When I first told people that I was taking a year off work to look after my daughter they reacted in one of three ways. Women, and the more enlightened of men, were genuinely supportive. They were interested to know how I would approach it, and thought it was all very modern and lovely.
Other men were divided into two groups. There were those who tried to conceal their smugness and gave me a look that told me they were pleased I was dropping out of the man race to do the work of a woman. And then there were those that looked jealous and said: “So you’re basically going to take it easy and spend all day hanging out with yummy mummies?”
This does not reflect well on the male half of the population. I’m not sure what is worse: being so concerned with your fragile manliness that you relish any chance to feel you have out-machoed someone; or thinking that the key thing about childcare is the attractiveness of the other parents.
But men are complicated beings, and I can’t claim to be totally comfortable with what is, however you dress it up, a reversal of traditional gender roles. My own dear dad was very positive about my decision but, in offering kind words, described me as a “house husband”. Is there any bloke so unconcerned with his sense of self that he would be happy with this job description? But what else can you call yourself?
The most common term is of course stay-at-home dad. But that didn’t sound great to me either. Because, I decided, the last thing I would be doing was staying at home. Taking care of a child, however lovely she is, can be brain-mashingly tedious. I decided that if we didn’t get out and find interesting things to do, I would quickly wish that I was back in the relaxing bosom of the office.
Don’t get me wrong, I completely adore my daughter and value every minute we spend together. But before, my wife was usually around and she, if I’m honest, did most of the work. For the first year of my daughter’s life I mainly provided moral support and heavy lifting – a sort of parenting assistant.
So I did not make this decision lightly. When my wife had to go back to work full time and could no longer be constantly in control, we looked at other options. We decided against nursery because we thought our daughter was too young to spend all day every day fighting over toys and developing those perma-snot “kindergarten candles” from her nose.
We knew a few people with nannies and they swore by them. Some of them will continue to employ these essential members of domestic staff as long as the inequities of the global labour market make it relatively affordable. Possibly even when their children have left home.
So we hired a live-in. It seemed the perfect solution but wasn’t, for two reasons. First, it is odd having a stranger living in your house. I don’t think I had thought that through properly. A stranger in the house … all the time. Like a grown-up exchange student with no plans to leave.
But the second problem was worse. Our daughter was being brought up by someone else. At the risk of sounding like I’m the little girl that needs looking after, that just broke my heart. Watching my child toddle off to spend the entire day with someone I hardly knew seemed wrong. After a few months we could no longer convince ourselves we were doing the right thing and the nanny had to go.
And that left me. I had to get over the fear of being feminised into submission and take the chance to spend a bit more time with my girl. My wife had done far more than her fair share, so it was my turn. Before starting my new life as a homewardly focused father figure, I set myself a number of rules so that we would make the most of our time together:
1) No television.
2) Each week we visit at least one new place
3) Each week we try at least one new activity
4) Each day we learn at least five new words
5) We never do the same thing two days running
This was my plan and I was serious. We would not just muddle through our weeks. We would learn and grow together as we treated every day as a new adventure where anything was possible. And so four months before my daughter’s second birthday, my list and I took charge.
On day one of our new life together, my wife was working from home. My daughter made it clear who her preferred choice of carer was. “Mummy, Mummy, MUMMY,” she implored as I tried to stop her prising the BlackBerry from her crust-earning mother’s hand. I tried luring her away with The Gruffalo. “Mummy read it, Daddy NO!” At every opportunity I was reminded that I was a mere reserve player, brought off the bench because the star striker was needed elsewhere.
So we headed to the playground. Or at least tried to. When I picked the child up she wanted to walk. When I put her down she wanted to be carried. Up and down, up and down, up and down. Very little forwards. After 15 minutes we had travelled precisely 15 yards and I thought: I don’t have the patience for this. What on earth am I doing here when I should be at work?
Finally we got to the park where we relaxed and began the serious business of playing. I pushed her high on the swings and fast on the roundabout and taught her how to scale the netting to reach the high slide all on her own. We were having a great time and I could see the point of fathercare. Mother may know best about almost everything, but nobody teaches climbing like daddy. Then later, as I was making her dinner, my daughter pointed at me and said, “Mummy cooking” and started giggling. Great. I do all this for her and now she is laughing at me.
I was determined not to let her break me. Then on day two she was ill. Nothing serious, but enough to change her character. Normally she chatters away happily but that day she was giving off that awful whinge-cry-shout noise that other people’s children inflict upon you in restaurants.
I need not state how much I love my daughter. But after an hour, this noise started to make me feel as if a mad person was clawing at my frontal lobes. I needed to stop this quickly, so I searched for a solution. Any solution. I put a laptop in front of her highchair and clicked on the first children’s programme offered by the BBC iPlayer. I had never heard of Chuggington, but a cartoon with trains seemed promising. And so it was. The child fell instantly, blissfully silent.
Each time a 10-minute episode ended, I would hear an insistent “dis one, dis one” – a linguistically inaccurate but effective request for more. More was readily given and peace was resumed. Is this so wrong, I thought. What harm can be done in one day? And why should she just have to listen to me? She can learn just as much from a talking train.
The problem was that after a while the sound of this particular show became almost as bad as the noise I had wanted to suppress. This otherwise adequate cartoon – think modern-day Thomas the Tank Engine minus the charm and originality – has one unforgivable flaw: the characters are voiced by child actors. The theme tune is even sung by children, for God’s sake. This is madness. Why would you want to buy your kid’s silence only to be rewarded with the discordant mewling of other children?
So the next day, with my daughter back to her usual self, I decided no more. We would read books, visit museums and play catch. But as soon as I sat her down for breakfast she started: “Cartoons, cartoons, cartoons!” Great. On day two my no-TV rule was broken and here we were on the morning of day three and I had a child who was addicted to TV. Could I be doing any worse? Yes. Two hours later, I took my eye off her for about 30 seconds. By the time I got to her, she was perched perilously at the top of the steep stairs, ready to tumble down to the wooden floor several metres below.
So while I was judging other men for their unenlightened views on the merit and nature of caring for children, I was guilty of my own wrongheadedness. Looking after a child involves constant vigilance and responsibility; it involves the packing of many and varied things whenever you leave the house; it involves being able to cook while a child tries to climb your leg. It doesn’t really matter what you call yourself. And there is no point writing stupid lists if you can’t even remember to keep the stair gate shut.