Simon Kettlewell’s novel Eternity Leave tells the story of a working dad who is primary caregiver. And it’s based closely on his own experiences.
There’s a fascinating episode in Simon Kettlewell’s new novel about life as a stay at home dad in which his wife asks what his ‘plan’ is. After 19 years as primary caregiver she’s concerned he’ll lose his purpose when the family flies the nest. It’s intriguing because it raises questions about men and the breadwinner stereotype. It seems even after two decades out of the workforce there’s a presumption that a man will bend back to the ‘norm’ – going out of the home to work and putting bread on the table.
Simon admits it was an issue for him throughout his time combining parenting and part time writing. “I grew up in Derby and in the 70s and 80s the only men at home with the kids were unemployed.
“I didn’t get over it for a long time. Even now my finances are indelibly linked to my partner’s.
“But would I do it all again? Yes.”
The book, Eternity Leave, is a novel. But it’s heavily based on Simon’s own experience to the point of veering close to autobiography. “It was my daughter who suggested I write about what I did. I wanted to think about it all again because I hadn’t prepared myself for the kids growing up and leaving home, it was a sort of grief. I didn’t want to let go of it just yet.”
Simon has four children. Three daughters now in their 20s and a teenage son. He was a working dad. He initially set up a smallholding on the family’s Devon home. “It nearly killed me,” he laughed. But he was always keen to keep up some work. He spent some time working with a charity as well as penning novels. He admits that one benefit of having an agent for his writing was that it gave him someone to talk to beyond the world of childcare. He’s no regrets though. “I think it’s OK to say I would’ve been a much more successful writer if I hadn’t looked after the kids. But they are my body of work.”
It was a shock at the beginning though. Many working dads who have made the effort to get more involved know the feeling of being the only man at the local rhymetime session. “Twenty years ago I was the only man doing what I was doing. I’d entered a world peopled largely by women and I thought they were better at it. I felt like an interloper,” said Simon. “Only talking to those women many years later did they tell me that they saw it as something good and they told me then that they’d admired me.”
The big change came when Simon started taking childcare seriously. Men who are brought up to see childcare as essentially women’s work may inevitably take some time to get used to the idea that it’s their full time commitment. “Once I looked on childcare as a job I became better at it,” explained Simon.
And he’s retained the skills. Men who do more childcare grow more skilled and confident at it. Even now Simon notices that he’s more comfortable around kids than other men.
He doesn’t recommend following in his footsteps for everyone. “It’s such a singular decision for you as an individual,” he explained. But he does think dads ought to try it, for example by taking Shared Parental Leave.
The thread running all the way through Eternity Leave is love. For all that Simon’s protagonist, based heavily on himself, can be cantankerous, impatient and saronic it’s clear the whole show is driven by love for his four kids and for his wife, a successful NHS administrator. That makes the book stand out. There are times Simon falls into the stereotype of bungling dads. But all dads do that at some point. Crucially Simon’s protagonist is multidimensional, not afraid to challenge conventional masculinity, and committed to his task.
“It is a great thing to do,” he smiled. “I was pliable. At the start I had no idea what I was getting into but I was adaptable.
“Now the kids are getting older I look back and I have great memories, we had amazing times.”
Though his children may be grown up they returned home as lockdown came into force. One is training to be a nurse, one is training to be a doctor. With Simon’s wife working in hospital administration, at one point three of the family were on the front line of the Covid storm. Despite that stress Simon could see the positives. “We felt like a family again.”
The book has helped Simon appreciate his time as a working dad who was the primary caregiver.
As he writes in the book, “No one gets the reputation of being a swashbuckling hero from looking after the kids.” He admitted, “I did feel small and my self esteem disappeared at times.
“I wrote the book because I wanted to write me into a story.”
But an invite to take part in a series of interviews altered his attitude a bit. The other interviewees were an ex-rugby captain, a soldier who lost limbs fighting in Afghanistan and a hip hop pioneer. Said Simon, “And I was there as a dad. I felt so small. But when I did my interview I spoke about mental health, about being a dad in a world peopled by women, and the interview got thousands of hits. I’m not a hero but I realised I did have something to say.”
You can buy Eternity Leave exclusively via Amazon here.