Sam’s Story – Fighting the Good Fight: Part-Time Working Fatherhood, Paternal Working Rights, and Living with Cancer

Work-Life Balance Profile #6 – Sam Franklin

International Men’s Day (IMD), which takes place annually on 19th November, has never been more on my radar than this year, thanks to the subject of my latest blog: Sam Franklin.

IMD is an occasion to address and champion serious issues affecting men and boys, such as high male suicide rates, domestic violence and shorter life expectancy. It is also a day to celebrate positive male role models.

So, what better way to mark it than to publish the write-up of my interview with Sam, himself a positive male role model (even LinkedIn says so), advocate of paternal working rights and part-time working father?

When Sam and his wife were expecting their first child, he realised how inequitable the opportunities were for him to play an active role in his new-born daughter’s care, and support his wife to return to work. His wife’s career ambition was the catalyst for Sam to challenge his workplace’s paternal rights and, in partnership, their joint work-life arrangement fuels the rise of a new generation of “power couple” – one that strives for gender equality.

Challenging corporate policies and assumptions on this scale is no mean feat, and the fight that Sam took on has led him to become somewhat of a trailblazer for paternal working rights, setting a precedent for others to follow. Taking on this fight while concurrently battling cancer reveals a fortitude of spirit that makes Sam’s role model status all the more worthy.

Sam’s is a story of chartering new courses when life throws obstacles in the way; and of how, in pursuit of a fine balance, some things are worth the fight.

Work:Life Ratio

50:50

Sam worked his way up the ranks of a global tech corporation as a Digital Transformation Consultant and now heads up its UK Microsoft practice, responsible for 40 employees. This is a recent promotion, and an offer he accepted on one condition: that the firm agrees to him working a four-day week, enabling him to commit the remaining week day to looking after his 10-month old daughter.

The global nature of his business means that work operates around the clock, and his working hours are long. This is not the only role of responsibility that Sam holds; he is also Vice-Chair of his community’s synagogue, a position that takes up as much time as his day job.

Despite a busy paid and voluntary work schedule, Sam makes time for other things that are important to him, besides the care of his baby daughter and spending time with his wife. He loves to travel, he enjoys relaxing on the sofa watching TV, and is a keen football and rugby spectator. A sociable person, he and his wife (before Coronavirus) would often entertain in their home, and much of their social life revolved around their community and extended family. Having had some serious health concerns recently, Sam is committed to improving his physical well-being, and he works out with a personal trainer three times a week.

Sam wouldn’t give me a figure straight away on how he measures his work:life ratio as he objects to the concept, arguing that he doesn’t see his life divided up that way. He concluded, however, that if he had to put a figure on it (which he didn’t, but he volunteered to!), he would say 50:50. “I don’t think about work when I shut my computer at night“, he states matter-of-factly. A logical, confident and demonstrably unflappable person, Sam feels secure in singling out the core things that are important in any given scenario; “as long as they are done”, he says, “the rest can take care of itself”.

Sam did not set out to be a campaigner for paternal working rights. But when he and his wife were expecting their first child, he realised how inequitable the opportunities were for him to play an active role in his new-born daughter’s care, and support his wife (who compresses full-time hours into four working days) to return to work.

Not one to be deterred by a challenge, Sam took up the fight to set a precedent in his corporate employer: “I’m confident that I can run the business and have quality time with my child and wife“, he attests, prophesying: “I’m going to get to the top and prove that you can do it and commit to childcare responsibilities“. So far, he’s undoubtedly living up to his own expectations, though he recognises that there’s not a lot of room to manoeuvre between all that he and his wife juggle. “There will come a pinch-point when something has got to give”, he reflects. For now though, it just about works. 

The power of privilege

To say that my interview with Sam changed my life would be a step too far. But shortly after we met, I started a new job and, credit where it’s due, gleaning insight to Sam’s approach to work left me feeling better equipped than ever to contend with the information overload that subsequently came hurtling my way. The timing was fortuitous to say the least.

Sam’s ability to ruthlessly distinguish between what he needs to know and what he can relinquish control of – and detach himself (or delegate) accordingly – was nothing short of inspirational.

He attributes this partly to a conversation he had as an impressionable graduate with his first CEO, who he cornered at a works drinks. The story goes that a fresh-faced Sam brazenly asked his new boss what he does all day; to which his boss invited him to shadow him. OK, perhaps I embellish a little. But the insight he gained from one working day in this man’s company gave Sam a bird’s eye perspective on corporate management, and an understanding that no one is indispensable.

Moreover, his lasting impression was that no one person in an organisation needs to know absolutely everything. This stuck with him and stood him in good stead to progress steadily through the management ranks and develop his own leadership style.

