From the editor: your country needs you working dads

The coronavirus crisis has thrown the role of working dads into sharp relief. But here’s some thoughts on why and how to make a success of it

Flexible Working


OK, working dads, you’re up.

The coronavirus crisis is really biting as we enter the second week of homeschooling. It’s about to get worse. There’s two weeks of Easter holidays on the horizon, the kids are going to need entertaining without leaving the house. And all that will be accompanied by a steadily climbing death toll. At best that’ll make a grim backdrop, at worst the epidemic will touch your family directly.

It’s going to be tough.

But we working dads are the heroes the nation needs. IF we get it right.

Role of men

Inevitably, there is a tendency to compare the current crisis to the Second World War. Certainly the curbs on our normal way of life are in the same league. But a fundamental difference between the two is the role of men. Between 1939-45 men went out to fight, dig coal, keep things running while women broadly maintained the home and took on new duties outside the home as necessary.

This time it’s different. It’s women on the front line – as nurses, doctors, teachers, nursery staff and supermarket cashiers. The vast majority of key workers are female. (And if, at the end of this, they are not as feted as the fallen, The Few, and the veterans of previous wars then it’ll be hard to blame another reason beyond deep seated sexism.)

It’s on us to keep the home fires burning. To be the best partners, parents, educators and, yes, employers and employees we can be.

Saving lives

One friend I talked to this week admitted he was worried about the weeks and months ahead. He’s self employed, his wife’s a doctor. He knows she’s going to be out all hours saving lives and when she gets home she’ll need sleep and support. He’ll be left to take on the burden of childcare, homeschooling, feeding the family etc. He went self employed so he could take a full role in family life, he didn’t sign up to do it full time. But these are extraordinary times. He accepts his business will have to wait while he steps up to care for his children and his partner. He’s a great example of the role that awaits working dads right now. And his attitude is exemplary. He knows it’ll be hard, he admits his concerns, but he’s going to get on with it.

Sadly, he seems an exception.

Whitney Houston

I’ve heard so many stories of men locking themselves away this past week. 

Men who’ve retired to their bedroom, their home office, put signs on the door telling the family to keep out because they’re working.

To paraphrase Whitney Houston, it’s not right and it’s not okay. Not to put too fine a point on it, anyone who behaves like that is letting the nation down.

If you want to stick with the Second World War analogy it’s like men going off to fight in 1940 and the women back in Britain simply refusing to take on the new roles necessary. Insisting that domesticity was what they were good at and anything over and beyond that was off limits.

Working dads

Now, clearly I’m not in the business of talking down working dads. Not least because I am one myself.

There are good reasons for men to feel they have to get their work done during lockdown. It’s likely dad earns more. That remains the case in the vast majority of couples. And with the economy going down the pan keeping your job is more important than ever. 

It’s equally likely that up till now mum has done most of the childcare. So she’s comfortable with what the children need and how to provide it. (Up to a point, homeschooling is new to most of us). And many mums will resent and resist a partner who suddenly appears to be invading her sphere of interest. 

Interestingly many women I’ve spoken to talk about feeling that they have to live up to an ideal, to make sure their children are getting on with the school work. Whereas their partners are more laid back and relaxed if the kids spend a morning in front of the TV. That fits with gender stereotypes explored in my first book The Gender Agenda, itself inspired by a German project that was triggered by the difference between encouraging female good behaviour with the phrase ‘there’s a good girl’ and writing off male bad behaviour as ‘boys will be boys’. (For a truly up to date example of how this manifests itself see Taylor Swift’s Netflix film Miss Americana).

Topsy turvy

So, it’s complicated. And different families will find their own ways to cope with the topsy turvy world we inhabit for the foreseeable future.

But I can already see the predictions that the bulk of the extra caring responsibilities would fall on women coming true. I know of one friend’s marriage that could not cope with 14 days self isolation and another that is teetering on the edge. (But neither can actually separate until lockdown is over. Awks.)  It need not be that way. And if we working dads step up everyone will benefit.

Top ten

So here are 10 tips for not just coping with lockdown, but making a success of it.

  1. Good enough is good enough. Those social media posts about how Shakespeare wrote his masterpieces while cooped up out of the way of plague are unhelpful. The lists of educational resources we should all be tapping up are overwhelming. If your child misses Carol Vorderman’s latest maths masterclass it doesn’t really matter. And I’m not exhorting anyone to be super dad. Just be dad.
  2. View this as a professional opportunity. It’s a chance to try on different ways of working. Maybe you didn’t think working from home was for you. The coronavirus experience is not typical of working from home, but you might get a glimpse of the bits you like. Skipping the commute so you’re home to help the kids with homework for example. Take this time to find out your rights and determine your way forward. There’s plenty of info on our site.
  3. Communicate with your partner. You’re in this together. Don’t be surprised if you shut yourself away at your desk that your partner is ready to pop when you emerge at 5pm and she’s been cooking, teaching, peacekeeping and trying to fit in her own work at the kitchen table. This thread from Woman’s Hour presenter Jane Garvey has both best and worst practice on it. And keep talking. Whether that’s a chat over a glass of wine (or whatever booze is left in the shop) at the end of each day about what worked and what didn’t or a weekly planning meeting to draw up the kids lesson plans and compare diaries.
  4. Communicate with your employer. If you’re an employee get those channels open, make sure your boss understands your home situation. They may have to wait for a piece of work, emails might go unanswered till the kids are in bed. Flexibility is a two way street. And if they are silly about it then get brushing up that CV, there’s lots of good flexible employers hiring on our site.
  5. Communicate with your employees. As above, but if you’re the boss then give your workers some slack. You have to embrace new ways of working, keep tabs on what works and what doesn’t that you can apply when this is over to give you a more effective organisation.
  6. Communicate with colleagues. Dads are notoriously bad at opening up about their struggles. That’s changing thanks to alternative ways to chat such as WhatsApp or Facebook groups. There’s even apps just for dads. This is uncharted territory for everyone really. Sharing feelings as well as practical tips will make it easier for everyone.  
  7. Sharpen your antennae. Everyone is going to be more present physically; the family is cooped up together. Be more present mentally and emotionally. It’ll make it easier to spot when someone in the house is behaving differently perhaps because they are struggling with confinement, perhaps because there is a simmering resentment there. It’ll help to head off problems before they become overwhelming.
  8. Take time to yourself. This is vital. Everyone in the house ought to schedule some me time. But that’s particularly true of any dad who is taking on more responsibilities than ever before. Whether that’s taking your daily exercise alone or agreeing a time that you get to retire to the bedroom and read for half an hour it’s important to look after yourself. 
  9. Be a role model. Who do you want to impress? Most likely it’s your offspring. Here’s your opportunity. If they see you mucking in, being present for them and for your partner, looking after your own mental health and demonstrating that work matters but only as part of a broader range of priorities in life they will learn from your example. You’ll end up with smarter, nicer kids and a better relationship with them going forward which in turn will nourish your and their mental and physical health.
  10. Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives. The more we all follow the official advice the sooner this will be over.

I don’t really claim to be an expert. But these tips gleaned from my experience and from crowdsourcing online may hopefully help you through this. If you have experience or advice you think could help others please leave a comment or get in touch through social media. We working dads need to work together to get through this. But if we do, and we step up appropriately we can be the heroes the nation needs and our children will look up to for much longer than this crisis lasts.

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