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I don’t know how he does it! Meet the new superdads

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.)

But fathers are no longer shadowy figures in the background of family life. In the 12 years since the introduction of paid paternity leave, when the state first recognised the need for a father to be present in a new baby’s early life, men have gained (alongside women) the right to request flexible working hours once they become parents, the right to take time off for antenatal appointments, even the right, from this April, to take over part of the year’s maternity leave from the mother, if both agree. Each of these changes has created new opportunities for, but also expectations of, men.

A growing body of research, meanwhile, suggests that fathers reading to their kids or helping with homework has a discernible impact on children’s life chances. All of which leaves many fathers facing a dilemma that will be wearily familiar to most mothers: if being a “good dad” means being intimately and vigorously present in your child’s life, how can you do that and work without becoming a stressed, knackered shadow of your former self?

When his first son Arlo, now six, was born, Willans was working long hours for a communications agency. Uncomfortable about missing out at home, he initially brokered a deal to leave the office early and catch up on work later at night. Last year he changed tack again, setting up his own business. Now he works two days a week in a jobshare, and for the rest of the week he pursues freelance work, keeps a blog, BeingDads, for which he interviews other fathers, and spends time with Arlo and three-year-old Toby. (Their mother works three days a week as a social worker.)

It has, he says, changed the way he fathers. “There’s a knee-jerk reaction in our society where to spend time with your kids is to spend money, so it’s, ‘Let’s go do this!’ But if you ask them what they want, they just like playing Lego for 20 days straight. If you’re not relaxed, if you’re in a constant ‘deadline deadline, work work’ mood. That’s difficult, but if you can slow everything down a bit, it allows you to spend more quality time.”

But that time out comes at a price. Willans is fairly sure that cutting his hours has held him back professionally, although he has no regrets. “I’d say it has, if what I wanted to get out of the world was to be a big shot in a big agency. But that’s not what I want. If you think about it in a short-term way, it becomes problematic. But over the longer term, you think, well, my kids are only going to be young once, and I have to work, so how do I design my life to fulfil my career ambitions as well as my family ones?”

Just under a million men now actively choose to work part-time, according to the Office of National Statistics, a threefold rise since 1995 (although some will be older men, gradually winding down to retirement). The true number is probably larger once you count all the fathers juggling their lives in ways less easily captured by statistics: the self-employed men fitting work around nursery pickups, the “under the radar” dads working from home occasionally and stealing time for the school run.

And, rather tellingly, this stealthy movement of men into the home has coincided with a surge of women into the office. Nine in 10 mothers now work, and in almost half of couples, women now earn at least as much as their partners, challenging age-old assumptions about whose career, if anyone’s, should take the hit when children come along. Men no longer come home from a hard day at the office to find dinner ready and the children neatly tucked up in bed; the reality of existence in dual-income households is, at best, a domestic life that would grind to a halt if both didn’t pitch in and, at worst, two exhausted people bickering about who was supposed to buy milk on the way home.

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“Years ago, it wouldn’t have occurred to a man in a traditional breadwinning family that there was an option,” says Caroline Gatrell, a professor of management studies at the University of Lancaster who has researched fatherhood extensively. “Then, 10 years ago, they might have thought it, but not said it. The research I am doing now suggests they might do it, but find it difficult to say what they are doing.” In other words, men haven’t changed overnight, but they may feel more liberated to do what some have always wanted to do.

Barclaycard advert
An overworked father in Barclaycard’s advertisement from the campaign by Bartle Bogle Hegarty. Photograph: Barclaycard

The man in the picture has a phone clamped to one ear, an armful of shopping, two children running riot around him and a rictus grin stapled to his face. He’s dressed for the park, but looks suspiciously as if he’s fending off work calls. He resembles, in short, nothing so much as those frenetic 90s images of women clutching a briefcase and a baby, “having it all” through gritted teeth.

Yet if the two fathers-to-be who created this ad for Barclaycard – under the frankly optimistic strapline “Today I will stress less” – are right, this is who modern men identify with now. “We wanted someone who could represent the sort of juggling, frazzled, unconventional lives [our] research had so strongly identified with,” says Will Lion, strategy director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, which is behind the campaign. Market testing suggests that men found their cheerfully beleaguered dad easier to relate to than the “stock successful person with a flashy smile”.

But even for men who no longer aspire to chasing the money, the idea of going part-time still has what Karen Mattison calls “a huge brand problem”. One in five clients at Timewise, the recruitment agency she co-founded specialising in part-time and flexible jobs, is now male, but Mattison finds many would rather talk about having a “portfolio career” than working part-time. Many don’t want to go public on the annual Power Part Time List she compiles, worrying about what people will think. All of which helps explain why the new working pattern of choice for many hands-on professional dads isn’t three days a week (the classic option for mothers) but four – just enough time at home to deepen your relationship with the kids, not enough time away from the office to fall off the radar, and no long awkward absences to be explained.

Richard Steele is a father of three boys aged seven, 10 and 12, and works a four-day week as finance director at Cook, which sells high-end frozen ready meals to the kind of families who don’t have time to worry about supper. Having worked long hours for most of his career in retail, he had become increasingly disenchanted. “It was a gradual thing, thinking, ‘God, it wasn’t worth staying that late and missing that school play – I’m never going to get that time back,’ ” he says. He now works from home on Tuesdays – enabling him to do the school run, and give his wife Louise a chance to get to work unencumbered – and takes Fridays off completely.

Being around the boys more has, he says, allowed him to get to know them properly. “When I was working full-time, you get so caught up in it that it’s not until you go on your annual holiday and see them playing on the beach that you stop and think, ‘My God, that’s my kids. They’ve really grown up.’ If you spend more time with them, you’re part of it, rather than checking in and checking out.”

Julian Taylor, a lawyer from St Albans who works four and a half days a week, “tentatively” asked for Wednesday afternoons off almost a decade ago, because “I was worried I was becoming a bit of a weekend dad”. Now, on Wednesdays he takes 11-year-old Maddie and India, eight, to school; helps with reading; and 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 children
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.”

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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.”

Jamie Baker and daughter
Jamie Baker with Scarlet. ‘Just seeing my daughter in the evening wasn’t an edifying way to parent. I think she’s benefited from my input and that’s rewarding.’ Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian

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.

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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 and daughters
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 & Youngof 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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