My latest column for Colchester NCT magazine, for anybody who missed the print edition.
This autumn my eldest son started school and like many parents I’m catching my breath thinking, “Wow. How did that happen?”
It really doesn’t seem that long since we were looking at the Clearblue stick trying to work out whether it really was a positive. Can it really be almost five years since he first came into our lives?
From the moment of his birth, the milestones have fairly whizzed past. First smile, first word, walking, talking, solids, teeth, nursery, terrible twos, potty training… it never ends. And then the next one came along. Whenever I find myself wishing a certain phase was over and that we could move on to the next ‘easier’ bit, I try to remind myself that I wanted children – warts and all. Not that they have warts yet.
Children are a work in progress, which for uptight perfectionists like me, can be torture. It’s very difficult to sit back and have a moment of self-congratulation at a job well done as there’s another calling on your time. But of course, that’s the joy of parenthood. The important thing is to enjoy the journey rather than to fixate on some end point when everything will be ‘just right’.
It’s being around for these little accomplishments that makes all the hard bits of parenting worthwhile, but it’s where a lot of dads miss out due to their jobs.
Work-life balance is a naff phrase, but it’s an important concept, especially for parents. However, for many dads it is something to aspire to rather than actually achieve. Whatever the steps taken to try and create a more Scandinavian model of shared parenting in this country, the reality is that the majority of dads maintain a fairly traditional work life.
They work during the week, seeing less of their children than their partners who are closer to home, either looking after the children full-time, or combining work with childcare.
In a commuter town like Colchester it’s even tougher for many dads. Travel takes a big chunk out of the day. You might make it home in time for bedtime and stories, but given the vagaries of the railways, you may not.
I’m not saying that working dads are bad dads – far from it. Being a breadwinner is a vitally important role. But I sometimes wonder if we should periodically take stock of what’s most important.
When I was a child, my dad worked shifts in a factory. That meant that often I would hardly see him during the week as he’d either be at work or asleep during the day after working nights. Even at quite a young age I knew that he was doing something important and that although he didn’t like working such unsocial hours, he was doing it for us.
It didn’t really make it much easier though. I just wanted him to spend more time with us.
But the time that he did spend with us was all the more precious because of it, and he really went out of his way to make sure that he used it in the most fun way. I have great memories of holidays, day trips and times with family and friends. Now that he is no longer here, those memories are all the more important to me.
I work from home, something that I feel very fortunate to do. Because of this I have been able to see up close the development of both of my sons. I won’t deny that there have been times when I would rather have been at the other end of a railway line, but generally it has been a rather wonderful thing.
When J was just over a year old, my wife went back to work. We put him in nursery three days a week and I was to look after him for the other two.
In the lead up to this handover I was remarkably relaxed about what was imminent, probably because I didn’t really know how hard it was going to be. Of course I had changed nappies, I had fed J as he moved on to solid food, I played with him, but all of these activities took part with the support blanket of my wife nearby. It really was a bit of a steep learning curve when it was just him and me.
Every little task seemed to take twice or three times as long as it should have. Simply leaving the house was a logistical challenge as there was so much stuff you needed to have with you. I’d leave, get fifty yards down the road and have to go back for the nappies. Then for the spare clothes, then for something else.
I was stunned by how tough everything was – I was shattered at the end of the day with this one year old. All the time I’d been watching from the sidelines, my wife seemed to manage it effortlessly. When it came to my turn, I sort of managed to do everything that has to be done, but in the manner of the 20-stone guy who finishes a marathon in eight hours, sweating profusely and with bleeding nipples. Mission accomplished, but he’s hardly going to worry Paula Radcliffe.
What this taught me was a respect for the partner who does stay at home with the kids. Anybody who doesn’t count this as real work had obviously not spent a full day with a demanding toddler.
But it’s great too, and something more dads should try out. It’s not possible for everyone, but parents do have the option of asking their employers for more family friendly working terms. It can be easy to kid yourself that you won’t get them, or that you need the money more than time with your child. But at the end of the day, you only get to be a dad once. What do you value most?