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Last week was Semana Santa here in Spain. You might know it as Holy Week. It’s the closest thing we have to half-term, so my wife took the kids to see her parents in the UK. With a series of work deadlines looming, I stayed in Barcelona: Kevin, home alone, part II.
I was hoping to be finished early and make the most of the long weekend, but spent the entire week chained to the laptop, jumping between Zoom, Google Meet and Cisco Webex (how is Webex still a thing?) Work was more productive without constant context switching, able to focus without two kids bursting in, BBC News style, on the regular.
When that final email whooooooooshed out on Friday lunchtime, the overwhelming avenues of possibility opened up. What was I going to do? A three day weekend, all to myself. No children. No-one else. It’s an odd feeling, considering what you want to do, rather than what we might do. Not that we’re spending our weekends being dragged from event to event, against our will, through gritted teeth. But there’s an exhaustion that comes with constantly interrogating one another, the parenting equivalent of the journalistic six: Who (are we going to see)? What (are the kids going to eat)? Where (are we going to go)? When (WILL WE BEEEEEE THERE DAD?) How (the hell am I expected to hold things together?)
Freed from the responsibility of children, and relinquished from the never-ending discussion of “what to do”, the choice becomes yours, and yours alone. It can feel daunting. Parenthood becomes so all-encompassing: a cave you descend into, filled with equal parts terror and delight, in there so long you forget what life was like above ground. It’s easy to lose sight of who we are underneath it all—the constant barrage of logistics, the Sisyphean to-do lists, eternal Tetris played with the family calendar. The longer you’re away from yourself, the harder it becomes to tune back to what lies beneath; time spent deciding as an “us” making it harder to remember what you’d actually want, if given the choice; the inevitable dread and spiral of panic that sets in when you get said choice, and fret about frittering away the free time you have; or the despair, realising you’ve squandered it.
My weekend wasn’t wasted, I’m delighted to say. Friday afternoon was spent working a shift at my favourite local restaurant, where I’ve been helping out a few hours a week (a story for another time, and at least 2,000 more words, but I promise you: it’s a doozy.) I returned for dinner later that evening, sat “on the marble” (the table adjacent to the kitchen) and ate a little bit of everything. After closing time, enjoyed a few drinks with the staff, who have become good friends, before heading separate ways as they went into the night. I arrived home, more than a little tipsy, and wrote a glowing review for the place 2am. Hey, when you gotta write, you gotta write.
The rest of the weekend was spent free from formal plans, allowing serendipity to take centre stage: walking round the city with friends, long lunches turning into terrace beers turning into crashed dinner reservations, fortuitous “bumping intos” that recalled life as it once was, before we started planning our personal lives as intricately as our professional ones (”great, dinner on the second Thursday next month sounds PERFECT!”)
This wasn’t the first time we’ve taken time to ourselves—my wife and I have been trying to carve out a few solo weekends over the last year, and I’ve already written how distinguishable these are from our regular family holidays:
“I didn't expect the week to be so transformational. I've had time away from my kids, sure. But it was always for work. This was dramatically different. When they came back, I felt like I'd been away for a spa week, or a meditation retreat—fully recharged, afresh, anew. And so glad to see them again. I’d missed them all so much, and realised I actually missed missing them—we'd been together so long I'd forgotten how that felt.”
The Calendarization of Parenthood
In the years BC (Before Children), you may left the house early on a Saturday morning for a coffee—no idea where the day might take you—and return early the next day, the sun rising on a new collection of stories, enough to last a year, gathered in less than a day.
Then you had a baby. And your world immediately became dictated by The Routine. Your routine was different from mine: maybe you did Tracey’s E.A.S.Y method, and clung onto the Y for dear life; or you decided to go all Gina Ford in the bedroom like a boss. Maybe you had no say on what the routine was, but learned to follow it religiously. Whatever route you took, life changed—chained to a new schedule. Not as chained as your wife was, clearly. But a world apart from what it once was. Completely restricted at first: a time-based straight-jacket, covering yourself Memento style with reminders on nap times, feeding quantities and the occasional “do this, because if you forget, bad things will happen.” Structure might be something you relish. Or it may have been uncomfortably born by a formerly laid back (but not laying back) self. As the baby gets older, the binds begin to slack. “There’s only one nap, they can probably have it in the buggy now” or “so long as they’ve eaten by 6pm and we’re back by 8pm, we should be OK.” But those structures are still there. It’s the Calendarization of Parenthood, life outside of work a mirror of life inside it; juggling personal, professional and shared family calendars, spontaneity nothing but a distant memory. And the planning. The never-ending planning. What shall we cook for dinner? What homework do we need to help them with? What shall we do with them this weekend?
