What rights do stay-at-home-dads have?

Charles Hull, a 39-year-old from the South East, has been a stay-at-home dad for the past seven years. For him, the decision was easy: “It was the only thing that made financial sense.

We agreed it would be beneficial for the children to have a parent caring for them. My wife could only have six months off her job as an orthopaedic surgeon, as any more would render her a liability in the operating theatre on her return. She was on the verge of becoming a consultant, while I was a teacher in a secondary school.”

When the children were young, Charles was a full-time dad. Now they are four and six he juggles caring for them with part-time work from home. However, he remains the primary carer for the children.

Charles is one of only a tiny minority choosing this route; the government estimates there are just 200,000 men who stay at home to look after their children, compared with two million mums.

He says: “I’ve absolutely no role models and no one at all I can identify with. Just watching people’s faces change colour when I tell them what my wife does and what I do calls for a double dose of Prozac.”

What rights do fathers have?

Most men in the UK struggle to take even a couple of weeks off after their child is born. A recent report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission found 45% of dads fail to take paternity leave, although they have the right to this time off.

They can take up to two weeks’ paternity leave, but it has to be taken in one block. Statutory paternity pay is currently £123.06 a week or 90% of average weekly earnings, if that’s less. However, paternity leave is expected to increase to six months (three paid) in April 2011.

Fathers currently also have the right to request flexible working at any time while their child is under 16 – just as mothers do. Anyone applying for the leave must submit a request in writing to their employer, and be able to defend the practicalities of how it would function.

The employer can only refuse if there’s a good business reason for doing so. However, the vast majority of people working part-time are women. Almost half of all women work part time, compared with one in six men.

Why don't more take advantage?

So what’s stopping men? Some argue that it’s society’s insistence that men conform to conventional roles. The Children’s Mutual surveyed stay-at-home dads and found that although nearly two thirds said they are satisfied with the role, 53% feel they face challenges and even prejudice for choosing this route.

Neil Johnson, a 31-year-old stay-at-home dad from Bournemouth, agrees: “The masculinity thing can be a big issue for some dads: no wage slip and very little praise, plus there’s so much hard work involved in running a home.”

According to Lisa Wynn, founder and chief executive of Coaching for Dads, in many cases it’s not the attitude of the father that makes the difference, but that of the mother.

She says: “When a woman has kids, there’s often a tacit understanding that she’ll take time off work to be with the children. It’s very difficult emotionally for men to challenge this assumption and ask to share the caring responsibilities.”

All about the money

For some men, the societal pressures are not the issue: it’s all about the money. The Equality and Human Rights Commission found that the most common reason men don’t stay at home is that they can’t afford to.

Wynn agrees this is true for most of the men she works with. “For many, the over-riding concern is money,” she says.  “Men often stay at work because they earn more, and they can’t see how they could afford not to be the main breadwinner.”

In the vast majority of cases where men have decided to stay at home, it’s because their wife earns more. This is the case for Charles, and for Neil too. “I decided to be a stay-at-home dad because the childcare we had for our firstborn wasn’t adequate, and also my wife earned a lot more than me,” he says. “It seemed sensible for me to stop working.”

Others may be able to afford the reduced income in the short term, but are worried that taking time away from work could harm their career. This is one of the reasons why many are reluctant to ask to work part-time too.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission study found two-in-five men fear that asking for flexible working arrangements would result in their commitment to their job being questioned and would negatively affect their chances of a promotion.

Wynn says: “Fathers feel that they will be looked upon unfavourably at work or forfeit their promotion if they ask for flexible working opportunities, especially in the current economic climate. Many are too focused on keeping their job to be able to consider asking their employer for a change.”

Changing attitudes

However, attitudes in the workplace are slowly changing. The number of organisations offering staff the opportunity to work flexibly has almost doubled over the past six years, according to the latest Workplace Employee Relations Survey.

A survey by IRS Employment Review found just under half (48%) of employers reported a rise in the number of staff working flexibly over the past two years. Reasons included an increased number of requests (32%); a more relaxed attitude towards flexible working in the organisation (23%); legislation (18%); and a greater need to cut costs (8%).

The Children’s Mutual figures back up these findings. Following the birth of their children, a quarter of dads decide to work part-time and a quarter start working flexibly, while 14% of dads stop working outside the home altogether.

Neil too says this reflects his experience: “The role of carer is still predominantly taken up by women, but that’s changing. I know many stay-at-home dads from the play places we go to, and in the two years I’ve been at home there has been a noticeable change in attitudes. More and more men are in positions where they can spend more time as an active child carer.”

The trend has been emphasised by the recession. Paul Monaghan, a 41-year-old dad and designer from south London, was made redundant in January 2009 and became a stay-at-home dad.

He explains: “I did a fair bit of research into the jobs market, spoke to agencies I had used in the past, and checked the usual places for job adverts, but there was just nothing out there for me.

"At the same time, my wife was working part-time and had the opportunity to increase her hours to four days a week. She has a very good career and is very successful, so it seemed the logical thing to do was to swap the household around.”

Paul’s daughters are four and seven, so one is at school and the other is at nursery for a couple of hours every morning. Paul established paulmonaghandesigns.co.uk, and works in the mornings and on Fridays, when his wife takes over the caring responsibilities.

He says: “It works very well for us, and as long as my freelance work continues to do well, I don’t see why I’d ever have to return to the workplace. Back when I was working long hours and doing a long commute I used to feel I was missing out on seeing the children; now I get to spend a good amount of quality time with them both.”

Quality family time

This juggling of responsibilities between couples is increasingly common. Matt Carr, a 38-year-old graphic designer from Sussex, went freelance when his eldest daughter was a year old, which enabled him to share the caring responsibilities with his wife.

He says: “The arrangements have changed over the last eight years. Now the kids are a bit older and have school and pre-school, I do the mornings every day, and a full day twice a week, while my wife does the rest.”

Carr works from 5am until 7am every morning before getting the children up, goes back to work while the children are out, and again at night when they are in bed.

“I love this way of working,” he says. “I’m not a traditional bloke. I don’t want to be out of the house from seven and then go to the pub after work. I have a family and I want to be with them. It does mean you are never away from work or from home, but it’s very flexible and it works well for us.”

The dads all agree that being a stay-at-home dad, however the household is organised, is some of the toughest, but most rewarding work they could do. Neil says: “It was actually one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever had to make: being a parent is an amazing experience and being able to watch the children develop so closely is very rewarding.”

How UK dads compare to other countries
UK There are 200,000 stay-at-home dads – an increase of 84% since 1993.
Australia Less than 1% of fathers are stay-at-home dads. There are still more than 20 stay-at-home mums for every dad in the same situation.
India The number of stay-at-home dads is growing, but largely in urban areas and from a very low base. Some 3% of all working fathers are stay-at-home dads. But traditional roles are still the norm, as only 22.7% of Indian women work.
Sweden Swedish parents get 480 days off after the birth of a child. Most of it is on 80% of normal pay, but many employers top that up to 90%. Each parent must take 60 days, but how they divide the remaining 360 is up to them. It’s common for dads to take six months off.
US There are an estimated 140,000 stay-at-home dads, which is three times more than in 1997.