Work-Life Balance Profile #11: John Adams
The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind
“I was a dreamer”, John told me of his time at school, which was more of a “social activity” than an academic pursuit. Sufficed to say, he was no model student.
The eldest of three brothers, John evaded the attention of his mother who had other distractions to contend with (including his two younger brothers). “The teaching was dreadful”, he remembers of the boarding school he attended as a day pupil, and, lacking motivation and interest in his studies, he did the minimum that he could get away with, acknowledging that “the teachers wrote me off as lazy”.
John recalls, “I screwed up my GCSEs”, and was “directionless” after A-Levels. He decided to take a year-out before committing to his next move and went travelling. One year-off stretched to four and he was well into his adventure, while partying on a beach in Egypt, when he says he found his calling as a journalist.
On returning to the UK, John enrolled in college and worked for a year in a warehouse to fund his studies and sociable lifestyle. He partied a lot, “a bit too hard”, he says. He describes himself as somewhat of a “hippy”, bucking the system and intermittently saving up his hard-earned cash to fund the next music festival.
But he had finally found the direction he had been missing, which fuelled his energy. By the time John started college, he was a mature student well into his twenties. “I ran rings around them”, he said of his college classmates, most of whom were eighteen years old and who had more in common with his younger-self.
He was driven like never before: “Having spent time doing dead-end jobs, I had every intention of escaping the cheap bedsit, hand to mouth existence I had allowed myself to fall into”. He went the extra mile and graduated as one of only a few, if not the only student, to leave the course with a firm job offer.
It seems that all he needed was a goal to aim for to trigger his motivation; and once he had pinned himself to a mission, he put his all into it. Which seems to be a pattern that has continued.
Figuring out fatherhood
When I asked John how he would have felt if his wife had wanted to be the main carer of their children, he seemed unperturbed, answering, “I probably wouldn’t have been upset about it“. He added matter-of-factly, “my child needed more attention“; something had to give.
He and his wife considered how they could share their daughter’s care more equally whilst maintaining their level of income. His wife earned more; the rest was a logical conclusion: she continued working full-time while he took on the caring responsibilities and found a part-time job. It helped that his wife “never wanted to Chair the PTA”, as John put it, and was happy with this arrangement.
John’s approach in this situation seems to be typical of his approach in general: open to reassessing life’s components when things change, and adapting accordingly. Not having fixed ideas about his career may have contributed to his willingness to make the adjustment towards working part-time and becoming the main carer of his daughters. But being a hands-on dad was something he always expected of himself anyway, so this was not an entirely unnatural progression.
“I always wanted to be a father, always felt paternal”, John told me, as though it were an obvious statement. He entered his second marriage at the age of thirty and said that he “panicked” that he was not going to have children. “Everyone around me had them”.
After his first daughter was born, John and his wife were both working full-time while their daughter attended nursery five days a week. Already at that early stage of fatherhood, John said he felt different to his colleagues, most of whom were single and went out socialising together on the weekends. Intent on being an involved father, John said that he felt like he no longer fitted in. He would miss meetings in order to make the nursery run and struggled with a culture that did not accommodate male childcare responsibilities.
Missing his daughter’s early milestones, like her first steps, which took place at nursery, upset him. Instinctively he wanted more out of fatherhood. And the absence of a father figure of his own necessitated his reliance on instinct to be the type of father he wanted to be.
John himself grew up in quite an unconventional family set-up. His parents separated when he was two years old. At the time, the family unit was living abroad in mainland Europe and, after the separation, John returned with his mother to the UK and he didn’t see his father again until the age of sixteen. His mother remarried when he was eight, so he grew up with his mother, two half-brothers and a stepfather. John says he owes his stepfather “a great deal” but concedes that the stepparent/stepchild dynamic is “little understood“.
“I’d never met a dad like me”, he says.
His biological father remained abroad and went on to have children with other partners. Dispersed around the globe, John told me that he has never been in the same room as all of his half-siblings, and extraordinarily, there is no common language between them.
In contrast, John was only too pleased to settle down and start a family of his own. His openness to dedicating himself to the care of his daughters broke the mould of fatherhood that had surrounded him growing up, and surpassed any career ambitions he had until then set his heart on.
“I hadn’t planned to be a stay-at-home-dad and paternal rights campaigner”, he told me, “I fell into it”. But there’s clearly a part of John that enjoys stirring up conventions and challenging the status quo: “I’ve always been a bit of a pain in the arse”, he said with a wry smile on his face. “And, when riled by a sense of injustice, I’m not afraid to say it when I see it”. The discrimination he experienced as a primary caring, part-time working dad created the perfect storm for the next chapter in his life.