Then you’re liberated from it all. For a weekend. Completely free, to do whatever your heart desires (within reason.) I wanted to know if more parents were seeking this out, or whether it was something they craved. So I asked:
Yes, I know the sample size is too small, the results are biased to those who already follow me, and all the other reasons this isn’t a statistically significant survey (stand down, stats nerds, your time will come.) But with 75% of us wanting to take some, or more, time alone, there’s a huge unmet need here. We need to normalise this behaviour, to remove the stigma from spending time away from the ones we love the most, to promote the idea of plugging back into yourself. To show our children that we’re more than just parents, and that while we love them, we also need to time to love ourselves.
A bunch of dads started discussing solo time in the community and numbers were similar. The same weekend I was sauntering around the streets of the city, Ivor shared a photo of himself atop the Dolomites, two beers rapidly cooling in the ice. “I return to my family thinking how important, essential, fundamental it is to get some time away, preferably in nature, to be able to step back. Free time without the constant attention is a balm for me and my head, so I will think how we can do this regularly.”
Other dads had barriers to overcome. Guilt came through as a significant theme:
“I would love to do this more often, but don’t get a chance. Now more than before, and that the second born is getting older. My thing is guilt. My wife always lets me do it, and encourages it. But I end up feeling like I dumped a load on her and don’t enjoy it as much as I could. I also encourage her to do it, but I think she avoids it for similar reasons.”
“We both feel guilty doing stuff for ourselves. I think in different ways there is baggage from both of our parents. I don’t think either of our mum and dads really did stuff for themselves.”
“The guilt can be resolved if you gift each other the time, rather than feeling you're taking it,” Ivor suggested. “And the guilt is different once you get past the first year,” another dad shared.
“I almost didn’t post that photo,” Ivor revealed, “because I thought it might come across as a humblebrag (’Look at me! Up a mountain sans baby!’) [so] the guilt runs strong for me too.”
I’d held back from posting photos myself, hesitant to share highlights of a kid-free weekend, worried I was rubbing my freedom in the noses of other dads, frazzled on Easter Sunday with their kids. One dad piped up and told me exactly what I needed to hear: “I don’t think anyone should feel guilty about posting anything here. This is something that should be celebrated.”
Another reminder on how important it is to open up, lean into the discomfort, and find an opportunity to learn more about yourself in the process. After all this time writing TNF I thought I’d have fully understood that lesson by now. Turns out I still have a way to go.
Might lose my jacket, and hit a solo*
We need more parents taking more time without their kids. Doing it together—enjoying life as a couple, and reconnecting with that pre-parent period, when life was easier. But time alone too—with space to figure out their own shit. I ended my solo spell with a series of unlocks on major professional and personal issues, some of which I’d been grappling with for months. All the problems needed was a little room to breath, along with the right input from the right person at exactly the right time.
So, let’s get into it. For those in the 41% who’d like to try this, but don’t know where to start, here are some thoughts from other dads who’ve done the same, along with a small caveat: whilst I endeavour to always make TNF relevant for all shapes and sizes of family, this advice probably works best for those cohabiting with a partner.
This won’t happen if you’re just waiting for it. So you’ll have to put yourself out there, and be intentional about making the change.
It can only work (and the guilt be navigated, for the many who clearly feel it) if both parents take the plunge. Dad needs to be able to take the kids on his own long enough that Mum can recharge too. And that’s not an easy hurdle to overcome. 7 days alone, looking after my two, was the most exhausting week of my life. But I was—without a sliver of a doubt—closer to them after it than before. My son, always one to go straight to mum with any “poopa” (a Spanish “ouchy”) would start coming to me a little more often (though still nowhere near as much.) My wife will be heading to London to see friends for a few days next month, and I’ll be holding down the fort. It won’t be easy. But I’m looking forward to what it brings. “I love the challenge of a solo weekend,” another dad shared, “it's exhausting, and difficult, but it deepens my bond with my daughter.”
Get talking. Be open and talk about your needs, and how you can make this happen. Forward this email to your significant other, and suggest they book some time away. Take your weekend with the kids first. Lead by example.
I’ll leave the last word to two dads in the community, sharing their own experience:
The biggest thing is to have an open, equitable chat about why you want to do it with your partner. At its best, it’s a wonderful gift to give each other. Felt like the ultimate life hack when we did it for the first time.
