Working dads who want it all

Working dads who want it all - Men have had to adjust to the loss of status as sole breadwinner and in the modern world are expected to play an equal role in the household. Are they coping? MT, in collaboration with BT and the Work Foundation, polled 500 working fathers to glean their attitudes and identified five distinctive types to see how this generation does things differently. Matthew Gwyther reports, with contributions by Rebecca Hoar.

by Matthew Gwyther and Rebecca Hoar
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Men have had to adjust to the loss of status as sole breadwinner and in the modern world are expected to play an equal role in the household. Are they coping? MT, in collaboration with BT and the Work Foundation, polled 500 working fathers to glean their attitudes and identified five distinctive types to see how this generation does things differently. Matthew Gwyther reports, with contributions by Rebecca Hoar.

Being a man used to be so easy. In the old days, the average British male worker led a charmed and well-defined existence. He'd rise in the morning, having been brought a cup of tea and the paper by his loving wife, as his children got themselves ready in an orderly fashion for school. And he went off on the 08.21 to the office. (The train was never late or overcrowded and there were no leaves of any sort on the line.) He spent a long but productive day at the office and was happy with his pay cheque - a quarter of which, after tax, did not go to a nanny or childminder.

His domestic bliss resumed when he got home at about 7pm - having perhaps stopped off for a quick drink with work colleagues - ready to give his freshly bathed children a quick goodnight kiss before they went immediately to sleep. And within minutes his piping hot supper would be on the table, cooked by his home-bound and entirely supportive wife. If his offspring were small enough to wake during the night, he just turned over and went back to sleep while his dutiful spouse sorted out the problem.

Well, being a working man in the UK is not so straightforward these days. You'd have to be what pop sociologsts call a dinosaur dad still to be running a regime like the one outlined above. Fathers have lost their wives to work and are now expected to do their fair share at home. Working man has taken heed of the words spoken by Marlon Brando playing Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather: 'You can't be a real man if you don't spend time with your family.' As a result, British dads are now more involved with children than at any time since the Industrial Revolution.

So now British men increasingly want to have it all - work, life and proper involvement with their children. A good number are finding it none too easy. Like any group going through great change, they find themselves more vulnerable. As the psychiatrist Dr Anthony Clare wrote in his book On Men: Masculinity in Crisis: 'Men, like colonialists seeing their empire crumble, don't like what is happening.' The Government, via the DTI, is sufficiently concerned about this discomfort to be introducing dad-friendly legislation this month.

At MT, we've blazed a trail for the past five years on the whole work/life balance issue. But our research has never before looked specifically at the state of men alone. Indeed, it could be argued that work/life has been treated as a feminine issue and the problems that working women encounter have had most attention.

So, with no excuses and the support of BT and the Work Foundation, we have conducted a survey of 500 male MT readers to see how they are coping with the changes that have occurred around them.

What we found was a complex, varied and sometimes alarming state of affairs. We have identified five types of father from the group and have conducted interviews with each. There are clear and unignorable signs that working life seriously impinges on the family commitments of some of our men. Thirty per cent said their job 'seriously interferes with my private life'. This sense of unhappiness applies across the age range, decreasing slightly only when respondents had reached the age of 55.

A quarter of our men felt that they had neglected their family commitments recently, and 24% admitted they have neglected their children - 21% missed their kid's Christmas play at school in 2002.

It's surprising that these figures are so high. It takes a fairly honest, not to say brave, father to confess to a stranger on a telephone interview line that he has neglected his kids. Men are also famous for their stoicism (or sometimes blindness) in work/life issues - they may not acknowledge a problem when a woman would be confronting it. There will be those who would judge that a certain individual neglects his children when the father in question would not feel that to be the case.

What we do know here is that guilt is a rising issue, because men feel that both they and their peers should be doing more when it comes to childcare. In the mid-70s, fathers with children under the age of five spent less than 15 minutes a day in child-related activity. By the late '90s, despite increased working hours, dads were managing to get an average of two hours a day with their children. Since 1960, the amount of time men spend on cooking and housework has tripled. What man these days writes cooking off as a 'woman's business' when male superchefs are our gods?

