Men who choose to get a life

Quitting your job to spend more time with your family used to be a joke. That's no longer the case, says David Cohen
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The sage quip goes that no man on his death-bed ever wished he had spent more time at the office, but that many men wished they had spent more time with their family. An increasing number of fathers are having the foresight to act on this realisation when it counts - when their careers and family are still in their prime - by voluntarily taking a demotion or a less pressured job. These men are bucking the trend towards longer hours fed by the chronic job insecurity of the Nineties in which the British male works an average of 45 hours a week, 15 per cent more than in mainland Europe.

The British charity, New Ways to Work, set up 15 years ago to investigate more flexible work patterns, goes so far as to say that "a quiet revolution" is afoot, unacknowledged by politicians and policy-makers, but beginning to be recognised by employers". Last year, in response to unprecedented numbers of men calling for advice on negotiating reduced working hours and part-time jobshares, they commissioned a nationwide survey of 106 men, aged 30 to 50, who were already working reduced hours. Nearly half the men said their motive was to spend more time rearing their children and the rest cited reasons to do with quality of life, pursuing study and leisure interests.

Pam Walton, joint co-ordinator of the charity, says: "These men have to deal with attitudes from colleagues and senior management that aren't always positive. Many of them are pioneers in their organisations in that they are seeking to work in ways that have hitherto been exclusively associated with women. Yet the overwhelming feeling is that these men feel better about themselves, having achieved a more healthy balance to their lives."

Swimming out of the fast stream

Paul Martin, 33, is a civil servant. He lives in south London with his wife, Ruth, 31, also a civil servant, and their two children, Harriet, five, and Jacob, three.

Soon after I joined the Civil Service three years ago, I applied to be a fast-streamer. Fast-streamers are the stars of the Civil Service - they are expected to be creative and quick-thinking and in return they can expect rapid promotion. There were 10,000 applicants that year out of which they chose 50 and I was one of them. I thought: great! I'm only 30 years old. I'm on my way to the top.

We were expected to solve any problem, be the brightest in the office and frequently we had to change posts in order to fill gaps in our experience. My hours weren't extraordinarily long, 45 a week, though I was only paid for 36, but the learning curve was so steep that by the end of the day I was always on edge and exhausted.

I had no energy to give to my children. I deliberately slowed down on the way home so that I wouldn't have to cope with them mucking about in the bath. Everything they did seemed to irritate me. At weekends I would read the paper and do my best to avoid them. I just wanted to vegetate.

The pressure to perform at work was making me more and more stressed. There seemed no space to recover. When I took off sick with post-viral fatigue for 10 days, my boss kept phoning and pestering me to come back to work. The night before I was due to return, Jacob fell out of bed. I was so concerned to get into the office on time, I didn't even notice that his shoulder was sagging. A few hours later, my wife called from the hospital to say Jacob had broken his collar bone. I wanted to go to him straight away. I broke down in tears in front of colleagues. I just couldn't control myself. But my boss kept me waiting in a meeting for two hours before she grudgingly let me go. That was the moment I finally twigged.

Ruth and I talked long into the night about what to do. I felt sad that my career meant I wasn't there for my children, mentally or physically. I hadn't intended it to be that way. Ruth was working 30 hours a week in a less pressured post and enjoying it and although our children were with the childminder all day, she was able to manage the balance. I wrote down the things causing me stress and almost all of them were due to me being a fast-streamer.

So after a lot of soul-searching, I asked to be demoted to the lowest management grade in the Civil Service and to reduce my hours from 36 to 30 a week. I was given a new contract at two-thirds of my original pounds 24,500 salary. With Ruth earning pounds 19,000, we knew that, financially, we'd be OK.

The wonderful thing about working part-time is that nobody expects you to work a minute more than you're paid for. Now I get in late because I take the children to school and sometimes I leave early to pick them up. I'm responsible for getting them dressed in the morning, bathing them in the evening and all the little domestic things. I have rediscovered what it means just to sit and play.

When less intelligent colleagues are promoted above me, I deal with it by being privately rude about them. Ruth and I have a good laugh and that tends to be enough. My priorities have shifted now: family, hobbies and my other great love, singing. I feel positive about myself again. My friends, both male and female, think it's great - they say I gave up my career but I got a life.

Unmoved by the idea of relocation

David Percival, 41, is an engineer. He lives in Surrey with his wife, Liz, 41, a housewife, and their three children, John, Robert and Sarah, aged 12, 10 and seven.

