I met a retired Englishman in the street. He asked “How is the teaching going?”
“I am loving it”, I replied, “But Martina’s finding it a bit tough. She does four and a half hours with barely a break.”
“Yes”, the man said, “She will find it tough if she hasn’t worked for 18 months.”
“Um, Martina was working full time as a university lecturer until the end of May. It’s me who hasn’t worked for three years.”
“Oh right! So you only work two hours a week, that’s more of a hobby than a job.”
“Yes it is.” I say truthfully.
“If you go back to work full-time in the UK you will find that a bit of a shock.”
My lack of expression said nothing. I didn’t think about it until later, but what sort of job did he think would shock me? What working hours and conditions would I struggle with? Would I find a job desperately dull, mentally taxing, demeaning, degrading, physically demanding or just struggle with getting up at the same time every morning?
I will outline my work experience to make what I am about to say carry some weight.
1. I have been a science teacher in a large secondary comprehensive school in Coventry. Whatever the school is like now, back then it was chronically under resourced and desperately in need of a new coat of paint. Three teachers shared a decrepit overhead projector. The other two, more experienced teachers, block booked the projector for their classes for the next decade. I was left to draw elaborate but shaky diagrams in multicoloured chalk on the blackboard, whilst 30 kids, aged 11-18, of all abilities, amused themselves with whatever kids do when the teacher’s back is turned.
2. I have worked many Sunday shifts in both a petrol station and a pub, on my own, either pinching myself awake at the appearance of a car or desperately wishing the one drunkard at the bar would go and find a ditch to crawl into, or else do something mildly amusing, rather than bore me senseless with his or her racist diatribe.
3. I have worked as a Territorial Army infantry soldier, truck driver, paper boy, industrial launderer, chambermaid, dishwasher, builder’s labourer, geophysical consultant, research scientist and scientific leader of an Antarctic field party. For this last job I spent 100 days in a tent with three other guys, and I was responsible for the production of the quality science that was expected from the vast expense of putting us there.
4. I have been given a budget of £80,000 and a four-month deadline to build a radar capable of functioning in temperatures of -40˚C. The radar and I landed on the Greenland ice cap and, despite sleeping in a tent with the temperature sometimes as low as -47˚C, when the whiskey froze solid, the radar worked like a charm.
You get the picture, I’ve done some stuff. Now for the crunch.
Four and a half years ago, when I left the house to go to work each morning, leaving behind a one year old child and a heavily pregnant wife, I would breathe a sigh of relief. The weight of the world fell from my shoulders and my time and personal space were my own again. That was until I had to go back home in the evening, which I would often delay as long as possible, something I feel guilty about now.
When Katie reached her first birthday and Lily was two and a half, we moved to a flat in Dawlish. I became a full time father and househusband, whilst Martina went to work full time as a university lecturer in Exeter. I was not ‘working’, in the sense that I was not paid directly for what I did, but nothing I have done before or since was tougher than that year. Martina left the house at 7 am, often before the kids were awake, and returned at 5:30 pm. We often had little sleep, particularly Martina. I got the kids washed and dressed and hopefully managed to do the same for myself, got them breakfast and lunch, took them to playgroup, entertained and educated them, did the laundry at the launderette, ironed Martina’s work clothes, did the shopping, tidied and cleaned the house, did the recycling, made the dinner and made lunch for Martina to take to work the next day. I also saw to any household bills and general family administration that required attention. In reality this list of things was never completed, not once, often not even close.
Some days I couldn’t leave the kids alone for a minute, even to go to the toilet. The task of trying to stop them hurting or killing each other was immense. There is no way in the world you can get a two and a half year old to understand that her little sister needs to have a nap. If she will just give you ten minutes you will have the baby asleep and both your days will be much happier. If you cannot get the baby to sleep, then everyone’s day will be miserable. Sometimes I barely managed to have dinner on the table for Martina and nothing else was done, the kids were miserable with my lack of attention to them due to my meagre attempts to provide the family with nutritious meals. Martina returned from work each Friday evening and I went to Plymouth on Saturday morning for a cold damp weekend of grinding down and greasing seacocks or painting the hull, to get the boat ready for moving onto that summer. Then the week started all over again.
