At the age of 33 I gave up a career I was proud of to become a stay-at-home dad.
The decision was not immediate; I started by taking paternity leave, then shared parental leave, then my wife Naomi and I both worked fewer days. But becoming a father had given me purpose. I wanted to dedicate myself to my children and there was no balance to be struck: work took me away when I felt I should be home.
And so I became a full-time dad. Our eldest was two and our second was due. Our family grew and a couple of years later I was the main carer for our three young children.
The world into which my children have been born excites me. Today’s – and tomorrow’s – opportunities in the arts, science, sport, technology and politics would be utterly incomprehensible to previous generations.
But it is not a world without fault or risk. Until #MeToo, everyday harassment was something girls could expect to put up with and boys feel pressured to take part in. And though our girls will benefit from the courage of generations of women, there will be more to do. Our boys continue to be damaged by low expectations of both their academic and emotional development epitomised in the lazy mantra, ‘boys will be boys’. Beauty, of both girls and boys, is too often measured in how our bodies look rather than what they help us to achieve.
Against this backdrop, I feel deeply the traditional call to protect and provide for my children. My interpretation is to prepare them to see off life’s threats, take advantage of its possibilities and pass that gift on to others. To set the tone for a lifetime right from birth.
‘How?’ was a question that thrilled me; Naomi and I discussed it daily for years (we still do). I didn’t want simply to be rule setter, with the children deferring to me for judgements of right or wrong. Rather, I set out to bestow a principle that I felt would carry them through life. The words that worked for us were: treat people well – including yourself.
From this came four behaviours which we reward, reinforce when broken and repeat ad-nauseam: be kind with your words, gentle with your touch, generous with your spirit and brave with your actions. These expectations apply equally to all of us in the family; parents and children.
And we thought about how strong emotions – anger, jealousy, fear – can cause us to stray from our values. So I try to help the children understand these emotions as early warning signs from the girl or boy in the mirror. Cries of hunger, tiredness, over-indulgence, injustice or for independence need to be heard and the child in the mirror nurtured to find their peace.
I hope that constant repetition means in time those words will come to form the inner voice that guides the children, particularly when they are faced with fear, anger or injustice.
To put all this into practice we help them to trust their own voice and the power it can carry. They can say ‘no’ to unwanted cuddles or ‘stop’ when the tickles are too much. We teach them they can question and disagree with what they see and hear from adults, books and television – and also how to judge and trust reliable sources that help them learn. When they have an idea, I try to say ‘yes, let’s do it’ even when the task is doomed – because there is much to learn from failure, in particular that our relationship is not in jeopardy when it happens.
Between the school run, cooking and all the other zillions of functional tasks, we try to teach them to love learning – by reading together, talking about their questions or doing school work together. In those few moments of peace I like them to see me reach for a book rather than a phone. I’ve learned to be consistent about meal-times, bed-times and screen-time so we know they will have the energy throughout the day to learn and grow. With three you can’t hover, but I try to give each child some one-on-one time every day because I see how positive attention removes their doubt, feeds their souls and assures them of their value to our world. And I try to make sure whatever we do includes a bit of fun, laughter or silliness – we try never to hide a smile.
For better or for worse my children are always watching and I am their teacher – with every word I utter and decision I make. I challenge myself daily and they call me out for not living up to our expectations. I say a proper sorry when I’ve got something wrong. How I behave will be what they’ll come to expect of all men. And so I have to live the values I hope to pass on.
Fatherhood gives me a reason to become a better man. I have changed what I eat, how much I drink and how I drive. When one of our children became fearful in social situations I found the courage to seek help for the social anxiety that had undermined, inhibited and isolated me for as long as I am able to remember. I have also had cause to reflect on how I talk to those in positions of power and those who are not. Both on social media and in the real world I have dialled up the respect that I afford to women, including to Naomi – and we work together on maintaining a loving relationship that isn’t only about sharing out the to-do list.
It’s demanding. Significantly more so than anything else I’ve taken on and simply not possible without both Naomi and I being fully committed. Even so, I fall short more often that I’d like and feel guilty for that. I can be fractious and testy when running late (a daily occurrence). And quickly overwhelmed when everyone talks to me at the same time (they do it anyway). In general, however, I benefit when I don’t sweat the small stuff. Though deeply frustrating, fussy eating, temper tantrums and pushing boundaries are, I think, just as much a part of learning as the toddler who stumbles, the wannabe golfer who shanks a shot or the novice violinist who hits a bum note. Ironing out the faults takes several thousand positive repetitions.
Seeing my children grow is, for me, a joy that has never been matched. So long as our finances can take it, there is no job I can envisage that could take me away from them, until school takes them away from me.
At the third time of asking, however, raising a child does not challenge me as before. Now I know more or less what I’m doing and how I want to do it. This is a blessing and a curse. No longer so absorbed, I can lift my head and see more of the world I am missing. And now, for the first time since I gave up my career, I feel resentment. Life’s balance is wrong and the boy in the mirror cries at the injustice. So, to be a better father and husband, I now need to do a little bit more of what I enjoy and in so doing, show the children that it’s ok for me to do things other than be their dad. Blogging is part of that.
But there is a further challenge. I was a young man (looking back perhaps still a boy) when my first child was born. I will be forty when my youngest starts school. While I was consumed with my family, the world did not wait. Naomi has been promoted, repeatedly. Friends have moved up or moved on. Colleagues have lost touch. Once I was me. Now I am my children’s dad. Memories of my work achievements have faded, anecdotes grown old, skills rusted. Doubt has taken hold.
A world that looks so full of possibility for my children can look intimidating to me. While I have given my energies to help shape and grow their worlds, my own has shrunk. I now question whether I could do jobs that I did successfully in the past. When I left university for work, I did so alongside my peers. But now my peers have left me behind. This time, I’ll need to make that move alone. I fear that I won’t find my feet. I will fall. I will fail.
Except, of course, I am not alone.
My children are here; I am still their teacher. And so I have no choice but to accept the fear and try set an example to follow. And of course remember that millions of women (and yes, a few men) have also faced exactly this challenge. For all the thinking I’ve done, I don’t know if my approach to parenting will turn out to be the best I could have achieved. But the least I can do is try to live up to the expectations I have set: it’s my turn to be brave.
This blog was originally written as a guest post for The Elephant Mum’s ‘Daddy’s got this’ series. This and other contributions can be seen here: https://theelephantmum.com/post-series/daddys-got-this/