As Andy Murray will soon find out, it’s no longer enough for fathers to read the occasional bedtime story and be home for bathtime on Fridays: millennial dads are embracing proper, hands-on fatherhood with more enthusiasm and passion than any previous generation.
While at the Australian Open, Murray, 28, revealed he had been reading a parenting book aimed at fathers in preparation for the birth of his first child later this month. The book, Commando Dad, by ex-Royal Engineer Neil Sinclair and also read by Prince William and Benedict Cumberbatch, is Amazon’s bestselling “dad manual” and has been translated into 15 languages. It’s one of a growing number of parenting books aimed at fathers — a market that didn’t even exist ten years ago.
“The sands are really shifting. This generation of men are expecting — and wanting — to be far more hands-on as parents. There is a real expectation of equality among millennial fathers, something we haven’t seen before,” says Sarah Jackson, chief executive of the charity Working Families, which compiles an annual study of 1,000 families. Even they were surprised by the strength of feeling in the latest Modern Families Index, published last week. Nearly half of millennial dads (up to age 35) said that they would be willing to take a pay cut to spend more time with their children. Even though they are far more likely than other dads to work flexibly (69 per cent do), 42 per cent are resentful that they can’t get an even better balance, and feel burnt-out, guilty and exhausted by combining family and working life.
“In trying to have it all, men are suffering the same burn-out that women began feeling 20 years ago, that stretching of the parental elastic,” says Jackson.
Official figures show that unprecedented numbers of fathers are already choosing to work less. Almost one million men have opted for part-time work, although it’s still far more common for women. The time working fathers spend with their children has also shot up eightfold since the 1970s, when five minutes a day was the average. Men now carry out an average of 25 per cent of the family’s childcare-related activities during the week and one third at weekends. And younger dads have enthusiastically embraced paternity leave: Facebook founder and new father Mark Zuckerberg, 31, walked back into the office last week after his two months’ leave — unthinkable even ten years ago. The company recently announced it will now offer four months’ paid leave to all fathers.
Men’s greater involvement at home is a natural consequence of women’s rise in the workplace, and it also reflects today’s wider definition of masculinity, says Professor Tina Miller, of Oxford Brookes University and a leading researcher on fatherhood. “It’s been said that if mothers entering the workforce was one of the most significant social developments of the 20th century, then fathers’ increased participation in family life will be the social revolution of the 21st century, and I agree with that, even though there is a way to go,” she says.
Professor Margaret O’Brien, from University College London, agrees that there is more shared parenting than even ten years ago, although the reality is a way behind the lofty ideals because workplaces are not yet flexible enough for Millennial Dad to realise his dream. Part-time work is still stigmatised as the “mummy track” even if you’re a daddy. “The rhetoric is in advance of behaviour, although studies do show younger men are doing more.” Both she and Professor Miller are speaking at a conference in Edinburgh next week to mark Year of the Dad, an initiative to promote fatherhood launched last month and backed by the Scottish government — and one which Westminster will watch with interest.
You can see why millennial dads want to be more involved. Research shows that children do better the more hands-on fathers are. One key study showed that a one-point increase in fathers’ co-parenting behaviour was associated with an almost four-point increase in children’s academic test scores. “The research evidence suggests that when families organise themselves more equitably — with mothers and fathers having a foot in both working and child-rearing camps — then children do better academically, in cognitive development and also socially,” says Adrienne Burgess, from the think-tank the Fatherhood Institute. “This is probably because fathers are more sensitive to children as they know them better, and also mothers are happier when fathers do more, so the family is more harmonious, which enables children to do better.”
However, with that shared parenting ideal comes stress and exhaustion, something that is wearingly familiar to a generation of working mothers. Studies in the US back this up. In the Millennial Dads study by leading parenting website BabyCenter last summer, nine in ten fathers felt an intense pressure to be perfect — compared with “only” eight in ten mothers. One in three reported feeling overwhelmed by the juggling act.
