The truth about fatherhood: Three Independent dads send dispatches from the frontline

From nappy changes to the boomerang generation: three 'Independent' writers reveal how they have dealt with the ever-changing trials of fatherhood

Under-10s

Mike Higgins, father of Hebe, five; Minna, two

For other fathers out there with small children and too little time to read further, here's the top line: being a dad, it helps to know when to act like a kid. But that's not exactly helpful, is it. It's easy to say that I should stay calm when my five-year-old is screaming the supermarket down because I won't buy her a magazine, and that I should locate my inner child when my kids want to turn the Christmas tree into a slide. The reverse has often been more true for me: howling blue murder back in front of alarmed bystanders, and seeing if I can detach myself for 10 minutes with the paper when they're playing/wrecking the iPad/engaged in Darwinian fight to the death.

As much as I wanted children, I found that when Hebe, the first of my two daughters, was born, I was basically the home help. I did all the mucky, practical stuff, and happily. But all the raw emotion – that was going on between mother and child. Which, I recall, was fine.

Then my wife went back to work after nine months and I was looking after Hebe two days a week, and it dawned on me – parenting wasn't just keeping the baby happy enough while I got on with something else vaguely practical (building cots, sorting through bags of gifted baby clothes, listening to Test Match Special). Nor was fatherhood, as a few dad friends had led me to believe, a holding pattern until the child could walk, talk and interact. It was an opportunity to spend time with a person changing week by week, physically, mentally, psychologically.

I'm not saying I always coped with that opportunity very well. My wife didn't like it when she rang me in B&Q one afternoon and asked where the baby was: "In the car. She's asleep. I, er, didn't want to wake her." I've dropped each of them on their heads at least once – Minna at a playground last summer. But the girls do seem to turn to me as much as to my wife for a cuddle – though Minna calls me "mamma" as she does so.

I was fortunate: I was working part-time when Hebe was born and was able to continue to do so, and my wife was part-time, too. Many of my dad friends found themselves working longer and harder than ever as their partners gave up work, but plenty have been quite happy retreating to work, and just as happy to wave through all executive decisions made by mum regarding matters inside the front door. I try to have at least a conversation (or "pointless row") with my wife each week about some aspect of child-rearing.

The other thing dads always ask is whether I miss not having a son. No, I don't. And, in a household of three females, I definitely think I can, now and then, play up the outnumbered daddy card. But I could do without the constant hairbrushing and the long-hair garnish most meals seem to come with.

But anyway, down to the nitty-gritty (what dads like, right?): keep your in-laws on-side, they become not just helpful, but indispensable; get your man-pinny sorted (pair of old jeans, an k old sweatshirt and boots without laces); put at least two dates a month in the diary for you and your wife to go out in the evening (and don't call her "Mum"); and always offer to change every nappy – you'll never know when you'll be able cash in that urine-soaked cheque.

Chris Maume and his two eldest children Tom, 12 and Charlotte, 20 (Thomas Butler) Chris Maume and his two eldest children Tom, 12 and Charlotte, 20 (Thomas Butler)
Adolescents

Chris Maume, father of Tom, 12; Eve, nine; and stepfather to Charlotte, 20

Until I met the love of my life I never wanted children. I didn't want to fuel the population explosion, and I certainly didn't want the responsibility. When love came calling, all that went out of the window, and now I find myself in possession of two children of my own and a stepdaughter for good measure.

Charlotte and I entered each other's lives 15 years ago when she was five. From the beginning, and as she moved into her teens, I was guided by my own experiences; my father died when I was eight, and my stepfather was soon on the scene (too soon for my liking). Remembering how I resented his efforts to replace my dad, I was determined not to make the same mistake – especially as Charlotte's father, unlike mine, was very much around.

Does that mean that sometimes I didn't get involved with disciplinary matters and left it to her mum? It did, I think: I was often too happy to let Nicole slug things out with Charlotte, especially in her teens. I feared the words, "You're not my dad!" (only uttered once, thank goodness). Even now when they argue I leave them to it.

Pusillanimous? Possibly, but I think it worked: Charlotte has always felt she can confide in me, if she wants. I'd never have dreamt of confiding in my stepfather. It also helped that Charlotte's relationship with her dad's partner (now ex) was acrimonious, not least because she tried to be a second mum. I shone by comparison.

I'm not sure this reflects well on me, but it feels as if Charlotte's adolescence was, in some senses, a dry run for Tom's – he's nearly 13 (perhaps when nine-year-old Eve gets to that stage I might finally have cracked it). Charlotte didn't do as well in her exams as we'd hoped – she didn't get into university, but is getting on fine, working in a nursery and studying for a diploma in childcare and education – and that's made me determined not to let Tom's academic career falter. I'm much more on his case than I was with Charlotte, though I'm certainly no Tiger Dad.

On Charlotte's first day at secondary school, she left home in the morning a child and came back in the afternoon an adolescent. That didn't happen with Tom, and still hasn't – partly just because they're different people, and perhaps partly because he attends a school that heavily emphasises what they refer to as "traditional values" (zero tolerance on bad behaviour, mobile phones banned, teachers standing guard at bus stops at going-home time).

