THE BLOG

Dads: Where Are We Now?

26/02/2016 10:50 GMT | Updated 25/02/2017 10:12 GMT

My father is a great father and man, but Baron Senior's role when I was growing up was different to the way I square things now I'm a father myself.

Each morning he swept out of the drive in a high-end motor, leaving behind the domestic space for my mother. He was essential to our family but curiously marginal, proving that the bigger a man's house, the less time he has to be there.

His or any father's role seemed simple to me. He had to dissolve into the world away from us, to transform himself as efficiently as he could, into money.

My role is different. As a writer my working life is flexible. And boy does it need to be because my wife works too. Like an increasing number of British fathers I only bring home part of the bacon, the rest of the time spent cooking, cleaning, picking up or dropping off.

By the time our first child (of three) was twelve hours old I had beaten Baron Senior's lifetime nappy-change tally (one). And when the children were still small enough I pushed the buggy to playgroups, swim sessions and pre-school music classes, never quite sure that this was what a man should be doing.

To start with I did this in Greenwich, the Georgian oasis in South East London that I live in one corner of. At St Marks, the little ones ran riot in a big hall full of crash mats and Wendy houses, while I stood out like Donald Sutherland at the end of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers: a man in a world of mummies.

Often better educated than me, the women there and at other Greenwich childcare locations had, in large part, retreated from their working lives, an option only available to mothers with partners wealthy enough to pay for the whole family caboodle. Able to work post-motherhood, they chose not to. Formerly professional women, they looked at the hard-won gains of feminists to create greater fairness in the workplace and said actually, no thanks.

In the presence of these women I felt one thing: guilt. For I had not managed what my father had. I had not stacked up a big enough pile to offer my own wife the choice of being a mother like these women or indeed my own: full time, the soft rock for our children to stand on.

These feelings inspired the opening chapters of my latest novel, Blackheath, which features the first couple in British fiction who choose to share care of their children equally. They changed, however, when I took the little ones to playgroups in the less affluent areas surrounding Greenwich.

At Bear Cubs in Deptford there were more crash mats: but to my surprise there were also men. About a third of all the parents there were men, with lives much like my own (part of what sociologist Richard Florida calls the 'Creative Class'). Not lawyers or City traders like the men of Greenwich, they worked as journalists, actors, artists. They were web designers who worked from home, their working days fractured by the Internet.

The women were different too: not full time mothers, on the whole, but employed in industries with employment practices flexible enough to allow them to work post-motherhood.

In Deptford I met people who were sharing their new lives as parents. Passing the work and childcare balls back and forth. Returning to Greenwich I met women who had once worked, sharing the experience of the outside world with their partners. Parenthood, however, had changed their lives entirely, thrown them into a completely different sphere, and while these women seemed calmer, their lives 'easier', I couldn't help wondering what it must be like to have a life so radically altered. And, furthermore, changed into one that their partners had no experience of. The word partner, in fact, seemed wrong, for how could two people be partners when they were engaged in such radically different enterprises as work and home?

What their partners felt I cannot say. They were absent from these childcare environments, like Baron Senior was all those years ago. At times (puke stained, harried in some checkout queue) I was jealous of them. I wished that I too could sweep away from my family, bringing back numbers in return.

All I had to do however was think, not of my brilliant father, but of my mother. For my memories of her are different to my thoughts of him. They are physical. They exist less inside my brain than inside my body, her hands-on relationship to me part of my very make-up. She was no more essential to me than my father, but she was present in a way I want to be present for my own kids. Hardwired. Not essential but mostly absent. Just essential.

Blackheath is published by Myriad Editions, February 2016