European Union data show that British fathers work the longest hours in Europe - in 2001, an average of 46.1 hours per week. In the same year, mothers' average weekly hours of work were 27.8. (About one in eight fathers works 60-plus hours a week, but fewer than 2% of women reach this figure.)

Little wonder, perhaps, that the Sunday Times' recent survey of the Best 100 Companies to work for in the UK revealed that 'women are the happier sex at work'. Working mothers were found to feel a greater sense of fulfilment in their work than their husbands, greater personal growth and less stress - all despite the fact that they still earn on average 18% less per hour than a man doing the same job.

Probably our most telling findings illustrate the difference in both attitude and behaviour of this generation of fathers compared with the previous. We asked our men: 'Compared to your father, do you pay more attention to work/life balance issues?' Seventy four per cent said yes, and among those with children under five - those for whom childcare is the new nightlife and who are most under pressure - that figure rose to 84%.

What's clear is that in 40 years a profound change has occurred among British men, and it has left a proportion of them reeling. 'Do you think you are under greater work pressure than your father?' we asked. Six out of 10 said yes, and among those with under-fives, the figure rose to nearly seven out of 10.

To the question 'Are you more likely to feel guilty about neglecting domestic duties than your father?', 62% said yes, a figure that rises to 75% for those with children under five. Interestingly, even among the 55-plus group - more likely to be 'empty nesters' with childcare duties finished at home - 57% felt some guilt about not helping out enough. There are even New Men, it appears, among the late middle aged. 'It's taken me 45 years to recognise I had a work/life problem,' said one of our more senior respondents.

It's important to acknowledge that MT's latest research does not paint a picture of a universally stressed-out and miserable consort. Not only did a remarkable 96% of our men find their work interesting and challenging, but many of them are clearly very happy that they are playing a greater role in the upbringing of their children than their own fathers did. They are glad not to be dinosaur dads. Our 'Happy Dad' Mathieu Glasman is in many ways a growing 21st-century phenomenon. Men like him neither expect to be nor want to be like their fathers, and many pointed out to us that they had not been happy seeing so little of their fathers when they were growing up.

Meanwhile, it's clear that it has become government policy that fatherhood and the role of men should be under the microscope. This month for the first time, parents of children under six or of disabled children under 18 will have the legal right to ask to work flexibly. (The right to ask does not, of course, mean that such arrangements must be conceded.) In addition, men are going to acquire a right to paid paternity leave of two weeks, albeit at a mere pounds 100 per week.

What is significant is the attitude to the Government's initiative, which even its biggest supporters concede is just a small move in the right direction. There is notable scepticism here: 30% of those aged 45 and over already believe that the Government's family-friendly policies have gone too far. Many men in our study don't like government getting involved in such things. Paternity leave was dismissed as silly by one. Commented another: 'This is all going to be far too tough on small businesses.' A third respondent called it 'a whole lot of nonsense about pressure and stress'.

We detect the beginnings of a backlash here. A good number will be left with extra work at the office while a colleague is away on paternity leave and they will resent it.

MT columnist Richard Reeves has done extensive studies on work/life and especially the lot of the British working male. He is not sure we have any answers yet. 'There is something to be said for simplicity - having one breadwinner out of the home and one carer in the home. At the moment it's an experiment in controlled chaos. When I was doing some research on this subject I came across this man who had a startling admission.

He said he used to get home in his car from work and wait outside the house until he saw that the lights in his children's bedroom had gone off. He was too exhausted and fed up to get in there and roll his sleeves up after a day at work. He feared that he'd walk in through the door and his equally tired wife would just hand the kids over with 'It's your turn now'.'

Reeves is not anti-work (he wrote a book called Happy Mondays - Putting the Pleasure Back into Work) but he doesn't think our country's present model can be sustained for ever. 'Of course men and women can both pursue careers,' he says, 'but it's often at a cost to their own relationship. Modern man can be both an efficient father and manager but that might mean you stop being a good husband, and that's a real loss.' Our divorce rate - second-highest in Europe after Belgium - may well have something to do with this and it's nothing to be proud of.

