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Patrick Marks - confessions of a househusband

I’d noticed that at school pick up time waiting for Ellie, my young daughter, the mums would stand around the school gates locked in nattering knots. I was not a part of any nattering knot. I was confusing them and I could understand why. Even I was finding that to become ‘him indoors’ or ‘mum-I-mean-dad’ was a perplexing process.

The subject of my schoolyard isolation came up one day at home. I was falling back on my comfortable, male explanation of being seen as a threat by them and how, according to experts, I should become a playgroup leader or chairman of a parent committee to win their respect, when my wise wife tartly retorted with acid precision, "Don’t be daft. They think you’re unemployed!"
Unemployed? I’m not unemployed! I’m a househusband!

OK, I’m still subject to the unsupervised tuition of my full time English teacher wife, but she tells me I am ‘competent’. She explained that a psychology professor at Cornell University discovered that the skills people need to recognise incompetence are the same skills they need to be competent in the first place. So, the more I pleaded incompetence as a househusband the more I demonstrated my ability to be competent as one…Confused?

This househusband hat is a very strange shape indeed, stranger even than how it came to be on this head.
Approaching 50, my prospects of continuing to earn a living as a concert lighting designer were bleak. I was too old and out of touch for the fast world of entertainment that had provided me with an unsteady income and a lonely life lived out of a suitcase for 15 years. I was failing as the breadwinner and failing as a father, and failing, I wanted out; but what to do? I began to panic.

My long-suffering wife suggested I ‘retire’ to become a househusband and writer. The idea had never occurred to me. She was more than happy to be a full-time teacher, year co-ordinator and breadwinner, if my male ego could take it. That was perhaps the hardest part, coming to terms with not being the breadwinner.

John Lennon was once watching his estranged young son, Julian, playing happily on a beach with Paul McCartney. John poignantly asked Paul later, "How do you do that?" I knew that feeling well and was being given the chance to learn how to do it.

I was to learn how to be a part of my own family. I was to discover how to play with Joshua, how to treat verrucas and head lice, how to help Ellie with her rabbits, how to spell ‘diarrhoea’ in absence letters to school, how to cook, how to be ‘Mum’. I embraced the opportunity with awe, grins from my children and a certain amount of excited anxiety. I was a househusband. A stranger in a strange land; Mars visiting Venus.

I’ve been told that the anxiety is to do with a man’s inability to undertake two or more tasks at once, an essential skill of househusbandry I am still struggling to master.

Any pangs of guilt I felt about inheriting the best position in the family were soothed by more of my wife’s good counsel. She assured me that research carried out by the University of Pennsylvania has shown that women who work as breadwinners and cope with a family are healthier than those who do not work, but stay at home as housewives. So I was helping her health as well? I bought a new cookbook.
Any further protestations of guilt or incompetence from me were countered by her with Yale University’s findings that children brought up by ‘stay-at-home-dads’ were more intelligent, and were likely to develop better social skills. I ironed my son’s trousers with pride.

The nattering knots still didn’t acknowledge me, yet I refused to adopt the ‘talk to me’ strategy of the heavily tattooed Australian bloke who turned up at the school gates with an ‘L’ plate on his buggy. My kids are too old for buggies.

Seth Gillman, who set up the only dedicated British website, the ‘Home–Dad Link’, in his struggle against househusband isolation, laments, "I also assumed that I would be made welcome by the legions of housewives I encountered. In my imagination, cups of tea and warm sympathy would pour forth to ease my passage into this New World." He should talk to my wife.

In America, where the ‘househusband’ is more common, ever-growing numbers of men, approaching 2 million according to some sources, have chosen to stay at home and look after the kids. The special ‘househusband’ magazines and websites are fat with the thousands of words of advice and support, recipes and reviews by the tens of thousands of househusbands, isolated and not part of a nattering knot, but trying hard to be.

‘At-Home-Dads’ has a vast website with enough links to make you forget the toad in the hole. They organise an annual national househusband convention, Chicago last year, where they discuss ‘How to Infiltrate the Nattering Knots’ and ‘41 Ways to Serve Broccoli’, alongside ‘Why Are We Treated Like Freaks?’

Here, too, is the paranoid debate of names. Are we ‘Stay at Home Dads’ or SAHDs? SAHDS! Do I look like a lazy, chocolate chomping, Jerry Springer watching slob? ‘Full-time Dads’ is another cringe maker; makes a privilege and joy sound like a blue-collar job, whilst ‘the primary caregiver’ evokes images of political correctness and formality. I’m quite happy to be a househusband.

Over here we are something to be viewed with suspicion, an oddment that doesn’t quite fit in yet. We have only one tiny website, and a small quarterly on-line magazine, ‘Him Indoors’, that is sadly inaccessible due to non-working hyperlinks.

I have been told, however, that there are now two groups of British househusbands that are big enough to arrange informal meetings in local parks. I don’t know which is the bigger group, Croydon or Luton. Neither has a website. I have heard no rumours of a 21st century national convention.
Househusbands here whisper apologetically as they confess their apparent social androgyny. Men who aren’t househusbands find it, well, you know, a bit sort of…well feminine. Women who know me try to sympathise with me rather than celebrate with me. "Never-mind-I’m-sure-something-will-turn-up" rather misses the point. Those who don’t know me stay nervously away. They natter in knots.
Someone once said that a husband is what's left out of the lover after the nerve has been extracted. This lover had to have his nerve put back to become a househusband.

© Patrick Marks 2001



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