that sort of hanging out in park thing that you do.
J: How long did it take you to reach this point?
S: [Smiles] It didn’t take long. By the time she was just about to go to day care, it was like, “Thank God for that!”, because I couldn’t go to another park and talk about breastfeeding and whatever the conversation was at the time.
It was a good experience really, because I’m pretty close to her. I’ve got friends who are doing the ‘nine-to-five’ and it’s not something…
Those years that you have [together], they’re pretty special. It’s pretty unusual to be able to do it.
And despite the fact that I was saying that I was a bit brain-dead sitting in parks—it was pretty special—because I am close to her now and we’re good mates.
The whole idea that you do your ten-hour day, by the time you get a bus to work and so forth, and you get home and the kids are going to sleep [shakes his head].
J: You’d miss out on a lot.
S: Yeah, you would. It’s a great time. Every age is good really. And I think, particularly back at that age, when they’re one, two even three.
J: How did your wife, Sonal, feel about going back to work and handing over the reigns, so to speak?
S: Well, it was actually quite good because the two days that I worked—she teaches as well—she’d have the afternoons or the mornings off. So we wrangled it that way. And then we’d get the grandmother in.
J: So she was quite happy with the arrangement as well?
S: Yes, she was. She’s the sort that really needs to work—finds it mentally stimulating. It was quite equal.
J: It wasn’t born out of financial necessity? Sonal being the greater bread-winner?
S: The lucky thing about teaching jobs is that, especially adult teaching, it’s very flexible. You’ve got marking, but that’s only every five weeks or something. So we were very lucky that we could… one [of us] could do one time and the other… It obviously got hectic. I remember, it’s the same for everyone, there was almost a pass-over at one stage. She’d finish and then I’d hand over our child, “See you in five hours…”. But it was good.
J: If you cast your mind back do you think, especially to the earlier days, was it more of a challenge or more of a reward?
S: Oh, definitely a reward. Obviously you have your good days and your bad days. But I think at times I just actually thought—despite I keep going back to these parks—but I’d go down to Maroubra, or somewhere, and think, “Actually this isn’t that bad. I really need to make the most of this”.
The other thing I realised is, if you’re going to be with them—if you’re looking after them, there’s no point in trying to do work… to a certain extent. Which is what I tried to do. I had some project going—but you don’t do that because you just get so annoyed because you’re always interrupted. In the end I just went, “Right”, if I’ve got her for six hours, or whatever it is, I just totally commit to it and I’d just do whatever I have to do after.
J: I’ve spoken to quite a few dads, and I know from my own experience, that that’s very important. If you don’t devote 100% of your attention to the kids and you try and do something you need or want to do…
S: It’s just frustrating. Yep, so you sort of have to go with the flow really.
And I had to say, “Here I am at the beach on a weekday having a swim”. It’s actually not that bad.
J: So during those early days you did work part-time?
S: Sort of, it was a full-time load over two days. It was two eleven hour days. I think I even did a couple of evenings as well.
J: How did your family react to your new role—the break with traditional roles?
S: They were fine really. We don’t actually have a huge amount of family here really. So I think my mum… she was very good with it. All grandparents are. She did a lot of the looking after and stuff.
J: And your wife’s parents?
S: They‘re in England so…
J: Do you know what they’re perception of it was though?
S: I don’t think they really knew to be honest with you.
J: It wasn’t important for you that they knew what the situation was?
S: No, I don’t think she specified to them that I was looking after Maya three days. We didn’t regard it like that. It was just how we fitted it around work.
J: I’m just interested in how people perceive the role of men being the primary carer and whether they accept it or not. In some parts of society, it’s not so much frowned upon, but there’s a stigma attached to it.
S: Oh there is, for sure. I don’t think we… I can’t remember there being any issues with it. Or if there was nobody told me.
J: Have you personally had any issue with it from others?
S: I guess at some stages you did think…
J: A sideways look?
S: No, no… [hesitates] I was always sort of glad that this wasn’t going to go on forever because you want to get back on to your career and such. But as I was saying, at the end of that stage, I was ready to sort of [motions as if to ‘move on’].
No, I didn’t think there was too much stigma over it. I think it’s getting more popular now though.
J: I think so, but we’re still a minority.
S: I think it depends on the suburb because I’d go up to Newtown and there would be loads of dads. Whereas, you know, in Maroubra and so forth it didn’t seem to be so many.
J: And I wonder about in regional areas as well. When I was looking up the title of your book, A Man With a Pram, on the internet, I came across a dads group in Armidale, called Man With a Pram too.
S: [Smiles] Original name isn’t it. I think that would be a great idea. I think that there’s a few around here too.
