As articulated in the first column in this series, A day in the life of a working dad, my wife and I chose to raise our son as true 50/50 co-parents, a split down the middle when it comes to child-rearing responsibilities (without a full-time nanny). This is not a weekend dad kind of deal, and I’m not doing my wife any favours. I see this as my minimum responsibility.
I can also see how the co-parenting framing can be misleading. It feels transactional, like we’re two separate entities executing our part of the deal, as opposed to fluidly sharing this responsibility together. However, the choice is deliberate, as it is exactly this kind of fluid model that leaves the woman with the greater burden of responsibility, as gender roles continue to lag behind labour force trends.
In an ideal world, the terms parenting and co-parenting would be synonymous, but in reality many mothers end up being the primary caregivers, often because of their ability to breastfeed and the longer duration of maternity leave compared to paternity leave granted in most countries; and eventually because a pattern forms, one promoted by centuries of societal expectations and pressures.
To be accurate, when I say “we chose”, the truth is my wife made her expectations clear and I agreed. In my case, I don’t think I would have fallen naturally into the co-parenting model without that nudge, primarily because of the demands of my job. And so, I left said job and chose to be a work-from-home father in a more autonomous set-up. I am now an aspiring entrepreneur as well as an independent adviser (and weekend columnist), as opposed to a partner in a professional firm, a move I do realise isn't available to everyone.
Even so, it took about a year of perseverance to deservedly retain the title of co-parent. I found I had to crowbar my way in as a dad, by which I mean gently and fearfully offer help despite having no clue sometimes and failing consistently. My wife was breastfeeding, I did not hear my baby stir in the middle of the night and, generally, my wife’s instincts were sharper than mine.
There were moments it felt a bit isolating, like a wannabe groupie trying to get picked for the A team. You’re eager, you’ve got the T-shirt, but no one throws you the ball. Out in the world, I’ve found myself occasionally lost between socially stereotypical norms. I recently attended the birthday party of a two-year-old (a manic dystopian world you should never invite non-parent friends to unless they are already sure parenting is not for them), and within the hour the segregation between dads and mums had already taken place. The dads were talking shop on the balcony and the mums were dealing with the mayhem that is 10 toddlers running around with a sugar rush, looking for their next scuffle. I remained inside, self-aware of the social divide but refusing to comply.
Eventually, though, responsibilities grow and your own role in parenthood takes shape. The benefits are hugely rewarding. My bond to my son runs deep. I now know his every laugh, cry and mood. I am with him when he wakes up and I am with him when he closes his eyes at night (including through the two hours of delay tactics he employs).
Parenting is at once rewarding and exhausting, but there are few activities that offer a greater sense of purpose, few experiences that can produce more joy, and very few vocations that can sustain more pride. It drives me to succeed, but to succeed in a way that will make me a better person, and a better enabler of the life my family wants to live.
So, am I happy? To that I have to say a resounding “yes”. Instead of adapting my family life to accommodate my professional life, I have approached it another way. By clocking out of the traditional office space, I have been able to have a hands-on role throughout the day.
However, with the lack of physical separation (office and home), it is still extremely difficult to separate professional and personal worlds. The high-pressure stress of constant delivery and execution is not conducive to the patience required to parent. And vice versa, the stress of solving a seemingly irrational toddler tantrum is not conducive to strategic and thoughtful reflection ahead of an important meeting. Both realms of reality need a corridor of transition, which is difficult to achieve when all you have is a makeshift office door separating both worlds.
As to how I’ll hold up my end of the co-parenting gig, if and when I choose to, or have to, go back to that corner office … watch this space.
Tristan Hills-Bos is the former head of Brunswick Arts, Gulf, and has helped to launch some of the region’s most significant cultural institutions, including Louvre Abu Dhabi, Qasr Al Hosn and the Royal Opera House Muscat. He continues to help governments and foundations build communities through large-scale cultural projects, and sits on the board of the Jean Paul Najar Foundation. He will write a weekly series of three columns on his decision to co-parent