Sam was six in 2014, when I was planning my return to work after several months recovering from a heart transplant. He overheard me on the phone one day as I arranged a meeting.
“Who was that, Dad?”
“That’s Fiona from work.”
“Are you going back to work?”
“Oh, that’s terrible news!”
“Why’s that, mate?”
“Because you’ve already got a job.”
“Being my dad.”
Why are your children so uniquely capable of observations that invoke both joy and guilt at the same time?
Annabel Crabb clearly understands that species of guilt that is the constant, silent – and sometimes not so silent – companion of the modern working father. Guilt that you’re not doing your share of child-raising tasks, guilt that you’re not 100 per cent dedicated to your job, guilt that you’re not the wise, playful, funny, ever-present omni-dad.
What struck me about Men at Work was the depth of Crabb’s understanding. Of men. And in a sphere of human behaviour where judgment, of men, could be entirely justified. As Crabb notes, “It’s well established that having children is entirely different, when it comes to your professional outlook, depending on whether you’re male or female … Any study you like in this area will show you that the same biological event – reproduction – means strikingly different things for men at work as opposed to women.”
Crabb rightly notes that social policy and expectations around child-raising have a disproportionate impact on the career and financial prospects of women. That is a central issue here. But it is not the only issue, and she sensitively acknowledges how social policy and expectations also discriminate against men, and thereby work to the detriment of children.
Crabb gets it.
She gets that for some men, sometimes, those social expectations will be quietly convenient. “Now, no one is suggesting that what every dad really wants to do,” she writes, “is get home from work at 4 p.m. every day so as to be sure to catch that excellent juncture where the juvenile and the adult stores of patience expire within fifteen minutes of each other. When I first read Edith Gray’s research indicating that the average Australian father worked five hours more a week after the birth of his first child, somewhere deep down inside I grinned in recognition and thought: you sly dogs.”
Okay, she got me there. I took a two-week “break” after both Sam and Jude were born (although I don’t remember smoking any cigars). In the early years of their lives, I changed my share of nappies. I staggered out of bed for many middle-of-the-night bottles. I clocked kilometres pushing a pram anxiously around local streets in the vague hope that it would calm my shrieking child. But did I put my hand up for the “unrecompensed crapshoot” of several months of parental leave? Hell no.
Crabb also gets that, for some men, sometimes, those expectations will cut deep. “Somehow we’ve constructed a system of expectations … in which a man who is doing his job is bound to it by something much deeper and more fibrous than his contract of employment, or even his need to provide. Stopping work for a while, or even just doing less of it, is thus not as simple as a law telling him it’s allowed. It involves finding and loosening restraints far more ancient than those outlined in any human resources manual; knots which have swelled with age and seawater; ropes that have bitten into the skin.”
She really got me there, right in the heart of my personal narrative.
I did go back to work in 2014, and soon started to thrive professionally. But the more I succeeded in one job, the less adequate I felt in the other.
In 2017, work commitments frequently took me away from home, and even when I was there, I wasn’t. I started every weekday with an 8 a.m. conference call, switching the phone on and off mute as I made school lunches, packed school bags, barked commands, buttoned shirts, combed hair, broke up fights, got involved in fights, barked more commands and whispered hurried goodbyes at drop-off. I was constantly checking email, from before the boys woke up until well after they had gone to bed. One family “holiday” coincided with a particularly hectic period, and I spent the whole time on my phone. I would go to the bathroom to buy five minutes to clear some of my email backlog. During one beachside walk, with me trailing ten metres behind, glued to my phone, Sam lost it.
“I hate this holiday,” he declared. “You’re always on your phone, you don’t pay any attention to us. I want to go home.”
Since that time, my sense of work–family conflict has become more pronounced. Clocks are ticking and I am increasingly feeling an urgent need to be more present in my boys’ lives. Sam is now eleven, Jude eight – crucial dad time for the fathers of boys. Steve Biddulph’s advice and warning is etched in my mind: “This window of time – from about age six to the fourteenth birthday – is the major opportunity for a father to have an influence on (and build the foundations of masculinity in) his son. Now is the time to ‘make time’ … This is when good memories are laid down, which will nourish your son, and you, for decades to come … Enjoy this time when he is really wanting to be with you. By mid-adolescence his interests will pull him more and more into the wider world beyond. All I can do here is plead with you – don’t leave it too late!”
So for some time I have been keeping a log in my mind, doing the calculations. When will I reach the point that Max Schireson did, the Silicon Valley CEO who stepped down from his role because the demands of his job meant he wasn’t spending enough time with his fourteen-, twelve- and nine-year-old children? As my wife put it recently, echoing Biddulph, “The boys don’t need you in four or five years’ time. They need you now.” Just as my sense of work–family conflict hit extreme on hearing those words, she released the pressure valve with her next observation: “Why don’t you try going part-time for a while?”
The idea should not have been the revelation that it was to me. So why had I been seeing my situation as an either/or dilemma until that point?
I am particularly prone to the male tendency to describe and identify myself with reference to work. I also imagine the voices of the 24/7 types – those types who, when my firm formally adopted a flexible working policy many years ago, coined the derogatory term “part-time partner.” In the end, though, with the support of an encouraging wife, enlightened managers, sympathetic colleagues and a talented and dedicated team, I prioritised the little voices that really matter. Sam’s and Jude’s.
I have two jobs. I may have allowed one to become more important to me than the other at a key stage in my own and my boys’ lives, but both are important. And slowly I am becoming optimistic that de-throttling in one may ultimately improve my chances of thriving in both.
Thank you, Annabel Crabb, for getting it.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 76, Red Flag.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY