When did you last see your father?

David Sedgwick works 87 hours a week. But he's not a workaholic - just a typical Nineties dad, according to a recent report.
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It's well after midnight on Sunday and David Sedgwick, a consultant surgeon at Belford Hospital in Fort William, arrives home exhausted at the end of a typically long day. It was one that began at 9am with a ward round and finished with an emergency gall-bladder operation about 12 hours later. Last week he spent 87 hours in the hospital. It's a pretty typical timetable for David, and for thousands of other men - not only doctors. The Sedgwick family has, over the years, learned to fit their lives around it.

"It does sometimes feels like a one-parent family," sighs his wife Frances good-naturedly. "Whenever I arrange anything I assume David won't be here - if he is, then it's a bonus." Frances, 42, stays at home to look after Joanna, 16, Robbie, 14, Nicholas, 12, Lucy, 10, Stephen, 5, and Lindsay, 2. "I'm not a saint," she says simply. "But I get on with it. I find that if you do make a fuss, then it wastes the precious time you have together, so it's just not worth it."

David's eldest daughter Joanna has also adjusted to her father's dedicated hospital routine. "You get so used to him not being there, you take it for granted," she says. "Although it's probably more difficult as you grow older. If you argue with one parent, you want the other one to talk to." Ask David, also 42, when he last read a bedtime story to Lindsay and it's a challenge. "Two or three weeks ago, I think," he hesitates. "I think the last parents' meeting I went to was about six months ago - and that was the first time for nearly three years." And the children's bath-time? "Nope - can't remember."

Apart from the more unusual elements of the Sedgwick household - the remoteness of the Highland hospital, which contributes to David's workload (he is on call alternate nights and weekends), and an above average size family - his involvement in the domestic side of things is really very typical. According to the National Child Development Survey out this week, more than one in four fathers is working more than 50 hours a week at work, and one in 10 is putting in over 60 hours. These men, the report comments, are also significantly less likely to help with child care and domestic activities. With a Nineties work culture that still views workaholic commitment levels as somehow admirable (Britain works the longest average week in Europe), male employees appear to be reverting to type: career commitments are taking precedence over family life. Educated, middle-class men in particular are probably spending no more time with their children than their own fathers did.

Cary Cooper, professor in organisational psychology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, says: "The hours men and women work is becoming a very significant family issue. We have the highest divorce rate in Europe, as well as the longest working hours. I don't think these facts are unrelated." Men have traditionally gained self-esteem and a sense of identity through their work. Now, "men are going through an enormous potential metamorphosis - people are saying to them, `You no longer have to be the breadwinner.' So having to work long hours almost justifies their pre-existing role like, `See how important I am. I work a 60 hour week.' The underlying message being `I'm still far too important to do mundane domestic duties.'"

Mick Cooper, lecturer in counselling at Brighton University and author of The MANual - The Complete Man's Guide To Life, says, "The most useful way of understanding this is in terms of self-worth. It's not work for work's sake, it's the way men achieve good feelings about themselves. They don't make the same association between self-worth, marriage and families. If they fail at work, they feel they've failed as men." And when the same group of men do tear themselves away from the office, it's often to take part in the more interesting aspects of domestic activity. As 16-year-old Joanna Sedgwick says of her dad: "When he is here we always do things out of the ordinary, going out for trips and playing games."

In those families where the mother also goes out to work, the inequalities are just as stark. Harriet, 33, a television researcher with a three-year- old daughter, Alice, relates a similar story. Her husband Tom is a television producer whose commitment to work is greater than ever. Like many women, Harriet feels she has to balance two jobs, one of which is unpaid. "Tom's brilliant when he's around," she says. "But there are so many little things that I do - packing Alice's nursery bag every night; making sure she's got enough clean clothes - that Tom would never even know about. Sometimes I feel I should be fighting my territory more, but then I have to concede that his job allows him little choice."

