Fatherhood no monkey business

Fatherhood no monkey business

Written by Carissa Mason and published in the AMBA Magazine

Before he became a dad, Danilo Zivkovic was a zoo keeper, based in the primates enclosure and responsible for the care and wellbeing of 20 chimpanzees, 8 gorillas and a menagerie of other smaller monkey species. Danilo is a one of the rare breed of Aussie dads who stay at home caring for the kids while mum returns to work. The latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that of the 2.37 million Aussie dads with dependent children in 2009/10, just 106,000, or 4.5 per cent, are stay-at-home dads. 

"I spent all day monitoring behaviour, feeding, cleaning and making sure I didn't get bitten", Danilo says. "I was often covered in poo and wee and food. I don't think it helped prepare me for the boys though", he grins. "Animals are much more self-sufficient." The boys he refers to are his three sons, identical twins Finnbar and Arlo, 2, and Luca, nine months. 

Danilo is a one of the rare breed of Aussie dads who stay at home caring for the kids while mum returns to work. The latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that of the 2.37 million Aussie dads with dependent children in 2009/10, just 106,000, or 4.5 per cent, are stay-at-home dads.

Danilo never expected to be the primary caregiver, but he wouldn't change it for the world. He and wife Lynette were living in Sydney when their twins were born at 36 weeks. Danilo was working fulltime at Taronga Zoo and Lynette took time off from her counselling job to care for the babies. "Having never had kids, and then having twins – and twins that didn't sleep and had medical issues... when we found out we were pregnant again with Luca, we thought we might need a bit of extra support", he says.

Danilo gave up his dream job at the zoo and the Zivkovics packed up their home and temporarily moved to Brisbane where they both have extended family. They arrived just in time for Luca's birth in January this year and Lynette returned to work in May. "We made choices to do without other things so we could have one of us at home with the boys for their first few years", Danilo says. "With limited job opportunities for me in Brisbane (the closest zoos at Dreamworld and Australia Zoo don't have primates), it just made more sense for me to be the one at home."

And he loves it. "I'm actually really glad it worked out this way", Danilo says. "I get all these beautiful moments with the boys that I would completely miss otherwise. It's hard to explain how significant those small moments are. Like where they start to reflect back things that I do and I recognise how much of an influence I am on them. I look at them now and I want to be able to help shape their vision of the world as much as I can, while I can, before they go to school and have so many other influencers."

Danilo's own upbringing was heavily influenced by his late dad Misha, who stayed at home with Danilo and his older sister Alexa after falling at work and breaking most of the bones on one side of his body. "It was a big change for my dad, who had been a really physical person, but he used that time to teach us as much as he could. My love of the natural world and working with animals comes from my dad. Mum [Kay] worked as a librarian and passed on to us the importance of learning. She taught us about language and how to communicate, and would come home from work and help us with our homework. I think seeing both my parents interchange the carer/earner roles helped me feel comfortable with where I am now as a father", Danilo says.

This second-generation stay-at-home dad has become an expert at changing nappies, feeding and settling. "[But] we've come up with a saying in our house that "dads do it differently", Danilo says. "Play, for example, is more physical. Lynette will read to the boys, or sit with them to do an activity. I do that too, but I tend to be more physical and will tackle them or chase them or we'll ride bikes or go outside and throw leaves in the air. I let them go a bit more while Lynette nurtures their inner life more."

Extensive research over the past 15 years shows there's value in the different ways dads approach parenting. Dr Richard Fletcher, who is a senior lecturer in the University of Newcastle's Family Action Centre, says most dads know they are an important part of their children's life, but they struggle to explain why. "Dads don't realise how important they are to a child's development from day one", Dr Fletcher says.

"The old idea was that when the child was old enough to kick a football or go to gymnastics, that's when dad came into his role. Before then it was really up to mum. But in the last 15 years, the evidence has come out very clearly to say that's not the best way for the child. The best way for the child is to have the father interacting with them from the very beginning, in positive ways", Dr Fletcher says.

"When you watch the way mums and dads interact with babies, it's very different. With a young baby, a mother's interactions tend to create a gentle wave of excitement for the baby. Fathers' interactions with babies don't tend to look the same. They tend to be sharper. There will be nothing happening, and then suddenly the father will be very exciting to the baby. He's doing it differently, and that's good for the baby's development."

Dr Fletcher said dads of multiples were leaders in this area. "When you have twins or triplets, you don't have a choice and the dad gets in and does a lot. They usually get a lot of experience in having a baby or young child by themselves because the mum is often with the other one."

He says studies show children who have positive interactions with their dads at a young age do better at school. "Their reading is better, their maths are better", he says. Research also shows that boys, at aged seven, whose dads are involved with them and take an interest in them, are less likely to be in trouble with police when they're older. Likewise, girls who have positive interactions with their fathers are less likely to become depressed as young women, he says.

Dr Fletcher says a parent's negative interactions with their children can also have long-reaching effects. "Just like with a mother's postnatal depression, if the dad is depressed, the children are going to be affected." Dr Fletcher encourages dads to be brave and reach out to find other dads for support. "While people makes jokes, like "lucky you" about there being 10 women and one man [at playgroup, for example], the experience of most dads is that isn't the most comfortable way", he says.

Danilo has a few favourite parks where he takes the boys to play, as well as venturing out to Gymboree, Rhyme Time at the State Library and to playgroup at his local AMBA club, Brisbane Southside. "A good part of my day is spent figuring out how to challenge, entertain and generally wear them out – it's like I never left the zoo actually", he says.

He's never met another stay-at-home dad while out and about. "It is a bit isolating being the primary caregiver as a male – especially at parents’ groups (ironically still called mothers' groups). It's like in the natural world, with a herd of elephants, for example. The family groups are run by the matriarchs, generally with no adult males. The males only appear in breeding season! At Gymboree I see a few dads, but that's only on the weekend or if they have time off work. I don't think that's because men don't want to have a go at it, but because, in many cases, the man is the breadwinner", he says.

"It's interesting to think about re-entering the workforce as a man, after caring for my kids. I'm taking time out of that career progression, and it probably doesn't help that I have chosen a career that's quite specialised – especially considering there's not that many zoos in Australia! I have no shame about taking time out of the workforce and giving the time to my boys. I actually feel like I’ve developed a whole new skill set I would have missed out on. It would be great to be able to have Lynette and me both able to work part-time and be home with the boys, but I don't think the flexibility is there yet for men. I've never heard of two guys sharing a job."

Danilo says before he was a dad he underestimated the commitment parenting demanded. "I have a whole new appreciation. I would have stayed home to care for my kids for a short time, maybe a few months, but now I'm this involved in their lives, I understand and really appreciate the investment of it long-term and that it should be shared where possible. At the end of my life, I'm not going to wish I'd spent more time working, I'm going to wish I’d spent more time with the ones I love."

*Thanks to Johanna Heybrook at Pure and Precious Photography in Brisbane for taking the photos illustrating this story.