Staycation Spring 2017 Masthead 2
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Daddy Disrupted

Emma Macdonald

Having a baby is a life-changing event for any parent— as well as one of the toughest jobs in the world.

But for those dads who choose to become primary caregivers while their partners return to work, the experience also often flies in the face of societal expectations.

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When Nikolai Jermolajew and his wife Kirra welcomed their daughter RoXi into the world almost three years ago, Nikolai was establishing his building business after more than a decade as a cement renderer.

Kirra, an exercise physiologist, had built up her own business, Capital Hydrotherapy, and the pair thought they could both—somehow—work in and around their new baby.

But because the birth of a baby throws predictability to the wind, just a few weeks into Kirra’s maternity leave, her fill-in left and she found herself having to return to work far sooner than anticipated.

Nikolai was grateful that a big project due to commence around RoXi’s birth fell through and the couple found themselves gently slipping into a new pattern. Kirra returned to her shifts in and around breastfeeding RoXi, and Nikolai held the household together.

“It actually turned out to be quite lucky that my building job fell through as we probably would have been in a bit of strife if we had both had to work…I suppose we settled into a nice little groove of helping each other out, and we have more-or-less stayed that way.”

Ace arrived on the scene six months ago, and while it is a bit of a whirlwind having two, Nikolai is happy being the homebody. While the family has adjusted to the situation with little fuss, Nikolai is far from the average dad.

Nikolai and RoXi

Nikolai and RoXi

Stay-at-home-dads make up only a tiny proportion of Australian family life.

According to data from the Australian Institute of Family Studies published in May this year, Australia has around 75,000 families with stay-at-home fathers. While this figure seems significant, it represents just four percent of two-parent families. In comparison, stay-at-home mothers comprise 31 percent of two-parent families. In the remaining two-parent families, 57 percent have both parents working and seven percent have neither.

Australian National University Professor Lyndall Strazdins is an expert on families, households and gender. She says that it is not just stay-at-home-fathers who are a rare breed, but stay-at-home-mothers are becoming increasingly scarce as the number of women returning to work—or part-time work—after having a baby follows decades of steady increase.

“The whole notion of having a stay-at-home parent has become enormously complicated in Australia. It now requires at least one good income to support the parent not working, or otherwise it involves financial sacrifice on behalf of the parents,” says Professor Strazdins.

While it would be an important step on gender equity grounds, Professor Strazdins does not see any impending economic or cultural circuit-breaker which will make it easier for men to shed the shackles of primary wage-earning status. And while this continues to be the norm, men will be forced to sacrifice family time—and often their wellbeing— for long hours on the job. Meanwhile, the pressure remains largely on women to take on part-time roles in order to find the hours to fill the primary parenting role.

“We are really stuck in the old way for working. It is difficult for both men or women to crack out of it.”

Using Census data, the Institute of Family Studies tracked stay-at-home fathers over the two decades to 2011, finding they increased off a very low base in 1981 before plateauing in about 2001.

Fathers who do take the leap from their day jobs, to one which involves 24-hour care, are not only bucking an entrenched Australian male breadwinner model, but then subjecting themselves to the same economic penalties that face women when they take time out of the workforce to have babies.

“Just like women, men will sacrifice career progression and superannuation savings if they take time out to care for kids. So it is not something to be ever taken lightly,” says Professor Strazdins.

But that’s not to say there aren’t considerable personal benefits attached with being a full-time dad.

Nikolai and Ace

Nikolai and Ace

Patrick Pentony was always open to the concept of looking after children while supporting his wife to become a doctor. When Peta became pregnant with their first son William, the couple relied on an au pair to allow Peta to complete her specialist studies and Patrick to continue working at his family-owned organic farmer’s market, Choku Bai Jo. Patrick got his first real taste of being the primary care-giver when Peta did a four-month secondment in Sydney, leaving him and William in Canberra to lessen the disruption. By the time Angus was born, Patrick and his brothers had sold out of the business and the family moved to Coffs Harbour where Patrick became a full-time dad.

Now the family is in Leeds in the United Kingdom, where Peta has just completed her specialist training and Patrick looks after William, now five, and Angus, two.

“I always said that I would be a stay-at-home dad while my wife made the big bucks. Little did I know just how hard it can be. And I’m still waiting on the big bucks!” he noted wryly.

