What price more time with the children?: Men who try to balance the demands of family life and career face difficult choices. Tim Kahn finds out how four of them are coping

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I COULDN'T GET WORK OUT OF MY MIND

Tom Spencer, 43, is a consultant physician and senior lecturer at a London teaching hospital. His wife, Penny, works three days a week as a paediatrician and looks after their children (Catriona, nine, and Victoria, six) on the other days.

FROM Monday to Friday I only see the children for an hour at the end of the day because of the long hours of my job. They are not at their best because it's just before their bedtime when they're tired and I'm tired from a long day, too.

In the holidays, the children have time to adjust to having Dad around and get to know him again. They become more spontaneous with their cuddles and seem to feel more able to talk about the things that are important to them. It happens at weekends as well.

Penny and I decided before starting a family that I would be the one who would make work my focus and she would focus on the children. Officially I work 38 1/2 hours a week, though in practice I do double that - which is, however, shorter than the average of 100-plus hours a week that I worked for many years.

Over the years there have been periods of a few days when I have 'played at' being househusband when Penny's work has taken her away. I found it frustrating knowing that my work was piling up at the hospital while I was at home. In such a situation you can't get work out of your mind, so you aren't fully with the children.

I enjoy doing lots of things with them: I often take them out to the park, we go to museums and we work in the garden together. I take Victoria to gym club and she also likes to help to develop my films (photography is my hobby). I have attended school concerts, carol services and sports days, and when Catriona was ill with viral meningitis, I took time off work to look after her.

I do have some regrets about the fact that my children are nine and six and I haven't spent as much time with them as I would have liked. The shortage of quality time together obviously affects my relationship with them.

Being so busy, I have to make the most of my free time. You can spend a lot of time with children and do nothing in particular or you can spend a little time with them and do a lot. I try to do the latter and feel very positive about it.

The names in this interview have been changed.

LOOKING AFTER THEM TAUGHT ME TO EXPRESS MY FEELINGS

David Batup, 42, separated from his wife in September 1989. His children, Clare and Mark, lived with him for two years after he was given custody. David continued to work full time throughout this period.

WE CAME home from a family holiday, and the next thing, my wife had left me for another man. It came as a complete shock. I felt panic; I felt intense anger: anger at my wife for leaving and anger at the world in general. My father had recently died and I was angry that I had not had the time to grieve his death.

I was on my own with two children aged nine and 13, while trying to hold down a job as a senior manager with responsibility for a large budget in a computer company. Not only did we have practical problems to sort out, but we were overwhelmed by our emotions. I had lost a wife; their mother had moved out. At least she was only a few miles away, so they were able to see her regularly.

Friends gave me a lot of support. For the first few weeks they helped to collect and deliver the children while I was at work. They helped me to find an au pair. And they gave me a listening ear.

I also went to Relate. I was initially angry with the counsellor, perhaps because she challenged me to look at the parts of myself that I had avoided. However, this passed as I started to learn more about myself.

The emotional upheaval was the most difficult aspect to come to terms with. I had always helped with the housework and was quite domesticated. I had also been very involved with the children and we were close, so in a way I was well prepared for the daily tasks of bringing them up on my own. But it was a whole new ball game having primary responsibility for home and children.

My manager was very supportive. He had just been through a messy divorce himself, so he could relate to my situation. As long as I achieved my work goals, he was satisfied - I was given the flexibility to come in late if necessary, attend school functions or take time off to look after sick children. I was also able to work at home more. My manager made it clear that I could talk to him if I had any problems. We had real heart-to-heart conversations which I would not normally have expected with a 'boss'.

My secretary was brilliant, too. She knew where I was at all times and the family always had access to me. If Clare, Mark or the au pair phoned when I was in any meeting, she would think up imaginative reasons for getting hold of me.

My circumstances have now changed a lot: I have remarried, the children have gone back to their mother and I work in a new section of the company.

The time following the separation was painful for all of us. But I have learnt to express my feelings and empathise with other people. Although I was always close to my children, in the past we mostly spent time together doing things - going on trips or playing games. Now I was learning to express my feelings towards them (both positive and negative) and to encourage them to tell me how they were feeling.

It has taught me how to be a better manager, too. I now know how to play a supportive role to members of my staff who have been through personal crises, in the way my boss did for me.

MY PRESENTATION WAS ABOUT TO BEGIN WHEN THE NURSERY PHONED . . .

Stephen Lowe, 36, and his wife, Janet, work at management level in multinational companies. When Janet became pregnant they both wanted to continue with their careers, which they have been able to do by placing Hannah in the nursery at Stephen's work.