“Men have realised they are missing out on some of the satisfactions of life — enjoying children — and once you’ve lost those years you can’t go back,” says psychotherapist and fatherhood expert Phillip Hodson. “But there are downsides of having this richer life — you are torn in many directions and you carry more of the burden. Plus you are surrounded on social media by “perfect” celebrity dads with gilded lives who seem to be earning thousands a week while also managing to be hands-on fathers — the kinds of pressures that women have felt for years.”
You get a sense of this anguish and guilt on the forum of Neil Sinclair’s website, commandodad.com, where men with slightly incongruous names like RugbySteve confess how devastated they feel returning to work after two weeks’ paternity leave.
Sinclair, whose fourth book, Commando Dad: Mission Adventure – aimed at getting dads outside to play with their children — will be published in the summer, says he is surprised by the emotional content of some of the posts. “Lots of men are devastated that they are going back to work after an amazing few weeks where they feel a real closeness to their baby. What it suggests to me is there are not enough places dads can go to have these conversations — you can’t have them down the pub with your mates.” There’s no real equivalent of the mighty Mumsnet; there are several small and niche sites but none is particularly active (although Mumsnet claims 15 per cent of its users are men). Sinclair’s forum has 500 members so far, and rising.
Sinclair, 45, who lives in Derbyshire and has been the primary carer of his three children aged 14, 12 and nine, since his first son Samuel was born and was also a childminder for three years, has witnessed the shift in fatherhood first-hand. “I used to be the only one at playgroup or nursery drop-off but now there are often more dads at school than mums.
“There was always this idea that mothers take to it more naturally, that they are somehow visited by the stork of knowledge when they become parents. But it’s not the case, certainly in our family. You learn skills by doing it, by practising, just like anything else. My idea when writing the book was to give men the skills — just as I needed when I put my two-day-old son’s car seat down on the floor and thought, right — he’s crying, what do I do now? I have been in a lot of dangerous situations as a commando, but that was one of the most daunting days of my life.”
He thinks the reason his books are so successful is the playful military terminology (babies are “baby troopers”, home is “base camp”, the baby’s birth is “deployment day” and things are always “squared away”). He based it on the field training guide, Basic Battle Skills, issued to all British Army soldiers. “Basically, it’s bringing the idea of military precision to parenting, the idea of being prepared for anything, and what to do in certain situations, which I think appeals to men.
“Fathers have so much to bring to a family, whether they are working full-time, part-time or are stay-at-home dads as I’ve been, and it’s fantastic that at last they seem to be realising what they can give.”
So, what are the secrets of being a good father in 2016?
Dads need to talk and read to children
Fathers have a key role to play in children’s language development. One study in the US even found that fathers’ contributions seemed to be more important than mothers’ and were related to advanced skills at aged three. Why? Possibly because fathers are not quite as attuned as mothers to the words their children understand, so they use a broader vocabulary with them, explains Paul Raeburn in his book Do Fathers Matter? Research shows children listen more when fathers read to them, and a study at Harvard University last autumn found that dads sparked more imaginative discussions than mums when reading bedtime stories. Numerous studies have found that the time a father spends reading with his children is one of most consistent indicators of their achievement later in life. The Fatherhood Institute found that pre-schoolers whose dads read to them regularly displayed better behaviour and concentration at nursery and performed better at maths too.
Carry your baby as much as possible
The more involved fathers are with caring for their babies from the very first month, the more they are involved at 12 months and the better the longterm outcome for children, including better language development and higher IQs. Fathers who regularly spend time in sole charge of their babies interact with them in a much wider range of ways than other fathers, which is connected to good outcomes, including higher school grades, points out Adrienne Burgess of the Fatherhood Institute. Neurological research shows they even get the kind of hormone rush more usually associated with breastfeeding mothers; within 15 minutes of holding a baby men experience raised levels of the hormones oxytocin and prolactin. “We know from research that when fathers engage early on — carrying the baby and having close bodily contact, their bodies fill with hormones that help them become more sensitive and responsive. That’s why paternity leave is so important,” says Burgess. A study of new fathers’ brains in 2014 at Yale University also found that men develop extra neural connections just as mothers do when caring for infants.
