Blurring the role of Mum and Dad

More Mums are taking on the role as primary breadwinner.
More Mums are taking on the role as primary breadwinner. 

Fifteen years ago, Philippa Armstrong and her husband made an unusual choice for the times. When their son was two and their daughter four, Armstrong worked full-time while her husband opted to be a stay-at-home dad, relying on her to be the family's breadwinner. He took care of school drop-offs, pick-ups and the domestic chores.

''It made sense for a whole lot of reasons,'' Armstrong says. ''One reason was that he had cancer when I was pregnant with our second child and he just wanted a complete life change. Because I was working as a librarian close to where we lived, it was easier for me, and it was the sort of job where the kids could come into my workplace,'' says Armstrong.

If society didn't always view them equally, their children did: ''If they fell over and hurt themselves, they looked to both of us for comfort. It's what they've always known; they're extremely close to both of us, and it was very positive in that way. They're used to their dad being completely accessible and completely involved.''

Armstrong may have felt as though she was in a unique position back then; now, she'd be part of a burgeoning trend known as ''reverse traditional families'', in which mum's at the office and dad's pushing the stroller.

According to Dr Jo Lindsay, senior lecturer in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University, women have made huge gains in the labour market, while more men are keen to play an active role in caring for their children.

The fact that she has become the major breadwinner has taken the weight off my shoulders, giving me more time to pace my career.

While 2002 figures put the number of families with a female as the main breadwinner at only 5 per cent, the impact of the global financial crisis and women's increasing education levels are likely to have seen these numbers rise in recent years.

In the US, more than 80 per cent of recession lay-offs have been male, with traditionally male industries hardest hit by the downturn. One outcome of this has been a shake-up in the divisions of family labour, with many men either balancing childcare with part-time work or staying at home while their wives go out to work.

The trend prompted one periodic stay-at-home dad in the US, Jeremy Adam Smith, to write a book: The Daddy Shift: How Stay-at-Home Dads, Breadwinning Moms and Shared Parenting Are Transforming the American Family. His research reveals that one-third of US wives earn more money than their husbands, and that men's time spent with their children has doubled in the past 20 years.

''Society is learning to see stay-at-home dads as a small but growing part of the landscape," Smith says, ''but that doesn't mean that they are universally accepted. Stay-at-home dads still experience incomprehension, scorn and isolation.''


In his case, ''our friends and other people our age simply accepted it. Nobody thought it was odd … [but] nobody pinned a medal on my chest either. People of the older generation were very ambivalent. A female relative sent an email to me, my parents and wife's parents telling me how irresponsible it was that I wasn't working every day to support my wife so that she could stay at home with our son.''

According to Relationships Australia's Ingrid Sturmey, there are challenges for both men and women in these arrangements. ''Men may start to feel their loss of identity and power in the bigger world. [But] what they gain is a tremendous connection with their kids. Women, on the other hand, can feel threatened by that connection when the children run to daddy for comfort, rather than to them.'' It's most likely harder, she points out, for a couple that doesn't choose for this to happen but is forced to adapt to economic pressures.

''If you're a man who's sitting down in a cafe at 11.30am with a child in the stroller, and seeing other men in suits doing deals over spreadsheets, you can suddenly feel sidelined from the main action. Men still win respect and acceptance from other men through being productive or having status among other men, not through being caregivers at home,'' she says.

This doesn't seem to be the case for Kate Beddoe, 39, and her husband, Damian Beullens, also 39, who have two sons, 5 and 3. Beddoe, a former lawyer who lives in Brunswick, works as the group general manager in risk and sustainability for Amcor Limited. Beullens, who once worked in customer relations, has been home full-time for the past year.

''Financially, it made sense, and my husband wasn't in a career-fulfilling role. But our situation works because I have a really flexible employer who allows me to work from home two days a week.''

Day-to-day, the arrangement works well. Beddoe says the main reaction her husband gets is ''envy, especially from other men. They wish they'd had the opportunity to do what he's doing.'' Her only concern is for the future, ''when I think about the social risk, and ask questions like, 'Are the kids getting enough time with their mum? What sort of role models do they have? Will there be a bad social impact in years to come?' ''

Rosetta Lee, 36, from Sydney, has been married to Edward Ng for 11 years, with two daughters, 7 and nearly 1. The owner of the Kam Fook Group, she has been running restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne for eight years. Her job involves long hours, requiring her husband - who has his own business, but fewer work hours - to be far more involved in domestic life than she is able.