The past 40 years have brought great changes in the workplace and at home, as women have grappled with the issue of how to balance work and family life without one trespassing too far on the other. It's likely that we are about to see a similar revolution in the lives of Britain's working men. The story is not over yet, and MT is sure to return to the subject again before long. l

21ST-CENTURY DAD

Ten years ago, after a serious illness, MURRAY PARTRIDGE, 45, gave up a full-time position as creative director of a top London advertising agency to try a portfolio career and reinvent himself as a househusband. 'I'd had enough of the relentlessness of it,' he says. 'My diary felt like the Queen's, with one 15-minute window in the next month.'

Murray's wife Solange works in Paris for Gucci's jewellery brand Boucheron. 'She has a totally different attitude from me towards work,' says Murray (opposite, reflected in the mirror). 'It's her lifeblood and first priority.' The couple have two children, Otis and Mardi. If anything, 11-year-old son Otis has a more stressful timetable than his father, leaving on the school bus at 7.25am and not returning till 5.15pm, where his dad is on hand to help with homework. 'Rubbish - all of it,' notes Otis.

'I think my generation looks at children differently,' says Murray. 'We seem to feel far more responsible for their very happiness.'

Murray's father Clive, 78, took a more traditional approach to fatherhood. 'During the week, I didn't see the children, though I was there at the weekend. In the late '60s, when we had two, my wife said to me: 'They're not giving me enough work. We need to have more.'' The Partridge family went up to six.

STEP-DAD

DAVE WILSON, a manager at BT, is on his second marriage and is part of what used to be called an 'unconventional family structure', although he is hardly unusual in a country where 40% of marriages end in divorce.

Dave has two sons Adam and Joe, aged 13 and 6, who live with him and his wife in Stourbridge in the Midlands. Joe is his birth child and Adam his step-son. His caring responsibilities also include helping to keep an eye on his elderly and infirm parents-in-law, who have just moved into residential care around the corner from the Wilson family home.

'There's no question that Adam is part of my family,' says Wilson, 'a key and equal member.' For Wilson, commuting is his major bugbear. 'The whole thing is about trying to achieve balance, and it's tough. It's my six-year-old's birthday next week and I have to go to London for an awards ceremony that day. You can't get away with just telling him it is his birthday on another day, as I could when he was smaller. I suppose Joe is growing up to understand that my work is important to us as a family. He knows that my going to London is important.'

HAPPY DAD

MATHIEU GLASMAN, 42, became a father relatively late when his son Jack arrived two years ago. A partner at MaST International, a training and development consultancy specialising in soft skills, Mathieu is away from home for about 50 nights a year and his wife works full-time. But he is able to compensate by working from home two days a week, when he takes great pleasure lunching his son. 'We train our clients in stress management and work/life balance, so it's important that we practise it as well,' he says. 'I am a happy dad. I think I've got the balance about right. Being older, my take on life is very different from the one I had when I was 22 or 32. I'm well established in my career and I feel I've got a perspective on what is important and what isn't. I think it's obvious that people do their best at work if they are happy at home. You will always get more from a contented workforce.' At the same time he acknowledges that work pressure is massive for others. 'Compared to 40 years ago, things are in some respects more difficult: there's no such thing as a job for life any more and, with the current economic climate, there's a huge pressure for staff to go that extra mile.'

JUGGLING DAD

MIKE PECKHAM has run his own training consultancy, PSA, since 1989. He and his wife Lizzie live in Wales with their two-year-old son, Ashraf. As the company owner, Mike, who's 40, works long hours. Many of his clients are overseas, and already this year he's visited Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal, France and South Africa. On average, he's away from home three nights a week. He enjoys the work, but like many modern dads finds it a struggle to balance work and home - many PSA clients request Mike rather than one of his colleagues. 'It worries me that Ashraf grows up in the relative abnormality of dad being away a lot,' Mike says. 'I try very hard to make sure he understands what's going on.' If Mike is away for any length of time, he notices how Ashraf has changed on his return. 'In two weeks I can see that he's grown and has learnt new words. It's a measurable change and that means it's a measurable loss of things I've missed out on.' Mike compensates by being fully 'present' when he's home. That means not taking work home, concentrating fully on Lizzie and Ashraf when he's with them, and sacrificing hobbies like squash and cricket. 'It's easy to think that working long hours is glamorous and exciting, but it's not,' he says. 'It's not something to be proud of, it's something to sort out. I know there's something I need to change.'

