Meet the Dalis: men who are dependent – and loving it

It sounds like a cushy life for a man. On weekdays he potters about at home, running a duster over the surfaces, tinkering with a short story he’s struggling to compose, painting, daydreaming, listening to a bit of Jeremy Vine; his wife, meanwhile, gets up in the dark, takes the 5.47 to Liverpool Street and toils away in a glass tower all day to bring home the bacon. He is dependent, and loving it: we could call him a Dali.

There are a plenty of Dalis around these days. You probably know one or two. And the statistics show it clearly. More and more couples, especially if they have children, are choosing to swap the traditional roles. This change, like so many other trends, is driven by economics: it is often cheaper for one half of the couple to stay at home while the other works than to pay for childcare so that both parents can climb the career ladder. Increasingly, women are paid more than men, so the woman might as well be the breadwinner. If she is a jet-fuelled alpha female, and her husband a softer homebody with creative leanings, then so much the better.

So it’s no surprise to find that in the past 15 years the number of families in which the woman is the main breadwinner and the male looks after the household has trebled, according to new analysis of labour market surveys carried out for The Spectator by the Office of National Statistics. The statisticians looked at men who were classed as economically inactive and looking after family or home while their wives worked: last year, 62,000 men fell into this category; in 1996 there were only 21,000. The figures show a steady increase, year after year; other things being equal, they should carry on going upwards.

Bear in mind that that total from the ONS of 62,000 only covers a fairly restricted band. A broader survey, done last year for the insurance company Aviva, claimed that as many as 1.4 million men in Britain might be their children’s main carers. The ONS figure does not take account of men who describe themselves as artists, writers and suchlike, who are ‘freelance’ or ‘working from home’. Nor does it include those who, like many Dalis, claim to be working on an invention or other (usually far-fetched) business project bankrolled by their wife’s earnings.

The writer Rowan Pelling’s husband, Angus MacKinnon, is a Dali (not that he applies the term to himself). He is one of those who wouldn’t be caught up in the ONS’s 62,000 total because he’s not ‘inactive’: he edits books at home for a publisher. He used to be a journalist. Rowan edited the Erotic Review; these days she is a newspaper columnist. Angus is usually the one who picks up their two young sons from school or the childminder, for the simple reason that Rowan can earn four or five times as much as he can. He can do his editing work whenever he has a spare moment, but she needs to be on call in case a newspaper asks her to write an article. She wants to make the most of her earning power while she can. ‘It’s just the way it is with us: economic reality,’ she says. ‘The moment you find you have a premium in your forties… I mean, in journalism you can be in great demand for a while and then the next thing you know no one’s interested.’

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Rowan’s family set-up represents an extremely thorough switching of the usual roles. ‘In our household I don’t have to do anything,’ she says. ‘Angus cooks and cleans and is super-organised. I am the person, honestly, who says “Where do we keep the light bulbs?” Angus is like your typical woman, doing all the cooking, ironing etc. In our house we joke that “a man’s work is never done”.’

The arrangement works, Rowan thinks, because Angus has already experienced his ‘career moment’. He edited GQ and worked on the NME at its trendy pinnacle in the 1970s. And he is older than she is, which also helps, according to Rowan, because it eliminates the feeling of competition. ‘If your husband was from exactly your peer group you’d both be thinking “Who’s doing better?” ’

Angus enjoys the time he has with his sons. This might hardly need stating, but when he was a boy, it wasn’t the norm for fathers to devote time to their children. The greatly expanded role of fathers in their children’s lives is a recent development: one estimate (quoted by the Fatherhood Institute) claims that fathers do 800 per cent more childcare now than in 1975. This has probably been one of the biggest social changes of the past 30 years. And fathers like Angus, who didn’t see much of their own dads, are understandably eager that their own children should get to know them better and have a warmer relationship. ‘Age makes a difference,’ Rowan says. ‘In Cambridge [our home] a lot of the stay-at-home dads are quite a bit older than their wives. That’s the adjustment they’ve made. And these fathers really do appreciate the time they spend with their children. Angus came from a generation whose fathers were particularly distant and detached.’

