As my kids get older, I am beginning to see first-hand just how important it is for a father to be heavily involved with his kids from the day they’re born. I feel like I have reached a point where I can look over my shoulder at my experiences of the Early Years system and think: “Yeah, it’s more important than I ever appreciated.”
I’ve spent several years writing about fatherhood and long made clear my belief dads should be a part of a child’s life from birth. With my eldest child several years into her school career and my youngest to start in a few months’ time, I can see first-hand the positive impact having an involved father in the early years (IE before the age of five) has had on them.
First of all, my girls have seen their mother leading a successful career. While the world is an imperfect place and women face barriers in the workplace, they have seen that it is possible for a woman to have success in her chosen profession.
In fact the girls occasionally refer to mummy as “the boss.” As and when they do, they are swiftly corrected and informed “mummy and daddy are the boss.” Not only is this the way we roll in this household, but I don’t really like the idea of being married to Bruce Springsteen.
Secondly, they have seen that a man can fulfil a caring role. I’ve had to administer hugs after many a stumble and fall and I arrange haircuts and doctor’s appointments and so on. It’s just what I do.
When it comes to instances of inequality, our eldest, Helen, has developed some very strong views. She will always speak out when she thinks something is unfair.
I believe there are many reasons for this and various different influences that explain why she behaves this way. One of them, however, is that fact we talk about equality at home and she sees a topsy-turvy household in action where mum and dad have swapped traditional gender roles.
Not, however, that my girls think too much about this. Neither of them has ever questioned why daddy is the one who always does the school run. It’s simply what they’re used to.
The impact has also been enormously positive on me. I love the fact I know so much about their lives and I am so heavily involved in them. I know Helen’s gymnastics teacher, Izzy’s French teacher, I know what clothes they like to wear, their favourite foods and so on. Or, more to the point, just how fussy each of them is when it comes to food.
Few guys get such a detailed look-in on their offspring’s life and that’s a shame. Conversely, however, we are more gender-aware as a household and I ensure Mrs Adams is kept up to date with all the latest developments at Helen’s school, Izzy’s pre-school and so on.
Twice over the past year, I’ve had the honour of flying thousands of miles from home to Australia. Both times I have been able to leave the kids in Mrs Adam’s very capable hands. Yes, I had concerns but they didn’t relate to her capabilities. I was more worried about how she would have balanced work and children if one of the kids had fallen ill in my absence.
Why all this reflection on what my children get out of being raised in such a household? Well, we’ve reached a pivotal point in this family’s existence.
Izzy, our youngest child, will head off to school in a few months. Both kids will be in the school system. I already feel like I’m stood on the dockside, waving goodbye as HMS Early Years steadily heads off into misty seas.
By chance, I was clearing out the garage the other day and came across Izzy’s old highchair. It must have been unused for about two years. It was a further sign we’re leaving the earliest years behind and heading into new territory.
When Helen started school, I thought it was going to be a very negative experience. I didn’t expect a very warm reception and this was possibly because of my experiences in the preceding years.
Sure, it took some getting used to. I have experienced the occasional bit of turbulence, but none of it has been from the teaching staff who have, frankly, ignored my status as a stay at home father. This is exactly the point we need to be at: where men such as myself are simply accepted and it doesn’t attract comment.
What I have come to realise, and what I can say from personal experience, is just how dad-unfriendly most early-years settings can be. From the maternity ward to Sure Start centres, childminders to medical practices, they speak a language of equality but often fail to practice what they preach.
The school environment is much more open and better at dealing with guys such as myself. The problem is, most men have spent a fraction of the time I have with their kids in the early years. By the time children reach school age, the die is cast and dad is the worker, the provider and mum is the carer and that’s the way it stays.
I know men who, despite working full time, are very involved fathers. When they do the school run, however, they tell me they feel completely out of place. Would they feel so out of place if they had come through the early years’ system like I have with my two daughters?
I wish more men could experience what I have. I think the world would be a better place for it.