Wednesday 08 January 2014
Why men don’t want it all
Work-life balance is supposed to be the holy grail for men and women alike. But most fathers’ darkest secret, argues Toby Young, is that they want to spend less time with their children, not more…
By Toby Young
10:00PM BST 26 Apr 2013
I’m often asked by programmes such as Woman’s Hour and Loose Women if I want to be the token male in a discussion about ‘work-life balance’. Some all-conquering female CEO of a Californian internet company has written a book about the difficulties of ‘having it all’ and they want to know if I’d like to put the male point of view.
After all, don’t men with successful careers also worry about not spending enough time with their children?
I always say no. That’s partly because, for me, the difficulty is the other way round. I worry about not spending enough time on my career.
As a freelance journalist who works from home, I’m lucky if I can carve out 10 minutes in the day away from my children. It doesn’t help that I have four of them, all under 10. Trying to convince them that making real money is more important than playing Monopoly is extremely difficult.
But there’s another reason I avoid such discussions, one that’s difficult to admit to in public. And it’s this: I don’t really enjoy spending time with my children. That sounds brutal, but I don’t think it’s just me. I think it’s true of most men, at least when their children are as young as mine.
Few fathers would ’fess up to this in front of their wives but, in private, among themselves, the main topic of conversation is the sheer horror of having to look after young children.
Don’t get me wrong. There are some good moments. I enjoy taking them swimming at the local sports club on Saturday mornings and I like sitting down with them at mealtimes, particularly if my wife Caroline has done a roast. But the majority of the time it’s pretty horrendous.
Take bath and bed, which I’ve been doing every night for the best part of 10 years. At 6.15pm, no matter what sort of day I’ve had, Caroline turns over responsibility for the kids to me. By 6.16pm, she’s uncorked a bottle of wine and started watching Gray’s Anatomy.
I then have to persuade all four children to get undressed, get into the bath, get into their pyjamas, do their teeth, get into bed and turn out the light. And they are not merely reluctant. They are hell-bent on resistance.
As far as they’re concerned, asking them to perform any of these tasks – rather than, say, letting them watch television or play video games – flies in the face of natural justice. They puff themselves up with moral indignation, outraged that I should have so little regard for their feelings, even though this has been the ritual every day of their lives.
The phrase ‘herding kittens’ doesn’t do it justice. It’s like trying to herd a group of tiny lawyers, all convinced that ‘herding’ is a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.
As for getting them to do their homework, forget it. Now we’re running afoul of even more serious international laws – the United Nations Convention Against Torture, for instance. And I’m talking about what it’s like for me. The screaming, the crying, the door slamming… it’s complete purgatory. If I were a member of a terrorist cell, I would gladly give up all my comrades rather than endure another second of this.
Call me a bad father, but the prospect of having to sacrifice these ‘pleasures’ to spend more time at the office does not fill me with horror. That is, if I had an office. A little berth in Soho, with superfast broadband and an espresso machine, is my idea of heaven.
Among my male friends with young children, it has become a standing joke that weekdays and weekends have swapped places. We used to hate weekdays and look forward to weekends. Now it’s the other way round. Do the majority of men feel this way? Of course they do. A more interesting question is: do the majority of women feel this way, too?
Whenever I talk to women about this, they’re quick to point out that they don’t get any pleasure from making their children do their homework, either. Indeed, it’s precisely because childcare is so difficult and boring that they want their partners to take on their share of the burden.
My wife feels no qualms about handing the children over to me at 6.15pm because she’s already done two school runs, negotiated a timetable of after-school clubs and given them supper. (Remember the PG Tips advert with the chimps? Enough said.)
Which is another reason I find it difficult to discuss work-life balance with high-flying career women. For the most part, the only reason they think they’re missing out is because they’ve spent so little time with their children. If they knew how difficult it is to persuade their little darlings that crisps aren’t one of the major food groups, they’d thank their lucky stars they never get home from work until 8pm.
They imagine they’re missing some mythical, golden, just-before-bed-time period in which their children curl up in their laps, smelling of soap and toothpaste, while they read them a Beatrix Potter story. In reality, it’s World War III.
Even the women who know this are unlikely to admit it because they’re racked with guilt. This is the crucial difference between men and women, in my experience. It’s not that mums enjoy looking after their kids any more than dads. Of course they don’t. Rather, it’s that women don’t get as much pleasure from their careers because they feel guilty about not spending more time with their children.
Some feminists argue that these feelings of guilt are socially constructed – a psychological control mechanism devised by the architects of the patriarchal society to keep women in their place. But I think they’re hardwired into women’s DNA.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former member of the Obama administration and the author of a controversial essay in The Atlantic magazine entitled ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All’, acknowledges this: ‘I do not believe fathers love their children any less than mothers do, but men do seem more likely to choose their job at a cost to their family, while women seem more likely to choose their family at a cost to their job,’ she writes.
Why? Not because of gender stereotyping or social conditioning, but because women have a ‘maternal imperative’ that’s hard for them to ignore. Children simply have a greater emotional claim on their mothers than their fathers. Some women can resist it and some genuinely don’t feel it. But as a general rule, mothers find not doing the school run even harder to cope with than doing it. Which is really saying something. (Yes, I sometimes do the school run as well.)
My wife is a full-time mum and you’d think I’d be happy with that. But I can’t help comparing myself with my father and thinking what a good deal he had. The division of labour between him and my mum was simple: he was the breadwinner, Mum was the caregiver.
Now, thanks to some weird twist of post-feminist logic, I’m a full-time breadwinner and a part-time caregiver. My wife’s attitude is that being a full-time mum is a job just like mine. After the working day is over, we should split the childcare 50-50.
If only I lived in a more traditional feminist household in which my wife had a full-time career. Men in dual-income households actually do less childcare than I do. To begin with, their wives tend to overcompensate for their absence by hiring an army of domestic servants – nannies, cleaners, cooks. Even when their jobs don’t pay them well enough to be able to afford all this help, they make sure their mums come round to lend a hand.
But it’s when their partners come back from work that the real difference kicks in. Instead of expecting the childcare to be shared at the weekends, as my wife does, working women want to spend every spare minute with their children to assuage the guilt they feel about not having seen them during the week.
As a result, they’re quite content for their husbands to go off to the football on Saturday afternoons and spend Sunday mornings on the golf course. I should say at this point that Caroline does allow me to go and watch QPR every other week. She’s good like that. But she insists I take all four children with me.
I hope I don’t sound like I’m whingeing about my domestic arrangements. Generally speaking, it all works pretty well. If I didn’t do bath-and-bed every night, Caroline would have gone round the bend long ago. (‘I’d kill them,’ is how she puts it.) And I know this is highly controversial, but I think my children are probably better off being cared for by their mother and me than they would be if they were being looked after by a succession of nannies.
The rewards of being a hands-on dad are few and far between, but when they do come they can pack quite a punch. Sometimes, just after I’ve read my four-year-old a story and turned out the light, he says, ‘I love you, Dad.’ That produces almost as much euphoria as the first glass of wine.
But the reason you’re unlikely to hear men with good careers complaining about their work-life balance is because, with a few exceptions, they’re not interested in more ‘life’ and less ‘work’. For them, 15 minutes before bedtime and a kick-about on Saturday mornings is more than enough ‘quality time’ with their children. Until they’re old enough to go sailing or skiing – then it’s a different story.
Some men will deny this, of course, and I’m not saying they’re all liars. But any man who tells you he gets genuine pleasure from watching his child play a star in the school nativity play – for the fourth year in a row! – is a dirty fibber!
This article raises some interesting, if rather controversial points about the challenges of modern parenthood and the myth that stay at home parents must love what they do. It explores the dilemma that I face daily as a single mother of 3 who feels passionate about both the rearing of my family as my vocation and my skills, abilities and career potential as a counsellor.
There is no right or wrong solution to this dilemma. I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences on this…