Spend at least half an hour a day with each child one on one — even if it’s silent companionship
It’s important for fathers to have one-to-one time each day with each child, but if half an hour seems unachievable, start with smaller chunks, advises parenting expert Noël Janis-Norton. No screens, though, she stresses, you both have to be properly “present”: go for reading, board games or start a hobby together. Even silent companionship is OK. “When fathers are not spending enough time with their sons, boys will seek out and find role models in other places, usually older boys; research has shown that this is an important factor in why boys join gangs,” she says.
Rough-and-tumble play fighting really matters
Play fighting is an important part of development, particularly for boys. Studies have found it promotes closeness between father and child because of the rush of endorphins and oxytocin both get, and it actually reduces violence, not promotes it. It benefits both boys and girls by helping them understand the limits of their strength, and helps them work out social relationships, rules and personal boundaries. Research shows girls’ rough and tumble play involves more language and chasing whereas boys’ is more aggressive and competitive. “It seems to be a way of working off natural aggression through play,” says Sue Palmer, author of 21st Century Boys (Orion, £8.99). Fathers have a key role here, in teaching fair rules and self-control through rough and tumble games, argues Noël Janis-Norton in Calmer, Easier Happier Boys (Yellow Kite, £14.99). “Most mothers don’t enjoy the rough and tumble that boys need, so play fighting with Dad can teach boys core values, such as how far they can go before real damage is done and how to fight fair.”
Be there for girls
In families where dad isn’t around in the first five to seven years, girls enter puberty earlier and are more likely to display promiscuous behaviour. An Oxford University study of family relationships followed 17,000 children from age seven to 33, and the strongest conclusion of all was that if fathers had a warm and communicative relationship with their daughters during adolescence (even if he didn’t live in the family home), girls would end up having better-quality relationships in adulthood and fewer psychological hang-ups. Other studies have proved that girls with an actively involved father — defined as sharing childcare, taking an interest in their education and taking them on outings — go through puberty later, are less likely to develop eating disorders and less likely to get pregnant as teenagers. A study from the US among women aged 18-21 also showed that if a daughter felt her father was psychologically and physically available to her when she was younger and had some responsibility for her care, her self-esteem was higher and she was more satisfied with life. “Studies among women high-achievers aged 25 to 35 have constantly found that their father always played a big part in their lives,” says Ian Grant in Raising Confident Girls (Vermilion, £9.99).
Fathers must set boundaries for teenagers
Fathers are often tempted to be more authoritarian when children enter the teenage years in the face of their teen’s goading and aggression, but this is not a wise path to take, says psychologist and teen expert John Coleman. Better to be authoritative: have boundaries but be prepared to listen and negotiate around the edges, and continue to be warm and loving. A study from Connecticut University showed that teens who felt rejected by parents with authoritarian attitudes were more unstable, had feelings of inadequacy and a negative world view. Those who felt loved and accepted, but had clear boundaries, were more independent and emotionally stable. Fathers also have a role in developing teenagers’ empathy: a study at McGill University in Canada found that the more time fathers spent with their teenagers, the more understanding and socially adept they became as adults. Fathers’ logic can be infuriating to a teenage girl in meltdown (“Why don’t you just stop going on Instagram if it’s causing all this trouble with friendships?”), so use it sparingly, advises Janey Downshire, co-author of Teenagers Translated. With sons, don’t ridicule or use over-harsh discipline (suddenly snapping and grounding them without warning, taking away phones for minor misdemeanours) as they can overreact with defensive and disrespectful behaviour, she says.
Show your child how to take physical risks
Studies show fathers play more outside with their children and allow them to take more risks, both of which are good for development. “Mothers tend to intervene too early with a warning not to climb any higher, which stops the child making their own judgments,” says child psychologist Amanda Gummer, author of Play (Vermilion, £10.99). “Generally a child won’t go much further than the parent might have let them go in the first place. Assessing risk is a basic developmental skill that has to be learnt early.” Sinclair learnt this during the summer when his nine-year-old daughter Liberty climbed to the top of the tallest tree in their local park while he watched her near by. “Suddenly this mother shouted up at her, ‘Hey you — do your parents know you’re up there?’ I just shouted back from my position lying on the grass “yes he does”. She gave me such a look. People ask me, what would you do if she fell down? I say, well I’d give her first aid and if necessary take her to hospital.” Research shows that children who play outside more have better motor skills, co-ordination and balance, they’re better socialised and less stressed, and are more creative, flexible and better problem-solvers.
