Super dads

Here’s one for all you Super dads out there!

It’s nice to hear a positive story about dads trying to be super! Apperently we dads want it all now too – career, life-balance, and being involved parents.

I know I do. Be careful of what you wish for though – it comes with some strain from trying to be everything to everyone. Just ask the ladies…they have been trying this contortion act for years.

The penny dropped for David Willans one frantic morning on the school run before work. “I was trying to get my kids out of the house, which is always a nightmare – getting shoes on, all the rest of it – and I just ended up shouting at them,” he says. “Once I dropped them at the gates and dashed off, I was thinking, ‘I’ve never seen myself as an angry dad – that was never something I wanted to be. What happened?’ That got me thinking, ‘If I’m not going to be an angry dad, what sort do I want to be? What does it mean to be a dad?’”

Once upon a time, that question barely needed asking. Fathers were providers, breadwinners, disciplinarians of last resort; people who waited outside labour wards while their children were born, and returned promptly to work the next day. They were meant to know about cars and cricket, not about controlled crying and Calpol; and if some wanted to be more involved, then that was a private choice, nothing like the public display that parenting in the age of social media has become. (Fathers have long taught their daughters to ride bikes, but only recently have they, like David Beckham, started Instagramming it.)

nd then works from around 10am to school pickup. After that he’ll play table tennis with 13-year-old George, take the girls to Brownies and Guides, cook dinner and just hang out. “I’m less bothered about what we’re doing than just being around, able to help with homework and music practice. I think they value it: if friends ask them to do something on Wednesday, they try to avoid doing it.”

Julian Taylor with his children George, Maddie and India. He now makes time for school pickups, Brownies, homework: ‘A lot of men say they wish they could do it.’ Photograph: Andy Hall for the Guardian

There is, he thinks, no longer anything they would feel uncomfortable discussing with him: “They’ll talk about stuff that’s gone on at school, whereas if I was talking to them on a Friday evening, they probably can’t even remember Monday by then.” But Taylor also thinks it’s changed the way he works more widely. “I was working quite late a lot of evenings, but now I’m home to read a story most nights, though quite often I’ll have to log on later and finish work. You know what you’re missing out on.”

Both men have had to make sacrifices: Steele checks emails on his day off, and will even attend a board meeting, if necessary, getting the time back later. “It’s difficult,” he says. “You’re constantly juggling.” But they also encounter envy. “A lot of men say they wish they could do it,” Taylor says.

The question of what exactly men do with all this newfound time can be a vexed one for women, however. The classic school gate moan is that hands-on fathers are significantly keener on the “fun stuff” than on booking dentists’ appointments and scrubbing lunchboxes; research repeatedly shows women still do more housework than men on average, even if both work.

Taylor says sheepishly that this remains a “controversial question” in his house. But he thinks his wife, a part-time clinical psychologist, appreciates being able to work later on the day he’s at home, and she isn’t always the one to stay home when a child is sick. Similarly, Steele’s wife Louise is the “first port of call” for child-related admin because she works two days to his four. But he insists they share chores more than they did, and thinks his reduced hours have benefited their marriage. “When they were young and I was working flat out, my wife would have had them all week and she would be like, ‘I need a break, take them!’ and I would be like, ‘But I’ve been working all week – I need a break!’ There would be that friction. Now we both get a little bit of time out.”

For a growing number of fathers, however, reduced hours are more lifeline than lifestyle choice. Jamie Baker is a divorced father from the Scottish Borders who works three days a week at a local authority, handling grants for historic buildings. It’s not that well paid, and over the years he’s seen jobs advertised that would have advanced his career. But they were full-time posts and Baker, whose 10-year-old daughter Scarlet lives with him for much of the week, is adamant that she shouldn’t be in school-based childcare for 10 hours every day. “It’s just an extremely long day and I’d like to see her in the evening rather than just get in the door and go, ‘Homework, food, bed.’ That’s not a massively edifying way to parent.” Since Scarlet sees her mother at weekends, weekdays are all they have. Without working part-time, he says, “I just wouldn’t have been able to manage.”

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Being a part-timer was no big deal for Baker, given that before this job he was self-employed, and before that he was Scarlet’s primary carer: “My [ex-]wife and I made the decision that I was going to be the one who stayed home. I’d stopped work and gone back to study full-time, so my career was that much further back than hers and she was working for a big management consultancy firm – I was earning half what she was at the time.”

Now that Scarlet is older, she is about to go and live with her mother, while Baker will return to work full-time. It will, he admits, be a huge wrench, but he’s grateful for the time they’ve had. “I think Scarlet has benefited from my input: I see a lot of my parenting in her and that’s rewarding – bits of my personality and values.”

Gatrell at the University of Lancaster led a recent study of 100 fathers in two organisations that encouraged flexible working, and was struck by the number citing single fatherhood as a reason for changing hours. The trend towards “shared parenting” after relationship breakdown means even children officially resident with mothers may spend significant chunks of the week with their fathers. “There’s still an assumption that it’s mothers that want flexibility, but if you are a divorced or single father, you really need it,” she says.