''My husband is really good and really supports my career,'' she says. ''We have a lot of sharing of work in the family. He does school pick-up and cooks at least once a week; he can do better ironing than me. But I think if I'm a working mum, my kids will learn a lot from me. It's a good role model.''

The most tension, she says, comes from outside the immediate family. ''My father-in-law and my mum always think I work too hard, and they always suggest that I spend more time with the kids. I tell them that quality is more important than quantity.''

And even though she is the primary breadwinner, Lee still can't give up all the traditional female tasks. ''I still do a lot of domestic chores,'' she says, adding that she also feels some guilt when her daughter airs her own complaints. ''She might complain that I don't have much time to spend with her, or I didn't cook for a while. All these things make me quite stressed sometimes, because I do want to participate in some of her activities and do reading with her after school. The most difficult part for me is to struggle between work and family issues at the same time.''

Her husband, on the other hand, stresses the positives of their set-up. ''The fact that she has become the major breadwinner has taken the weight off my shoulders, giving me more time to pace my career, with [fewer] mistakes,'' he says.

From the start of her marriage, Lee told her husband that she expected to be a working mother. This was also the case for Caroline Ruddick, 37, who realised early on in her marriage that she would have to continue working to maintain her family's preferred lifestyle. ''My earning potential is higher through circumstance,'' says Ruddick, who has a master's degree and overseas experience.

When her son, Joshua, was born in August 2008, she and her husband, David, decided to share in his care for the first year. ''I had nine months off, and David had 15 weeks off.'' Until recently, Ruddick, who works as a marketing manager in brand strategy at, spent her days in the office - returning to their eastern suburbs home to a cooked meal - while David spent his day occupied with such tasks as pureeing vegetables for baby food or taking Joshua to his Gymbaroo class.

Adjusting to the arrangement was initially difficult for both parents. ''I didn't so much feel empowered by the decision,'' Ruddick says, admitting she felt guilty at first. For his part, her husband initially baulked at handling soiled nappies, ''but now he is quite proud of what an expert he is in tackling them'', she says. ''David will often say to me how much hard work it is, and how tiring it is, being home with a baby. Having been in the situation, I can appreciate it and support him. It makes me realise how nice it is to have a husband who understands from experience that looking after a baby is hard work, as well as being extremely rewarding. In most families, the father doesn't appreciate what his partner goes through being a stay-at-home mum.''

David, who has recently returned to full-time work in a small business while Joshua attends childcare, agrees it took him a little while to adjust to their role reversal. ''In the weeks leading up to my time at home, there were occasional pangs of anxiety … The main thing I struggled with [was] the notion that other people - certainly not Caroline - may have seen me as less manly at best, or as some sort of parasite at worst,'' he says. ''I knew in my own mind that what we were doing was absolutely the best thing for our young family … but there was a nagging doubt that not everyone would be as supportive [as Caroline].''

He acknowledges that it was easier to come to terms with his supporting role in the household because the arrangement was not permanent. ''Would I have felt comfortable long term with this arrangement? No.''

But he is less bothered by the discrepancy in their earning capacities. ''Realistically in today's world it is not particularly unusual for a husband to be in that position so I have found it relatively easy to reconcile this,'' he says.

According to Daddy Shift author Smith, more couples will be facing these new roles. ''Parents today embrace a range of ways to mix work and care … Stay-at-home dads have emerged because women went to work and job markets have become increasingly unstable. Families can't afford specialists any more; mums and dads both need to be capable of care and working for pay. There's no sign of those trends slowing down. Diversification [of today's families] is one way of surviving in a very unstable 21st century.''

In his own case, he and his wife always saw their roles after becoming parents as something to be negotiated. ''We never assumed that I was the natural breadwinner and she was the natural caregiver. It was always assumed that we would both have roles in making money and in taking care of our son,'' he says.

''This is very different from how families structured themselves in the past. I interviewed my grandfather for my book, and I learnt that it never would have occurred to him to go to his wife and say, 'We're becoming parents. What do you want out of life?' It was just assumed that he would stay at work and she would stay at home … Today, many couples have that conversation.''

Do you have 'reverse' roles? Discuss the issue with Essential Baby members here.