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A man's work, The National 12.05.09

As unemployment rises, more husbands are caring for children full time while their wives become primary breadwinners. Jo Wadham meets some of Abu Dhabi’s stay-at-home dads

Employment data released this month shows that the US is experiencing its highest unemployment rate since 1983. That same year, the screenwriter John Hughes captured the zeitgeist with his comedy, Mr Mom, which starred Michael Keaton as a man who becomes a househusband after he loses his job.

As the world copes with another recession, some families, either through choice or circumstance, are again rejecting the traditional set-up of husband at work and wife at home, and the number of fathers taking on the primary carer role in the family is expected to rise.

By the end of last year, the recession was starting to affect Mark Frame’s clothing import business in his native New Zealand. He and his wife, Donna, love travelling and had lived in the UK and Fiji, so when she was offered a job teaching in Abu Dhabi, the couple decided the time was right for an adventure in the UAE.  Donna, who had been working part-time and looking after their two boys, Luca, four, and René, two, was excited about the opportunity of working in a different culture.

“Donna saw this as a challenge and it would be a good opportunity for me to spend some time with the boys,” says Frame.

Although a keen family man, until this point he had worked long hours and travelled frequently, and generally did not spend much time with his boys during the week. Becoming a stay-at-home dad was a big adjustment, he says.

“My friends thought I wouldn’t be able to do it because before, work always came first,” he laughs. “The thing that is hard is that it is 24/7, and here we haven’t got the network of mums and dads, brothers and sisters to take the kids for a break. But I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

Frame takes the boys to events run by Abu Dhabi Mum and to the playgroup at St Andrew’s Church, though he admits it has taken some time for him to be accepted and make friends. “The mums are just starting to talk to me now, really, but I don’t go over to talk to them; I don’t want to seem like I’m chatting them up. I have met some really nice people.”

 With playgroups and domestic chores, Frame says he is far from bored being away from the office. “I didn’t realise how much time you need for washing, cleaning, and to be creative for lunch every day. The day just seems to get filled.”

 The boys are adapting well to the change, and Frame thinks there may be subtle differences now that he is their main carer during the day. “When we are in the playground, I think I push their boundaries a bit more” But, he says, they do miss their mother. “They are still at a young age – she is still number one. If René falls over, he still asks for Mum.” 

 The economic downturn has impacted the Abu Dhabi Mums babies and toddler groups, says the chairwoman Joanne Attrill, “We’ve definitely seen changes. We see more mums who are looking for part-time work or going back to their previous professions because the dad is out of work.”

A few years ago, there was a fathers group set up by a stay-at-home dad, she says. “It was created to help the dads feel more comfortable. It can be intimidating being the only chap at a toddler group. We also used to have a families group for people who were working but still wanted to meet other parents, which met up on a Saturday once a month.” But the group was disbanded when the co-ordinator’s children became too old to attend. If the demand is there, Attrill says, the group may be set up again.

After 15 years with his company, Joe Wong, an IT support manager, was made redundant at the end of December last year, a victim of downsizing. With a young family to support, this obviously came as an unwelcome shock, but Wong has decided to see this turn of events positively. “It’s moved the schedule up a year or two,” he says Wong. His wife still had her job in Abu Dhabi, so rather than return to Canada, they decided he would look after their two boys, Patrick, seven, and Adam, four.

“The economy in Canada is not fantastic. There is a downturn there. It just wasn’t sensible to cut and go and look for two jobs there when we had lost one job here. The schools, the lack of taxes, it was still beneficial to have one job here.”

Wong says suddenly being at home with the two boys did not require a big adjustment. Both boys are in full-time education and his former job had been flexible enough to enable him to collect the boys from school and be around some afternoons. He says his kids haven’t really noticed that he is no longer working. “I was always there for pick-ups and drop-offs so it is not that evident to them. We both spend a lot of time with the kids. It’s been more a case of telling them we have to batten down the hatches now.”

Wong is taking a course in share trading (something he has always wanted to do), and enjoys knowing he can always take the boys to their afternoon activities. Being at home has meant he can look after them in the school holidays.

“During the Easter break I was with them all day. There were some stressful moments but as long as you kept them occupied it was quite easy.” Wong is philosophical about their current situation, “We could have been dealt a lot worse cards. You have to be positive, otherwise it will show up in your attitude and the kids will be affected. Be positive and this will be reflected in your kids”.

Although circumstance compels some families to change their childcare arrangements, others have decided that for them the conventional role of the husband as sole earner just does not work. If the wife has the greater earning potential and it is important to them that the children have a parent looking after them during the day, having the father stay at home is the obvious solution.

Darren Barwick has always played a significant role in looking after his two daughters, Isobel, nine, and Abigail, seven, whilst his wife, Melanie, is the main breadwinner. In the UK, when the girls were small, Barwick and his wife shared the childcare. They both worked part-time and looked after the children while the other went to work. When she was offered a full-time position in real estate in Abu Dhabi four years ago, they agreed that he would be the full-time carer for the girls and would set up the family home.

In some ways, it was easier for Barwick to settle into their new life than it was for his wife. When the girls started school, he began to meet other parents at drop-offs and pick-ups. “She felt she didn’t know people and never got to meet them because she was working – she missed meeting people at the school gates.” So, as well as seeing the mums at coffee mornings, he made an effort to ensure they could get together with his wife at the weekends or in the evenings.

There have been some practical difficulties to being a househusband. Since his wife was his visa sponsor, Barwick needed her signature on all his official documents, and when he applied for licences as a dependent husband, it would often throw the system. 

After a time, just like many women in similar circumstances, Barwick started to feel he needed something more. “I went to the gym three to four times a week but got bored after a while. It was just to keep me busy. I got very good at Sudoku.” As a result, he decided to take on some part-time work as a software proprietary manager. His wife is currently between jobs, a consequence of the economic downturn. He says she is enjoying the time she can spend with the girls and her friends, but financially, they know this can’t last.

The Barwicks’ approach to childcare isn’t universally accepted, however: “There have been some people who have said ‘a real man shouldn’t be doing this’” says Barwick. “But I take it with a pinch of salt. Melanie is the breadwinner, live with it. I don’t feel in any way inferior for that. We could both be working full-time with a full-time nanny at home, but it’s not about the money. We enjoy each other and our family life is much better for it.”

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