Are you
dad-friendly?

How caring for my child turned me into a novelist

Image book coverBecoming a stay-at-home dad was just the break STUART ROBERTSON needed. He escaped the corporate treadmill, spent quality time with his family… and found the perfect inspiration for his first novel.

I’m usually a glass half-empty kind of person. But when my office was closed and I had to choose between relocation to a centralised workplace or voluntary redundancy, I saw the positive in the situation. Here was a golden opportunity to spend more time with my family while pursuing my dream of becoming a novelist.

‘What do you think about swapping roles?’ I tentatively asked my wife, then a stay-at-home mum. ‘You could go back to work and I could be the one at home.’

A NEW ADVENTURE

I doubted she’d agree. And yet Claudia knew how the crazy hours I’d been working of late had taken a toll on me. I’d seen little of our four-year-old, due to spending so much time with my other baby: the local newspaper I’d been editing, with dwindling resources, for several years. So Claudia did agree – and thus began a new adventure for all of us.

‘I’ve quit my job,’ I told people, most of who could barely hide their disbelief. ‘I’m done with being a newspaper editor. I’m a stay-at-home dad now and I’m writing a book.’

Initially I was comfortable with this, but I began to dread explaining the situation to new acquaintances. This was partly because I didn’t feel I could call myself a writer without a publishing deal (or even a finished manuscript). But I’d also grown tired of being judged by those who thought being a stay-at-home dad was a sign of failure.

While it’s perfectly acceptable – admirable even – for a woman to do this, I discovered that’s not yet the case for a man. Society judges your success and status almost entirely on your career.

THE DREADED QUESTION

‘What is it you do?’ That’s the question folk tend to ask when they first meet you. ‘I’m a stay-at-home dad’ isn’t an answer they expect and usually results in looks of confusion or pity. It’s assumed this is something you’ve had to do out of necessity rather than choice. Too many people still think it’s not a natural role for a man, so you must be pretty useless at it.

This is one of the great things about Year of the Dad. We need such initiatives to alter perceptions, so we can hopefully get to the stage where it’s as normal for dads to play an active role in their children’s upbringing as it is for mums. 

Author SD RobertsonNow don’t get me wrong. Despite not always being comfortable telling strangers about my new role, I never regretted making the change. The extra time I got to spend with my daughter was amazing.

After years of being absent for most of Kirsten’s waking hours, she and I finally got to know each other.  We had long chats. I learned her likes and dislikes; her friends and their parents. I nursed her through sickness and comforted her when she was upset. And after missing lots of key moments in her early years – first smile, first word, first steps etc. – my turn came. I got to teach her how to cycle without stabilisers and witnessed her losing her first tooth. I got to drop her off and pick her up from school every day.

UPS & DOWNS

Of course I also got to deal with tantrums; trips to the doctor and dentist; keeping track of the family calendar; being the rule-maker not the rule-breaker. Not that I’d change it for the world.

The experience brought the two of us much closer together. And yet it didn’t weaken the bond Kirsten had formed with her mum during their years together. It helped that Claudia was still around a lot. Unlike in my old job, her hours were regular. So we got to spend much more time as a family.

The writing part even worked out. My debut novel, Time to Say Goodbye, is published by Avon HarperCollins this month. And guess what? Inspired by my time with Kirsten, it explores the unique bond between a father and his daughter. So being a stay-at-home dad helped me to forge a new career.

I think it’s been great for Kirsten to have such a close relationship with her mum and her dad in her formative years. I feel like she’s had the best of both of us, making her well balanced and adaptable. Plus she has a very healthy view of gender roles. For her it’s as normal to see Dad on his laptop or up a ladder doing DIY as hoovering, cooking or cleaning the toilets in rubber gloves. Mum goes out to work all day, but she also cooks sometimes and she’s definitely the best at ironing.

CLOSE & CONSTANT RELATIONSHIP

I hope my role in her upbringing will benefit Kirsten’s future relationships with men socially, professionally and – dare I say it – romantically. A young girl’s interactions with her dad shape the way she views herself with regards to members of the opposite sex. They form the basis of how she expects to be treated. A close and constant relationship, in which a father’s unconditional love is clear, should stand her in good stead.

Men in the UK rarely take more than the basic one or two weeks of paid paternity leave. Although they can take up to 26 additional weeks off, fewer than 10 per cent do. Elsewhere, it’s a different story.  Men in Sweden take an average of three months off. This is boosted by a ‘daddy quota’ system whereby paid time off is allocated to couples as a unit but a portion can only be taken by the father and is otherwise lost.

Introducing a similar system here might be a step in the right direction. One way or another I think it’s important we change people’s hearts and minds when it comes to the role of dads. So I heartily support Year of the Dad and its drive towards a society where the positive involvement of fathers – ‘The Dad Effect’ – is encouraged and accepted as the norm.

*Time to Say Goodbye by S.D. Robertson (Avon, £6.99) was published on 11th February 2016.