Empty pockets and wonky careers can provide a richer life

What image pops up when you hear the term ''feminist''? Some might imagine unshaven legs and armpits, short hair and a shorter temper. Others might envisage a middle-class humanities academic - perfect prey for ''chardonnay socialist'' gibes. If you imagined both of these, well done. I have hairy pins, I'm bald, I have a background in the liberal arts - and I'm a feminist.

I'm also a bloke. You have to picture me wrestling with my toddler daughter, collecting autumn leaves for painting with my son, and then cooking dinner. You must envision dirty nappies, grocery shopping and Lego. And all of this happens, not on the weekend, but during the work day, probably while you're reading this. It's what the eponymous hero of Zorba the Greek called ''the full catastrophe''.

This is my feminism. Not because I have any grand plan for overturning patriarchy, or because I'm some militant man-hater (the straw-woman target of much ad hominem nonsense).

I'm a feminist because I take my wife's selfhood seriously.

I'm a feminist because I take my wife's selfhood seriously. It feels absurd writing this, but it's frightening how easily folks slip into separate ''roles'', rather than being a communicative, responsive couple. I recognise that she's an educated, intelligent person with a vocation of her own - and she deserves to cultivate it. She's a loving mother who wants to see her kids between the hours of seven and seven. And, finally, she's a grown woman, who likes to spend time with her handsome husband.

Importantly, she sees me in similar terms. So instead of enforcing the separation of labour, we share the burdens and joys - in the interests of sanity and empathy. We both work part-time, look after the kids and do menial chores. We play, eat and work together. In this, feminism isn't an abstract ideology or slogan. It's a quality of the relationship.

I'm surprised that so few couples embrace this vision. Of course, not everyone can work from home, or has the social capital to do so. Plenty of families are perfectly happy with their traditional gender roles, and for them it's the best possible arrangement for the family.

But given the dissatisfaction in many educated, middle-class households - to say nothing of the spats, separations and betrayals - our lifestyle is astonishingly rare.

A 2004 study, prepared for the federal government by social researcher Michael Bittman, reported that less than a quarter of surveyed fathers used flexible hours to improve their life/work balance. A tiny proportion worked part-time to care for their children. Even in cases in which women's wages were higher, most men - in Australia and overseas - still worked full-time, and this result is repeated in other research. The formative years of our children's lives, from birth to school age, are chiefly lived with a distant dad.

Fathers undoubtedly play a bigger role now than they did 50 years ago - and Australians do more than many of their international counterparts. I admire dads who, after a long day's slog in the office, are straight into baths, books and bedtime. But they are not the majority. And it's still rare to see dads with children during the week, particularly babies. On the whole, workaday ''parenthood'' means motherhood.

Alongside dubious biological arguments, this arrangement is usually justified by wages: women's earnings are generally less, and mothers' careers are frequently interrupted. Without adequate support from business and government, specialisation is necessary - it's not foolish to seize tried-and-tested security. But I often sniff the rotten scent of bad faith - as if it were all necessary and inexorable. For many middle-class families, a cluster of choices continually reappears: disproportionate mortgage, car loan, private school, full-time work for men, child-raising for women. If the mortgage is high enough, both parents work and the kids are in childcare. Perhaps dad wants to see his kids more than an hour a day, or to try a new career. Perhaps mum is slowly unfulfilled by school runs and sandwiches, or harried by juggling overtime and domesticity. And both want more of one another. But debt compels them to keep to the template. It's a recipe for bitterness, antagonism and wasted skills.

To avoid this, we earn much less than our friends and neighbours. We don't have a new car, mortgage and our kids won't be privately schooled. We don't have the holidays, or easy purchases of furniture, whitegoods or clothes. It's not third-world poverty, but it can be precarious, draining and frustrating.

But this is the sacrifice: we cop empty pockets and wonky careers in return for a more intimate, collaborative family. We hope that our kids will understand why, before it's too late: this isn't a women's issue, it's a human issue. It's not about erasing sexual difference or denying biology. It's about freely and lucidly co-operating to create a more balanced life. It's our full catastrophe.

Damon Young is a philosopher. His latest book is Distraction. Reprinted with permission.