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I’ve been thinking a lot about shared parental leave recently and how you might encourage people to take it. I’ve also been interviewing a few dads recently and wondering why I find the interviews with them often more moving than the ones with mums. I think it comes from not really having my dad around when I was young. He lived in a different country most of the time which doesn’t make it easy. Not only did he not come to school events, he didn’t come to any events, including birthdays. I guess it left me with a feeling that, as a woman, I could – maybe should – be able to do everything and also with a hankering after the kind of dads you see in the Disney films who do stuff with their children.
The thing that I have found is that it is hard to make up for absence in the early years later in life. It requires time to make up for lost time which is hard to find when people live in different places and everyone is working. Moreover, the pattern has already been set and patterns, once set, are very difficult to undo. Of course, in some families there are no dads and research shows that non-traditional families can be just as happy if not happier than traditional ones. It’s the relationships in them that matter. Doubtless too some dads who are around do a better job than others and some can be overly present and controlling, as my partner’s was. It is also more difficult to be a great dad if you don’t have a good role model to follow. Nevertheless, my own brother is doing a fantastic job – and probably because of the lack of a strong role model when he was young.
But from my own experience as a child, I find it quite emotional when I interview dads who work flexibly, whatever that might mean, so they can spend more time with their kids or when I see more and more dads at the school gate picking up their kids [although mums still dominate]. I find this even more powerful because I spend a lot of time speaking to people who are stuck in a long hours culture because their male boss has a wife at home who looks after their kids. Bronnie Ware, the Australian palliative nurse who wrote about people’s top regrets on dying, says the one that all her male patients gave was “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard”. She says they missed their children growing up and their partners’ companionship.
At the weekend I was talking to someone about what constitutes success. He was saying that some of his friends had outwardly successful lives – big houses, a good income, top jobs. When you looked at their lives up close, though, he said, they rarely saw their partners and spent around 10 minutes with their kids a day, if that. Is that success? It’s hard to go against expectations and get off the work treadmill and there are many financial imperatives to stay on it. But things won’t change if people keep defining success purely in material terms. For children time is what matters and time has a habit of passing by extremely fast.
*Mum on the run is Mandy Garner, editor of Workingmums.co.uk.