Simon Kettlewell is a man who pulled-off a rare feat: He persuaded a publisher to print a book about fatherhood. Okay, that’s slightly dismissive. Many a publisher has printed books for dads but more often than not, they only deal with the early years and they’re always non-fiction. Simon’s book, called Eternity Leave, is mould breaking. It’s all about a dad of four who volunteers to become a stay at home dad and spends the next 20-ish years concentrating on the children while his partner has a glittering career as a senior manager in the NHS.
They say write about what you know and that’s exactly what Simon did. While Eternity Leave is a work of fiction, Simon has spent two decades as the main carer for his kids. He readily admits the book is heavily based on his own experiences.
I was really keen to speak to Simon about both his life and Eternity Leave. Not only did Simon answer some questions for the Q&A feature, but he kindly spoke to me for my DadPodUK podcast (click on the DadPodUK badge below).
I’ve been the main carer for my kids for 10 years so I related to a lot of what Simon said in his book and the opinions he expressed in this interview. As he has been been looking after twice the number of kids for twice the length of time, I was also hoping I might learn a thing or two from him! I hope you find what Simon said thought provoking. Don’t forget to listen to the podcast and I highly recommend reading Eternity Leave. It’s an excellent introduction into the often funny, frequently lonely world of us men who do most of the childcare.
Simon, in your own words, can you please explain what Eternity Leave is about?
Eternity Leave is written as a novel, but is deeply rooted in my experience of being a stay-at-home-dad for 20 years. It tells the story of a man holding up his hand to take on the task of looking after one and ultimately four children without having any idea what he is letting himself in for. On one level it is a ‘breezy’ easy read, but at another it delves into the real world of day on day childcare, the issues of isolation, the loss of identity and self-esteem, not being the ‘breadwinner’ and what it felt to be a man doing what has ostensibly, for thousands of years, been done extremely well by women.
There’s such a variety of characters in your book from the single mum cattle farmer, the committed Methodists who run the playgroup, the athleisure-wearing, bottle-blonde mums and the porn film producer and his mistress. Some might be quite surprised how diverse the array of people you have come into contact with as a stay at home dad. Fair comment?
Anyone can be a parent, proven by the vast array of people with different backgrounds, beliefs and cultures I met during my time looking after the kids. I tried to give the children exposure to a variety of settings and this increased the cast of characters I had to choose from. I was in a position to meet people at a time when they often feel most exposed and vulnerable in a sea of others who feel the same, but don’t declare. It was fascinating and often incredibly revealing to hear people’s back-stories and not just the face they present to the world. I wanted to capture this in the book and challenge the stereotype; that it is just a particular type of person who looks after children whether it be a man or a woman.
There’s a definite sense of longing throughout Eternity Leave. You don’t simply want to be defined as a stay at home dad and respond to this by starting a smallholding. Do you think this is a reflection of the era in which you were raised: IE men didn’t do childcare, so you had to have something else to define yourself?
I come from a working class town in the midlands where men simply didn’t look after the children in the 70’s and 80’s. This has of course changed to some extent over the years. Yet, it is still seems necessary to continue this debate as to whether it is an appropriate option for men to look after the children rather than the women be the carer as the default. However, I did find that among more privileged, well-educated groups that the traditional model is still this often-unquestioned default position. I came across a lot of frustrated mothers looking after the children with the same career potential as their male partners, yet became the main carers for no other reason than their gender. This had a great affect on my feelings of worth and whether we’d made the right decision.
You make some very pertinent comments about the loneliness of the stay at home father and at one point say you find it difficult to relate to other men because they work full time (my choice of words). Do you think social isolation is one of the biggest challenges of being a stay at home dad?
The social isolation doesn’t just affect the dads. It affects both genders and it is a huge issue. I think it is hard for anyone joining groups for the first time when all you have in common is the responsibility for a child/children. Over the generations, I feel women have instinctively responded to new mothers and have ways of bringing them into the fold because they recognise them as part of the matriarchy. The dynamic around dads is inevitably different and therefore it can be hard from both sides to know how to integrate. The workplace is where we meet most of our friends through life, and the thing that connects us. I was doing 14-16 hour days, with little time to socialise, spending most of my time with mothers or little people. Whether we like it or not, the badge, the status of work is important to many. I am very proud of what I’ve done, but with most other men it was very hard to find common ground.
You also make some very interesting comments, certainly at the beginning of the book, where you state women are the natural carers for their children. Were those comments made because of a lack of confidence or, after years of living the way you have, do you think that is genuinely the case?
