Being a parent isn’t easy for many of us at the best of times. Millions of us have been furloughed or are having to work from home, and the new normal is a combination of home-schooling and playtime amidst work emails and Zoom calls as we continue to try and earn a living.
With partial lifts to lockdown rules and discussions still underway about when schools will reopen, it’s unclear when any of this will end. The result is a great deal of guilt.
As a dad, I’ve experienced this: the fear of underperforming means the threat of losing my job and therefore my family’s security. As a man, I see my role as a provider. What good am I if I can’t even do that?
This guilt isn’t exclusive to dads of course – many mums who are currently working from home will surely feel exactly the same way. Statistics from the ONS last year revealed that 92 per cent of men with dependent children were in work compared to 75 per cent of women, while around 30 per cent of women with children aged 14 and under had reduced their working hours to accommodate childcare, compared to just under five per cent of men in a similar situation.
Lockdown means many more dads are now at home on a more or less permanent basis and fully exposed to the work-life balance juggle that has previously been thought of as the domain of mums. It means a lot of us are being forced to re-examine the role we play in our kids’ lives.
Three years ago, I decided to set up a non-profit organisation called Dad La Soul; a support group focused on tackling social isolation in dads. As a middle-aged man, it is pretty embarrassing to say‘Hey, I’m a “Billy-no-mates” and I would like some proper friends to chat about more than which team won the league’ and I wanted to change that.
Through it, I rapidly found out there are so many men like me: isolated, stressed out, and suffering from Imposter Syndrome – feeling like they were failing as a dad.
While we used to get together for dad and kid only playdates that involve everything from robot-making to rap battles, when lockdown began it only intensified our feelings of isolation and stress. Desperate to keep my business going – not just for financial reasons, but for some much-needed dad camaraderie – I quickly took the service onto Zoom.
And it was here, in amongst the chaos of scavenger hunts and quizzes, that dads from all around the world started to share their stories of what it’s like to be suddenly thrown into a world where there’s no escape or barrier from family life.
Jim Coulson, aka Bewildered Dad, a 41-year radio presenter and dad of two from Yorkshire, told me that trying to keep both his six-year-old and three-year-old entertained at the same time was ‘ a juggling act so complex that it could feasibly win Britain’s Got Talent.’
With a mortgage to pay and food to buy, he has had to shift his approach to parenting once lockdown was implemented; now he is simply striving ‘for the best possible balance, and that will have to do.’
It’s important to understand that, in these crazy times,‘that will have to do’ is a normal feeling to have. Most dads I know would love for little Jimmy to sit beside us studiously completing their Latin and Algebra homework in record time, while we box off next month’s quarterly sales reports.
Instead, we are dealing with complex emotional needs, both our own and our children’s. So, as long as they have not gone feral, I think managing to hold your s**t together without having a global-sized meltdown can be seen as a result.
For many fathers who don’t live with their children, lockdown has not just affected the ‘quality’ of their parenting, but the time they can spend with them, too.
In a recent BBC report Sir Andrew McFarlane, head of the family courts, said that children should keep seeing parents they don’t live with, providing everyone in both households are in good health. Yet many family lawyers have been inundated with separated parents arguing over contact during the lockdown.
This is the situation a good friend of mine, Kelvin*, has. Despite being awarded equal custody, his time with his child has been reduced to two hours a day on an ad-hoc basis as an ex-partner has been disrupting the hard-fought status quo. It’s not enough time to connect with his child properly – he barely has the chance to agree on what game to play before it is time to say goodbye again. It’s utterly heartbreaking and induces yet more guilt.
Compared to Kelvin, I feel like I’m one of the fortunate ones – following the school shut down, I get to see my son, whom I co-parent, much more than usual. It’s an unexpected bonus, and I’ve been able to rearrange my working hours to do longer days when he is not with me.
Yet I’m still faced with living and working alone in my flat, counting down the days until I can get a cuddle from my son, and dealing with the pressure of seeing a business that I had fought so hard to build from scratch over the last few years almost disappear in a flash.
It’s mixed with the sadness of seeing my son’s face when the penny dropped that his eight birthday party was going to be cancelled in April.
Post-lockdown, my goal is to be more present with my son but it won’t happen overnight. I’m human and things don’t always run to plan, so I intend to give myself a break now and again.
It’s almost universally accepted that it is mums that do the majority of the childcare but in recent years, I have seen more and more dads in the playground, and at our playdates, and heard so many wishing that joint parental leave was more available.
An increasing number are taking on more practical, direct roles, joining mums who sacrifice their careers as school pickups, doctors appointments and sports days take precedence over everything else.
When life gets back to normal, whatever that is, I hope that employers will see the light and allow more family-friendly working hours for all parents. If employers want more productive staff, then giving them access to technology, and the flexibility to put their family lives first, will surely pay significant dividends in the long term. Happier, less stressed employees can only lead to lower recruitment costs and a reduction in the levels of sick days taken.
Out of a horrendous human catastrophe, I hope that positive changes can come about. Changes that involve dads being able to see and interact with parts of their children’s lives that they might otherwise have only heard about second-hand, or by a photo shared on Facebook.
Rather than focus on climbing the career ladder, the impetus could be on building healthier, more emotionally resilient children, who grow up seeing both parents taking a hands-on approach. I think that would be an incredible triumph.