Stay-at-home fathers face similar problems of social isolation as women in the same role but also grapple with stigma and suspicion.
Dr Bronwyn Harman, a senior lecturer in psychology at Edith Cowan University, said her research suggested men who chose this parenting role were able to shrug off teasing from friends and former colleagues.
“There is the idea for a lot of reasons that mothers should stay home and nurture and fathers should be the breadwinner,” Dr Harman said. “The fathers didn’t have much self doubt about that, they still felt masculine and that they hadn’t lost masculinity, and they felt they were doing a good job of being a stay-at-home dad.”
Her qualitative research into the experience of stay-at-home fathers involved a study group of 10 men, all of whom were the primary carer to at least one child under the age of five, with partners who worked full time and earned more than $100,000 a year.
The most challenging part of the experience was the feeling of social isolation, “stuck at home with no one to talk to”, and Dr Harman said this was a similar result to her earlier research on stay-at-home mothers.
But the men also faced suspicion out in the community, with fathers being interrogated in playgrounds and bullied out of parents’ rooms in shopping centres. Once their role as a parent was recognised, they were often given unsolicited and condescending advice from mothers on how to parent. Dr Harman’s earlier research has found single fathers have similar experiences.
In one respect, I’m grateful to society for looking out for children but not every man with a child is a paedophile.Dr Bronwyn Harman
“In one respect, I’m grateful to society for looking out for children but not every man with a child is a paedophile, we're treating them too suspiciously,” Dr Harman said. “And all we’re doing by mothers being condescending to fathers about the way they parent is reinforcing the idea that mothers are the only ones who know how to parent and making stereotypes stronger.”
Peter Tos, from Thornleigh in northern Sydney, is a stay-at-home father to two daughters: Mahli, 2, and newborn Scarlett. His wife Rebecca is currently on maternity leave but will return to work as chief executive of a digital marketing company while Peter will stay home until their youngest child is in school.
Mr Tos said the social isolation was what he’d struggled with most, but he’d “made peace with it”. He was less career-driven than his wife and had experience helping raise a much-younger brother when he was a teenager.
Mr Tos said he was lucky to have avoided any active suspicion when out and about with Mahli, but was careful with his behaviour.
“For my own sake I try not to put myself in that situation,” he said. “I don’t get my phone out to take photos when my daughter is dancing or swimming because there might be other kids in the background and I always try to introduce myself, but that’s me going out of my way whereas I don’t know that women have to.”
Dr Harman suggested there should be more dads-only parenting classes and dads-only playgroups. “When you have classes both mum and dad present the mothers take precedence, fathers feel looked down upon as stupid,” she said. She agreed it was the flipside to what women experience in many other spheres of life.
Mr Tos said he didn’t feel he belonged when he went to his local parent group – traditionally called a mother’s group - at the early childhood health centre. The mothers themselves were “always lovely” and he wasn’t excluded, but the course design and facilitator's questions was aimed at mothers.
However, Mr Tos said he would prefer mixed-gender environments that were truly inclusive.