What's stopping more men from becoming stay-at-home dads?

by Hamish Cardwell / 14 May, 2018

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's announcement that she was pregnant made headlines around the world. The plan is that after six weeks, her partner Clarke Gayford will take over as primary caregiver. But what is known about stay-at-home fathers in New Zealand? And what's stopping more men from stepping into the role?

With only weeks to go before the Prime Minister's partner Clarke Gayford is due to become a father, he said it felt like time was speeding up.

"I don't know if we'd necessarily thought through how it was going to work ... I mean, we obviously didn't know that one of us in our relationship was going to get quite a promotion."

On top of the usual pre-baby preparations, the couple recently bought a home in the Auckland suburb of Sandringham, moving in only a few weeks ago.

Gayford, a radio and television broadcaster and fishing show host, said boxes still dotted the place, and he's working through a list of projects to prep the house for the new arrival.

He said he was transitioning from "cool uncle" mode into taking a more keen interest in the practicalities of looking after children. Anticipation was building.

"Do you remember when you were young and the Christmas presents went under the tree too early? And you just would stare at them and think 'what's in there? What's going on?'

"It's like that now ... the reality's there that we're going to have a child, and now I'm pretty excited to meet it."

Mr Gayford was reluctant to be seen as a figurehead for stay-at-home fathers and said he wasn't special for stepping into the role - men have been doing it for years - but being the Prime Minister's partner obviously put him in a pretty unique position.

So what is known about New Zealand's other male primary caregivers? And how many of them are there? The short answer is: not much and no one is really counting.

Listen to the full Insight documentary here (27m):

Stay-at-who fathers?

Stats NZ does not have a definition for a stay-at-home father, and doesn't collect specific information about the group.

It cites the Household Labour Force Survey which shows that late last year, 3 percent of men not in the labour force listed looking after children as their main activity, compared to 19.3 percent of women.

Census data - though not directly comparable because it uses different methodologies and different collection processes - showed roughly similar numbers. However, these figures likely under-represent the actual number of men who are looking after children because they exclude people employed part-time, looking for work, and same-sex couples.

Brendan Miller

Brendan Miller, drinking coffee, hosting a weekly stay-at-home fathers event at his house in Wellington. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

'It's certainly the hardest job I've ever had'

In the Wellington suburb of Wilton on a bright Autumn morning, a coffee group for stay-at-home fathers is under way.

Brendan Miller, the host of this week's catch up, has been attending regularly since becoming the primary carer to his two daughters a couple of years ago.

Mr Miller said he had missed out on some of the important firsts in his children's lives when he had been working.

"It's just those little milestones like teaching your kids to be brave and to try something, and to see them try something and be successful."

But being the man at home was not without particular challenges.

In the past, Mr Miller socialised with his antenatal group. They were really welcoming, he said, but the reality was it was just him and seven mothers - who were having quite different experiences from him - and it was isolating.

Hayden Allen

Motorcycle enthusiast and primary caregiver Hayden Allen in Napier. Photo: RNZ / Anusha Bradley

Hayden Allen is a solo father of two teenagers in Napier who has had full-time custody of his children for the past two years.

At times he had to make do on the benefit, and said he had faced stigma from people in his community when they found out he was a stay-at-home father.

Taking on the primary caregiver role has been rewarding but intense, he said.

"We just stand here and we learn, and with every wave that we get hit by we get back up. And as long as we're falling forward that's all that matters."

Gender norms and pay gap deterring men from caregiver role

The gender pay gap looms over the discussion of the low number of families choosing a man to be the primary caregiver.

Stats NZ figures show that of the more than 34,000 parents who took up the government's paid-parental leave in 2016 only 447 - just over 1 percent - were fathers.

And on the pay gap the official data varies, but on average women earn between 9 percent and 16 percent less than men in this country, and the gap is even wider for women with children.

University of Auckland economics senior lecturer Ryan Greenaway-McGrevy said New Zealand, like the rest of the world, had a gendered approach to men's and women's roles. 

He said there was evidence that some employers looked askance at men taking time out to look after their children. 

He cited a US study from this year which shows that men who chose to be the caregiver were viewed in a worse light by prospective employers - even more so than people who had been fired.

"And that's really sad right because you can imagine a lot of men that perhaps want to spend some time out of the workforce to look after their kids are probably aware of [that] fact," Dr Greenaway-McGrevy said.

Left, Victoria University senior law lecturer Amanda Reilly. Photo/Supplied. Right, University of Auckland economics senior lecturer Ryan Greenaway-McGrevy. Photo/Hamish Cardwell.

Victoria University senior law lecturer Amanda Reilly said she would like to see New Zealand adopt a separate, ring-fenced entitlement for the partners of primary caregivers to take two weeks leave paid at the minimum wage, rather than the two weeks unpaid status quo. 

She said studies showed that families with men more involved in caregiving had a positive effect on women's earning power.

If the government is serious about closing the gender pay gap it needs to introduce this entitlement, Dr Reilly said.

Wellington stay-at-home father Derek Milne said he recommended men take the role, and had some advice for primary caregivers to be.

"Just do it, enjoy it ... it's easy to get lost in the minutiae of tantrums and nappy changing.

"But look at the big picture and remember to enjoy it because time moves fast and before you know it they will be up and gone." 

This article was first published on RNZ.

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