Books: Professional advice for the man minding the children

Although short on hard fact and heartache, this welcome book for stay-at-home dads provides a strategic route through the domestic minefield, says Paul Arnott.

by Paul Arnott, a writer, film producer and father of four
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Years ago, when I was working in television, John Simpson wrote a fast-turnaround book about the 1991 Gulf war. The man I met and the artwork for his book jacket were the same. Both were squat, covered in khaki, and perfectly designed for a sandy trench. If Action Man had a book to go with his flask, Simpson's would be it.

My trench at about that time was fatherhood. What did you do in the war, Dad? Well, son, I allowed you to vomit and sleep on me as if I was a washable cushion. Then I hung you around my neck in a sling thing, so that you curved my spine and heated me to medium rare. I made vowel sounds at you while I changed your nappy, which is why you won that scholarship.

When I left the house, my trousers covered in suspicious white stains at the groin, only I knew it was fromage frais. Mostly, I went bald, got fat, and lost my circadian sleep rhythms, which never returned.

Could I have used a chunky book on the subject, John Simpson-style, to light my paternal path? Yes, I would have paid any price for it. But then I would have wished for something longer on hard fact and heartache, and shorter on strategic thinking than this curiously neutral tome by Richard Hallows.

To be fair, Hallows flags that Full Time Father is neither a how-to book nor a memoir, and one cannot object to that. The how-to books are much the same for men and women, and there are hundreds telling parents about vaccinations and school entry fiddles. Memoirs abound, too, with Charles Jennings' Fathers' Race a particularly distinguished entry.

Hallows' strategy, however, is strategy. He is plainly a highly organised father of two children, and some sensible advice is secreted within his many checklists. Being the principal carer is indeed not early retirement, and you must keep yourself and your clothes in some kind of shape to return to work one day.

It is certainly wise, as he advises, to meet childcare groups, of which you will undoubtedly be seeing a lot, on the first occasion accompanied by your wife or partner. This first impression will last, and prevent rumours that you have disposed of your child's mother under the patio.

And, most crucially, a baby in the bed and any hope of a sex life are not compatible. This, brothers and sisters, is the holy truth. I don't remember who wrote the madly happy book called Three in the Bed when I was on the front line, but she was so very, very wrong.

Hallows' real pitch, though, is not to the crisis-managing anecdotist like me, but to the man who wants to define a list of reasons why he is now the carer, a man who is committed to 'meeting management' when it comes to encounters with health visitors. His route through fatherhood is to adopt the same professionalism you employed when you were head of IT, and as a coping strategy he might be on to something.

He recommends keeping a daily diary, so that if it all becomes a little too much, you can identify where sleep or play patterns went wrong. He has seven questions you must be able to answer from surprised friends or relatives when you tell them you really are going to be the man about the house, such as: what happens if your wife loses her job? How will you explain the gap in your CV to a future employer? If you have covered these issues and can reassure others that you have done so, you are likely to get a more positive and supportive response.

But - and I hate to say this of a junior soldier - it all seems rather heartless and dry, perhaps a touch technocratic. It leaves one awaiting the John Harvey-Jones of male parenting. There are so many huge questions still to be answered.

How can it be that no statistical evidence is available to tell us quite how many men are now principal carers, and therefore have no national policy in place to reflect it?

All the best guesses are anecdotal. Isn't it strange that we have no widely accepted term for it? Hallows uses Full Time Father, or Stay at Home Dad. House Husband is another one. I once tried to get House Captain up and running, but was told it smacked too much of private education.

Well, what else is raising and nurturing your children but private education?

Perhaps one day the brand will define the role.

Hallows has made a worthy stab, though, and with his focus on best practice in household chores, he will alarm and awaken the next generation of new dads who have believed the softcore accounts of Tony Parsons or Nick Hornby.

He manages the simple fact that his wife has more economic clout than him. These same economics make it more efficient for him to raise the kids.

In his cool realism, he is perhaps bringing them up to his full potential, which isn't such a bad epitaph for a parent of any generation.

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