The confidence it took to create such an exchange with his first boss seems characteristic of Sam’s unintimidated attitude to status. His elevated sense of self-worth, coated with a dry sense of humour, permeated throughout our entire interview. On introducing my blog, I explained the premise of showcasing the stories of people who are not necessarily the most celebrated or accomplished, by conventional standards. To this, Sam joked that we should probably stop right there.

Later, when he told me the incredible story of how he resuscitated his wife who fell critically ill at home towards the end of her pregnancy, I couldn’t tell for sure if he was joking when he described stripping out of his superhero-styled onesie once the paramedics arrived.

Growing up in a loving home, where his self-esteem was nurtured, surely played a part in establishing such self-assuredness. But there’s more to it than that.

During our conversation, Sam referred to his upbringing as “privileged”. By this, he wasn’t referring to home comforts. Indeed, he learned the value of hard work from his parents – his father a management consultant and his mother a teaching assistant. The privilege came from his exposure to a worldly view from his wider community.

Brought up in a traditional Jewish family, Sam spent a lot of time during his formative years in synagogue, sitting alongside his father in the company of other men, many of whom were professionals. He got to know these people in his community personally, rather than in the personas of the professions they held. It meant, therefore, that when he came across senior people once he entered the workplace, he was unfazed by their social or professional standing; he saw them as human equals. “I’ll talk to anyone”, he told me.

This privileged mindset, he says, was instrumental in enabling him to advance professionally. He wasn’t particularly studious at school, admitting that he didn’t work very hard for his exams, and “university was hit and miss”. What he lacked in academic excellence, he more than made up for in quick-wittedness and self-confidence.

Failure, therefore, was not something for Sam to fear, because of his confidence that he will always find a path to success. “If an obstacle changes the course of something in my life, I do something else”, he explains coolly. His resilience is something to be reckoned with. Which is lucky, given all that he has had to contend with in recent years. 

Don’t sweat the small stuff

It’s not intentional that I’ve so far omitted a significant fact about Sam: that amidst all the responsibility that he manages, he does so while undergoing cancer treatment. It just hasn’t seemed appropriate to mention yet because it seems largely inconsequential to his work values.

Sam is so resolute in not allowing his cancer to define him that sickness, treatment or the threat of further treatment, surgery or the cancer spreading does not seem to drastically influence his life choices.

He explains that he plans his life in three-month cycles at the moment (according to his check-up intervals), and does not think beyond that. He says he does not suffer anxiety about the elements of his illness that he cannot control. He gave me an example of the time he delayed receiving a scan-result call with his oncologist in favour of watching a football match. He applied logic rather than emotion on that occasion, deciding that waiting an extra few days for the result wouldn’t make a difference to his treatment and he preferred to enjoy the game undistracted.

What Sam can control is his mental attitude to being a cancer patient, and his refusal to see himself as a victim. Like the time he underwent surgery resulting in the loss of sight in one eye and went on to keep his promise to participate in a synagogue event soon after surgery: why should I pull out just because of an operation?, he reasoned. Another thing he can take control of is his physical fitness, which is why he ring-fences time with a personal trainer. He again calculates that by losing weight and getting into a fit physical state, he will be in the strongest possible condition should he require future surgery.

Such calm and acceptance in the face of difficult and uncertain circumstances is almost unfathomable, but it genuinely seems as though Sam is not bottling up his emotions. One could draw a parallel with how he operates in other settings: detaching himself somewhat, delegating where possible, and remaining focussed on the core things that matter.

Sam’s ability to compartmentalise the various things going on in his life is something that he has long mastered. As an Orthodox Jew, his religious observance stipulates that he not work on the Sabbath and Jewish Holidays. He is electronically disconnected during those times, so quite literally switched off. His early fears about this being career-limiting were quickly alleviated when he realised that an uncompromising commitment to his religion seemed to command colleagues’ respect. In fact, rather than admonishing him for his unavailability, they were apologetic that he had felt at all uneasy about raising it.

Again, not fearing failure helps. He wears his heart on his sleeve, he says, and would rather walk away from a job than compromise his principles. He admits, his passion for justice and people being treated fairly can at times boil over into frustration and that he has been known to overstep the mark. But, he maintains that if he’s polite and true to himself, what could go wrong? 

The long walk to equality

When Sam decided to put his head above the parapet and campaign to change his workplace’s policy on shared parental leave, and break conventions of male senior managers’ working hours, his colleagues were more stumped than enraged. No one had ever asked for this before. Sam wasn’t put off by trailblazing uncharted territory, or by the early objections he faced; he felt confident that he had nothing to lose – it’s not like the firm would fire me for asking, he rationalised.

