Matt is a stay-at-home Dad, or how he better describes it, a full-time toddler valet to Finch, his three year old daughter. Prior to this, Matt was a full-time subeditor at a news website and tells us why being able to stay-at-home was the best decision for his family, the benefits of this and how flexible working is key to a better work/life juggle.
Why did you choose to be a stay-at-home dad?
For us it was a purely economic logical decision. My girlfriend outearned me by some margin and without her income it would have been impossible to sustain our household. Although I was well paid at my last employer in terms of the standards of my industry (I was a subeditor at a news website), what I earned would barely have covered our mortgage. It would have just about covered the cost of hiring someone to look after our daughter, however. So the choice was either return to work and spend everything I earned on professional child care, or stay at home with her myself so we knew her carer would always be someone who loved her and had her best interests at heart. My partner would obviously have loved to have been the one to stay at home with her, but there was simply no way we could have made that work. Once that option was removed, the outcome was a no-brainer, really.
We are limited in terms of our flexibility as the pay disparity in our relationship and the comparatively low wages industry-wide in journalism mean that for any time I take out of full-time parenting to go back to work, the returns will just be swallowed up by childcare costs. Equally, if my girlfriend took a day off a week so that I could work for that day, the arrangement would actually cost us money rather than having any tangible benefit. This is frustrating, but I may be able to find some way of working from home once our daughter has started school full time.
What does work/life balance mean to you?
As the full-time carer, it means having enough time off from having a three-year-old constantly up in my grille to retain my sense of being an individual, with my own interests. Moving from working in a busy newsroom to being in charge of a child is a big change and I do sometimes miss the constant flow of information that made me feel plugged into everything else that was happening in the world.
She is adorable, but if we are stuck together for too long I get what I call 'The Woodpecker Effect'. This is where you have to imagine having a tiny woodpecker constantly tapping on your head. At first you are aware of it, but it doesn't bother you too much as it is so small. But it starts to tap harder and harder and becomes more and more disruptive, until eventually it it is all you can feel, it excludes everything else and becomes all you can think about. Being in charge of a three-year-old can feel like this sometimes, which is why I need a break occasionally, as otherwise nothing else gets done. It's also not good for her as she gets bored, or for me as I can start to feel like I'm just a mobile climbing frame with access to the food cupboard.
I have to balance my desire for free time with the fact that my girlfriend, as the family breadwinner, sometimes works long hours and feels like she doesn't get enough time with us as a family. So we compromise to try and give everyone what they need.
Fortunately my parents only live 90 minutes away and they are very enthusiastic grandparents, so we can usually get them to look after our daughter when we want to go out.
How did you feel about returning to the workplace?
I am just beginning to think about going back into some kind of work, as my daughter will be moving up from three hours of nursery to six hours in September. This should give me enough time to do some meaningful work from home, so I am looking at what's out there. I was recently approached by a potential employer about a flexible job which would fit those hours, and we will be talking soon to work out more details.
I've been out of the job market for three and a half years, so it was flattering and exciting to be approached, but also a bit scary. Having an interview – even an informal one – is inevitably forcing me to restart important parts of my brain which have been dormant for a long time, like someone trying to restart a car that's been left in a barn for decades. You wonder to yourself: “Can I still do this? Is it worth doing?”
It sounds like an exciting opportunity and I'm sure if it works out I'll be fine, but that self-doubt must be hard for a lot of people to overcome.
Should there be more male role models in the workplace who promote shared parental leave & flexible working?
Employers should look at providing more options and greater promotion of the idea, but most importantly they need to make sure those lower down the management chain have the power to make it happen. I feel employers often put forward the idea of flexible working from the highest levels, but team- and middle managers are less enthusiastic about the reality of it on the ground, due to the disruption it can cause in teams and workflows.
I have worked maternity cover contracts myself, before my daughter was born. Companies understand maternity cover more and deal with it better, as it is legally mandated and everyone knows about it. But paternity leave and flexible working are grey areas for a lot of employers.
So yes, male role models would be helpful to employees wondering whether this is something they would be supported in and to managers wondering if it is something they should prepare for. The more visibility the idea has, the more people will take it up and the slicker the administrative systems around it will become.
Why is it important for you to be a stay-at-home dad?
Even though our financial reality meant that my girlfriend was not able to stay at home with our daughter as she might otherwise have liked to, this way at least my daughter gets the care and attention of a loving parent.
I have been able to watch and guide our daughter from being a baby to a clever, rambunctious 3 year old with her own likes and dislikes and opinions on everything. It has been an amazing experience and I wouldn't have missed it for the world. It has also meant that I have been able to support my amazing partner in her efforts to further her career.
What would be your advice to other dads who would like to work more flexibly?
If you feel it would work for you, then do it. I understand it may not be for everyone, as not all workplaces would look on it kindly and not all fathers feel that they could miss out on opportunities and progression which might arise while they were away. But if you think your employer is evolved enough to cope with flexible working then have the conversation. The more men who do it, the easier it will be for those who come after them.
Do you feel that there is a negative stigma attached to dads who stay at home or leave work early to do the school run etc?
Most people I have spoken to have been incredibly supportive and even envious of the opportunity I have had to watch our child grow. There have been some who have questioned why I would choose to do it, but most understand the decision once you talk to them about it. Very few have been in any way hostile, apart from one who outright asked me if I thought it was unmasculine for a man to look after a child. I can't understand the logic of that. Surely if you are going to reduce masculine attributes to such simplistic terms, then short of drawing a diagram for them I can't think of anything much more obviously masculine than walking around with a child I helped make. Especially since in East London it is extremely hard to find mammoths to slay with my bare hands.
Public spaces and facilities have traditionally been set up to support new Mums and not new dads, do you have any experience of this?
It must be said that availability of changing spaces is getting better all the time these days. Most public buildings will now have changing facilities available for parents of both genders, and privately owned spaces are rapidly catching up. New-build shops and other buildings will invariably have them built in from new. So while in the past this may have been a more serious issue, as we move onward legislation and simple good business sense are helping open up more and more spaces to both fathers and mothers and their children. If there are any issues then I have invariably found staff will go out of their way to help, too.
The one exception to this is pubs and I fear this has less to do with attitudes or cost and more to do with the sheer difficulty of adapting what are often very old, listed buildings to take modern facilities. If the floor plan is set by the fact the building is protected, then there is very little that can be done except try and fit the facilities into what is there already. I used to work for a brewery and I know that pub companies are very aware of the value families bring into their establishments, and if they can do anything to help that happen then they will. But sometimes it simply isn't feasible and on those occasions you might find yourself changing your child in the back of the car or on a bench outside. It's the price we unfortunately sometimes have to pay for a good pub lunch in a pretty building.
But there is no excuse for being handed the key to a perfectly good disabled toilet only to find there is no changing table and every inch of floor space is taken up with stacks of chairs. As has happened to us in two separate establishments.
Pick three words that describe the juggle between work and family life.
When's Mum home?