How becoming a full-time father has changed me as a man

'It’s terrifying and lonely and gruelling beyond measure – but the view is stunning'

When politicians say that they are leaving office to spend more time with their families, it usually means that they have been pushed out of a job rather than leapt into the hugger-mugger of raising their children. But I really did leave the office to spend more time with my family – I quit the rat race to become a stay-at-home dad. 

I’d like to say that I was driven to abandon my career by a longing to spend more time with my two under-fives, or that my professional brilliance made early retirement all but inevitable. But my eureka moment – as with so much of parenting – was a decision based on finances. My salary as a journalist barely covered our childminding outgoings, while my wife brought home around four times what I could muster. My ego had long absorbed this, and it seemed only logical that I made the move “in-house”.

But there was more to the decision than money: we’d become increasingly aware that our children hardly knew us. We’d chosen to outsource our pastoral responsibilities as parents to a nanny, a wonderful woman who came to be known, inevitably, as “Mama”. Her job was to keep the kids alive: fed, watered and clear of busy roads and electrical sockets. The nurturing of soul, the conjugation of verbs and the correct orientation of numbers such as “six” and “three” were not part of the remit, and nor could we expect them to be. 

This came into vivid focus during our son’s first term in Reception. Delightful child, they said. A gentle soul. But “middling”. 

How could this be? Somehow, in an era in which even the click of a camera shutter is governed by the relentless pursuit of perfection, we’d managed to make a hash of our first-born. 

And so it was that, eight months ago, over the kitchen table and two bottles of wine, my wife and I drew our plans against conformity. I took it upon myself to save the day. I pulled on the superhero suit. I would become Silver Bullet – inspirational tutor, art impresario, sport supremo and generally the man who maketh the manners that maketh the man. I believed in the power of my billowing cape. I even saw it as a vehicle to right my own middling career. My man-bag of sugary bribes and spare undies would include a laptop, and I’d crank out articles to order – perhaps even books – during playdates, swimming lessons and Disney DVDs. The sense of freedom I gained was overwhelming. It felt like an escape.

You can probably guess where this is going. For the life of me, I can’t understand why I didn’t. The novelty of making house wore off within weeks. In its place came the monotony of being at my children’s beck and call. If I wasn’t peeling carrots, I was on my knees peeling trodden rice off the kitchen floor. Quality time? Forget it. Writing? Don’t have me on – I hardly had time to shower or shave. Each new day was simply a chore-laden clone of the one before. I missed the office. I missed commuting. I even missed Monday mornings.

Then, about two months in, something noteworthy did actually happen: I was called aside by my daughter’s nursery teacher. She sat me down on the world’s tiniest chair to inform me that our little one had regressed. She’d developed a stutter and had begun to cling to the staff’s lower limbs. Had there been any changes at home, she ventured. 

Mama had left us, I was in charge, and it was painfully obvious to all. 

I wondered if perhaps all this was due to factors beyond my control. It had been a while since I had evoked this approach to blame distribution, and it rang curiously hollow outside the confines of an office. I was the problem. I’d imagined being the primary carer to be a no-brainer: I’d just deliver my children to where they needed to be and everything else would follow. But it hadn’t happened like that. My daughter had regressed and I’d been reduced to a shell in less time than it takes to incubate a baby. 

I tentatively asked fellow stay-at-home mums about their experiences. How do you do it, I asked. How do you keep smiling? Some simply shrugged, others replied with a single word: wine. Others possibly thought that I was being either patronising or dangerously naive. But mostly they told me that they just got on with it for the sake of their children. Besides, they said, who else would do it? Who else could do it? Not men, they seemed to be implying, and the figures seemed to back them up. While in 2014 the Office for National Statistics revealed that in the UK there were 229,000 stay-at-home fathers, their number was eclipsed by the 2.04 million stay-at-home mothers.

I watch as their dexterity grows keener by the day, and I delight in seeing their eyes grow wide as I regale them with tales of the world I knew before it was eclipsed by them

 

Was this my undoing? By dint of gender, I suddenly thought that I had a get-out-of-jail card, and it was burning a hole in my pocket. Fathers aren’t expected to be at home. I could easily crawl back under that fence. I’d lose some face, but society wouldn’t deem me a bad person. Plus I’d be free. 

An opt-out isn’t normally a drawback, but the lure of this escape route drove me to distraction. Far from correcting the wrongs I had inflicted on my children, I began to dwell on number one and the path that I had forsaken. What happened to my development? What happened to my life? I used to break the news! I used to engender respect! Now I cooked pasta and dreaded my wife’s return from work. Where once I’d regale her with details of the latest celebrity misdemeanours, I now bored her with school circulars and news of lost property. 

Primary carers are required to be utterly selfless. They need to relinquish the spotlight and back off into the shadows. But that’s not me. I don’t do cameos. And yet here I was, playing referee to two warring infants, circling their dinner table with wet-wipes and hopeless pleas, juggling remote controls until their exacting television demands were met. I’d been deposed as head of the family by a coup of my own creation. Stripped of the trousers and fatherhood’s traditional mandate, I was now just the go-to guy for missing shoes.

But lately, I’ve been finding that these constant lost-and-found requests fail to enrage me as they once did. Indeed, every pair of reunited shoes brings me a measure of inner peace. When I first noticed this, I suspected that my mind was going, but I’m starting to believe something deeper is happening. They need a shoe, I have keen eyes and two minutes to spare – what’s the problem? Surely no one is too big to fit an arm under a sofa.

At the risk of getting all Deepak Chopra about it, the circle of mundane chores of which my day consists opens vast chasms for self-examination – meditation, even. Life’s smaller details, once wholly invisible to me, now stop me in my tracks. I’m moved beyond words by steepling cloud formations, by the wind in the trees, by blossom. I feel the urge to share my awe with my new companions.

Each of these tiny interactions gives me a sense of the distance between who I am, who I thought I should be, and the type of man that my children actually need. They’ll be after my pay cheque soon enough. Until then, their focus rests squarely on the ready provision of patience, hugs, lost shoes and thorough answers to their constant questions.

Now, we peel carrots together, two bums perched either side of the chopping board. I watch as their dexterity grows keener by the day, and I delight in seeing their eyes grow wide as I regale them with tales of the world I knew before it was eclipsed by them.

These episodes make me come over all peculiar. Sometimes, it feels like I’m seeing these children for the first time, and from afar. In a sense, I am. I orbit these beings from a distance, holding them steady as they hurtle through the vastness of time and space. It’s terrifying and lonely and gruelling beyond measure. But the view is stunning.

Comments