In the early months there are good reasons for the mother to be at the centre. Some of this is rooted in the evolutionary process. I make the statement in the book because I did lack confidence and not because I now believe it. Though I did question it very early on. I did everything the mothers did, and probably in many cases a lot more to compensate for what I saw as my weaknesses and lack of experience and knowledge. I saw some mothers who simply couldn’t cope and it was a long and hard struggle for them. As I said in the book: ‘anyone can change a nappy’. Doing it well of course is another thing. I am, for better or worse, a bit of an expert!
Chloe, your eldest child has now left home. Your other children are at secondary school so you’ve guided children all the way from the earliest days into adulthood. In your opinion, does being a parent get easier, or is it simply that the challenges get different as children get older?
Brigit, the mother in the book, would say ‘you must walk alongside as the children get older’, which of course means you let them make some mistakes safely or not so safely if it goes wrong. When they are young, you are the leader, the example and the safety net. I think I worry more now they are older and are exposed to a world full of challenges. Equipping them with the tools they will need in the teenage years is not an easy task, but essential. The teenage years are I guess the ultimate test of the grounding you lay down as a parent in the early years.
The introduction of Shared Parental Leave in 2015 has led to a large increase in men taking a few months off work to be the main carers of their kids. As someone with almost two decades of childcare under his belt, would you consider these guys stay at home dads?
The term ‘stay at home’ bothers me. It triggers connotations of idleness and getting the easy number when this couldn’t be further from the truth. I don’t hear the term ‘stay at home mum’. I hear ‘housewife’ or ‘homemaker’. I mean dads should be involved with their children’s care. My father left home when I was 11 and contributed nothing to my upbringing after that. It deeply affected me for years. The terminology doesn’t matter to me. I know a lot of dads who put a great deal into the upbringing of their children and work full time in the ‘conventional jobs’ and the mother is the glue holding the thing together. In my case it was just an issue of scale and numbers. They were my job and I don’t dismiss the idea that I wanted to give them what my father didn’t give to me. I only hope that more fathers listen to the lessons of those who have been the main carers for their children and play a more active role in something that only comes round once in a lifetime.
In Eternity Leave, Brigit the partner gets very emotional at times because her partner spends more time with the children than she does. Does she worry this is a regret she’ll have forever?
The real Brigit is not so far removed from the character in the book, so I asked her the question. Yes, the feelings of ‘missing out’ in the early years continue to be an issue as we begin to reminisce. Brigit does play a huge part in the family. Now the children are older, they go to her in many cases far more than to me as an objective person and I think as a friend. Also in this story, the mother is highly successful and sets the bar very high, serving as a standard to which women can aspire. A male child carer can do exactly the same. It is simply that the context and measures are different. I like to think the legacy we will leave our children is that it is possible to make choices in the way you live and that gender stereotypes are just that and no more.
Do you think it has got easier to be a stay at home dad over the past 20 years?
For both men and women, the job remains the same. I do think in terms of perception though, things have improved, especially with dad bloggers like yourself, sharing experiences and bringing like-minded people together. I experienced the ‘are you the babysitter?’ many times and I can see this is still very prevalent. The statistics for men’s involvement are encouraging, but the fact we are still having to continue to refer to and analyse these statistics indicates we have a long way to go and reinforces that being a ‘stay at home dad’ is still the exception to the rule.
If you had your time all over again, would you be happy to follow the same path?
I shall answer this twice. Firstly, knowing what I know now, I would do it again and hopefully better. I would have let the issues of self-esteem go and been far more relaxed about the job and proud that I was doing something and to some extent helping to challenge the stereotype. Secondly, not knowing what I was in for, I chose to do it, so yes, I would do it again on both counts. The first because- ‘knowledge is power’. The second because- ‘ignorance is bliss’.
Throughout Eternity Leave you make constant references to a book called the Complete Guide to Childcare. Would you recommend this to a young father?
I couldn’t find a book with this exact title, so used it for fictional purposes. There are hundreds of books available and I wouldn’t recommend reading them all or even a whole book. With Google it’s probably best to search for answers where there are discussion forums and share concerns and see that lots of others are asking questions that sound stupid, but really aren’t. Like ‘how to fill a day’. There are lots of ideas I would never have thought of, and used.
What next for Simon Kettlewell? More books, retraining for another job or will you spend more time backpacking with your children?
Being the main carer has meant I have lived quite an eclectic life, and it is now the only one I know. There is a sequel to Eternity Leave if it does well and perhaps another novel. I don’t want to spend too much time behind a laptop though when there are roads to travel. Training for another job? Not sure I need to. Looking after the children for so long, keeping them safe and well has given me most of the skills I will probably need for the rest of my time on the planet.
Do also check out my review of Eternity Leave by following this link.