Help with homework even at primary school age
Children do better at school when their father is more involved in their education. One classic study which followed children over four decades found that the involvement of fathers when children were aged seven was strongly related to their educational attainment at aged 20. Fathers’ interest in their child’s education in both primary and secondary school — including helping with homework, reading to them, taking them on educational outings and even knowing the names of their favourite school friends — is statistically associated with better exam results, higher-level qualifications, greater progress at school, better behaviour and greater enjoyment of learning. This holds true whether the father is part of a two-parent family or a divorced dad.
Parental guilt and bake sales — five fathers’ stories
“It’s impossible to go above or beyond the call of duty as a dad”
Ben Machell, 33, father to Thomas, 16 months
So exactly 16 months in, and what can I tell you about modern fatherhood? Or, more to the point, what would I tell myself about it if I could somehow go back in time? Back to the day we brought Thomas home from hospital and then just sat in silence, waiting patiently for our friends and family to all jump out and laughingly explain that the whole thing was just an elaborate prank?
Well, broadly speaking, there are two distinct areas you need to get on top of in order to be a 21st-century dad, areas I would divide into the emotional and the practical. Starting with the latter, I’d tell myself to make a bucket list for my lower back because between the Babybjörns, the constant bending over and hours spent stooped over a pram, that section of your spine will cease to function in any meaningful way and instead fuse into something purely ornamental.
I’d explain that, while the endless fatigue of those early months might make a diet comprised solely of continental lager and slabs of Dairy Milk seems logical, longterm it’s just a really bad idea. I would write on my arm that “slow is smooth, smooth is fast,” an expression I first heard whilst watching a documentary about the US Navy SEALs who took-out Osama bin Laden. One of them kept using it to describe their methodical marksmanship when storming the al-Qaeda leader’s compound, but it actually applies really well to every baby-related task you’ll be faced with, from changing nappies to cramming them into babygrows.
Also, I’d make sure I knew to give it at least six months before making jokes about my child in front of his mother. Specifically, under no circumstance would I call her up from the GP’s saying “Do you have the baby book? It’s just that they’re asking if it was possible that Thomas was conceived during a black mass? Did we make a note of that?” She really won’t find it funny. Hormones. (Don’t say “hormones”).
Anyway, that’s the practical. But the emotional? The emotional stuff is harder to grapple with. As a dad in 2016, you’re mired in a mental and functional no man’s land, stuck midway between stoical provider and hands-on “latte papa”. You traipse off to work but by the time you’ve managed to detach yourself from the psychological velcro that is your young family, it’s already time to leg it back home for baths and books and the mini-WrestleMania that is giving them Calpol.
I wish I’d known how sensitive I’d be to media misrepresentation, how angry I’d get that all the dads on TV adverts seem to be these well-meaning but benignly stupid lunks who are obviously absolutely nothing like me, ie a heady mix of Mufasa off The Lion King and that guy holding a baby in the Athena poster.
If I could, I’d go back and tell myself not to expect a pat on the head every time I do something helpful. Before Thomas showed up, I could give the kitchen a quick tidy and my girlfriend would be over the moon. Now? Now I could re-tile the roof, cook a roast dinner and teach him to recite Beowulf and she’ll barely look up. The lesson is that, once you’re a dad, it’s impossible to go above or beyond the call of duty. You can never really do enough. Which is entirely how it should be. It would have been nice to know this at the start, I guess. But then some things you just have to work out for yourself.
“You spend evenings making suboptimal cakes”
Sam Leith, 42, father to Marlene, 6, Max, 4, and Jonah, 2
Fatherhood is love and frustration; you cannot quite believe how much of both. If you’re someone who, like me, took your time about it — I was 36 when my first child was born — you find yourself neither quite one thing nor the other: if I were young I’d have more energy; if I were old I’d have more wisdom and more time.