But he also reflects in the joys of watching his two boys grow and his ability to “spend real quality time with them”.

Both Patrick and Nikolai spend their days immersed in the minutiae of raising little people. It is a schedule of feeding, sleeping, walks, school and day care pick-ups, after-school activities, housework, cooking and cleaning.

It has its joys and its hardships.

According to Patrick “my mates without kids are jealous, my mates with kids praise me”.

Nikolai says he has never felt stigmatised by his status. “I have never felt any negative emotion toward Kirra being the ‘bread winner’… I have always wanted to be an involved dad,” he said.

“My mates have a stab every now and then but it is all in good fun. Some have even said they hope they can do a similar thing when they have kids.”

“I don’t know if I’d go so far as feeling ‘valued by the community’ but I definitely get favourable looks from strangers when I am out with the kids.”

Not all men do, however. Professor Strazdins say many face social isolation as they struggle to fit into mother’s groups and an overwhelmingly feminised care-giving community.

“The normative world of women and children can be hard for men to fit into. There is a layer of anxiety around men and children which can make dads feel awkward in some situations—as unwarranted as that may be.”

This has certainly been the case for Americo Alvarenga, a Californian-born writer who has settled in Canberra with his public-servant wife Ruth, and is the full-time carer for eight-month-old Clarke.

Americo said fatherhood had turned out to be “the most amazing, scary, exhausting, exhilarating” thing he had ever experienced.

But settling into a new city had left him a little isolated and he often picked up on the “exclusive” vibe he felt in the presence of other mums.

“I have noticed the judgmental looks that I get from certain people when I’m out by myself with my daughter. Or the uncomfortable looks I get from some women when I enter a parents’ room or take my daughter for a check-up at the MACH nurses,” Americo admitted.

“I understand these looks, for the most part. A lot of women are either breastfeeding, or consider these locations to be a safe-zone. So the double-take of a man walking in is understandable, but once they see I have a child, they could at the very least acknowledge that I’m not there for some nefarious reason.”

Such judgement has kept Americo from going out to certain places “just so I don’t have to deal with people who hold onto antiquated concepts. That’s probably been the hardest part of being a stay-home-dad”.

He also feels a lack of support from his own parents. “They like that I’m with my daughter, but still hold onto an antiquated belief that the ‘man’ should be the one to work while the ‘woman’ stays home with the child.”

Professor Strazdin notes that in Scandinavian countries—where fathers have access to substantive paternity leave—it is far more accepted to see men in nurturing roles.

Patrick said he often felt isolated at home, but some of this was associated with relocating cities and having to start over in new social groups.

“In Canberra, I had a network of family and friends, and my mates from school had kids so we would catch up.”

Patrick also relied on the Facebook group Canberra Dads for information and support and similarly uses a medical partner’s Facebook page “for all us blokes with doctor wives.”

Nikolai says the bulk of his friends are not quite at the stage of having kids. So he saves his socialising for weekends or after the kids are in bed.

He sees a lot to love about his current situation.

“We never have to contend with the rat race. We get to spend lots of time with our kids which is a massive luxury not every parent gets—especially dads.”

But there is a nagging ambition he holds.

While Kirra stresses how integral Nikolai has been to getting Capital Hydrotherapy to where it is now, Nikolai wants to succeed on his own terms.

“I don’t feel I’ve really had a personal success yet, and I don’t want to die wondering what could have been. Either way, whatever I decide will be a while away, most likely once the kids are in school.”

Similarly, Patrick is aware that it will be more difficult for him to rejoin the workforce after a substantial break.

“I have a huge appreciation for all the mothers out there who have been doing this for years. I think it is way harder than they seem to make it look.”

Whatever the hardships, the three dads say their experience has been overwhelmingly positive.

So much so that none of the families have ruled out more babies.

PHOTOGRAPHY Martin Ollman

This article originally appeared in Magazine: Disruption for Spring 2017, available for free while stocks last. Find out more about Magazine here

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Emma Macdonald

Emma Macdonald has been writing about Canberra and its people for more than 20 years, winning numerous awards for her journalism - including a Walkley or two - along the way. Canberra born and bred, she’s fiercely loyal to the city, tribally inner-north, and relieved the rest of the country is finally recognising Canberra’s cool and creative credentials. More about the Author

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