Two years later the kids were easier. I could cope better with the cooking, washing, ironing, shopping, and cleaning. Martina generally came home to a more ordered house. She was often away for up to 11 hours but if there were problems with the kids she would sometimes leave a bit later in the morning, which she was able to do now that we lived in Exeter, nearer to her work. Lily started school. The only problem was that, with one child at school and another at home, my day was messed up. Each morning Martina grabs breakfast, says good morning to Lily and Katie and goes to work with the packed lunch I made for her at 6:30 am. The children always lament demonstrably at the door, making Martina feel very guilty for leaving them. The instant the door closes they forget their troubles and get back to trying to kill each other. Morning conversation goes like this: “Katie eat your breakfast. Katie eat your breakfast. KATIE EAT YOUR BREAKFAST!” “Lily get your pyjamas off and get your school clothes on, Lily, Lily, LILY CAN YOU HEAR ME?” “Come here to have your teeth cleaned, hair brushed, shoes and coat on, COME HERE, WON’T ONE OF YOU COME HERE!! COME HERE!!!!” “Lily you are still in your pyjamas!” “Katie you’ve eaten nothing!” “We are going to be late.” We eventually get out of the door.
The first half term Katie is in the backpack for the mile and a quarter up a very steep hill to Lily’s school. I return home with Katie and wring the sweat out of my t-shirt. The second half term Katie is attending pre-school two mornings a week and I insist she walks. My back cannot take carrying her anymore and I don’t want to do myself long term damage. But we have to allow considerable extra time for the trip to and from school. The joy of Katie going to the preschool is dented by the fact that I drop Lily off at 8:45 and Katie at 9:00, then collect Katie at 12:00 and Lily at 3:15, walking a total of seven and a half miles up and down steep hills, mostly with very young children. (I did 22.5 miles of hill walking every week on school runs alone). The next term Katie qualifies for pre-school government funding and I get rid of the midday pickup by adding in a small bit of top up money (£15) to cover one afternoon a week. Now Katie goes to school 9:00-3:00 Monday, Wednesday and Friday and I have a small measure of freedom in my life, much like going to work again!
I provide three packed lunches in the morning. Of course the school doesn’t allow nuts or chocolate, Martina doesn’t want what I make for Lily and Katie but she has a fridge and a microwave at work. Lily and Katie don’t like the same things as each other and Lily desperately wants school dinners because I give her stale bread! In my spare time, I bake my own bread. Between October 2013 and April 2014 I don’t buy bread, but make three loaves a week, all by hand and often using my own sourdough, with yeast I cultivate! I also send Martina off to work with a variety of home-made soups, quiches etc.
I had finally, successfully, turned into a professional ‘housewife’, minus the coffee mornings, which of course, being a man, I cannot go to as I am viewed as a threat to other men’s wives and a potential child molester. I find that Martina has now got herself hooked on this crazy sailing and home education idea that we came up with three years ago to get us out of the financial and general rut that we were in. Damn, I have to become a skipper again. Believe me when I say, it is not a complete walk in the park to get a novice sailor and two young children from England to Mediterranean Spain in a 36 ft yacht built in 1979. Still, there are far worse jobs, without the same sense of achievement.
Here is the immortal line I overheard Lily say to Katie once: “But daddies don’t go to work.” I have had an insight into what it is like to stay at home looking after very young children and to feel the scorn of other men, career women and sometimes older women who cannot get it into their heads that a man could take a break from paid employment or can take care of children. In Britain the government model family is a ‘working’ family. From the time maternity leave ends both parents should be at work with children in ‘quality childcare’. Many people buy into this model, imagining themselves to be socially superior for paying more taxes, and therefore doing more for society. But what is the government motivation for this model? Higher GDP, higher employment, and greater tax revenue. Is this the best model for society? The responsibility for ensuring family well-being is taken away from parents. Working partners with different employment hours rarely see each other and try to grab snippets of ‘quality time’ with their children. Children are happier with their friends and child carers because they are away from the chaos of parents madly trying to get them dressed and into the car, anxious about being late for work. Microwave dinners, jars of Uncle Ben’s and takeaways a regular feature for all but families with ‘supermums’.
To me, this appears to be far less beneficial to society and more likely to end in families collapsing. Unfortunately the government rates itself on figures that don’t really show this, or maybe they do, as the jails are fuller than ever and problem drug use and alcoholism are rife. But maybe it is better to live a happier life with less money, as long as we can keep the wolves from the door. It is no less work living this way, just different.
Going ‘back to work’ would not be a shock to my system I assure you, because few jobs are more physically and emotionally demanding than being a stay-at-home parent to young children.