The combination of lack of energy and lack of wisdom means I spend a good deal of time shouting. I shout — like Lear raging against the storm — because I have so many unanswered questions. Among other things: where did all this plastic crap come from, and why is it all over the floor? How is it that my three children are venn-diagram experts — inasmuch as they have very obviously conspired to ensure that the set of foods which all three of them will happily eat consists of one, solitary item, which is fusilli with bolognese sauce? And how did three creatures who can’t tell the time and have no obvious aptitude for forward planning arrange a rota to ensure that one of them will always wake us up a shade before 6am?
And bumworms: that’s something they don’t tell you about in pre-natal classes. When you’re courting and it’s all tequila shots and mini-breaks and lazy Saturday morning nookie, do either of you imagine that seven years on, you’ll be kneeling side by side in the loo peering at a heap of something quite appalling and conferring earnestly about whether you just saw something move?
Also: bake sales. You’ll find that, goaded by a hitherto unimagined shame at the idea of being the Person Who Bought Mr Kipling, you spend entire evenings of your life baking suboptimal cakes you don’t want just-about-OK cookies you’re never going to eat. And you take them in Tupperware you’re never going to see again to be flogged for 10p a pop to raise money for a playground that’s never going to be built. You’re a corporate lawyer. Your time is worth £200 an hour. Can’t you just write a cheque? Dream on: this isn’t fundraising: it’s collective punishment.
Also: you know that you’re talking because your jaw is moving up and down and your ears tell you sound is coming out. So how come nobody can hear you? “OK, sweetheart: time to put your pyjamas on. Come on, honey: pyjamas. No, not jigsaw puzzle: pyjamas. Please, please: put your pyjamas on. It’s bedtime. [CLAPS HANDS.] You! I’m talking to you. Yes, you: with the Marmite on your nose. Put your pyjamas on now! MAN ALIVE, AM I IN THE VACUUM OF SPACE? PUT YOUR PYJAMAS ON BEFORE I PULL YOUR ARMS AND LEGS OFF AND MAKE A CHAPMAN BROTHERS INSTALLATION OUT OF THEM. What? Yes: yes, the jigsaw does have a fire engine on it. Good grief.”
Agreeably, on the other hand, you can capitalise on the fact that, because children know nothing, they have no idea how ignorant and incompetent you are. “Dad, can you draw a zebra? Oh wow! You drew a great zebra. Do all zebras have five legs, Dad?” “Dad: why is the sky blue? Really? Because it’s made out of WHAT?” and so on. Imagine being admired for your ability to screw up your face and stick out your tongue! (Shut up at the back, Cara Delevingne.)
Yet being a middle-aged parent has something a little autumnal about it. I remember my own father’s 40th birthday well; I was in my mid-teens. When I turned 40, my youngest son was eight days old. By the time my children are grown up I will be on the threshold of old age; if they, like me, hang around before having children themselves I may never get to meet my grandchildren and tell them what life was like before the Internet.
However, if I do, I like to think we’ll bond: we’ll have nappies and a microscopic attention-span in common. And my children — their parents — will say: “Dad, it’s time to put your pyjamas on. Dad! DAD! Pyjamas!” And I’ll ignore them, of course, out of long-delayed revenge. And what I will hear in their voices will be, I hope, frustration and love.
“I loved my father but I was scared of him”
Phil Robinson, 43, father to Conrad, 9, Caspar, 11 and Oscar, 13
I loved my father but I was scared of him. In the Seventies, men were still pretty masculine. They could fix cars, had sideburns, wore suits to work, and splashed themselves all over with aftershave that smelled like Roger Moore’s sauna towel. His generation strove to be perceived by friends and family as perfect. The house was immaculately maintained, the car was cleaned once a week and every decision was the law of the land.