But if some Dalis have adapted well to the domestic sphere, watching with equanimity as their wives steam ahead with their careers, others talk more about the difficulties, both practical and psychological. Richard (not his real name) looks after his two-year-old, Lucy, while Lucy’s mother, his partner, works as a civil servant. He is a freelance film-maker. Bits of work drift his way, but he devotes at most one-and-a-half days a week to his career. In the downturn, his freelance work is bringing in virtually nothing. The family subsists on his partner’s income. This is difficult for Richard, because, as he says, ‘I was from a solid middle-class background, and was hardwired to be the breadwinner.’ Talking to him, however, you soon grasp that the problem isn’t simply financial: it’s more that the role of stay-at-home dad doesn’t come naturally to him. The sorts of images that spring to his lips suggest that the strain is wearing him down: ‘A friend once likened [my life] to one of those TV documentaries of a wildebeest being eaten by lions.’

The day-to-day stuff — taking Lucy to play groups, for example — gets on his nerves. ‘I’m 46. I don’t want to meet new people and make new friends. Women are different from men. They’ll get in there and say “Today I’m going to make five friends.” They’ll scour the internet for zumba classes. They’re gung-ho. Men are more grumpy about that kind of thing.’

He feels uncomfortable in the feminine domain. There’s a ‘cabal’ of women at the mother-and-toddler groups, he says, and they don’t make him feel welcome. ‘There is still a sexism. “Who are you?” they seem to be saying.’ Instead of joining in with the mums, he prefers to take Lucy on her own for long walks, or to ‘patrol Tate Britain’. Then there are people’s attitudes to deal with. ‘I have felt pity from people. I’ve had women saying “It’s amazing what you do.” It sometimes feels like I’m in the wrong box.’ The bottom line, for Richard, is that he misses work. ‘A lot of my friends are in full-time employment. They get five days a week at a desk. I’ve never experienced that.’ Even his partner worried, to begin with, that as a freelance, arty type, he might be ‘a lazy arse’ deep down. But he’s definitely not — he works ‘very hard on the day-to-day basics’, the washing-up, cleaning the house. The life of a Dali with children is anything but relaxing. ‘Most guys who do children do supper too,’ he says. ‘The days are long.’

I don’t pick up from Richard any sen
se that his partner takes advantage of his position to boss him about. But, sad to say, that does happen. The following true story was related to me by a female friend: a girlfriend of hers was in the middle of a relation’s funeral, when she remembered that the last day of the Test match was on television. Fearing that her stay-at-home husband would be tempted to interrupt his household duties to watch, she broke off to ring him and ask if he had washed the car yet. The same woman prepares lists of chores — cleaning the loo, etc — for her spouse to do every day while she is at work, reasoning that if she doesn’t leave clear instructions, the jobs will not be done.

Wouldn’t it be awful to think of Dalis all over the country driven to a pitch of misery by wives who’d turned into despots? I don’t believe, actually, that that case is representative. If anything, the husbands are as likely to exploit the situation, as I found when I spoke to Albert. He is the son of a Dali who painted, and boasted that he sold enough works to pay for the cost of his materials; meanwhile Albert’s mother laboured in an office job. Albert told me that her financial support of his father ‘engendered fecklessness’. ‘Rather than becoming like a domesticated woman, my father lived like an aristocrat. It was an excuse for him to lead the life of Riley.’

The more Dalis I speak to, the more I realise that what nearly all these families have in common is that they’re responding to economic forces. Why should women give up fulfilling careers, and possibly endure financial hardship, just so that their husbands can enjoy the dignity of work? A secondary force in play here is the variation in human personalities. Not all men are temperamentally suited to the rat race. Some males are gentler, sweeter, more laid-back; they thrive in the home. Why should they be compelled to pursue a career that is stressful to them, if their wives are better suited to climbing the greasy pole? There are only so many alpha males in the world, after all. Isn’t it sensible to perform the roles that best suit our personalities?
The story about the ‘bossy’ woman who rang her husband to check he’d cleaned the car had an interesting conclusion. She later revealed to my friend her secret fear — that the only reason she behaved like such a martinet was that she was jealous of time her partner spent with their baby. This is where people get into trouble, when economic conditions force them into the wrong boxes; when, for example, it deprives them of precious time with children. If a woman who desperately wants to care for her young offspring is compelled to work while her husband performs the role of mother, unhappiness will surely result. I wonder how many wives of Dalis secretly wish that they could send their husbands out to work?

Andrew M. Brown works for the Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated