Freelance Fatherhood: Gifting our children with presence.
WE CELEBRATE FOUR FREELANCING FATHERS.
March 8, 2018
‘Are you doing anything dad?’
‘Well, yeah, I’ve got work to do’
‘Could you just help me clear the house, I’ve got to give the keys to the estate agent?’
Simon Parrott, freelance creative director and Hoxby, has just got back from clearing that house. “I was lugging about boxes an hour ago and clearing out kitchens, which you wouldn’t be able to do in an office job,” he tells me. “Being a son with a freelancing father he thinks that I can just drop everything at the last minute. And the truth is, I can. The beauty with Hoxby, with being a freelancer, is that I can shuffle a few things around and be there for him. That is the type of thing that I have learnt over the years that you cannot put a price on and that you just can’t do if you have a full-time job.”
Simon and his sons.
As a father these moments are the gifts of the freelance life, and especially the Hoxby life. They are gifts that business transformation specialist Andy Williams will not compromise on. Andy got a taste for remote working – and by extension freelance life – under a progressive boss in his last full-time job before joining Hoxby. But then the rug was whipped from under his feet.
“I would come in a couple of days a week and try and work from home as much as possible,” he explains. “Then we had a change in management and it suddenly became, ‘If I don’t see you you’re not in my plans’, which was really sad.
“I went from being a rising star who loved the flexibility my job provided to sitting on the bench and growing disillusioned. Just because I wasn’t there and was working from home a little bit. I then had to be going in to the office quite a lot. It may have been good for my career but I wasn’t seeing the family, the kids. It’s a long old day and so I didn’t really ever want to go back to that.”
Leo Crane hadn’t yet become a freelancing father when he realised like Andy that an all-consuming career, even it was the dream one, meant compromising on the things in life that bring you the greatest joy. “I was never in a position where work was taking me away from family,” says Leo, “but I was in a position where I knew that I wanted a family but I was finding it very difficult to imagine how that could be possible.”
Leo was working in fundraising for the V&A Museum and his job was a whirl of international travel, a lot of dinners and parties and networking. “I would do a day in the office and then inevitably once or twice a week there would be an event as well and I would need to be back in the office at 9am the next morning. And then once a month I would be travelling somewhere for a week or so. It was great, it was my dream job and then you realise what that actually means and what it is taking out of you bit by bit and it is quite a hard thing to admit.”
Leo took a long look at his life and particularly the balance, or lack of it, and admitted to himself that something needed to be done. “I made the change and that opened me up to the possibility that actually this can happen now.”
And reader, it did.
“I made the change and I met my husband, who had a kid and it didn’t scare me that he had a kid, which it probably would have done before.”
Matthew Fearon, Hoxby and freelance copywriter, can well identify with the difficulty Leo experienced when facing up to the effects a dream job can have on the rest of your life. Matthew was the Digital Editor of The Sunday Times when he swapped a life of newscopy to become a stay-at-home dad at the start of 2017.
Matthew and his daughter
“I had always wanted to be a journalist and I had always wanted to work at The Sunday Times,” says Matthew. “I had quit being a cricket writer when my daughter was born, just before the 2013 Ashes, because the constant travel and months and months away from her just weren’t compatible with being the dad I wanted to be.”
As desk jobs go in the industry Matthew thought he had it made. “It had been a real wrench giving up the cricket gig, I followed the sun and I got paid for watching sport, but finding a job I loved in journalism minus the travel was the next best thing. The irony was that I ended up becoming completely lost within the role and stopped being present for my daughter in many different ways.”
Simon, Andy, Leo and Matthew, the four apostles of Hoxby life and fatherhood. Although they all became dads at different times and in different circumstances, their stories contain a binding thread of similarity: they became better and more fulfilled fathers when they stepped away from the world of of full-time work.
Andy used to leave his daughters behind for the commute to London nearly every morning. Not any more, not since becoming a Hoxby. “My eldest always jokes when I put a shirt on, ’Oh, are you going to London today?’ And when I do go to London, she’s full of groans, she associates it with a long ‘not-going-to-see-me day’.”
The beautiful thing now for Andy though is that those days are the exception and not the rule. Now the rule is the school walk every day with Eleni, Andy’s eldest, who started school last September. “We walk down across a field, go over a little train track – making sure we don’t get run over – go through a gate, past some sheep, past the pub and then we’re at the school. It’s just a really cool way to start the day. I can be back and working for 9.15am and then I pick her up at four o’clock each day.”
Andy and his wife have added another daughter to the family since moving out of London. “I’ve got a 19-month-old as well who goes to nursery. So today, just to showcase the wonder of Hoxby, I will pick them both up and then we have a bit of playing time before Mum gets home. It’s definitely a better way of working. Sometimes it is slightly stressful because of the time thing, needing to squeeze everything in. But really it’s all good. At the end of the week when I look at it all, I am happy with my lot rather than being stressed. It is a lovely way of working.”
For Simon’s eldest, having a freelancer for a father often meant more than just a walk through the village. “I was doing a lot of work for Nokia at the time and if people said to me that they wanted me to go to Finland I would say, ‘yeah, but you’ve got to buy a ticket for my son too.’ So he’d come with me and he’d stay in the office, it was just me and him. He would walk around the office drawing pictures of people and fall asleep on the sofa if I was working late in the office.”
That boy is now a 27-year-old man and is packing up (with the help of Dad) to move to China for the next two years. Simon thinks he must have caught the bug during all those freelance trips.
“He travelled to so many countries before his 15th birthday and that’s followed on through his own work and the travel that he does now. He’s self-taught as a cameraman and editor and hopefully some of things he’s seen me do over the years have rubbed off on him. Anywhere there’s a war or a trouble spot he gets sent over to film it. I say, ‘Isn’t that dangerous?’ ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, it is but I’m with other people.’
“It makes me proud that he can be out there and do that and not be phased by it. I always want to make sure my kids are not scared of life. And if he does decide to come back and meet a nice girl and live in the Cotswolds then at least he’s had those opportunities rather than looking out the window thinking, ‘Was there more to life?’”
It was the realisation that there was more to life than fundraising dinners in far-flung places that opened Leo up to the possibility of fatherhood. The glitz has been left behind but life as a freelancer and a Hoxby creates the space for the truly important and life-changing. As if to perfectly illustrate the benefits of the workstyle movement, six minutes into our conversation Leo takes a call from his husband.
“That was Roy to say that drop-off had gone okay today. It’s a little bit complex. Our son was adopted aged four after being abandoned by his birth mother. So most of my introduction to fatherhood is creating attachment bonds with someone who finds attachment very difficult.”
“Above everything our son doesn’t want toys, what he wants is time. And so the more time we can spend together as a family the better. He doesn’t take to after-school clubs or babysitters or anything like that. So we took the decision that the best thing was for us to do all the childcare ourselves between us. And we’re fortunate that we’re a couple and that we can split that responsibility.
“The school day is 8.45am to 2.45pm, it’s about an hour’s commute either end so one of us is doing a half day every day. If I’m going to work effectively, I need to be able to use the weekends to do it. So Hoxby and the flexible workstyle is critical to being able to work and maintain the kind of family life that I find myself in.
“Our son had been fine but, like everyone, you go through phases in how you interpret and react to things. He was in a phase where he needed us closer to him than the school day would allow so that made his old school untenable. This is his first week at a specialist school and we’re now transitioning into what we think will be a much more secure place for him. At the very least they have many more staff: there are seven people in his class as opposed to 30 and there are therapists as part of the school staff as well so if something does go wrong they can handle it and we don’t have to drop everything and come running, which isn’t a solution because most of the time we’re there thinking, ‘now what do we do? We’re not trained in that arena at all!’”
Leo with his son (photo credit: Paul Grace)
It may not have been a solution but at least Hoxby affords parents the flexibility – not to mention or underestimate the understanding of fellow Hoxbys – to be there when the phone rings and it’s school on the other end of the line. “It was when I had to go and collect my daughter Amaryllis early from pre-school the other day that I first tasted the positive effects being a Hoxby has on fatherhood,” says Matthew. “I could alter my status in Slack, shut down my laptop and indulge in some sofa cuddles, safe in the knowledge that I could return to my work after bedtime and that no one would judge me.
“I have been so lucky to be a stay-at-home dad for all of 2017 and then to discover Hoxby, which so far has given me the best of both the world of work and the world of fatherhood. I was watching Hook with Amaryllis just before Christmas – we’re both pretty keen movie buffs (taking Amaryllis out of pre-school to watch Coco or Early Man is one of my favourite Hoxby-influenced treats) – and there is a line where the grown-up Peter Pan’s wife says to him: ‘Your children love you, they want to play with you. How long do you think that lasts? Soon Jack may not even want you to come to his games. We have a few special years with our children, when they’re the ones that want us around. After that you’re going to be running after them for a bit of attention. It’s so fast Peter. It’s a few years, and it’s over. And you are not being careful. And you are missing it.’
“Forget about shared paternity leave in the first year of your child’s life, it should be mandatory for fathers to take at least six months to look after your child between 18 months and four years old. It would achieve two massive benefits to society and to the workforce: it would forge deep bonds between a child and its father that in so many cases are absent, as Moira says to Peter, we are in ‘real danger of missing it’; and it would drastically increase workplace empathy for the incredible roles working mothers play – and the sacrifices they make and risks they take – so often in the face of inflexible regressive attitudes.
“Things are changing but after a year as a stay-at-home dad my anecdotal evidence is that change is happening at a glacial pace: I was the only dad at coffee mornings; I was the only dad at the PTA meeting; I was the only dad who did volunteer stay-and-play.”
That was an experience shared by Andy, “I think there is a stigma still around stay-at-home fathers. I’d say most dads would want to play a larger role in childcare but unless they have the luxury of being self-employed and successful then it can’t really work because the traditional model doesn’t really allow for that flexibility.” As if to emphasise Matthew’s point about the strengthening of bonds Andy continues, “There was a time when I was working on loads of projects at work and I didn’t feel that connected with Sophia, my youngest. Then I was made redundant and the unexpected bonus was that during that time off I spent six weeks with just me and her and it was really cool and now we have a really strong bond.”
Andy with his daughters.
To be there when a kitchen needs packing up; to walk your daughter to school…every day; to pick your son up when a crisis comes a-calling in the middle of the day; to watch a weekday morning showing of the latest Aardman Animation. These are the gifts of freelance fatherhood that Hoxby allows us to unwrap every day.
Matthew has spent over a decade as a journalist for some of Fleet Street’s finest and not so finest titles, including The Sunday Times, The Independent, The Sun and The Daily Mail. Matthew’s last job before joining Hoxby as a copywriter was as digital editor of The Sunday Times, where he was previously an award-winning digital sport editor.