On the outside looking in
I couldn’t help myself from asking John what he makes of the parodies of stay-at-home-dads like the sentimental and effeminate character Kevin in the comedy Motherland. He’s clearly been asked this before and didn’t dwell on the stereotype, which he understandably doesn’t identify with and finds unhelpful to his cause.
But a sadness crept into John’s voice as he went on to describe his early days at the school gates. He said that he felt parachuted into a strong, already-formed social network of women. He felt that his exclusion from the ‘sisterhood’ unfortunately also impacted on his children: “When mums socialise together, their children do too. So if the dad is on the outside, the children get side-lined”, he reminisced. It sounded lonely and hurtful: “They may not have noticed”, he said, of the mums that left him and his daughters out of the crowd, “but I sure did”.
This brought back memories of the social awkwardness he felt in his youth: “I horrendously lacked confidence as a young person”, he explained. “Socially I was fine going to a room of, say, 60yr olds, but not with peers”. As an adult and father, however, he felt empowered to stand up for himself and his daughters and speak out.
The injustice bothered him; mother and toddler groups were enthusiastic to have a dad there, but he felt judged and scrutinised. The turning point came for him when he was bottle-feeding his daughter in a café one day and a woman he did not know took his baby out of his arms to show him “how it’s done”, assuming that he was a babysitter.
“The journalist in me took over”, he said. He took to his laptop to vent his fury, and to create a discussion and challenge people’s perceptions of working fatherhood. “My wife describes me as a ‘doer’”, he told me. And indeed, he did take matters into his own hands, adapting as he had done previously in life to the ebbs and flows of life. “I quit my job and gave myself three months to make something of Dad Blog UK before looking again for work. Three months later I found myself at a Downing Street reception on paternal rights”. There was no going back.
Through his work, John has created a community that has brought him the balance he felt was lacking when he first became a primary caring dad. His new career and lifestyle ticks many of his boxes: “I like to be an agent provocateur and challenging people; and I love handling the media and tackling gender equality from this important perspective”.
We finished our discussion on a key point of John’s campaign: that if the old adage that ‘behind every great man there is a great woman’ is true, then the same must be applied in reverse. Think of Jacinda Arden’s husband, for example, he implored; and Kamala Harris’.
As the slick communications professional that he is, the soundbites rang loud and clear. His utopic ambitions for gender equality hinge on challenging male stereotypes and improving expectations of men’s domestic involvement, which in turn can create greater opportunities for women to pursue and sustain careers out of the home.
John seeks to give voice to a new generation of men who want to work differently and parent differently, riding on the momentum and chaos that Coronavirus has created both on workplace environments and gender roles in the home: “We are never going to achieve equality for women in the workplace until men have equality on the domestic front. And we have got to talk about these things to make them work”.
As for John, he has no inclination to go back to working a corporate 9-5. He seems to have worked out a balance that brings him fulfilment, though caring for his daughters and the home while working isn’t exactly a walk in the park. “Sure, I’m ‘the fun one’”, he reflected, describing a recent paddle-boarding holiday he took his girls on last summer, “but as the main carer, I have to be good cop and bad cop”.
He is mindful to be present when with his daughters, and battles with the same multi-tasking temptations that most parents in our technology-reliant culture have to contend with: “I try not to have my phone with me when I’m with the kids, but the reality is that I’m a freelancer”. Being active on social media poses another parenting challenge for John and the responsibility of setting a good example to his daughters weighs heavy on him. “I’m not doing this for fun!”, he reminds them when they point out his excessive screen time on social media channels.
The Coronavirus pandemic has opened up multiple opportunities for John. Not only has he tenaciously sought to contribute to the cacophony of (usually) female voices calling for flexible working and improved working rights and conditions for parents, but he has also taken the opportunity during lockdown to resit his Maths GCSE. Proving yet again that, despite his laid-back demeanour, once he sets his mind on something, his drive, focus and determination yield results.
The lifestyle that John has chosen would not be desirable or manageable for everyone. But in publicising himself as an example of a minority of the parenting population, he is giving voice to the men that he represents and challenging the status quo. In doing so, he is potentially paving the way for change that will impact the families and workplaces of the future.
What’s more, his story demonstrates both to men and women that prioritising domestic duties ahead of career ambition does not snuff out all future career prospects. On the contrary, taking an open-minded and adaptable approach to career planning can lead to unexpected new paths. That is, if you are open and tenacious enough to take a chance and go with the flow.