Skye Thomas

Skye Thomas
Writer, Rebel, and Soapbox Ranter

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Is being a good dad ruining your career?

Fifteen years after women first tried to have it all, men now want the same. But is it possible both to impress the boss and be an attentive father? New dad Rafael Behr on the struggle to juggle career with fatherhood

Rafael Behr
Sunday June 11, 2006

Observer

I met a vision of my future self for coffee in Heathrow Airport. He lives abroad but was passing through London on business for a few hours, so we sat in a cafe in Terminal One.

'If you want to take risks, if you have any gambles you want to make with your career, make them before you have kids,' the vision said. He sipped his coffee and ruefully lit a cigarette.

It isn't so much that you don't have the stomach for risk when you have kids, he explained, it's just that the riskier ideas don't occur to you anymore. There's always something else to think about first, something that depends on stability and predictable cash flow. 'Once you have kids it's always safety first,' he said.

The vision was my first cousin. We have always looked alike. He is fairer skinned and taller, but there is no mistaking the kinship in the contours of our faces. He is also 12 years older than me, with three children and a look of deep-down fatigue. The coffee and cigarettes have been unkind. His eyes - our eyes - speak of rest perpetually deferred.

My cousin didn't know when we had that conversation that my partner, now my wife, was 10 weeks pregnant, which apparently left me six months to realise all of my unfulfilled ambitions. In that time I also had to get my head around the idea of being a father. Before I had even waved goodbye at passport control I had started the mental audit of projects to abandon. A few unwritten novels had been pulped by the time I was on the tube, my future induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was cancelled.

When you're about to be a dad, nothing brings you down like the bleak testimony of other dads. 'You're about to enter a world of pain,' they told me. They conjured the spectre of sleepless nights and irreversible estrangement from the pub. It reminded me of school, standing outside the headmaster's office waiting to be called in for punishment. Your imminent pain was entertainment for everyone who passed. A lot of men clearly saw fatherhood as discipline, as responsibility foisted on you from above - ultimately necessary, but preferably postponed.

A few of my friends, however, got it right. One said to me: You are about to fall in love.

No one mentioned that in my ante-natal classes. There wasn't really time to talk about paternal bonding, not once we had dealt with the extraneousness of men in general, and wicked obstetric surgeons hell bent on inflicting Caesarean sections on womankind. To be fair to the National Childbirth Trust, which ran the course, birth is obviously about mothers and babies. At the beginning, fathers are auxiliary. It is a role in which often they are willingly typecast: provide, support, cheerlead. They pat themselves on the back for the little forays into infant-related domesticity. They wear their baby-vomit-stained shirts as badges of new-man credibility. They change a few nappies as a concession to modernity.

Our society still prefers to define parenting by traditional gender roles. It has become marginally less taboo for men to stay at home, but usually they have make a straight swap in status with bread-winning women. Both parties are made to feel slightly freakish. Even after all the battles won by feminism the career/parent equation is still a zero-sum game - as if there is a finite amount of commitment a person can muster, and if they spend it on their work, they must be depriving their kids. Working mums have wrestled with that problem for decades. But only now, a couple of generations into the revolution, men are starting to enter the fray. Why, we are asking, does it have to be a choice? Why can't we have it all?

Some of us are at least trying. I work part-time. When I mention that fact to most people their response is to ask what I do the rest of the time, to which the answer is: I grin inanely at a baby; I spend time with my wife - who is on maternity leave until later this year - and Edie, our daughter. I have a few friends who have similarly managed to reroute their professional lives around their families, at least temporarily. None of us knows how things will work out. We take pay cuts and snub our employers so we can sing off-key lullabies and mix baby rice. We try not to think about the long term. We like to think we are a trend but we are probably just lucky, or reckless.

We are definitely a minority. The midwives that came to visit after Edie was born looked amazed when the door was opened by a man holding a newborn. I enjoyed a strange honeymoon during which the simple fact of not having absconded or sought refuge in drink seemed to bring kudos from the health service and I was smug about it. I thanked previous generations of emotionally constipated workaholics and flaky absentee dads for lowering the bar for the rest of us.

But that was before I had to face any real dilemmas, before work deadlines and Edie's bath time started battling ingloriously for primacy in my head. In just the last week I have worked on days off, snuck out of home at dawn to put in quality time at the office, all so that I can write about being a dad who wants to put baby before career. The hypocrisy is nauseating.

'Men now are in the position that women were in 10 years ago, torn between the office and home,' complains Mike. He is 30 years old, with three children. He leaves work at 4.30 every day to get home before six to relieve the nanny. His partner will still be at work. 'That means I have to leave everyone else slaving away at their desks.' Mike is lucky, he has an accommodating employer, but not so accommodating that he wants to be identified in a national newspaper. That is wise.

