Diary of a stay-at-home dad: Dale Owens embraces his 'maternal instinct' video

DAVID WALKER/Fairfax NZ

Leaving work to be a full-time parent can be both rewarding and challenging, but as these stay-at-home dads have found out, the opportunity to spend time and bond with their young children is priceless.

OPINION: It's 10am and I'm in a church hall. I'm singing, I'm clapping, I'm twirling. Before long I'm marching around the perimeter of the room clutching a pair of maracas with a group of mothers, singing we want to "walk like Jesus".

This Mainly Music playgroup is a weekly event for many stay-at-home mums in the area. It's certainly an eye opener for the new stay-at-home dad (SAHD) in the group – me.

Between leaving my last job and starting my new one I've taken over the responsibility of running my three daughters' lives for six weeks. How hard could it be?

21-month-old Leah and her dad Michael Thorpe.
DAVID WALKER/FAIRFAX NZ

21-month-old Leah and her dad Michael Thorpe.

As I start to write this story on my laptop I realise it's lunch time and the carnage from the kids' breakfast is still on the table, the floor and up the walls, where it's been since 7am.

Today is supposed to be a good day, or so I'm told. The 4-year-old and 2-year-old are at kindergarten. My 7-year-old daughter is safely in a classroom at the local primary school.

The day starts with a bang. The 4-year-old kicks the 2-year-old in the face and an almighty racket breaks out. After a debrief and recriminations about who did what and to whom, I ponder that being a high court judge would be similar to this. It's difficult to know who's telling the truth when they are all such convincing liars.

Stay at home dad Paul Chivers with son Alfie at the Papanui Plunket rooms.
DAVID WALKER/FAIRFAX NZ

Stay at home dad Paul Chivers with son Alfie at the Papanui Plunket rooms.

The key to being a SAHD, I'm fast learning, is to get them out of the house as quickly as possible. Two weeks in and I've long stopped asking these kids to wear shoes. I do a mental checklist: they all seem to be dressed appropriately. There's a storm heading our way but the eldest assures me her coat and shoes are in her bag. Her friend arrives at the door to walk the 200 metres to school with her,  off she heads – no shoes, no coat, dark sky above. One down, two to go.

The trip to the kindy is usually fairly uneventful: drop, smile, turn, run. Today though, as we jump in the car, my middle daughter turns to me with some news.

"Daddy, I've got no knickers on."

Paul Chivers and son Alfie.
DAVID WALKER/FAIRFAX NZ

Paul Chivers and son Alfie.

I consider letting her go as she is, but think better of it. A quick dash into the house to grab some underwear to cover her modesty and we're off. The kindergarten drop goes off without a hitch.

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An hour later though, I've got a developing story on my hands. Neither of the girls have a lunchbox. I've messed up big time. It's a mad search for their sandwiches before I jump back in the car and drive to the kindergarten in time for morning tea. The lady from the kindy seems not angry with me, but disappointed, which we all know is worse.

With Tuesday done, it's onto Wednesday. Today is football, dancing, athletics and a two-hour session at Mainly Music with singing and dancing.

Stay at home dad Michael Thorpe with daughter Leah.
DAVID WALKER/FAIRFAX NZ

Stay at home dad Michael Thorpe with daughter Leah.

I've been a bit cheeky as I haven't told many of the mums at this group that I have a job lined up at the end of the six weeks. I conduct a sort of social experiment to gauge their reaction when I tell them I'm a stay-at-home dad.

Many think I'm joking, some are horrified, others offer support.

According to Statistics New Zealand, at the 2013 Census only 36,000 Kiwi men were listed as stay-at-home dads, compared to around 195,000 women. However the numbers are on the rise: back in 2006, only 31,000 or so men were doing the job. 

In Christchurch I've been invited along to a stay-at-home dads group which meets once a week. About 10 dads have come over the past six months to the Papanui Plunket House.

Today it's Paul Chivers with his 16-month-old son, Alfie, and Mike Thorpe with daughter Leah, 21 months.

Chivers says at times being the one at home is hard.

"There's a lot of lonely times for a stay-at-home dad, which I didn't realise about. The coffee groups, though incredibly welcoming, it's an awkward situation being a dad breaking into those sorts of things."

He has received some hurtful comments. "I was at the supermarket and a lady accidentally tripped over the stroller as we were trying to exit. She turned around suddenly and said, 'Just try and trip me up, why don't you'. I said, 'If you hadn't been rushing to get past maybe it wouldn't have happened' and her immediate reaction was, 'Stop being a dole-bludging stay-at-home dad and go get yourself a job'."

Thankfully these comments appear to be in the minority.

Dr Kelly Dombroski from the University of Canterbury has researched how men can learn a "mother's instinct".

"What research is showing is when dads have the opportunity, they come to think like mothers, they come to pay attention to the nurturing needs of their children, to read the non-verbal signs in the same way, to think about parenting in much the same way that mothers do, once they get that chance."

Mike Thorpe at the group in Papanui says it wouldn't be a great leap for him to develop that intuition.

"I grew up with three sisters so I've always had a lot of that naturally anyway, so I've always felt I've been pretty good with kids and that."

For me it's back to the office and adult conversation. For the remaining stay-at-home parents, I salute you. You're doing a tough job.

 - Stuff

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