A few weeks ago my wife passed me the childcare baton. I am now the primary carer for our four and a half year old and eight month old daughters. Since pausing my career to assume this responsibility, I've repeatedly come back to one question, namely now that I'm literally left holding the baby, has my masculinity taken a hit?
I'm one of those dads who has enthusiastically embraced the Shared Parental Leave rules introduced last year, relishing the chance to spend some time with the girls while my wife returns to work. Although it's still early days, I have no regrets. The polar opposite in fact; it's already been an incredible experience and without doubt one of the most inspiring periods of my life.
Yet despite this, I'm beset with doubts. Most hinge on the obvious work-related concerns. How will I be treated when I return to the office? What will the impact on my career turn out to be? However one of my biggest worries has nothing to do with work; rather it cuts to the very core of who I am.
In swapping my desk for the changing mat, can I still claim to be a rugged, carnivorous, chest-beating specimen of the male sex?
The instinctive answer is yes, of course. What could be manlier than sauntering around with a baby in the crook of your arm, her older sister trotting along beside you, physical evidence that you have what it takes to extend the bloodline? Surely as I walk down the road to Tesco with the two girls I look like the very personification of machismo.
Be that as it may, the fact remains that it's my wife's nose pressed against the grindstone while I hang out in cafes and play centres. She's winning our bread, keeping the roof over our heads. I ask you: what sort of man could live with such an arrangement?
Furthermore, as I do the rounds of the baby groups and the playgrounds, I'm often the sole father there. I find myself zoning in and out of the conversations about teething or sleep training that ebb and flow around me. A part of me resists being pulled in, primarily the part of me that remembers I'm male so not terribly interested in the minutiae of parenting. As a man, I work on the basis that this stuff will sort itself out (a theory that Lola has amply proved) and I'd far rather use the time to think about last night's TV or the weekend's sporting fixtures.
My constant battle to assert my masculinity doesn't even end when it's just the girls and I at home. Not only am I looking after them, but I've also won the household chores jackpot. While I like to think I've always pulled my weight when it comes to the washing and ironing and tidying the house, now there's no question that these delights fall into my remit.
Whichever way I look at it, I'm currently in charge of pretty much everything that my dad views as my mum's job. In his defence, most people of his generation and earlier generations would agree with him. The traditional father and mother roles have survived for so long precisely because they are so strongly embedded in our culture.
In 2014 Nick Clegg, whose legacy - besides the total collapse of the Liberal Democrats - was the relaxing of shared parental leave, talked about "those Edwardian rules which still hold back those families working hard to juggle their responsibilities at home and work." Yet these attitudes go back much further. It wasn't the Edwardians who normalised this mentality; the Victorians got there before them and in fact it can easily be traced back to even earlier eras.
Clegg was right though; fundamentally, it comes down to a question of work-life balance. It would have been easy for me to follow in the macho footsteps of my forefathers and leave the care of the girls to my wife, however by sharing it I've taken a big step towards improving my work-life balance.
Maybe then the question isn't whether looking after a baby is emasculating, but instead whether demanding a better work-life balance is emasculating. Given the store of courage - and indeed confidence in your own identity - that it takes as a father to buck the trend and stand up for your right to look after your child or children, I'd suggest that it's anything but an erosion of one's standing as a man.Suggest a correction