I was the managing director of a London company that was part of a worldwide engineering consulting group. I had 100 employees under me, my salary was pounds 90,000 a year and I drove a pounds 32,000 top-of-the-range Saab. At the end of 1993, our parent company was taken over and the new parent decided to amalgamate our company with a sister company. They offered me a highly senior position with a substantial pay hike. But the catch was I had to relocate to Aberdeen.

I loved my job. And although I worked a 70-hour week and used to see my children for only 30 minutes a day in the week, weekends were uninterrupted family time. My life had a semblance of balance. But a move to Aberdeen meant uprooting the family at a sensitive time and removing them from friends and school. It also meant that all aspects of life would henceforth serve work. Liz and I had always believed it should be the other way round.

We decided I would hand back the keys to the car, give up the company pension (which would have been substantial) and ask for redundancy. My employers were reluctant. One of them called me "a difficult man". The fact that I wasn't prepared to sacrifice the stability of my family, to shunt them around the country at the drop of a hat, seemed strange to them. I got redundancy, not a huge amount, but enough to live on for six months.

I immediately joined three colleagues who were starting a new consultancy. The best part for me was that because my hours were regular - 8am to 5pm - I actually got to see my children in the morning. And in the evening, we ate together, I'd help with homework and be part of the family. But financially and emotionally it was much tougher than I expected. We were struggling to find a backer and the consultancy wasn't doing well enough to pay ourselves a salary. My redundancy got used up and we started to eat into our savings, which despite my previous salary, were a modest pounds 10,000. I contemplated finding a job, but the thought of being an employee in someone else's business made me feel like a complete failure.

For the first time in my life I became depressed. I just wanted to sit in a hole and cry. I pushed myself to keep going but it was like walking along a narrow ridge and trying not to fall into a dark place. I didn't talk about it. I would try to shut Liz out. Somehow she always reached me before I sunk too deep.

Then, in November last year, just as things were at their most precarious, we found financial backing and were able to start paying ourselves. I bring home a decent salary now, but the future is still far from certain. I'm less successful than I was and that's hard for a man to swallow, but I don't regret my decision one bit. I'm learning that my value as a human being is not just derived from my work. Liz and I have never been closer, for example. There must be some measure of success in that.

Part-time nurse, full-time life

Michael Hunt, 41, a former NHS manager, works part-time as a community psychiatric nurse. He lives in north London with his wife, Paula Martin, 36, also a nurse, and their two children, Philip, three, and Helen, one.

When Paula was five months pregnant, I was offered a job as the manager of an NHS mental health resource centre earning pounds 24,000. I was seduced by the position, partly because there was headhunting involved and I was flattered to have been selected, but also because it was a job that synthesised my experience. I also had misgivings. Paula had had difficulty falling pregnant, eventually succeeding through an IVF clinic, and I was worried about taking on a job that would prevent me from being a hands-on father.

My first couple of months as a manager were a honeymoon. But then Philip was born and I found the competing demands of work and home difficult. Paula, who was on maternity leave, needed my support. Once we had an emergency when Philip went limp and grey and stopped breathing and I had to apply artificial respiration. Events like that made it increasingly difficult for me to walk out the door in the morning and be at ease with my conscience. I felt torn: as the manager, I wanted to be the first person in and the last out of the office, but I was determined to get home in time to bath Philip and put him to bed.

My job turned out to be harder than expected and I started to struggle. I began to tell myself that I wasn't cut out to be a manager, that I didn't have a tough enough side. If I hadn't had children, perhaps I would have been able to get on top of the job. But as it was, something had to give.

Paula was due to return to work as a nurse in a GP practice for 24 hours a week. I began to contemplate working part-time, too. I knew that if I packed in the job it would be a blight on my career. But that's what I did. I told my team I was finding it difficult to be both a father and a manager and that I had opted for the former. My colleagues thought I'd made a brave choice.

I got a part-time job as a community psychiatric nurse, a demotion two levels down, and I now work a 21-hour week. Between Paula and myself we've lost a third of our income, but we have a small mortgage, so moneywise it's merely meant a toning down of our lifestyle. I have the children to myself all day Wednesday and Friday. I love the days when I am the sole carer. I used to take my cues from Paula. Should I hold him this way? When should he have his bottle? Now I don't need to ask because I know. It's hugely increased my confidence with my own children. Until Helen starts school in three years' time, I'll be working a three-day week as a nurse. It's a nice balance.

Of course, my children drive me nuts and can leave me shouting like any other parent by the end of the day, but it never makes me think that I'd rather be working. I grew up believing I would have to be the full-time provider. My father was a bus-driver and when he finished work he would moonlight, doing painting and decorating. I feel privileged because for his generation what I have done just wasn't an option.

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