Paul Morgan-Bentley, Head of Investigations at The Times and Dad to two year-old Solly, is an expert in in-depth reporting and undercover work. Recognized for his outstanding work in campaigning journalism, he has won The Cudlipp Award at the National Press Awards and is one of the most frequently shortlisted writers for the British Journalism Awards.
His latest book, The Equal Parent, explores how gender stereotypes impact parenting. Calling for a ‘childcare revolution’, Paul questions the expectations that we place on fathers and their roles within the family unit. We caught up with him to find out more….
Tell us about your new book
My new book, The Equal Parent, is all about the importance of finding ways to share the load as parents. Great childcare is obviously amazing for parents – it frees us to do other important things in life after having children, as well as being with our families.
How important is great childcare to happy parents and happy kids?
There is some really interesting research now about how, actually, it is also great for children when they have a few different regular caregivers – whether that be another parent, grandparents, other family, nursery teachers, nannies or a high-quality babysitter. It seems to lead to them feeling more secure in different environments and understanding that different people have different perspectives and different ways of doing things. These are crucial skills that underpin their future relationships.
How do you use Bubble?
Two years ago we moved from London to Buckinghamshire and did not know anyone local who could babysit. We signed up to Bubble and it has been incredible for us. We generally use it for babysitters in the evenings, if we want to go out for dinner or to the cinema. But we have also booked one of the babysitters – who is also a nanny – for full days looking after our two year old son, Solly, when usual childcare arrangements have fallen through.
How has Bubble helped since becoming a Dad?
It is so rare as new parents to have time just for yourselves, as individuals or as a couple. Since moving home, Bubble has allowed us to go to the cinema regularly – something we love to do – and have relaxed late dinners in restaurants. We quickly felt at ease trusting the Bubble sitters because it was so easy to see all the recommendations from other members. Our home move would have been so much harder without Bubble.
What’s been the biggest challenges you’ve faced since becoming a dad?
The responsibility is all-consuming. I found it really hard when my son was about 18 months old and running around, but not fully stable. We would go to friends’ houses and I could never really relax, always half looking over their heads to make sure he hadn’t smashed into a wall or fallen down the stairs. Weekends can be wonderful but also exhausting, much more so than work at times. That’s why high-quality childcare is so important – it allows you to have those moments to ease your mind a bit and let go.
Your job sounds pretty full on – how do you balance work and family life?
My husband, Robin, and I totally rely on each other. We try really hard to split the responsibilities of parenting as equally as possible. That doesn’t mean we do 50/50 of everything every day. When I have intense periods at work – when I am undercover, or in the days around publication of an investigation – Robin has to take on more of the load. But then I make up for it on other weeks when he is abroad for work, or in the office a lot, and have to be clear with colleagues that I have to work flexibly around nursery runs and bedtimes. Robin and I both sacrifice a bit, and so we both gain a bit as well.
Your job involves uncovering real hardship and deals with very sensitive situations – has becoming a parent changed your perspective on things at all, or changed the way you view and do your work?
I have much less time to worry at work than I used to. If I have an idea, I go for it and don’t have anywhere near as much time to overthink what the response might be like I might have done a few years ago. Parenting is a good distraction from work, in some ways. You can’t spend all morning stressing about whether or not a decision you made was the right one, or whether or not you are courageous enough to tackle a sensitive subject, you have to trust your gut. Because you are too busy dealing with the bag for school, getting your kid dressed and fed, getting yourself dressed and fed, getting the wash on, getting them out the door, and all the other stuff of parenting….
Your book explores and questions why fathers are almost auto-demoted when it comes to taking responsibility for their kids (compared to mothers) – do you think this has impacted how much childcare dads tend to take on?
While we rightly strive for equality at work, there is this really annoying and patronising tendency for institutions and people to expect dads to be pretty useless at home and incapable of being primary parents in the way mothers can be.
As new dads, my husband and I saw this everywhere – from NHS websites, to staff at vaccination appointments being shocked to see a man with a baby, to other people praising us like heroes for doing the most basic things like picking up prescriptions for our son. It is really damaging and plays into the idea that men cannot and shouldn’t be caring. It’s nonsense.
Science now shows us that men are just as capable as women of being highly responsive and caring parents. For example, fathers’ levels of oxytocin – the bonding hormone – often soon rise to the same levels as new mothers’, as long as they are committed and properly involved with caring for their children.
There has also been really interesting research that has tried to answer the question about whether mothers have a special parenting instinct. By scanning new parents’ brains, scientists have found that when a baby has a mother and a father, the mother usually feels more urgency and panic in responding to their baby crying. Something changes in her brain to cause this. Her mother’s instinct is biological.
However, when a baby has two gay fathers (like in my family) the men can respond in the same way mothers do to their babies. Their brains change like new mothers’ brains. Gay men do not have a special superpower! This hyper-alertness – the supposed mother’s instinct – is actually not to do with sex, but about our bodies responding to the terror that comes with having proper responsibility.
What’s your best bit of advice to new dads out there?
If there is one clear thing I have learned through trying to parent equally and in writing The Equal Parent, it is that the key is having individual one-on-one time looking after your children. You only feel the full weight of primary responsibility when the buck stops with you.
For dads, this could be through taking an extended period of independent parental leave – when the other parent has gone back to work – but could also be at any point during the week, at weekends, or during holidays.
The important thing for dads is having times when they are doing things their own way – coming up with the schedule for the day, overseeing weaning, packing the baby’s bag – making their own mistakes and gaining confidence in their own parenting techniques, rather than just helping out the mother sometimes, or responding to instructions.
If you do not trust your partner enough to believe, deep down, that they can cope on their own for a period of parental leave, it seems unlikely that you will share the responsibility fully in the long run. If, on a rare night out, you are checking your phone every half an hour to make sure they have successfully got the children to sleep, you are probably still carrying around most of the mental load. If your partner is calling you when you are at the office because they do not know how to pack the kids’ school bags on their own, they are probably not sharing the stresses of parenting equally. Of course, this is all down to what people really want. You have to be committed to parenting equally to truly let go in these moments.
The Equal Parent by Paul Morgan-Bentley, published by Thread, is available to order here.