It's got to be a quid pro quo, and it needs to come from a place of honesty. Listen to each other's needs, and be patient with your partner if they're not open to it or think you're shirking. Offer to take the kids yourself first, or start small and build up to a night or two away. For us we're open about the fact that we can't look after our daughter, or each other, if we don't look after ourselves first.
3 things to read this week
“Three Parenting Lessons I Learned On Vacation With My Kids” by Melinda Wenner Moyer in Is My Kid The Asshole. I’m not the only one writing about vacation time this week. Melinda shared a trio of tales from her time away with the kids, including her child sniggering when the basketball score was 69, which initiated a conversation about oral sex in the middle of a diner. “After we finished talking, I reiterated to my kids that they should always feel welcome to come to us with questions about sex or other confusing topics. (Although I secretly hope that next time, it doesn’t happen in public.)”
“The Harsh Realm of ‘Gentle Parenting’” by Jessica Winter in The New Yorker. I’ve heard the term “gentle parenting” thrown around a lot lately, and it seems to occupy the same verbal liminal space that “metaverse” does—everyone seems to be using it, but no-one can align on what it means. This article is a good start. It also contains a wonderful anecdote about bonding with another parent over an sleep-procrastination obsession with “trawling Wikipedia, late at night, trying to find serial killers who had OK childhoods.”
“Is Communal Living the Future of Parenting?” by Sophie Brickman in The Guardian. A thought that keeps resurfacing with friends recently is how communities once came together after the birth of a child, how hard it is without them, and how we might bring elements of this to the present day. In this article, Brickman writes about Treehouse, “a family of neo-homesteaders in the vast city of Los Angeles” as she wonders “can you successfully construct community for young families, those members of society I believe are in desperate need of a literal village, but so often cut adrift from them in the modern world? And how, precisely, do you break that gargantuan task into a series of actionable directives?
TNF Book Club #2: See You Next Tuesday
You’re not alone if you saw this picture and thought “oh, we’ve got this kicking around the house, I should probably read that, one day.” And that one day never comes. Until now. We’re collectively going to read “The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did)” and get right into it next Tuesday (April 26th) at 9am ET / 3pm UK / 4pm EU. I’m about 20% through after one sitting, and am struck by the reflection of many themes covered in this newsletter, but from the perspective of an actual trained psychotherapist, not some guy bashing out newsletter from office a few evenings a week. tl;dr: Read this book, sort your shit out, and don’t pass it onto your kids.
So whether you’ve already got through it and have a point of view, or see this as the sign the universe is telling you to finally read it—and 5 days feels like a doable deadline for a 250 page book—join the community and we’ll see you next week. Hell, I’ll even knock the price of the book off your annual subscription.
Previously on The New Fatherhood
Last weekend I asked “Where do you look for guidance?”
“I read Brad Stulberg’s writing for simple advice on wellbeing and performance. I’m a fan of Cal Newport too, his book Deep Work has helped a lot and I’m experimenting with digital minimalism. The On Being podcast is such as source of wisdom, warmth and joy. The Ezra Klein Show mixes serious news and ‘life’, eg check out his interview with Johann Hari on ‘attention’” Michael
I think my dad is usually the first person I'll go to for any type of advice. It's part of the reason I've searched for dad resources from books, to friends, and even this newsletter; all an attempt to give me the sources to make myself a better dad and try to match mine. One extra resource I really like is the YouTube channel Dad how do I? The channel is a dad giving all sorts of basic how to advice about a wide range of topics that most people would imagine a dad would teach but may not have had that experience with their dad.” Thomas
“I don’t have any go-to online resources to share. Not (yet) parenting related but one thing I’ve tried to get more thoughtful about as I’ve gotten older is to try and see the value in advice that I’ve gotten that, at the time, didn’t seem that useful. There are a few instances where, in the moment, I was so wrapped around the axle on whatever issue I was dealing with that I’d dismiss a piece of advice only to come back to it years later and see it as a real gem.” Jim
“Public figure-wise, I've been listening to 'Sand Talk', written and narrated by Tyson Yunkaporta. The experience is changing the way I think and move through the world, which is in moments uncomfortable, and deeply nourishing. I am also finding The New Fatherhood a valuable resource, something to touch into, to feel connected to in different ways. I am grateful to you, Kevin, for doing this work and bringing us together.” Sean
Newsletter is late—possibly latest ever—due to the craziness of life on re-entry. Very much back to earth with a bang this week. Enjoy the weekend, however you’re planning to spend it. How was this week’s issue?
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