CARER DAD

KEVIN SMITH lives with his wife Pam, their sons Robin, 13, and Michael, 8, and Pam's elderly mother in Walton-on-Thames. Kevin drives 40 minutes to work at an antiques restoration business in Wandsworth, sometimes dropping the boys off at school on the way. He's normally home by 6pm, but finds it doesn't leave him much time to spend with his sons on a weeknight. Weekends are frenetic, as the boys need to be taken to and from various music and sports activities and Kevin spends time catching up on work. Pam works three days a week, and he feels they don't always have time to sit down together. 'There's always someone in the house,' he says. 'And we have to take everyone into account when we're doing anything. We were recently asked at work whether we looked forward to coming back after the weekend. And I'm ashamed to admit it, but I quite look forward to coming in on Monday mornings. At work you've got some kind of control over things. I should enjoy being at home, being with the kids, but it's always so manic, there's so much going on.' He finds it difficult to fit everything in, especially as the demands of work and home grow. 'I'd like to do it better. But it's very difficult getting that balance. I really need to make that effort.'

< dinosaur="" dad="" or="" new="" man?="" try="" our="" quick="" quiz="" 1.="" who="" or="" what="" are="" the="" following:="" sk8="" rock,="" konnie="" huq,="" quidditch,="" powerpodz="" and="" mary-kate="" &="" ashley?="" (answers="" below).="" 2.="" do="" you="" know="" the="" first="" name="" of="" your="" children's="" teachers?="" 3.="" have="" you="" met="" your="" kid's="" second-best="" friend="" at="" school?="" 4.="" are="" you="" able="" to="" list="" your="" child's="" current="" favourite="" and="" most="" loathed="" foods?="" 5.="" if="" your="" child="" is="" between="" five="" and="" seven="" years="" old,="" do="" you="" know="" how="" many="" subjects="" are="" taught="" at="" key="" stage="" 1?="" can="" you="" list="" them?="" (answers="" below)="" 6.="" can="" you="" name="" your="" child's="" favourite="" pop="" star,="" film="" star="" and="" tv="" programme?="" 7.="" do="" you="" know="" what="" your="" children="" would="" like="" to="" be="" when="" they="" grow="" up?="" (and="" do="" they="" want="" to="" do="" what="" you="" do?)="" answers="" to="" q1:="" type="" of="" music="" -="" typical="" example="" is="" avril="" lavigne;="" blue="" peter="" presenter;="" harry="" potter's="" favourite="" schoolyard="" game;="" miniature="" football="" figures="" with="" over-sized="" heads;="" the="" 16-year-old="" american="" olsen="" twins="" with="" a="" range="" of="" clothing="" and="" beauty="" brands.="" answers="" to="" q5:="" eleven="" subjects:="" english,="" maths,="" science,="" design="" &="" technology,="" information="" &="" communication="" technology,="" history,="" geography,="" art="" &="" design,="" music,="" physical="" education,="" religious="" education.="" family="" man:="" favoured="" or="" frustrated="" at="" work?="" does="" your="" company="" offer="" family-friendly="" practices?="" yes:="" 58%="" no:="" 41%="" don't="" know:="" 1%="" what="" family-friendly="" practices="" does="" your="" company="" offer?="" creche:="" 7%="" flexitime:="" 67%="" jobshare:="" 5%="" paternity="" leave:="" 12%="" part-time="" working:="" 5%="" homeworking:="" 18%="" career="" break/sabbatical:="" 4%="" do="" you="" make="" use="" of="" your="" company's="" family-friendly="" practices?="" yes:="" 69%="" no:="" 31%="" do="" you="" think="" government="" policy="" on="" family-friendly="" practices="" goes="" far="" enough?="" under="" 45="" over="" 45="" goes="" far="" enough:="" 37%="" 38%="" doesn't="" go="" far="" enough:="" 46%="" 29%="" goes="" too="" far:="" 9%="" 27%="" with="" without="" children="" children="" goes="" far="" enough:="" 35%="" 39%="" doesn't="" go="" far="" enough:="" 46%="" 31%="" goes="" too="" far:="" 12%="" 21%="" do="" you="" think="" your="" firm="" does="" too="" much="" to="" accommodate="" staff="" who="" have="" families?="" yes:="" 7%="" no:="" 77%="" undecided/don't="" know:="" 16%="">

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