Growing up I could never work out how I might be right all the time like my father. I could never match his shining example, and I was sure I was half the man he was. I hardly felt part of the same species. I only see now that, like many of his male peers, he felt trapped into a Captain Bligh model of fatherhood: always strong, never wrong. He was the ideal family man; a gentleman and a gentle soul — his kids were his raison d’être but he saw his role as disciplinarian first and mentor second. Well into my mid-twenties, I felt rather hopeless, hapless and incapable.
As a father, I try to depict myself honestly. I know that everything I do now is being watched and recorded by my boys as “what a man does”. I don’t pretend always to be right. I want to give my sons the chance to see a real man: kind, caring, witty but also fallible, and even confused. If I don’t know something, I say so. When I make a mistake I don’t try to cover it up. I still use my position as a bully pulpit, making myself first among equals (but you can’t cede all power to a nine-year-old).
I also allow them to challenge me, but in the right way. I am happy for them to tell me when they think I’m being a hypocrite, as long as they have evidence. I let them know they can debate with me on anything and, if they make a good case and convince me, I will back down.
I would never have had the confidence to question my father’s word. It would have been like shouting at a volcano. Men of his generation didn’t like being challenged by whippersnappers and wouldn’t tolerate it.
I have friends who put huge effort into maintaining a façade of infallibility, aping their own father’s undisputed dictator act. But why would I elect to be governor of my own prison with a thousand arbitrary rules and everyone tiptoeing round for fear of upsetting me? Each line crossed becomes a slight, a sign of disrespect, the last straw — so, naturally, these fathers are forever screaming at their family and being told off by their wives. I worked out long ago that you get further with humour and charm than with anger or shaming. The journey lasts a little longer but the scenery is better.
Instead of creating meek kids with low self-worth, I’ve helped to raise the kind of people I want to hang out with. They are already using all my tools against me — shifting debating practices, hyperbole, misdirection. I caught the nine-year-old constructing a straw-man argument to get more time on the PlayStation yesterday. This might be some people’s idea of hell but it’s exactly what I want. We all want our kids to complete us, as if they are the final stage in our unfinished project. We hope they will become the well-rounded creatures we fear we are not. I want them to have the confidence and self-belief to seek out and recognise their own obsessions and loves, not simply to express mine. My dad was the best father he could be. I want to be the same — but different.
“Childcare can never be equal — even if you want it to be”
Tom Whipple, 33, father to Felix, two, and William, four months
My first son was three months old when I first had concrete proof such men existed. There had been whispers, of course, of the spare-room dad. I had known, intellectually at least, that they were possible. But it took a Frenchman to admit it.
I was at a drinks party. Not because I wanted to be — the hallucinogenic tiredness of three months of interrupted sleep meant I wanted to be almost anywhere else. But this was for work reasons. There I met Zach. Zach also had a three-month-old son — and I rejoiced, because this meant that my sleep-based conversational gambits worked.
“How’s the sleep?” I asked. Children really do make you fascinating. “OK, I think,” he said. “You think?” I replied. How could one be ambivalent about such questions? “I sleep,” he began, “in the spare room.” I felt like Jesus must have in the desert, when Satan appeared to tempt him with an Earthly paradise.
Two years later, with another three-month-old insomnia machine installed in our bedroom, I still marvel at his casual insouciance. I also marvel how I ever found just one hard — how this cooing, gurgling, immobile being caused such a cataclysm in my life, when now the toddler is the real challenge. I marvel less, mind you, come nightfall.
For my generation, childcare is a shared activity. The presumption that the burden should fall primarily on the mother is as much an anathema as it would be to presume they should quit work when they got married, or be paid less before then. When our first son, Felix, was born, like the northern European metrosexual I am, I took the second half of parental leave — spending five months looking after him so that my wife could return to work. I shared the 3am wake-ups and the pre-dawn nappy changes. I took the same career hit and sacrificed the same amount of time to the stress, rigours — and joy — of full-time childcare.
Except, I also didn’t. Because I don’t have breasts. So, yes, I woke up for each feed — but then I went straight back to sleep again. I spent the same time with my son but, because he had to be weaned first, I had the second half — when his naps were sorted, his reflux had stopped and he was a lot more fun.