J: Have you come across any? That’s another thing because some of the dads that I’ve met haven’t found any…
S: I heard in passing on the internet, at the time…[hesitates] It would have been a good idea. I don’t know if I’m the sort of person that goes to those sort of groups. I suppose in retrospect it probably would have been quite good.
J: It wasn’t something you sought out then?
S: No. I did have another mate who, at the time, was doing a similar thing. So we’d hook up and take them swimming and so on and so forth. That was the equivalent I suppose.
J: How did you deal with the challenges, in that, if you don’t seek out others to share them with… If you were having problems how did you deal with them?
S: I can’t even remember what the problems were to be honest. It was basically feeding and sleeping. You just have to time it all right, I suppose. You just take them home and put them to sleep. I can’t really remember having too many issues with it.
J: Did you have any challenging moments?
S: Oh yeah, definitely. There was sometimes issues with sleeping, crying, walking around the block—that’s how I’d put her to sleep; walking around the block in a pram.
J: Thus the man with the pram.
S: Yeah, walking kilometres with this pram almost. Look, I think all that stuff you biologically erase from your memory, otherwise you wouldn’t do it again. But I don’t remember it being that bad. Maybe a bit frustrating at times and messy and so forth.
J: It’s also very important that we balance out this time with something such as our ‘work’. I think that you were fortunate in your situation where you could work a couple of days. I know of other dads who look after their kids five days a week.
S: That would be tough.
J: I know I hit a threshold point. I use this example sometimes when I was cooking dinner one night, the kids are screaming, the washing is on, I’m doing the dishes and I’m asking myself what the hell I’m doing.
I think it’s just about mental stimulation. It would be for women as well. It’s about talking to someone who doesn’t vomit on you.
J: Exactly! [both laugh] We need to interact.
S: Yeah but I think five days would be quite pressing because I actually loved going to work, I remember back then. Just talking to adults—it was like, “Woohoo!”. I’d jump out of bed in the morning to go to work.
J: Do you know of many other stay-at-home dads?
S: To be honest with you, I don’t, no. At the time there was another guy who was a journalist, his hours were flexible, he could work nights. In passing there’s a guy two doors up who’s always been the… in fact, no I do [know of others]. I know two. There was a guy who was an engineer, whose wife had a really well paid job so he just said… he really didn’t like his job so, “I’m taking two years off”, and he was pretty happy. He was very happy with that.
And there’s this guy two doors up who’s done it the whole time because his wife’s a corporate lawyer.
J: Do you feel as though we’re a growing number?
S: Potentially, I think we could be. Or at least becoming more flexible. Like that sort of share thing is potentially becoming more popular.
J: How does your daughter perceive that time you had together? She’s eight now?
J: Does she realise her situation was slightly different?
S: I don’t think they really process it. I’ve never asked her about it.
J: Not to be a male chauvinist or sexist, but the swapping of gender roles does come with its share of difficulties. Women have traditionally been the “carer” and men, the “provider”. Some would say we’re genetically programmed for these roles. Do you think this shift in gender roles is a good thing? Is it damaging in any way?
S: I don’t think it’s damaging. Just ‘horses for courses’ really. I guess there’d be some guys who’d not want to do it at all, depending on their drives with work and so forth.
J: Do you think your decision to be the primary carer has had any influence on your daughter’s long-term role modelling?
S: Yes, it could do. But I think we’re really quite close. And that’s probably because I spent all that time with her. So hopefully that continues through to when she’s older. I guess that’s when you want to be communicating with them on an equal level—when they’re teenagers and so forth.
J: I think a lot of good can come from it.
S: Oh, totally, I think.
J: I wanted to touch on your sense of identity. Now that you’ve had some years between being the carer and being back at work, what’s a typical definition of being a ‘man’, in your mind?
S: I don’t know. It’s really too complex to…
J: Do you think the change in roles has made you reconsider this?
S: To be honest I haven’t put too much thought into it. For us it was just convenient and it just worked out well at the time. And I wouldn’t regret it and it was a really good experience.
J: There was no sense of being emasculated?
S: No, not really. More just becoming a bit brain-dead as I mentioned before. But no, I didn’t really feel emasculated. Once you’d got over trying to do other things and you just concentrated on it [looking after the kids], it was kind of like, let’s make the most of this. So, no, I didn’t really perceive any of that.
J: Can you think of any particular story during your time as primary carer that will stay with you—a moment that was very special?
S: I just think there were loads every day. There were obviously moments that weren’t that special either. You’re just hanging out with them playing. I can’t remember specifically… I remember her falling out of the pram once and just catching her. That’s about it though… there’s nothing that really stands out.
J: On another note, do you think you’d ever write another book—perhaps about being a dad? Yes, but not on that though… there’s other things now [laughs].Tweet