For a man, stopping work to look after the kids can be life-changing. Some people – mostly women – may admire you for it. But men may pose challenges.
A version of this article first appeared in the Financial Times of May 9, 2003 under the title “From Herr to Maternity”.
I’m picking up the kids from school here in Berlin when a teacher accosts me. “Started being a house-husband yet?” he says. “How do you like ironing all those shirts?”
“Pamela was never a housewife,” I say. Am I being too defensive? “And she never ironed my shirts.”
“How about the vacuum-cleaning?” He has that look in his eye. Does not compute.
“Nope. Mostly, it’s looking after the kids. And I cook.”
“Why not get an au pair? Find yourself a job?”
“The whole point is that I’m with the children. So Pamela can go back to work knowing it’s me looking after them.”
Standing there in the corridor, with kids swarming around him like ants, the teacher shakes his head. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
In the garden in Berlin, 2003
Stopping work? Or one job for another?
What I’m doing is this: in October 2002 I gave up my job as Counsellor for EU and Economic Affairs at the British Embassy in Berlin and took over my wife’s job as chief carer for our children, Owen (10) and Anna (8). Pamela, in turn, took over my slot at the Embassy, once memorably described in a recruitment advertisement in The Economist as a key Foreign Office job. That’s right: I swapped jobs with my wife. Someone said it’s like a reality TV show, only it’s real, and it’s not on TV.
It all started winter 1992
It all started mid-winter 1992, when Pamela and I were posted jointly to Moscow. Owen was newly born and the Soviet Union had just expired; but with KGB-trained nannies available at just $80 (£51) a month, we thought it would be a doddle for both of us to work full-time. Wrong. Pamela went back to work when Owen was six months old and knew after two days she had to see more of him than working 8 ’til 8 would allow. Crisis.
The Foreign Office bent over backwards to be helpful. With diplomatic staff in over 140 countries, the personnel departments are progressive about couples, kids and careers. They also want more women ambassadors. Two months later, Pamela was working part-time. She continued for most of the next 10 years in Moscow, London, Bonn and Berlin. No-one ever said, “Pamela, you’re taking a break to look after the kids! Amazing!”
Head and Heart
We often discussed when and how Pamela might return to work full-time. “With both children in school,” she would say, “we should have more time, less stress, more fun. But if we both work we’ll have less time, more stress and less fun. How about you stopping work? Then I’d know they were in safe hands.”
“I dunno,” I’d say. “What do you think?” At this point my intellect was usually screaming cor! You can commune with the kids! Write your novel! Be ideologically sound! Not work! But my emotions were quavering back: oo-er! Your peers will overtake you! Your career will suffer irretrievable damage! You’ll transform the kids into axe-wielding maniacs! You’ll hate not working!
“Well,” she’d say. “My head’s telling me to think about my career. But my heart’s telling me I’ll miss the children.”
So we went for it, not necessarily for identical reasons.
The best job for Pamela, it turned out, was not in Rome, Madrid or London but was my job, right here in Berlin. So she applied for it through the normal competitive board, and was selected.
One of the first mornings I dropped the kids off I ran into an Embassy colleague.
“How the mighty have fallen,” he said.
I couldn’t think of a witty response.
The Worm Song
Five months into the new job. At an ambassadorial dinner, someone forgets I’m there as a spouse and asks me who I’m tipping to succeed Nigel Sheinwald as UK Permanent Representative in Brussels. I don’t even know who’s in the frame. Lots of people say “Leigh, you’re taking a break to look after the kids! Fantastic!” But is that admiration I see in their eyes, or pity?
At the school, I’m the only man on the panel of judges for the Key Stage 1 Arts Festival. After a lively discussion, we rate “Greased Lightning” ahead of “The Worm Song”.
So far the children seem OK, although they did address me as “Mummy” for the first three weeks after the handover. No one’s suffered serious weight-loss: I’m a dab hand at chocolate fudge cakes.
“It’s not any better or worse,” Owen says. “It’s just different.”
Not everything’s different
Not everything’s different.
“I need to dress up as a cat,” Anna says, “for Carnival.”
I look at her and swallow, twice.
Anna nods. “OK. Maybe I should talk to Mummy about this.”
“How do you feel about stopping work?”
A friend from the Embassy asks whether I miss work. Aren’t home-workers supposed to miss the office buzz, the camaraderie?
“No,” I say. “It’s a huge pleasure to stop.”
This is true. Maybe later, frustration and insecurity will kick in. Maybe when I return to work I’ll find my career has belly-flopped. But on the evidence so far, not working – voluntarily – beats working hands down.
Stopping work: diplomatic challenges
And I still face diplomatic challenges.
Like when I take eight children for a birthday treat, to see Successful Formula Movie 2. They’re all nice kids. But steering them from school to city centre and back on the U-Bahn (subway) is the kind of chaos nightmare of aggression, disobedience and tears that makes you want to double teachers’ pay.
Later, the mums come to collect their loved ones.
“Were they good?” they ask.
I weigh up a range of possible answers. Only one makes any sense.
“They were perfect,” I say.
P.S. A companion piece, Behind every great woman… when men play second fiddle, digs deeper into the male partners of powerful women. It, too, appeared in the FT in 2003.
P.P.S. I did not choose the title “From Herr to Maternity”. As always, the subs (sub-editors) chose it. You can read more about titles, and why it can help to choose a working title even if the subs change it, in my piece The 4 elements of the perfect article (part 2 of 3): Nut-grafs & Cosmic Kickers.