To all the dads and grandads out there; happy Father’s Day.
Like many people who are reflecting on their paternal relationships today, I am incredibly grateful for the role my dad has played in my life, from the moment he entered it when I was around five years old and he first met me sitting at my favourite little tressel table, in my dressing gown, eating my favourite early evening snack; a bowl of Sugar Puffs. He was a hugely important person in my upbringing, helping my extraordinary mother, who had been doing a two-person job alone, almost from the minute I emerged into the world and pee-ed all over the Oxford Street delivery room in Liverpool Maternity Hospital in May 1978.
When we celebrated our own daughter’s baptism five years ago, I made a short speech thanking our family (and two friends who are as much part of our family as anyone) for being with us on that special day. My dad was there and I said then that if I managed to be half the dad he was to me then Miss J will have done well. I meant it – and not just because he introduced me to the most wonderful, life-affirming, community-spirited force that is Liverpool Football Club – but because amongst everything he did – including running his own business and managing all the stresses and strains of life – he gave me one thing over everything else; his time.
He was present. He was involved. He was always there; in the house; in the garden; on the sidelines at Sunday football; walking the golf course with me; picking up and dropping off; taking me to the library, the dentist, sports days and Cubs. The lesson I took from him was not to share his politics or his world view – on that we differ greatly – or his interests, hobbies or his subscription of The Daily Mail. I took from him a lesson in commitment; the commitment to prioritise.
Whatever else he was doing; whatever else he had going on at work or home, he always put his family first as we were growing up; he was always on the scene; always involved; always putting our interests before his own.
We are now living in era when we are bombarded with messages about how to live; how to work; and even how to die. The world is full of armchair experts; people who write columns from elevated positions in journalistic ivory towers or in academic seats of judgment with lots of data but very little day to day experience of the subjects they profess expertise on. Their job is to stimulate debate and at times provoke a response. Their job is to make an argument and get us thinking. But sadly, on one important topic, they have often been misleading us for years.
Some of these life experts have been telling mums for years that they can “have it all”; successful careers, marriages, friendships, health and wealth and fully-rounded, grounded and high-achieving children. They have advised women that nothing is out of their grasp and they should “lean in” and achieve all of their goals. This advice – misplaced then – is also now being given to dads; you can be a big success at work and at home; you too can have it all.
This vacuous promise is not only misleading but dishonest. Having it all is of course a relative concept. It depends what you think “all” is but more importantly it is about how willing you are to compromise and make trade-offs to achieve it. Just as there is no such thing as a free lunch or something for nothing, there is no such thing as having significant success at work or at home without something giving; without you having to prioritise one thing over something else.
As I will reflect in my Liverpool John Moores work-life balance seminar in a week or so’s time, finding the right balance for you is about honesty and about making choices. Honesty about your true goals; what success really is for you (not mouthing what you think people want to hear) and then making the choices and establishing the boundaries – and then sticking with them – to achieve your goals.
Mendaciously, “having it all” is often portrayed as being on top of your game at work – promotions; pay rises; bonuses; commanding the total respect and admiration of your colleagues; being the perfect boss and colleague; hitting all your deadlines; blowing away your performance targets and winning awards left, right and centre – whilst being a present parent; doing school runs; never missing a sports day or parents evening; reading the bedtime story; doing the nightly bath; cooking dinners; coaching the school sports team; helping with homework; teaching your little one to swim, build Lego constructions and play a musical instrument. Both achieved without breaking sweat.
My experience tells me that achieving this perfect combination is simply not possible. Not for more than a few days here and there; and even then only at the cost of your health and wellbeing. We should not be striving for a fictionalised perfect parenthood but for a present parenthood where we are actively involved and engaged and making the choices and trade-offs we need to make that happen. We should be setting honest goals – being clear what is important to us – and accepting to that in making choices something has to give. Is it that next promotion or seeing that look on your child’s face when they see you waiting for them at the school gate?
For those who read this and dismiss my pessimism (which I see as realism based on years of experience and observation) as defeatism and say of course you can achieve whatever you set your mind to, I say good luck. I wish you well. I hope you are right. But workplaces up and down the country are full of people trying and failing to do it; failed marriages; drink problems; kids who they don’t really know; great houses and cars, now lived in and driven by ex-spouses as part of the divorce deal; overweight; over-tired; over a barrel with sky high mortgages to pay and lifestyles to maintain.
I had no idea at the time but my dad made many, many sacrifices to play an active role in my life. He gave up his own downtime; his own goals to help me achieve mine. For those of us who feel proud of what we have achieved in life and have sought understanding about what has gone wrong for us and can trace some of that back to our childhood experiences, there is danger that we forget that great parents – like everything else in life – are not about being perfect. They are about prioritising their children above all else. Working to live not living for work; being focused on family over finance; making time not making money; putting time aside for the small things not squeezing that last meeting or email into the day.
It is not enough to love your child; you have to be there; being present, in body and mind – for them to feel that love. That’s what I had. That is what I focus on now with my daughter. That is my life goal. I know that if I can do that, then every day will be Father’s Day for me.