by Nick Mattiske

You may have seen the TV ad where a dad makes a cheese and ham sandwich for his son, but the son says, ‘That’s not how Mum makes it’. The dad has to flip the sandwich over so it’s now ham and cheese rather than cheese and ham. The ad gives some idea of the negotiations involved in parenting, though it would be nice if all parenting problems were resolved so easily.

Parenting is not just about dealing with children; there’s a lot of head-scratching over work-life balance, sharing housework and dealing with different expectations.

My wife stayed home with our son for a year or so after he was born, then we both worked part-time, sharing care. Then changing, unstable work circumstances meant that I ended up doing more of the stay-at-home parenting. This wasn’t, let’s say, carefully planned out – it just happened. And it brings complications, some trivial, such as me changing my son’s sheets right after my wife did because I didn’t realise she had already done it, others less so.

While my work, though not particularly high-flying, allows me to be involved in child-raising, the instability and complexity do create some anxiety. This is exacerbated by a lack of grandparents and other family members in close proximity to share the load. Women especially say to me that I won’t regret spending more time with my son, but there is a price to pay.

In our society, being a stay-at-home dad is still something of an anomaly. As journalist Annabel Crabb points out in her recent perceptive 2019 Quarterly Essay ‘Men at Work’, women aren’t generally asked why they want to stay home to raise their kids – it’s self-evident. But there is suspicion over why dads would choose kids over a career, perhaps the flipside of suspicion over why women aim to be leaders, and our society has not properly worked out yet how men can juggle work and parenting. (Crabb also points out how – no surprise – northern Europe is way ahead of us. A German friend of mine recently said that this is why in Germany you don’t see the Australian backyard party stereotype of the men standing around drinking beer and the women in the kitchen cooking.)

I benefit from living in a not-particularly-salubrious, multicultural suburb where people privilege richness of life over monetary richness, so there is a certain understanding here. Community is important. Nuclear families can be dangerous because bottled up in one household, problems can go … well, nuclear. Because my son is sports-mad, I have been drawn more into sporting clubs and have been pleasantly surprised by the community one finds there.

It’s a generalisation that men talk about deeper issues less and perhaps need to be particularly attentive to the threat of isolation, while women tend to get together easier for playdates and the like, but it’s helpful for all parents to find other parents with the same problems or to see other parents with different problems. It’s a way of informally workshopping issues and keeping things in perspective.

Parenting is not something easily explained to people without kids. It’s like falling in love or eating very hot chillies – description comes a distant second to experiencing it and there’s only so much planning one can do. Much of the time it’s just what we have to do; you can’t box them up and return them in the mail. Parenting is both hard and joyous and my personal steep learning curve has been about living with both the joy and the difficulties and realising that neither me as a father nor my child are perfect or dreadful.

Living in a household together and the effort that goes into feeding a child both physically and spiritually results in a degree of tension, though the more time I spend with my son, the more depth of understanding I gain.

More time with my son also means he can learn from me, even from my mistakes, of which there are plenty. The encouragement of a Christian perspective in my son, instilling notions of right and wrong, encouraging care for others, the cultivation of priorities, the questioning of things, as well as enthusiasm for physical activity, nature and art, becomes interwoven with everyday activities. And, pleasantly, my son’s moral maturing means the instruction goes both ways. I now tend to give more to homeless people and think twice before buying that donut.

I must stress that my wife and I share parenting, and although I take the bulk of time, I am not sure overall that the parenting is equally shared. My wife still texts me on her way to work about lunchboxes and permission slips.

In the church, we can and do help in various practical ways, especially where, with a mobile population, there are not wider family networks for support. It would also be good not to mistake social convention for divine sanction. And in the church, when we talk about gender roles as we have been recently, it would be helpful if we didn’t then assume that gender automatically predisposes temperament, ambition and skills, and we instead nurture the flowering of individuals.

As Annabel Crabb says, aside from giving birth and breastfeeding, men are capable of the jobs parenting requires us to do and being allowed to do so enriches both men’s lives and our society. Even if the women need to check up on us some of the time.

Nick Mattiske is a member of St Paul’s Lutheran Church at Box Hill in suburban Melbourne.

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