Her hunch, too, is that even the prospect of divorce may be enough to get some men to scale back. “This is more speculation than evidence, but I think men do not want to give up on their children on divorce; that’s one of the reasons they’re keen to be involved fathers. In couples I have interviewed where I felt the relationship was rocky, you can see them gearing up. Men will think, ‘I’m not going to be always away, so that she automatically gets them if something goes wrong.’” Perhaps it’s no coincidence that overworked men talk about not wanting to be “weekend dads”, borrowing the lonely language of divorce.

Besides, Gatrell says, throwing yourself into family life may make more sense to men now the rewards for working hard seem less certain. “It used to be that you worked somewhere till you got to 65 and there was a pension. Now jobs aren’t reliable, you can’t rely on the pension, relationships might not work out… The one relationship that’s worth investing in is the one with your kids.”


So why, in that case, don’t more fathers do it? It’s not for lack of enthusiasm: nearly half of men in a 2009 YouGov poll said they’d go part-time if money was no object. But for the thousands of British fathers already struggling to pay the bills, money almost certainly is an object; they’re more likely to need overtime than free time.

Money and recalcitrant bosses don’t explain everything, however. Few women are rich enough to pass up a fifth of their lifetime’s earnings lightly, yet that’s the average cost of the career choices made after motherhood. And even men who can, on paper, easily afford it may struggle with stepping off the treadmill.

It’s no coincidence that overworked men talk about not wanting to be 'weekend dads', borrowing the language of divorce

Until three years ago, Nadim Saad’s life was all about creating companies, building them fast and selling for big profits. He worked upwards of 13 hours a day and didn’t see much of his daughters, now aged eight, five and three. “My whole objective in life was to work hard, make lots of money and retire early. I’m a strict kind of parent and it was difficult for me to be with my kids. There were a lot of power struggles. It wasn’t always fun, so I didn’t particularly want to spend too much time with them.”

Nadim’s wife Carole is a Montessori teacher, and she hated him shouting at the children. They were, he says, constantly at loggerheads. But when Carole began trying out new parenting techniques she had studied – involving firm, consistent boundaries – his interest was piqued. Three years ago, they co-founded Best of Parenting, running parenting courses and coaching sessions. These days he does the school run, and takes time out with the girls and with his mother, who is seriously ill.

But slowing down hasn’t come naturally to Saad, whose initial instinct was to work all hours on the new business instead. That changed, he says, only when he realised that “rather than thinking, ‘This has to be big and then I’m retiring’, this is the work of my life. This is going to be here for 20 years, so how do we manage those years to enjoy my kids, and my mum before she leaves us?” He’s aware his new life is a “running joke” with friends from his old world. “They still say, ‘Right, you’re doing this part-time, but you have got another job on the side, right?’ ”

Nadim Saad with Yara, Yasmine and Noor. ‘My objective used to be: work hard, retire early. I didn’t want to spend time with the kids. That’s changed.’ Photograph: Richard Saker for the Guardian


For many fathers, the feeling lingers that part-time is at best professionally risky, at worst faintly unmanly. The potential game-changer is the recent introduction of shared parental leave, under which new fathers can take over some of the mother’s maternity leave, if she agrees – potentially creating stronger bonds between fathers and babies, paving the way for couples to share, care and work in years to come. Yet projected take-up is low: a survey of fathers by the employment lawyers Slater Gordon found that while nine out of 10 liked the idea, a third felt managers would be unsympathetic and a fifth worried about colleagues making fun of them. The same number feared damaging their promotion prospects. For men who have seen what happens to women taking career breaks, the fear is all too realistic.

“I did a round table on this recently,” Mattison says, “and a woman said she’d pulled up a man who was very senior in the business for saying to a junior man on the team, ‘You didn’t have leave in my day.’ The role models are men who didn’t take it.” The evidence from Iceland, Norway and Sweden, which pioneered shared leave, suggests men take leave en masse only when nudged by the introduction of a “daddy quota” of days earmarked for fathers only (something the UK government rejected).

No wonder some fathers are resorting to nod-and-a-wink arrangements, reclaiming time by stealth. “If you’re a man in a competitive business, there’s a huge amount of working from home in order to do bathtime, but you can’t track it,” Mattison says. Sam Mangwana, senior employment lawyer at Slater Gordon, says for some men informal deals can be “an easier way to get into the swing of it”; but since they can be withdrawn on a whim, they’re no good for fathers who need hours they can rely on.

Her advice to men is instead to treat a formal request for flexible hours like a business case, identifying possible problems and offering solutions. “Take comfort that the law is on your side, that there are things you can write into a flexible working application that make it harder to refuse. It’s only going to be a matter of time before this starts to seem more customary, but that’s not going to happen if nobody asks for it.”

And if you genuinely can’t face that, your best hope may lie with the whippersnappers currently chasing your job. In a recent survey by Ernst & Young of 10,000 workers worldwide, three-quarters of so-called millennials wanted a job where they could work flexibly without damaging their prospects. The men want to live as well as work, and have partners with good careers of their own. “Their attitudes are definitely different,” Richard Steele says. “Maybe it’s because house prices are so unrealistic that they feel they can never afford one, and pensions are a joke. That forces them to live more for the day and just say, ‘What the hell – I’m not going to do it.’ ” Over to you, kids.

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