Janet and I had decided to place Hannah in my workplace nursery because it was the most practical solution. But, in the event, I have experienced a side of my daughter's life I would never have seen, and that I doubt most fathers who work full time ever see.

I love the joy on her face when she recognises me coming in the distance and I also value watching her play with other children when she hasn't seen me coming. At the same time, I feel like a fish out of water in the nursery, because I am the only dad who drops off and collects his child - the others are all mums.

Before I became a father I was ambitious and single-minded about my career. Working long hours and taking work home in the evenings and at weekends became a matter of routine, as it was for many of my colleagues at BP Exploration (BPX). I had a great deal of job satisfaction and career progression, I had a good salary, and I had travelled with my work.

Janet and I decided to start a family and we were very happy when she became pregnant. We both wanted to continue with our careers but didn't know how we would be able to organise things. I went to BPX's childcare information service for advice. They helped us to make the decision to put our baby into their workplace nursery. The fact that I am able to drive to work, rather than take public transport as my wife does, made the arrangement possible. When Hannah was three months old Janet went back to work. Despite a few visits to the nursery before we actually left her, we felt a certain trepidation, but it has been fine.

I have had the odd telephone call from the nursery in the time Hannah has been there. My first reaction is 'Damn]' because it won't be good news. I was called to the nursery once when Hannah was sick, at quite an awkward time - in fact it could hardly have been worse, because I was on the point of giving a presentation. But fortunately I work quite closely with my team. I had already been through the presentation with them and was able to get a colleague to stand in.

There is potentially a conflict between Hannah's needs and the demands of my work but I would always put my daughter first. The fact that senior management is sympathetic makes a big difference.

Hannah and I leave the house at 7.15 and, even after spending half an hour settling her in, I am at my desk by 8.30. Of course, work pressures do occasionally demand extra long hours and, given my necessary daily routine, it isn't always easy to leave the office at 5.30 on the dot - but I must] In order to do that, I have had to make a big change in my own pattern of work because it was very different before Hannah was born.

I'M GLAD I RESISTED PRESSURE FOR PROMOTION

George Beattie, 46, is married to Lynn and they have two children, Sarah, nine, and Robert, seven. George works nights as a senior supervisor with a large parcels delivery company while Lynn works days in the catering industry.

WE PUT our new plan into action when our children were four and two. Our childminder had just left us and we were going to try and manage the child care ourselves. The big question was: would I be able to manage on a maximum of five hours' sleep? Well, five years on we are still doing it, so it must have been all right . . . but at times it was hard.

We had a tight schedule: Lynn would leave home at 8.30 in the morning and was back by 5.30, just in time to take over before I went out 15 minutes later to start my night shift at 6pm. At least the children would always have one parent looking after them, rather than a childminder or nanny, and it was cheaper.

At one point I began having stomach pains. The doctor said it was stress. I was going to bed at 3.15 in the morning - when I got home from work - and the next thing I knew, a bump would wake me up at 6am when one of the children jumped on me. My daughter, Sarah, has never needed much sleep. She would always wake up early, and Robert was never far behind her. Lynn would take the children downstairs so that I could get more sleep. But I could hear their chitchat and would only doze if I was lucky. So you can imagine how exhausted I felt with the children during the day.

When Robert started playgroup I took my turn on the rota to help to look after the children. I'm not an outgoing sort of person so I didn't really enjoy doing it, but I felt it was my duty. And it's not that easy being a man in the world of mothers with their young children. Often you feel excluded by conversations, and you can't just go round to other people's houses for a cup of coffee like other mums do.

Quite a lot of other fathers (and some mothers) in my company work nights while their partners work during the day. Like us, they need two family incomes and this set-up avoids the need for expensive child care.

Just over three years ago the terminal manager put pressure on me to go for the night manager's job, which would have included daytime meetings on top of my night shift. I would have gone for it some years ago, but now I wasn't interested, because I valued my time at home with the children too much. I did not want to miss out on collecting them and having that couple of hours with them before Lynn came home from work. And with Lynn's well-paid job we could afford my passing up promotion. Some of my colleagues thought I should go for the promotion, but I stuck to my guns and I am pleased that I did.

There are pluses and minuses for each of us. Lynn gets a full night's sleep, whereas I get only four or five hours. But then I get enough free time to play golf - twice a week] The big disadvantage is that Lynn and I hardly see each other during the week.

We make sure we have family time at weekends. One of our favourite activities is spending the day in the country - we are members of the National Trust - and we believe in family holidays. We usually have a week with my family in Ireland and then a luxurious fortnight in the sun in the summer.

(Photograph omitted)

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