My lovely wife, whom I met back in the early nineties while she was still in university, has always been a willful and ambitious woman. Indisputably one of the reasons I fell for her. When we met I had already been, reluctantly, working for a couple of years. When I told her mum that staying at home with our possible, future children did not sound appalling to me at all, my future mother-in-law became infuriated. In her eyes, I was ‘denying her daughter the right to stay at home with the children’. Of course I wasn’t, but the idea of staying at home, tinkering on my boats and cars, shopping, cleaning and cooking, while looking after a few adorable children became more and more appealing to me.
For about 13 years we were a childless happy couple. While I kept my corporate job, my wife was working on her career. I did not particularly like what I did, but my job took little effort and paid well. Although my wife was a lot higher qualified, weirdly enough, I was still making more money for a long time.
When our children were born, despite troublesome pregnancies and deliveries, my wife didn’t stay home a day longer than was medically required. I took my legally permitted temporary leave from work to care for the children, which raised more than a few eyebrows in my conservative work environment. The first steps on the road to freedom were taken.
In spite of the proverbial tolerance and socialist backbone of my homelands’ society, equal rights for women are more myth than reality. While the majority of students in universities and colleges are female, men still dominate the management in the workforce. Day-care for children is among the most expensive in Europe. Part time work for both parents is the traditional solution in the low-countries, leaving only one or two days of expensive childcare. This has led to an inefficient and money-wasting situation where highly educated women work an average of just three or two days, thus discarding their careers, while their less qualified, but often proud and unwilling husbands work on their careers for a minimum of 4 working days a week. As a result the glass ceiling in my home country is still firmly intact, except for the few politically enforced mandatory holes.
Traditional expat life, usually offers the opportunity and often even the necessity for one of the partners to stay at home. Of course because of the usually more extensive employee benefits, but also because international schools often assume one of the parents is at home and available during office-hours for voluntary work, meetings, exhibitions, celebrations, sick children etc..
Our first expat ‘mission’ as a family with children, sent by my wife’s employer, coincidentally coincided exactly with the resignation from my job. The financial institution I had been working for for 18 years collapsed due to mismanagement in the years leading up to the banking crisis and was taken over by the Dutch and Belgium government and considerably downsized. The warm goodbye handshake I was given, would probably have been battled over harder had they known I was about to move abroad and become a full-time stay at home dad whatever happened..
Upon arriving in our International-school-community in Germany I discovered that my new found role as a male-trailing-expat-spouse was not as broadly accepted as I had expected in such a diverse international society. As could be expected, many cultures are even more conservative than the one I came from. Some housewives were simply not even allowed to talk to me or be alone with me, which raised some problems regarding play dates for the children.. As it turned out, I was about the only convinced, truly committed stay-at-home dad. There were other men who had, reluctantly, followed their successful spouses across the world, but almost all of them were still in firm denial. Either pretending to look for a job in the host country or running a ‘very successful’ overseas business from their basement, most of them refused to be seen cooking, shopping or strolling with their younglings. After a few glasses of wine, their wives would usually confide that the basement business only cost money and was solely kept on to provide some hard needed self-esteem to the poor suffering husband, while an expensive nanny was hired to take over the parenting duties..
Taking my new role very seriously, I engaged in all activities the International community in our host country was offering and I invented a few new ones. I became an active volunteer for the school, becoming a class parent, member of the welcome committee and organizing parties, events, fairs and summer sailing camps. I set up and administered a facebook group for the community and helped to set up and run a mother tongue school for the Dutch community. I also set up or took part in all kinds of social activities like movie, reading and cooking clubs, mostly with women of course. Gradually, I was accepted as a ‘genuine’ stay-at-home-person.
Regarding the men in our Germany based expat community, I took it as a mission to convince them there is no shame in openly taking care of the household and children, daring them to accuse me of loss of masculinity. I invited them on my boat for free scuba diving courses (I am a diving instructor) and asked them to help me on my voluntary jobs in the community. Soon we were having coffee with six to twelve men, every morning in the school cafeteria. Shortly after, the school asked me to become the ‘welcome person’ for any new male trailing spouse in the community. From that moment on, every new dad was be brought to our coffee table in the morning and greeted warmly. Diversity was embraced by welcoming the first two-men-couple in our group with loud cheers.
After seven years we were transferred to Switzerland and the La Chât community. Coming from a city with many corporate headquarters its is a huge, and pleasant, difference to be here, in the world’s centre of not-for-profit organisations. I met an amazing amount of strong career-minded women in my first weeks and it took very little effort to the track their proud spouses and invite them for a first stay-at-home-dads coffee. We now have a ‘La Chât Dads’ app group and the ‘la Chât male trailing spouses’ facebook group with over 20 members. We are having regular coffee mornings and are planning to meet up for fairs, sports and beers. The pta is taking, gratefully, advantage of our little merry band to engage us as mules when there is heavy lifting to be done.
If you are a male-trailing-expat-spouse/stay-at-home-dad/male default parent (whatever qualification you prefer), or you if have one hiding in your basement, please feel free to contact our cheerful and diverse troop of men and join in the fun and camaraderie, without fear of losing masculinity.
Michiel van Lith