'I was an outsider': My year as a stay-at-home dad

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

I'm not asking you to feel sorry for me - getting to spend time with your preschool-age daughter is a gift, not a no-life sentence - I'm just asking you to join me for a moment of reflection on my strange journey into the land of mummies. 

I have never been a member of a minority. I'm white, middle class, public-school educated, and might even be a WASP, if I was a proper protestant.

And yet, by signing up to be a Stay-At-Home Dad (or just SAHD), I found myself in a very foreign environment. I was a stranger in a strained place, a man in a woman's world, and something my own father would have found unimaginably weird.

I'd been a parent before, to a son, but I'd worked through the early years of his life, which is one of my greatest regrets now that I know  what I was missing out on.

Not long after our delightful daughter was born, I was violently run over by the redundancy train and it soon became clear that paying for her to go to child care would be a waste of the considerable resources I was no longer bringing in.

To say I was excited about this career change would be like suggesting that any adult might genuinely look forward to watching Dora the Explorer. 

I genuinely love spending time with my kids, but it had always been a treat, not a task. I must admit that I immediately had some reservations about how I'd be accepted into a world that seems largely populated by women in work-out gear, who didn't seem to know where the nearest gym was.  

It turns out that I shouldn't have worried, I should have been petrified. I don't want to claim that men who spend their mornings at the local park, pushing their offspring on a swing are a tiny minority, but let's just say that if my daughter grows up to be a statistician, it will be because of the game we played every day where I would get her to count the number of women she could see around us and then divide it by the number of men.

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In these situations, which I encountered every day, I honestly felt about as welcome as an abattoir owner at a vegan speed-dating event. Indeed, it often felt as if the assembled gaggle of mums could see blood dripping off me, so quick were they to pull their children away whenever I approached the play equipment. 

I can't be sure that women are more suspicious of men than they were in the simple, innocent days in which I grew up because it's possible that the only thing that's changed is that there were no men at the park at all back then.

The weird thing is that I had always considered myself - the son of a single mum - as someone who loved the company of women and conversing with them, but suddenly I found I was the conversational equivalent of lock-jaw.

And it turns out that, while men almost always have the phatic fallback of talking about cricket or football or even, lord forbid, golf, this is often less effective with a group of mums.

There were exceptions to the cold shoulders, of course, but largely they were the mums from my wife's mother's group who I'd known for years. They took pity on me and invited us to coffee and ginger-bread gatherings, where I could sit quietly and carefully avoid defending the multitude failings of my sex as a whole.

Occasionally I would see a day-off dad in the park and latch on to him like a drowning man.

As the year went on I wore some mums down, perhaps through the ceaseless devotion of just being there every day and assisting my daughter's fearless fascination with the flying fox.

But it is a time I'll never forget, a time of holding outsider status that I'd not experienced since being a mullet-wearing teenager.

My daughter is in primary school now, and I still get that frisson of rejection when I do morning drop-offs, where the ratio still seems tipped against doting dads. Or when I take her to swimming lessons, or even football practice.

There's something weird, yet undeniably enlightening, about being the minority, briefly, in a supposedly male-dominated world. 

The plus side is that, after that year where it was the two of us against the world, I now know my daughter the way I used to know Star Wars movies. And possibly love her even more.