'For all that is said about men and women sharing the burden more equally, in a lot of jobs putting in a seven-and-a-half hour day and then going home and looking after children is still a recipe for getting fired,' says Richard Sennett, Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics.

Professor Sennett has studied the way working life has changed in the last generation. Since the 1970s Britain has liberalised its labour laws - making hiring and firing cheaper and easier for employers. It has also absorbed thousands of women into the workforce to compete with men, although still not on a level playing field. The theoretical benefit from these changes is a more fluid jobs market, making the economy more responsive to global demand. If you are in the business of manufacturing widgets and the returns aren't high enough - because, say, China makes widgets cheaper - you can sack your widget-makers and start a new business importing and selling Chinese widgets.

One unintended consequence is that everyone feels less secure. The shadow of redundancy is supposed to make people work harder, but it also makes them less happy. Another social side-effect is that the labour market prefers young, newly qualified people to older more experienced ones, since the latter cost more. This undermines the traditional idea of career progression.

'The old work ethic was that as you got old everything came with a reward,' explains Professor Sennett. 'After 20-30 years of service the reward came back to you in income and in greater security. That isn't happening anymore. The long-term benefit of work has weakened.'

The current generation of 30-something workers may already be at the height of their careers. If we are lucky our earnings will peak in our forties, after which we will be obsolete - replaced by upstart, bargain-bin graduates. At best, we will have to take pay cuts. More likely we will be nudged towards retirement, for which few of us have made adequate provision. And the state won't maintain us in the manner to which we have become accustomed. According to the government's Work and Pensions White Paper published last month we ideally be working until we are 68.

If you care about spending time with your family that is a raw deal: work longer and harder to be a bit poorer at the end of it all. Instead of delaying the gratification of time off, perhaps indefinitely, people in their twenties and thirties should really be taking their leisure and family dividend when they can afford it. We won't get a life in retirement, so we should demand one now.

That idea is starting to dawn on some men. Graham is 32 and, until recently, a successful manager for a well-known national brand. Last year it merged with a rival in a bid to save itself from foreign competition. Costs were cut to shore up the bottom line. Six weeks ago Graham's daughter Maddie was born. Faced with the prospect of putting in long hours while his child learned to walk and talk in his absence he chose the nuclear option. He chose redundancy with a pay-off.

'I don't think it'll affect my career,' says Graham. 'Well, it depends on how much time I take off. I haven't decided that yet. I think if I were to take a year off people would start to question my commitment. I'm hoping I can pick up a bit of freelance work in the next few months. Then I can have a flexible life, with work and with Maddie.'

Graham is also lucky. His employer understood. 'People at work have been very supportive of my decision to leave to help look after Maddie. Most think it's a great idea.'

It is also a risky idea. The evidence from women's experience of trying to integrate a bit of full-time parenting into a life of work is not encouraging. According to the Equal Opportunities Commission, a woman who has worked part-time for just a year suffers, on average, a 10 per cent long-term reduction in earnings compared to a woman who has stayed in continuous full-time employment. Having sent a signal that work might not come first, employees are penalised for life.

Most don't even get the choice. The most common model for dual-income families is 'tag-teaming', where parents work shifts with their children dictated by the demands of their employers. The couple's relationship hinges on the 'handover'. It works OK until there is some extra-curricular demand, a parents' evening or a doctor's appointment. Then your livelihood can depend on the generosity of your line manager. A recent study of American families trying to juggle childcare and work found the majority of employers signally inflexible. Shift workers were routinely sacked for offences such as turning up three minutes late. They were reprimanded for using work phones to check that their kids had got home safely from school. The study was published under the title 'One sick child away from being fired'.

British employers are only slightly less free to slash and burn their workforces. Not surprisingly, men, usually the main earners, do not often feel comfortable telling their bosses their priorities have changed.

Around one in five British fathers take up the statutory right to two weeks' paid paternity leave. A survey of those that don't found that 41 per cent said they couldn't afford to (not surprising when statutory pay is £106 per week); 23 per cent said they didn't realise they were entitled to time off. 21 per cent said they were afraid their employers would make their lives difficult if they advertised their new priorities.

Of the eight men in my antenatal class I was the only one with an employer prepared to give me full pay for my two weeks of paternity leave. Some had battled with their bosses for time off; some resisted a battle knowing that, even if won, it would harm their career in the long term. But none of the men I know sees work as central to their paternal role the way past generations have done.