Charlotte followed her dad to become a born-again Christian. Though I'm proud to be an atheist, this was fantastic news. It meant we had no worries about drink, drugs or teenage pregnancy. She's grown up with an ethical backbone that I know will serve her well in life.

And it required no input from me – although I'd like to think I'm typical of how fathering styles have changed: present in mind and body, not semi-detached, not leaving everything to mum (though mum might have a different perspective). Do I have any advice? In one sense, I think, the die has already been cast by how you were with them years before. So don't back down, don't be deflected by the din of protest – you may get a quiet life now, but you reap what you sow.

But given that, when they're in their teens Rule One is: choose your battles; don't start a fight you can't win. Rule Two: accept that they're going to have some kind of life internally and externally that doesn't include you. Don't be a helicopter parent. Don't go on their Facebook page. You wouldn't read their diary – I hope – so unless there are sufficiently alarming contraindications, have faith in them. Support where necessary but know when and where to keep your distance. Trust them. Rule Three: if in doubt, get them converted to Christianity sharpish.

Andy McSmith with Joshua, 16, Nick, 24, Tamsin, 20 and Imogen, 22 (Thomas Butler) Andy McSmith with Joshua, 16, Nick, 24, Tamsin, 20 and Imogen, 22 (Thomas Butler)
Twentysomethings

Andy McSmith, father of Joshua, 16; Tamsin, 20; Imogen, 22; and Nick, 24

Three of mine have left their teens behind, entering adulthood without a criminal record or any serious medical or social problems – good fortune not shared by every parent of young adults that I know: so, on the first and most important point, I have no grounds for complaint.

There are four in all – Joshua, still at school and living with us; Tamsin, away at Sheffield University during term time; Imogen, teaching English in Hungary; and Nick, who was abroad most of last summer but is back with us until he can raise the money to go abroad again.

Actually, when I say the elder three have left their teens behind, that is perhaps too sweeping. The teenage obsession with fiddling about with bits of hand-held electronic equipment has not disappeared, and they still find it inexplicably hilarious to remind one another of the time when dad said "Grand Auto Theft" or pronounced the name of Beyoncé with two syllables. And they still have that teenage habit of staying up very late and sleeping through the morning, unless there is a compelling reason to get up.

A great bonus that comes with seeing your children past their 20th birthdays is the sudden drop in the parental workload. It is a strange but pleasant experience to come downstairs in the morning and find that your children have cleared up the kitchen while you slept.

And the days are gone when mum and dad would plan a family outing in minute detail, only to be stymied by a recalcitrant child who does not want to be there and is determined to be miserable. Now they can join on an evening out, if they choose; if not, they can look after themselves.

I could never have socialised comfortably with my father, a Tory in the Enoch Powell mould, who left school early, and believed that a father's role was to be an infallible figure of authority. I was well into my thirties before we were anything like friends.

However, the occasional problems that young adults now put before their parents will generally be very expensive or intractable, born as they are of the well-known phenomena that student loans do not cover the true cost of being at university, and that there are insufficient jobs awaiting the newly graduated that pay enough to cover the huge cost of housing, particularly in London.

Tamsin is the least embarrassed of our three twentysomethings about asking for money or help. That is not simply because she is still a student; it is also a matter of temperament: a total confidence that she is going to be self-sufficient one day. The older two hate to ask. Imogen tries to avoid it through careful forward-planning, Nick lives from day to day. He loved coming back from France flush with money that he had earnt, but when it was gone, he was back in the grim business of borrowing and asking.

Sometimes I miss the small people they used to be, who would so guilelessly share whatever was on their minds. Young adults will tell you as much or as little about their lives as they choose, but they are also companions, who talk about things that we older folk might never have known about, and work gadgets you would never have known existed.

There is always the nagging anxiety about where the kids would go if financial disaster hit and we had to downsize the home, but I am not sorry to be a father of the boomerang generation. It is surprising how quickly some couples age when the children move out and they settle into an old folks' routine with no one to mock them for being out of date. Having young adults clattering in and out is disruptive – but it is fun.

Oh dad! The kid's view...

Hebe Higgins, five

"Daddy is very cuddly, and reads me stories. He is good at bicycling, scooting and playing horsies. I love cuddles with him the most. He is not good at winning gold medals in our races. He's good at making cakes. He is not good at cooking sausages. I don't like his guitar - I hate his songs, but I love his flamenco and I can dance to it. I love my daddy."

Tom Maume, 12

"My dad is really helpful and concerned  most of the time. He listens if I want to tell  him something - unless he is listening to  The Archers - and is interested in what I tell him. Most of the time. He always pretends he is sleeping if I start talking to him about videogames. He always wants me to try my best in school, but he knows what I can achieve  and doesn't push me too hard. He really supports me and tells me how I can improve."

Nick McSmith, 24

"Just when you think you're free there's a strong chance you end up, like me, back with the parents. Luckily, my parents are good at offering advice and understanding decisions  I take. Occasionally, a little push is needed. For example, before a work placement in France, I was fearful of working in a foreign language, but after reassurance from the folks I was convinced, and all the better for it now."

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