In short, I had it easier — and the glorious truth is my failure to take my share was not my fault. Forget about the health benefits for babies; breast feeding does wonders for fathers.
This, then, is the great myth about equal childcare — at least in the early months it can never be equal, even if you want it to be.
So it was that William, baby number two, arrived and our well-practised night-time regimen resumed, with the extra complication that Felix occasionally woke up, too. A month ago, they seemed to have come to some sort of arrangement between themselves. William would do the heavy lifting, waking up every 90 minutes for a feed. Felix would syncopate with him — bellowing at us once William was asleep, with an increasingly baroque set of demands about the placement of soft toys in his cot.
After three nights, my wife gently suggested I could recuperate in the spare room one night. I declined.
I didn’t want to be that man. I didn’t want to be the sort of dad who heads off to work without seeing his children, who arrives after they have gone to bed, who sleeps elsewhere. The hard work is as much the point of having children as the rest.
So I stayed in our bedroom. I stayed there for all of the 90 minutes it took for son number two to have his first wake-up. Then I silently picked up my pillow, slinked out of the door and lay in the spare bed — my guilt lasting a long as it took me to pass out, gloriously, for the next eight hours.
It’s true what they say: the French really do have a better quality of life.
“Maybe I’ve been overprotective”
Robert Crampton, 51, father to Sam, 19, and Rachel, 17
My children both have their birthday next month. My son will turn 19, my daughter 17. They’re almost grown up. A generation ago, they’d be leaving home before too long, if they hadn’t left already. Given the nature of the London property market, however, I think they’ll both be around for a few years yet. Even if they go away to study or work for a while, I suspect they’ll be back occupying their childhood bedrooms at some stage. I grew up in the provincial suburbs and couldn’t wait to leave. My children have grown up in hip’n’happenin’ east London. They are already where any half-sensible youngster would want to be.
We still go on holiday as a family several times a year. There is no suggestion this will cease any time soon. We visit relatives and friends as a full, complete unit. Last weekend, the four of us went to the cinema to see The Big Short. We still, sometimes (not as often as I’d like) gather to watch a DVD or an Attenborough off the planner. I go swimming with my son. I watch YouTube clips with my daughter, and play them both songs and videos from my youth I think they might enjoy. We are, in other words, for whatever reason — economic, geographic, cultural — still bonded tightly together.
The contrast with my own trajectory at a similar age is instructive. I didn’t dislike my parents, nor did I suffer anything approaching a repressive domestic regime. Even so, my attachment to the familial structure was weakening, the ties loosening (although, in later years, especially once I’d had children myself, those ties would tighten again). I had my last family holiday at 16. Socialising with my parents stopped around the same age.
At 18 I was holed up in a CND protest camp outside an RAF base, many miles from my parents, getting arrested on a thrillingly frequent basis. Or I was hitchhiking around Europe. Or getting into three-way punch-ups with the National Front and HM Constabulary. Then there was the (surprisingly comfortable) squat in Brixton, the (unsurprisingly squalid) bedsit back in Hull, the six-months’ factory work, various escapades, adventures and assignations in between. I certainly wouldn’t claim to have been anything close to maturity, but I was — at what to me now seems a frighteningly young age — engaging in, if not always enjoying, a range of experiences apart from and alien to my parents. Experiences which I would be horrified to discover my own children indulging in now. Or indeed at any age.
Maybe I’ve been overprotective. It doesn’t feel that way. It feels as if there’s more to protect them from than there was when I was young. And less for them to rebel against, perhaps — both politically, and also personally. My dad wasn’t stuffy or uncool or embarrassing by any means, but I didn’t want to hang out with him. Whereas (perhaps I flatter myself, but I think this applies to many fathers of my vintage), for Sam and Rachel, spending time (not too much time, of course) with Mum and Dad and their friends is a reasonably attractive proposition.
What follows, however, is they are becoming independent adults much more slowly than we did. The paradox is that although we are intellectually more liberal and socially more liberated than our parents, our children have ended up with less practical freedom than we had.