Yvonne Roberts: Work-life balance, or the case of the Milburn tennis lesson

It's a paradox. Men moving further into the family because women want more of a life outside it
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The Independent Online

What a gift for Father's Day! At the beginning of last week, Alan Milburn, MP for Darlington and the now ex-Health Secretary, would have seemed the least likely candidate to trigger a conversation between men about what it means to be a dad. But, since Thursday, the sofas of morning TV chat shows have overflowed with men telling each other, and the rest of us, how they've pared back their working week, faced down ambition - and put the children first.

Malcolm Gladwell is the American author of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, in which he describes the sometimes mysterious ways that patterns of behaviour shift significantly, often overnight. Our lad Alan may yet prove the catalyst that dents the corporate culture of always putting firm before family.

Even if other motives emerge for his departure, the debate is up and running. How do you grapple with a drive to become top dog (or, more modestly, earn enough to keep the family solvent) and the socially acceptable desire to be fully involved in bringing up the kids?

Last week, Alan Milburn made a 700-mile round trip to see one of his two sons, aged six and 11, in his school play. On Monday, he resigned. Other politicians have resigned before, citing the need to spend more time with the family: the Tory minister Norman Fowler for one (only to take up a clutch of directorships). But this resignation is different because it feeds into a zeitgeist that may yet remodel fatherhood.

"My boys don't care about politics," Milburn explained movingly. "They just want to see more of their dad and I want to see more of them. I have not been there and I want to be there."

"Work-life balance" is much discussed but, in Britain, little practised. A survey published by the Department of Trade and Industry last year showed that a third of those questioned had flexible employment patterns open to them but shunned them for fear of damaging their careers. The rest of Europe has a tradition of regulated hours; here we don't. So, although only one in three men live with dependent children, it's exactly that pool of labour which slogs on for 60-plus hours a week.

Success often means long hours, burn-out and weekends spent comatose so that the children treat you as the pet zombie. If surveys in the City, advertising and industry are any guide, these costs are being questioned much more. Questioned but not necessarily changed.

Three years ago, Professor Charlie Lewis drew together the results of 20 research projects on fatherhood. Only a third of fathers with university qualifications take an equal share of childcare, against six out of 10 with no qualifications who do. Those under the most stress are men working long hours with childcare responsibilities. Intimacy isn't easy in today's workplace.

What makes men such as Alan Milburn attempt to change the terms of engagement ? Some because they must. Unemployment or a working wife who earns more means it makes financial sense. Some because they choose to - but others, perhaps, are also influenced by the articulate criticism of their offspring and, crucially, the changing attitudes of their partners.

Milburn's partner is Dr Ruth Briel, a consultant psychiatrist. In an interview with the BBC he gave a revealing snapshot of the strains. "Ruth wanted to do some tennis lessons ... and asked me to look after the kids on a Sunday morning. You'd have thought that I might just be able to squeeze that into my schedule but no, I only managed to do that on four out of eight occasions. That's not fair on my family."

He also said: "Ruth didn't give me an ultimatum, but it was clear from discussions that our relationship would not last if I carried on as I was. That filled me with dread, so I decided to do something about it."

It's a welcome paradox. Men moving further into the family because, in part, women want more of a life outside it. The little woman is alive but not nearly as well as when it was assumed that to live in the shadow of a man was sufficient reward for any girl.

Alan Milburn has exchanged career goals for a vision of a different life. He's taken a jump off the ladder and, already, the macho taunts of "Failure" are being heard. Why should he care when he might just have bought himself a chance of happy ever after? It's only one man's tale, but how many others might it yet inspire?