One survey recently found that 79 per cent of fathers wish they could spend more time with their children. Of course they do. A similar proportion would probably say they wish they could spend more time with their friends, or on holiday, or asleep. More intriguing is the other 21 per cent, who are either stuck at home with tantruming toddlers all day long or just don't realise that children are fun.

That is another thing no one told me before my daughter was born - looking after a baby is stress-relief. The mythology of fatherhood says that responsibility for a fragile young life will grey your hair overnight. But the urgent simplicity of a child's needs insulates you from the complex demands of the outside world. When I first went back to work I felt agoraphobia for the first time. My reassuringly narrowed horizons were forced back open. The idea that you are expected, after a few hearty pats on the back, to get on with business as usual struck me as grotesque. I sat in meetings struggling to care. I now live in fear of missing some minuscule step my daughter might have taken down the road of infant development, a newly articulate gurgle or a very prolific poo. Fathering is addictive like that.

I also experienced a spasm of illiberalism. Having previously tolerated decay in my corner of London as part of its urban charm, I found myself seething with rage at the intrusion of graffitti and litter into the world to be occupied by my innocent offspring. I momentarily wished for mobile death squads to clear the streets of hooded delinquents. That phase passed in a few days. Now I only wish for more parks and better access for prams.

It turns out that a lot of the mood responses I had were hormonal. Expectant dads have much higher than usual levels of prolactin, a hormone usually associated with breast-feeding in women and generally connected to nurturing. When male doves are given prolactin they start brooding and feeding their young. In the weeks running up to birth, men also experience a surge in levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that has been shown to affect the bonding process between mothers and babies. Women with high levels of cortisol in their blood respond faster and more positively to the sound of a baby crying. They're powerful things those hormones.

In the weeks immediately after the birth of a child, levels of testosterone in fathers drop by more than 30 per cent. This, apparently has an evolutionary function. Testosterone-deprived men are less likely to wander off in search of new mates to inseminate. They are also less aggressive, which is useful when there is a baby around. In one study, men were given a swaddled doll and played a recording of a crying baby. Within half-an-hour their testosterone levels had fallen.

That explains a lot. Testosterone soars when men undertake risky behaviour or exert themselves physically. Crudely speaking, cradling a baby is the chemical opposite of scoring a goal or driving a fast car. My cousin was right. Dads are risk-averse, and in a competitive work environment where swagger counts, they will often lose out. Before they have children, men are conditioned to value their contribution to society exclusively in terms of their job. Fatherhood involves a reordering not just our priorities, but of the way in which we build self-esteem.

Every man I know who has attended the birth of his child has been humbled by it. 'If men had to give birth they probably would do it,' the midwife said to me post-partum as she reached for a box of sutures. 'But only once.'

The loneliest I have ever been was sitting at the kitchen table at 2 o'clock in the morning while my wife and our newly born daughter were still at the hospital. Adrenalin carried me home. Then I grappled with an absurd dilemma: to tidy the house so that our new life could get off to an orderly start or to sleep. (Anyone who has had a baby knows the easy answer. Sleep.)

After a few minutes ineffectually carrying objects up and down the stairs and depositing them in random places I sat down and poured myself a drink. Then I cried. I like to think I was moved exclusively by relief that everything had passed without medical emergency. But if I'm honest there was also a pang of helplessness, the feeling that at that precise moment there was nothing I could do for my family. It is a terrible thing to fear redundancy at home and at work.

While childbirth is an exclusively female rite of passage, masculinity is a religion that worships endurance. Boys are taught in the playground that there is virtue, heroism even, in the stoic tolerance of pain. That is why men talk up the physical demands of fatherhood. Secretly they would like to be initiated into parenthood with something as bluntly agonising as labour. Denied that opportunity they have traditionally embraced the idea of self-sacrifice using the only tool available. They have gone straight back to work.

That is beginning to change. I am one of privileged few. We have generous employers and we can opt out of the playground culture of achievement by aggression. We don't want validation of our manhood from colleagues and bosses. We don't think that much about being men at all. We think about being parents. Of course, that's easy for me to say from deep inside my demographic comfort zone, surrounded by liberal middle-class men in jobs with decent paternity packages.

But the liberal middle classes are, like it or not, the opinion formers in British society. Check us out - we get to be in magazine articles about fatherhood and careers. So it's up to us to change our culture, take time off for school plays, and go home early for bedtime stories, to take the maximum paternity leave available and demand more. The age at which we tend to have kids - mostly early thirties - is also the point at which we have most value in the labour market, which means we can negotiate our terms from a position of strength. The dads I know don't want careers, we just want a job and a life, and we want to have them at the same time.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

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