The reactions to him taking seven weeks’ parental leave and working a 4-day week have generally been very positive.

Older male colleagues cautiously compliment him on his decision, many commenting on how times have changed and how they would not have been able to afford such a choice when their children were young. Perhaps they would not have chosen to either, though Sam sometimes senses a tinge of regret when he talks to men his father’s age – culturally it was not the accepted thing to do, though they too may have derived pleasure from spending more time with their children.

The financial cost is not negligible for Sam and his wife, but it is a cost worth paying to ensure that his career-driven wife is able to continue pursuing her ambitions. Would he have been as motivated to share the childcare had his wife not been so career-minded? Possibly not, Sam muses. But, he is proud to champion equality in their marriage: “If men don’t take an active role in childcare, the assumption is that women will do it. And if women want leadership positions, there needs to be a cultural shift in the workplace”. He continues, “It’s not fair that there would be an automatic assumption that [my wife] would do all the childcare”.

From his experience of shared parental leave, Sam empathises with women who miss the mental stimulation of work while on maternity leave and can well understand the desire and value of returning to the workplace over full-time childcare.

Sam’s childcare responsibilities do not just serve a practical purpose. They enable him to have the experience of fatherhood that he wants for himself too and he is grateful for it. He goes as far as saying that at times he feels selfish keeping his daughter with him for one day a week as she enjoys going to nursery. He is insistent that they share the day together mindfully: though he admits to checking his work phone and replying to emails on his non-work day, he is firm about his diary and the only appointment he commits to is a baby-parent swimming lesson.

Whilst on paper Sam is striding ahead in changing an unfair workplace culture, even being highlighted on LinkedIn for his “return from parental leave” post, in practice, there seems to be a long way further to go.

For starters, though he is paid for working four days a week, in reality the extended hours he works on those days appear to more than compensate for the hours he takes off on the fifth day. Also, much as he is able to compartmentalise, Sam is never fully disconnected from work (apart from for religious reasons), describing how there is no cut-off time to checking his work phone, even keeping it next to him while relaxing at home in the evenings. This seems to stretch the definition of “part-time” working.

And though he and his wife share the mental load of the childcare and running their home, he indicates that she holds overarching responsibility as the primary home-maker and care-giver, despite them having similar working patterns. He describes both the pride and burden his wife carries in this role, in one breath playfully teasing her for it and the next expressing his care and concern to support her in it. He certainly doesn’t seem to share the guilt that some of the working mothers I’ve interviewed have talked about experiencing, such as full-time employee and mum of two Sheara, and self-employed mum of three Sarah.

But championing gender equality is a long game. It may not be financially viable for all families, and it wouldn’t be everyone’s lifestyle choice either. Yet as long as there are husbands and employers calling for greater equality in the home and workplace, the options for future generations of fathers to take on child-caring roles can only expand; as will the options for married women to pursue careers after having children. This may also, more generally, challenge the stigmas of male part-time working, not just for fathers.

While writing up Sam’s interview, my son – hastily on the cusp of teenage-hood – asked me about it. We often discuss my blogs and I was curious for his reaction to Sam’s story. Our conversation turned to the subject of feminism and we discussed his views and expectations of male and female roles in the home and workplace. The notion of gender pay gap and male ego sounded outrageous to him. When I asked if, for example, he would hypothetically take issue with his future wife earning more than him, he was genuinely perplexed: “why would I mind that?” he scoffed. How far his generations’ cultural norms and expectations have come in comparison to those of his grandfathers’ generation.

It got me thinking about the impact that trailblazers like Sam are making for future generations of the workforce – both men and women. Sam’s version of part-time working and shared childcare may resonate a faint hint of tokenism; but the statement it makes is a bold and principled one, and it sets a precedent for others to follow and build on.

Satisfying the needs and desires of all three members of Sam’s young family equally is indeed a fine balance, and one just as important to Sam as being a public-facing positive role model. He concedes that any small change to their circumstances could cause them to have to reconfigure their work-life arrangements. However, should that happen, I can safely imagine Sam, in his typically cool, calm and collected style, finding another path to success, and doing so with a smile on his face and a sardonic joke on the tip of his tongue.

If any of the issues raised in this post relate to your situation, feel free to “like” it and comment below. If you’re interested in being featured in the Work-Life Balance Profiles series – or would like to nominate someone you know to share their story – please get in touch. Subscribe or follow this blog, A Fine Balance, to receive further updates.

6 thoughts on “Sam’s Story – Fighting the Good Fight: Part-Time Working Fatherhood, Paternal Working Rights, and Living with Cancer

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