Flexible working: a father’s perspective
While women still do the vast majority of childcare, and are much more likely to reduce their work hours after having children, fathers are increasingly looking for a better work/life balance.
That’s why I wanted to bring you Ed’s story. He chose to go self-employed after having children, which allowed him to be more involved in their lives. Here’s how he juggles being a father and running his own business – and why he doesn’t think he’ll ever go back to a traditional workplace.
“A made-up life”
“When my first son was born, I was a project manager at a university. I had a small team, and we worked with local companies solving innovation-related problems. That sounds way more exciting than it really was,” says Ed.
“I had previously had much more interesting jobs abroad, but came back to the UK primarily because of my imminent child, and my wife’s career. I hadn’t been back long enough to be eligible for paternity leave. I requested, and was granted, a week of unpaid leave.
“Needless to say, that flew past and while it probably mattered at the time, it was hardly adequate. When the funding for that work came to end, I was keen to leave since I couldn’t find any trace of support, interest, vision or strategy in the organisation.
“Now, I write, review and assess project proposals for/from other organisations. Sometimes for national or international funding bodies, sometimes for internal strategy building. That’s all WAY tedious, but people will pay for it, sometimes. On balance, that’s the overwhelming bulk of the work I do that actually pays me.
“For a few days a year I train people how to fly spacecraft. I mean, remotely – not piloting. That sounds like I made it up. While I’m sounding like I have a made-up life, I may as well also say that I design and run business-focused workshops with Lego Serious Play, as one of a whole community of certified facilitators. While this has Lego in its name, its not easy. (Maybe one day I will be able to do both spaceships and Lego in the same day, then I’d be back in 1982 all over again.)
“Corporate challenges like ‘how can we develop and embed a family-friendly working culture’ are great targets for a Lego Serious Play session. Nobody’s asked me for that yet.
“I don’t regret putting family first”
Ed decided to go self employed after having children because he felt torn between his career and his new life as a father.
“I am lucky that my wife has a decently paid job, and is likely always to have. Having worked 15 years towards and in a career I am excited and passionate about, it was sad realising that I really had to choose between doing what I had always wanted to do, and being the kind of father I wanted to be.
“I also felt – still feel – confined to the UK by my family, but I can’t hold that against them – I just have to deal with it. I decided I had some ideas to play with that might give me some kind of income – we were lucky that I could afford 6-12 months of trying them out.
“It is very easy to create a business in the UK. It is very, very hard to create a business on your own that can make it worthwhile and earn enough to cover our absurd childcare costs. Nevertheless, we chose to keep our son in full-time day nursery, having found a place we absolutely loved. So I had kind of 9-5 to firstly invent away of working that I was prepared to put up with, and also deal with all the general family-running stuff that meant when we are all together all the laundry, shopping and cleaning is out of the way.
“I can imagine most parents would like to have more time with their kids. I know I would, but on balance it would be hard to get more. The support, nurture and social education of day nursery has been amazing – again – we have lucked out. I sometimes daydream about what I would be doing if I kept hold of my career, and there would have been ways of making that work. I regret that to an extent, but I don’t regret putting family first.”
“The time I consider my own is 11:00-15:00”
Ed went on to have a second son, who he also didn’t get parental leave for because…well, he’s running his own company.
“So how do I fit work life around children? – very,very, lumpily,” says Ed.
“In quiet weeks – the majority – I do the school run morning and afternoon, and have a daily task like that literally says ‘check laundry situation’ and ‘check the shopping list’.
“I use a task manager synced to my phone. Once that’s done, I work from home for the few remaining hours before the pick up/play/dinner/bath/bed routine, which, as you know, takes a simply staggering amount of time.
“Broadly speaking, the time I consider my own is 11:00-15:00. Over a week, I guess that adds up to half-time. That’s about what it feels like. The other half is rammed though, which means I sometimes don’t/can’t fill the working time slots. I then also often work between 22:00 and midnight, or sometimes 1 or 2am if there’s lots to do, or I’m uncharacteristically motivated. That used to be fine. With kids, and/or in my 40s, that now ruins me more that I like admitting.
“The children have generally great days in school or nursery, and the time that they’re awake and at home, I try to be around them. If I worked on a daily basis with other people in real life (rather than
remotely/online), it would be very much harder.
