There's a certain look we give each other at that place and at that time: It says: "We'd rather not be this tired. We'd prefer not be so sweaty after pushing the pram up Battersea Rise. We'd like to have had more time to send that work email. We'd rather have been able to kiss our wives goodbye before they left for work. We'd actually, even prefer be in the office. But we'd really rather not be here right now at 7:30am... and yet, we can barely bring ourselves to leave."
It's a torturous paternal and professional conflict that mums and dads across Britain experience every morning when dropping off their most prized and priceless, yet entirely innocent and defenceless possession(s) at nursery. But it's the bereft expression that dads give dads: lonely, sleep-deprived and slightly bewildered, that resonates with me. And that's the look I've been giving fellow dads every weekday since May when my wife returned to work after our daughter turned eight months.
That look is largely down to this: for the first time in my life, I find myself putting family before (or at least on the same level as) work. It's a truly uncomfortable feeling. At first, there's the realisation that things will never be the same again, and then there's the even more awkward, mid-life crisis-inducing emotion that for the past 15 years, I've likely had my priorities wrong.
In the past five months I've found myself doing things I thought I would never do, never knew I had to do and had never heard of. Some of them are truly joyful. Others very uncomfortable. Many are just plain bizarre. Friday morning I showered while my daughter completed her Simon the Snail puzzle on the bathroom floor next to me. Monday morning was spent on the phone to the nursery who wanted to know why my daughter had just exploded out the back of her trousers for the second time in 10 minutes. Last week, I stepped out of the shower to find my distraught daughter, still trapped in her sleeping bag, doing the worm down the corridor, desperately trying to find me... and more importantly, a warm bowl of banana porridge. And yet, last month also saw my daughter reach out for my hand for the first time as she struggled to walk down our stairs. These are the little moments that mean so much to parents, but rarely raise an eyebrow in the office.
Since my wife went back to work I also no longer sleep in. I rarely nap on a Saturday afternoon with the radio turned to the football (poor me!). Thanks to my daughter's magnetic attraction to germs and equally giving nature, I've never been so sick or taken so many sick days. And I'd certainly never had something called hand foot and mouth disease (look it up - if you dare) until the doctor at Chelsea and Westminster A&E diagnosed it. I'd never cleaned up a brown Jackson Pollock-like mess from the kitchen floor after my nappy-less daughter fled the change mat in the seconds before bath time. I've also never felt so anxious knowing a sudden departure from the office was just an explosive nappy and a phone call away.
What makes even discussing this sound so pathetic is that I'm obviously not the first man to go through this, and of course, so many others have much more difficult circumstances (spare a thought for single parents, for example). In fact, around 75% of mothers now return to work within 12 to 18 months of having a child. That was just 24% in 1981 and 67% in 2001, according to Department for Work and Pensions data. But that doesn't stop the feelings being any less real. In a way, you find yourself wishing that being a young working father was even harder, if only to justify the constant self doubting.
So how could the greatest miracle that is also the ultimate proof of manhood, also be the first step to perceived emasculation? Here lies the crux of this entire blog. What's really going on has got less to with your beautiful and perfect offspring and more to do with male pride and social stereotypes. Yes, that bundle of joy isn't set to automatic. (In fact, it's set to happy, and then sad and then a confusing combination of happy, sad, sick and demented.) But the struggle itself is not the physical things you do: the rainy pram-pushing, the early starts, the late finishes. At least through my anecdotal research with fellow dads, I'm not the only working father to question whether I'm actually now getting anything right at all: Am I a mediocre father? A mediocre husband? A mediocre employee? Can I still call myself a 'real man' while keeping a straight face on one of the few occasions I visit the pub when sharing the responsibilities of parenthood 50/50 (my wife might argue it's more like 30/70).
Looking at the facts in my own pre-fatherhood guide, I certainly don't spend the same amount of time at work. But professional pride aside, it's the other (more) important stuff that really sets off the mid-life crisis alarm. While the emails sent to the office are briefer and less detailed, the text messages and calls to my wife are sometimes less considerate and certainly less frequent. On top of that, the time you actually spend with your offspring is limited to under 10 hours during the entire working week, most of which is spent covered in porridge, poo and tears. Your child's 40-odd seemingly happy hours are spent at nursery. And even the makeup of nursery staff seems to reinforce doubt. Of the 14 professional carers at my nursery, not one is male.
To me, it's no mystery that mostly fathers drop off their children at my nursery in the morning, while mothers take the evening shift. If my experience is any guide, it's all about priorities, or at least the traditional sense of what a man's priorities should be. By dropping my kid off in the morning, I have the 'freedom' to work late into the evening. There's something calming in at least adhering to the stereotype of being the main bread-winner who works all day to support his family while mum stays home with the kids. Even if in reality, our wives might have long leap-frogged us on the career ladder and spend just as much time at work.
For most men, it's still deeply troubling not being the guy who swings open the door enthusiastically at 7:30pm every evening, sweeps up laughing children into his arms and kisses his wife on the cheek. It's just one of the contractions of being a 'modern man'. We're meant to be muscle-bound, treat-em-mean-keep-em-keen types that should give off a fearless indifference to the people we love most. Work should be No.1 with family a distant second. But once fatherhood comes, there are real responsibilities and new priorities.
There's no doubt my life was easier when my wife was at home with the baby. I felt my work was done in the office and I could lazily pass off all home duties to my other half. This meant not feeling guilty about sleeping in on the weekends, spending more hours at the pub or having little regard for the important fact my wife also needed a break from her work (which, as I've now discovered, was so much more intensive than anything I was doing at the office).
Professional development and simple economic necessity forced the practical change in my circumstances. But it was only after I accepted that life was going to be different following my wife's return to work, and believed that was good thing, that I found some semblance of inner peace and began to enjoy the freedom of realising I didn't need to be perfect.
There are so many cliches that come with entering parenthood, but that doesn't make them any less real. Becoming a father was a transformative moment; but I now realise that was the easy part. Being the husband of a working mum, on the other hand, has been a humbling, eye-opening experience that has truly made me reconsider my work-life balance.
It's taken me almost six months of hard graft and raised voices to work out that accepting change, and changing your priorities, not only makes you a better father, it ultimately makes you better at work. With less time to waste, you become more aware of what actually matters, both at home and in the office. You become a better judge of what's worthwhile, with clearer focus and less tolerance for bullshit. Most of all, it makes you realise that if you can juggle all this, you can just about do anything. And that's a pretty empowering feeling.