Most men who do work as hard as Tom or David would vehemently deny that they're workaholics, yet one wonders how addicted they really are. Unlike women, men's experience of child rearing does not provide them with the same level of perspective and balance. As Harriet says: "If something goes wrong at work I can think, `Oh well, at least Alice is happy and healthy'. When one's going badly, I've always got the other."

In this sense, work addiction does seem to be a mainly male problem. Stephen Palmer, psychologist and director at the Centre For Stress Management, says: "We always ask someone why they're working such long hours. Invariably it's the person and not the situation that won't change." But Palmer only sees those who acknowledge that they need help. Many others would never question their level of commitment.

David Sedgwick says: "I sometimes feel that I give too much and I think the family does miss out," but adds, "I enjoy what I do and I feel it's what I'm meant to be doing." The problem is, so do thousands of other British men who also feel that taking part in the less rewarding aspects of child rearing is not what they're meant to be doing.

But with economic forecasters predicting a sharp decline in male employment, along with an increase in the female work market, their priorities will have to shift. As Cary Cooper says: "Men can no longer be protected and cossetted as the main breadwinner, even though it's all they know. They will have to change in order to survive."

THE LAST TIME DAVID ...

LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT

It was late to bed and early to rise for David Sedgwick last Tuesday. It is much the same every other day. David works 87 hours each week, which means he has very little time to spend with his family, sleep, read the papers, enjoy a meal or see his friends ...

7.15am: No one else is up. Eat my breakfast with Lindsay and take a cup of tea to Frances. Briefly see Robbie and Nicholas go off on their paper round. A man delivers a pheasant which needs to be plucked. Discuss with Frances when I'll get enough time to do this. Meanwhile it's hanging in the shower.

7.45am: Cycle to the hospital which takes about 20 minutes. The first thing I do is usually dictation and signing letters. It's the only time in the day I don't get disturbed with bleeps and phonecalls

8.30am: Off on a ward round where I see 20 to 25 patients - monitoring their post-operative process. Discuss work from the weekend with the surgeon I share my round with - talked about one case concerning a nasty hand injury

9.30am: Clinic starts - see about 15 new patients with a range of symptoms: rectal bleeding, varicose veins, ulcers, gallstones and hernias. See at least two emergencies at the end of clinic. A GP calls to say a woman is unable to swallow because she has a piece of chicken stuck in her gullet. I tell him to send her in. I'm called to casualty to see an alcoholic with a bad glass wound in his hand. Rush back to see more patients. Drink coffee on the hoof. See the woman the GP called about - remove the chicken from her gullet with an endoscope

1.30pm: Go to the theatre rest room and have a 20-minute lunch break - eat two home-made rolls. Straight into telescopic examinations. I do about six, looking for tumours and polyps. Also treat patients for piles. Then dictate letters to GPs and complete patient notes. Finish at 4pm - straight into the consultant meeting which lasts two hours. I discuss the lack of a lab on site we're trying to get funding for. Discuss requests for new equipment and how we can prioritise what we need. Then examine 9-year-old and 6-year-old with acute signs of appendicitis. Agree to come back at 8pm and operate on them.

6.45pm. Phone Frances and say I'm coming home to eat but have to be back by 8pm. She's going to a Tupperware party and can drop me at the hospital. I cycle home and we have tea at 7.15pm with Frances, Nicky and Joanna. Talk to Nicky about the wind band and Joanna about this weekend. She tells me she might not be able to make it to the Highland Regional Youth Orchestra because she was late with her application. See Robbie and talk about football - I think Hoddle's right to let Gazza play

8pm. Back at the hospital. I'm called into casualty because they need help with a woman who has collapsed. Take 20 minutes to resuscitate her and then operate on the first appendix case. Casualty calls again - a woman with a suspected appendicitis. Back to surgery for three appendix operations

1am. Frances has left the van in the car park and the keys with the hospital porter so I can drive home. Get in about 1.30am - everyone's in bed and the house is in darkness

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