“Sometimes I travel for work, usually only a day, but up to a week at a time once or twice a year. I can only do this when grandparents can be brought into play, which again, is something I’m lucky with. None are local, but they’ll travel to help sometimes. Their availability and wife’s work rota dominate though, and what I get to do is whatever is left over after the constraints are applied. Spontaneity is inconsistent with family as far as I can tell.”
“I’m way past overdue for taking work seriously again”
Ed always assumed he would return to work after about two years – but then his second son came along, and he’s just turned four.
“I’m way past overdue for taking work seriously again,” said Ed.
“I now earn about 80% of our monthly childcare bill for one child, so I should just be a full-time dad and take #2 out of nursery to save the cash. But we want him to have the same experiences as #1, and he gets way better early years stuff with his peers and his staff team there than I could ever fathom how to provide, so that’s how it is.
“Having (again, just lucky) lived in other countries and seen how childcare, parental leave, society in general etc. can be sensibly organised and priced, I’m aghast at how behind the UK is. Realistically now, I will only consider going back to ‘normal’ employment if a genuinely spectacular opportunity comes along that I feel confident I could get. Something that would be worth disrupting the family for, ie moving elsewhere and losing the reliability of our main earner’s salary.
“We still joke that one day I’ll have an idea that actually means something and will make serious cash and we’ll buy a castle or something. Nobody really believes in me that much, least of all me.”
“That family is a distant second to presenteeism in the workplace is just plain weird”
“It might still be unusual, or not expected, for fathers to pursue flexible, part-time, working – but I don’t think that fathers should feel a stigma or barrier to asking. Employers aren’t ready for it and don’t seem to get how simple and fundamental this is, much like they haven’t also figured out that people are people and equality means something and women must not be regarded any differently.
“We have a weird social construct in the UK that places almost no value on the family. Individuals are recognised within work. Work is recognised within the economy. But why are we bothering with any of that if it isn’t for the future betterment of everyone and/or the planet? That family is a distant second to presenteeism in the workplace is plain weird.
“I fully get that I’m lucky, and I know there are many families who can’t get the numbers to work out without all the adults working full time. Suggesting fathers should feel some kind of freedom to pursue part-time working, or flexible hours, or undertake a significant childcare timeslice, may just irritate the heck out of people who genuinely have no choice. But their constraints are partly imposed by our current societal setup. A taxation and benefits system that is very significantly broken. A childcare economic model that makes it unattractive for even childcare professionals to want to stay in the role (and don’t get me on to teachers’ pay, teaching assistants, and everyone else who actually makes things happen for the greater good) is madness.
“Personally, I am increasingly doubtful I’ll ever get back into my career trajectory. There are younger, brighter, shinier people available. And for all that my time is on average extremely cheap, I think there’s an expectation of age/seniority/experience that would price me out of consideration even before having the chance to say that I’m ok with minimum wage, since that would be a step up.
“I’m not complaining – this is a choice. I just have to keep reminding myself that its a choice that makes sense, and that its good for my kids, and that somehow I won’t end up distraught when they leave, or don’t need me, or when we don’t just hang out in the park. Keeping working would have kept me safer from that turmoil, I think.”
“They do love their families more than they love spreadsheets”
Ed thinks fathers need to be empowered to call out nonsense about family in the workplace without jeopardising their reputation – or worse.
“I guess fathers have a hard time saying to others that actually yes, they do love their families more than they love their spreadsheets or metrics or KPIs or work nights out or travel perks or whatever.
“When I can’t make a meeting, go to a workshop, talk to a client – whatever – because of childcare, I do feel bad. I try to avoid saying that’s the reason. I don’t know why: its as if there ought to be a better reason! What better reason could there possibly be? Today I dropped a task because of swimming lessons. On the one hand, tomorrow is now a disaster. On the other – WHOA! – I helped a small human to gain ability and confidence to self-propel through water, and that might just one day save their life or someone else’s. If it doesn’t, maybe they’ll do it for fun anyway. WOOT.”
If you want find out more about Ed and his space/Lego life, you can follow him @edchester. And if you’re a dad who’s working flexibly or part-time and want to share your story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.