Mums and dads swapping places when it comes to family duties

LIFE for Jenny Roberts is a fairly typical affair. At 44, she is fortunate enough to count life's blessings amongst her number. She is a successful career woman, a mother to two beautiful girls and a supportive wife to an extremely loving husband. Funny, caring and hardworking, Jenny is a loyal friend, an appreciated daughter and a much-respected member of her community.

In most respects hers is a typical family.

The Roberts live well, surrounded by a large extended family, in the same town in which Jenny and husband Gary were born. They go on camping holidays, the children are busy with sport and evenings out together are a rare and welcomed occasion.

Gary, who celebrated his 48th birthday last week, is a serious powerlifter with a love of the outdoors and a passion for cooking. He is also a stay-at-home dad.

While Gary is certainly not alone in this endeavour, the decision 10 years ago to leave his 9 to 5 job and become the primary carer to his daughters, now aged 11 and 9, while Jenny pursued a career still raises a few eyebrows.
But for the Roberts it is the only life they know.

"I decided to study shortly after we got married 18 years ago and we talked then about me pursuing a career," says Jenny.

"Gary had a good job but was not really passionate about it and was happy when we had kids to be the stay-at-home dad.

"He is a natural nurturer, he really loves to cook and is the provider of everything else in our family except money and I am naturally more career-oriented. It just seemed normal to us at the time but, of course, at first our families couldn't understand it. They have come around now though because they see how well it works for us and so many more people we know are trying it but it was an unusual path to take."

At last count there were some 150,000 Australian dads walking the same path as Gary.

It is small fry when you consider that of the 4.4 million children raised in households where one parent works full-time, 97% are being raised by women. But that figure of 150,000 is indeed significant because it has more than doubled in the past decade.

Social studies offer up the global financial crisis, the fact that far more women in this country are attaining university degrees than men and, of course, the desire of fathers to play a more active role in their children's lives as reasons for this growing trend of stay-at-home dads.

Men who make the choice to stay at home to raise the kids are often faced with challenges that are far greater than separating the washing and preparing the evening meal. There is a lack of the support structures offered to women through mothers' groups and school networks as well as the social stigma and feelings of isolation and entrapment to deal with.

"I think Gary was lucky because he met another stay-at-home dad at the gym shortly after and they have been able to support each other over the years," says Jenny, "but we know of some families who have tried and given it up. for a number of reasons.

"Some dads we know thought it would be a breeze with plenty of time for golf and their own activities but quickly learnt that was not the case. Gary approaches it like a job because it is one. He has a routine set out for each day making sure all the household things are done and dinner is cooked. In our house he is the boss and sometimes he puts too much pressure on himself to have everything just right but I think we are each doing what we love and that's why it works for us."

In a clear reversal of traditional roles Jenny is driven to provide financially for her family.

The Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Central Queensland University's Rockhampton campus, her role is a demanding one and success has not been an overnight sensation. It has taken her two decades, two degrees and a lot of late nights to work her way up the ladder and although she is proud of her accomplishments, she admits it would have been much harder had it not been for Gary ensuring everything was running smoothly at home.

"My dad was a very traditional man but he always encouraged his daughters to go out and get a good job so we could take care of ourselves," Jenny says.

"I always knew I would do something with my life. But as much as I need to have a career I am also driven to provide for my family and have strived to have a job that pays well to give my family a good life. That would have been almost impossible without Gary doing what he does.

"I do still feel a bit torn. I know I am missing out on a lot. I feel a bit superfluous sometimes because when I am away things go on as normal but if Gary is away for some reason there is a big hole in the house and that is really hard. I know that we will have more challenges as the girls get older because there will be some things they would rather tell me than him and I won't always be there at the time they need me but we will have to deal with that."

"My job doesn't define me. I am very conscious of the trappings of power and being caught up in my own importance. Luckily kids are a great leveler and I am still just mum when I get home."

Studies show that having a stay-at-home dad can have enormous benefits for both the children and father with a father's influence vital for the development of the child's mental and emotional stability.

"One of the things we've found is that men underestimate how much of a positive impact they have on their children," said University of Newcastle Family Action Centre team leader, Dr Richard Fletcher said. "The way they play with their kids affects how those children solve problems, how they fare academically, how they get along with others - it affects a lot of things in their lives."

While everyday Australians trying to reconcile the needs of their careers with that of their children are opting to think outside the square, the views and actions of society in general and our government, in particular, continue to lag behind.

Despite the fact that women are better educated, they are still paid less for doing the same jobs as men and are under-represented in positions of leadership. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, women are the main breadwinners in 40% of households yet the proportion of women CEOs in the top 200 ASX companies remains below 5%, less than 20% of state and federal parliamentarians are women and less than a third of Order of Australia awards are given to women each year.

Paid-parental leave for dads who want to be the primary carers - a given in so many Scandinavian countries - is either non-existent here or confined to a paltry fortnight. And although we may wax lyrical about the importance of involved parenting there are few incentives for employers to accommodate flexible working arrangements. It makes it harder for women on the career ladder and for men who do not wish to conform to traditional roles.

Harder, says Tara Neven, but not impossible. The mum-of-two and busy director of a rapidly expanding training organisation, that helps businesses use the benefits of neuroscience in a practical fashion, is a firm believer in opening the door before opportunity knocks.

Like most successful people she has used adversity to her advantage turning the despair of being stuck in the Pilbara with a screaming infant son and post-natal depression into a chance to redefine her self-image. It didn't hurt that she had tasted career success before motherhood and could recognise its intent even when it was still far in the distance.

When the family returned to Queensland and settled in Gladstone where her husband is an executive for a large resources company, Tara once again made a silk purse from a sow's ear, not only expanding her horizons but helping to start a company now at the forefront of understanding organisation and performance.

The thing that strikes you about Tara is not her success - the determination in her voice is not the only sign that it was always a foregone conclusion - but that unlike many powerful career women she makes no excuse for it. She has no guilt about being away from her children aged 10 and 7, no qualms about making her husband share in the household tasks and is comfortable admitting she has help from a part-time nanny and cleaner.

"It is about being present in the moment," she says.

"It is one of the things we teach in our neuroscience course and I apply it to my everyday life. So when I am in a business meeting or on the phone I am only thinking of the task I am performing. When I am with my children I am 100% focused on them, I am in the moment. We have great conversations about what is going on in their lives. I try to pick them up from school so we can talk in the car and we talk at bedtime. I make every effort to stay connected with them but it is good for kids to know that mum is doing what I want to do. - it is definitely not to their detriment.

"If I am not doing what I love doing it is not a good message to send to my kids. I have a daughter, I want to show her the possibilities that exist for her. I am fortunate that my husband is so good with the kids and does the tasks that are his responsibility. He comes from a very traditional family where women have very specific roles but I managed to beat that out of him early on. But it is not a perfect science, we take each moment, day, week and work through it."

One of the reasons women fail or sometimes feel like they are torn between family and career is because their expectation is that it is possible to do everything perfectly all the time, says Tara.

"I had a sociology lecturer at university who said, 'tell me anyone who can keep three balls in the air at one time'," she says.

"I think of those balls as physical health, finances and career and family and relationships, there is no one who is not struggling with one of those areas in their lives at any given time. As soon as you realise and accept that you are never going to keep all three balls in the air for more than a few seconds your life will be easier.

"I know what I want in life. Kids are a part of it but not the only part. It takes a lot more effort to do the things I want to do in my life. I want to build an amazing business, I want to be on boards and support charitable causes, I want to be a great mum and a great wife. I am not going to be perfect at all of them all the time but having kids was never going stop me from having a career."

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