Tom Whipple talks paternal presumptions, parenting and precious time with his 10-month-old son Felix…
It is always said with a conspiratorial smile. Even now, four-and-a-half months in, I find no other question quite as annoying. “So,” the women (and it is always women) ask, when they see me out with my 10-month-old son, “has dad been left in charge?”. We all know what dad being left in charge means. A hundred Saturday supplement articles by Polyfilla columnists describing their useless husbands, and by useless husbands trying to outdo each other in anecdotes about their own incompetence, have provided the script.
Dad being in charge means a brief interlude in the main childcare, normally characterised by a rapid descent towards a domestic Lord of the Flies scenario. By the time mum returns from getting her hair done, she will find the toddler eating from the bins, the baby having its bottom wiped with the Financial Times, a large Jackson Pollock-esque crayon drawing covering one of the kitchen walls and, in the middle of all of this chaos, a flapping husband attempting to wipe the poo off his iPad while looking charmingly flustered.
Normally, I do what is expected. I meet their indulgent smile with a harassed smile, that implies I am more used to pushing around a PA than a pram. Really, it says, I would love to be back on my Blackberry doing deals and being big and important. So it is that we go ahead and affirm each other in the respective roles we have chosen in life.
Just occasionally though I tell the truth. I have indeed been left in charge – not for an afternoon but for five months. And, by the way, you might have to get used to seeing men left in charge – because a change in the law in 2011 means their paternity leave entitlement is at last comparable to that of women. Employers are now obliged to give men up to 26 weeks leave, provided their partner has returned to work. And from April 2015, this will be replaced with Shared Parental Leave offering up to 50 weeks.
When my wife and I had our first child, we decided to take advantage of this law to split the time we took off. Written like that, it seems like a completely innocuous decision. Indeed, it feels like it would be harder to justify why you wouldn’t do it, than why you would. Yet in the time I have had out of the office, I have only ever met one other man who made the same choice.
At the many coffee mornings I attend, while the cumulative flat whites wreak terrible injury on my £140 a week statutory pay, the talk is of breast pads and nipple cream rather than, for example, the uncanny ability of a toddler sitting on one’s lap to find testicles and jump on them. When we describe our babies’ progress it is through passive aggression, “Oh, aren’t you lucky Chloe isn’t crawling yet, it’s so exhausting”, rather than the more male, “I bet mine can do a bigger poo than yours” form.
I have even become extremely adept at navigating the social niceties of conversing with a breastfeeding lady. And, at the same time as my attitude to episiotomies has changed (there are things one can never unlearn), so has my attitude to paternity leave. Initially, it felt like I was doing my wife a favour – nobly sharing the burden like the good Northern European metrosexual I am. Today though, what I want to say when I see those conspiratorial smiles is not just that childcare is my main role – a role I am, it just so happens, good at – but is also something I enjoy.
As I finalise post-paternity leave childcare arrangements, get back in touch with my HR department, and contemplate a day that does not begin with a cross little boy demanding I remove him from his cot, continue with a happy boy tottering on furniture like a drunken sailor in a storm, and end with an extended period of trying to convince him to eat anything that isn’t toast, it feels like I was the one receiving the favour.
For five of the most important months of my son’s life, I have done something that so few fathers have had the privilege and opportunity of doing: I have been there. Ours has not been quality time – the snatched and slightly guilty interactions of a father struggling to commute, work and be a parent (which I am sure are yet to come) – it has something of a higher quality than that: companionable time.
It has been an all-too-brief time when this Dad has been left in charge.