Which hat shall I wear today?

Twenty years ago Shirley Conran's Superwoman taught women how to cope with the strain of combining work, family and self-development. Now, with Britons working the longest hours in Europe, British men are feeling their own kind of role strain. David Cohen reports
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Jack, a partner in a West End firm of architects and the father of two sons aged six and four, runs me through his schedule: "I get up shortly after 5am, feed the cat, have a shower and I'm out of the house and behind my desk by 6.30am. Skipping forward over what I do at work, I try to leave the office around six, never manage, get home after eight, at which time the boys are already bathed and fed and I take over domestic responsibilities from my wife, Susan, who is completely exhausted. I'm always happy to see the boys and I clean their teeth, read bedtime stories and put them to bed. Then I make dinner for myself and Susan and after dinner I clear up. Every Wednesday is a mad panic because Susan has her course (she is studying to be a psychotherapist) and I absolutely have to be home to pick up the children from friends by 6pm. On weekends, Susan is knee-deep in essays and I take wall-to-wall domestic responsibility for the children. I love spending time with the boys but keeping on top of work is bloody difficult, so last Sunday night I went into the office and worked until 2am, got into bed at three and was up two hours later to go back to the office. The only way you can balance work and home is that something gets sacrificed. And that something is myself - my personal development - and my relationship with Susan."

It is 10 o'clock at night and Jack, 41, in his socks, rumpled collar and half-mast tie, ruefully sips home-made espresso from his newly acquired "real coffee" machine. Susan slumps exhausted under a blanket at the other end of their sofa and speaks softly: "I know it's not Jack's fault, but I have a lot of difficulty with him coming in so late. The other night the kids were stressed, I was stressed, I'd reached crisis point ... I walked out of the house and threatened to leave. I was serious. I felt alone, depressed ... almost suicidal. I drove to a friend and they gave me a glass of wine. When I came back, still in quite a bad mood ... we talked ... and I cried and I felt a little better. But I told Jack: the amount of effort I put into my day-to-day survival does not allow me any personal happiness. It's not a state I can sustain forever."

Jack and Susan's daily attempts to skate ahead of the cracking ice typify the lot of the dual-career parent in 1996 Britain. One day (if you're lucky and you've worked hard) you look round and find you've got all the things you want: a spouse you love, a vocation you enjoy, kids you adore, a community of friends, a house with a garden and mod cons like real coffee machines. You just lack three crucial ingredients to enjoy them: Time. Time. Time.

Psychologists call it "role strain" - the difficulty of juggling work and family commitments without snapping in two. Back in the Eighties "juggling" was cast exclusively as a women's problem. But now, as more and more mothers go back to work, and more fathers take on an active parenting role while at the same time working ever longer hours, men are said to be suffering from role strain too. If confirmation were needed, this week European Commission figures showed that Britons work the longest hours in Europe, with one in 59 people working more than 70 hours a week.

This week also sees the release of a Hollywood comedy, Multiplicity, which taps into male role strain as a phenomenon of our time. The film stars Michael Keaton as Doug, a devoted father, married to Laura (Andie MacDowell), with an increasingly demanding job, which leaves him little time for either his wife or kids. Doug's hobby is golf, but how often does he get out on the course? "Never. Yup, never," he mutters. Doug describes his life as follows: "I feel guilty because I don't spend enough time with my wife and kids and then I get resentful because it feels like I should ... you know ... maybe get a little time for myself. It's like work is first, my family is a close second and I'm a distant third bringing up the rear."

When, on top of this, Laura decides to go back to work and asks Doug if he could help out a little more with the kids, he flips. "We just need a better schedule, then we'll be OK," he tells himself later. Laura is unconvinced: "We don't need a schedule, we need a miracle," she says.

Which is exactly what happens. Doug meets a wacky geneticist who offers to clone him. Very soon we have Doug 1, Doug 2 and Doug 3, with Doug 3 handling the domestic chores, Doug 2 going off to work and Doug 1 - who has now contracted himself out - living it up on a well-earned cruise. But just as

we think Hollywood has come up with the one special effect a stressed- out nation really needs, things start to go awry. Doug the worker becomes a hardened, nasty piece of work, domestic Doug becomes an effete, nurturing perfectionist, waxing lyrical about how to cling-wrap sandwiches and Doug 1, who is now completely franchised-out, returns from his boat trip to find the different Dougs at war and that he has become marginalised from his own life.

This disintegration will strike a chord with many men who feel themselves struggling to fulfil the multiple roles in their lives. As real-life Jack from London says: "When I head back to work after the weekend, I feel like I've been on an aeroplane, transported from one reality to another. I'm wrenched out of the bosom of the family and thrust into the hard-play of the battleground where I can't reveal any weakness. Then by the end of the week, when I'm killing without remorse, I've got to step over the threshold and become human again. It's an enormous stress to live such a fragmented existence."

But come, come, you may say, how many fathers are we talking about? Are we to believe that real-life Jack and fictional Doug represent the new Everyman? Scepticism remains the order of the day among social commentators - as reflected in headlines like "Where do all the new men go?" - but two ground-breaking surveys published this year indicate that, for the first time, this well-grooved, cynical reflex could be past its sell-by date.

Take the recent survey of 1,100 managers from the Institute of Management: 83 per cent of the male managers canvassed say that the stress they are suffering at work adversely affects their relationship with their family; 66 per cent say that they have not managed to achieve a good balance between work and home; and, crucially, 61 per cent state very clearly that they would like to spend less time at work and more time with their family and friends (as compared with only 55 per cent of female managers), though only one in four actually see their way clear to doing something about it.

Another report out this year entitled, "Men and their Children", by the left-of-centre Institute for Public Policy Research, comes up with similarly radical conclusions. "Men's contribution to family life is largely ignored by policy makers," it says, "yet a close look at the private lives of fathers reveals: men do as much domestic work as women do breadwinning; 85 per cent of men think fathers should be very involved in bringing the child up from an early age; many fathers suffer role strain in trying to balance work and family as their expectations of themselves as involved fathers grows; fathers miss and are late for work more than non-fathers - and half of fathers in dual-career households share the care of sick children equally with their partners."

These surveys are historic for one reason - they signal a total sea-change in the aspirational atmosphere of men. They overturn the traditional view that men have no desire to spend more time with their families and show instead that fathers are starting to see child-rearing as a satisfying experience which can lead to personal growth, rather than as a burden from which they are lucky to escape. Working fathers may not yet be admitting publicly what they seem to be admitting to researchers and themselves: that their image of the male hero has shifted from the one-track, risk- all, work-driven entrepreneur of the Eighties to something more fuzzy and undefined but which incorporates some concept of role diversity.

If this is true, the question arises: why don't men - who are still economically and politically more powerful than women - do something about it? Why don't men get together to reduce the working week, to fight for father- friendly employment policies (like proper paternity leave) and for a work culture that affords them greater flexibility to organise their time between work and home?

Why, for example, doesn't Jack use his power as one of only two partners in his architectural practice to change the culture and simply work less than 60 hours a week?

"I'm not a workaholic," he says. "I would love to have more time for Susan and myself. And go on a parent-skills course. But I can't. I'm the breadwinner and the pressure to keep the show on the road is enormous. The culture is not dictated by me, it's dictated by economic conditions which in my industry are not very profitable.

"I have a fantasy of escaping to Australia where the culture is more relaxed. Then I think, maybe I can let up a little. Maybe I can have one breakfast a week at home with the family. But my personal room for manoeuvre is very small."

This is a sentiment that Western politicians - who clamour to be seen as the standard-bearers of the family - might do well to take on board.