Mike Shallcross was brought up with the Celtic tradition of storytelling. Not only is he a brilliant storyteller himself, but it’s something his young boys (aged 4 and 7) are learning with great effect. He’s a veteran journalist who’s worked with Mixmag, GQ and is now the Deputy Editor of Men’s Health. He lives in London with his wife and two boys, aged seven and four. Read his work here and follow him on twitter — @Mike_MensHealth
What does it mean to be a dad?
I remember being a bit freaked out by it at first. You’d get more instructions if you went into a shop and bought something. I think it’s about constantly adapting. If you ever think you’ve mastered being a parent you should look out because it’s going to change. You’ve got to keep moving with it.
You also have to be very generous. Not with stuff, but with time. You have to be a little bit self-sacrificing. Kids want you to hangout with them, but you’re trained to think that kids want treats all the time. Obviously they’ll never turn that down, but they never ask for things as much as they ask for you. For their birthdays our boys will ask for Lego, I think that’s partly because I have to sit there and do it with them. Once a week on a Saturday night we have a movie. We make snacks for it, talk about what movie to watch, but a big part of it is us watching together. They enjoy it almost as much as when I read them a story, or better still make one up for them. I think you are the best thing you can give your kids.
“I think you are the best thing you can give your kids.”
You also have to be prepared to be unpopular sometimes when you’re drawing the line on something. It’s not easy because no matter how much you love them they are not your mates, but subconsciously that’s what they want you to do.
When they’re around three or four they start testing you to find out where the line is. Sometimes you have to try hard not to laugh at what they’ve done. I remember when I realised I had a standard riff for telling them off. Our eldest was about three, I was telling him off and I paused at the end. He looked at me really deadpan and whispered “now you say ‘is that clear’”. I just cracked up.
How has it changed your perspective?
I remember the birth of my first son really vividly. It was the best day of my life. It sounds soppy, but it really was. I suppose I’d always wanted to be a dad since I was a teenager, I wasn’t someone who went through an existential crisis about it. It was just something I wanted to do.
This sounds really wanky, but it was like a rebirth, it changed the way I looked at everything. It was a complete shift in priorities. I woke up the next day and immediately started thinking about what my wife and baby needed in hospital. It was a really profound thing, like the scales had dropped from my eyes.
“This sounds really wanky, but it was like a rebirth, it changed the way I looked at everything.”
I remember looking at my parents with a new found respect because they always make it look so effortless. I was the fourth out of five so they’d had a lot of experience. I know my mum gets a sense of schadenfreude when she sees me struggling and the kids are out of control. She finds it really funny, and has every right to!
How did it change your relationship with your partner?
That’s a difficult one because we got pregnant straight after getting married. You can’t stop and take stock of it.
I have noticed that for couples who are very, very into each other it can be really hard. My wife and I have always been into different things so there have always been points of difference. One of my friends is really close to his wife. They were best friends before being partners. I know he found it difficult having a kid because he felt his nose had been put out of joint.
What do you want to look back on and be proud of?
You have all sorts of ambitions for your kids, but I think you have to be realistic. Just getting them to be well-adjusted grown-ups is enough. If they grow up to be a lawyer, doctor, that’s fantastic, but it’s really about them being happy in themselves, being well adjusted. That’s the dream.
“Just getting them to be well adjusted grown-ups is enough.”
A little while before my first son was born, we had a 70th birthday party for my mum, the whole family went away, partners, kids and all that. I looked over at my mum and she was beaming, so happy and proud. She must have been thinking that everyone’s done something in their own way, there’s two lawyers, a doctor and teacher and no ones in jail. All my siblings have got socially useful jobs apart from me — I’m the journalist. We’re all happy and I think that’s what you hope for. Not everyone’s’ kids grow up lovely, it could be a huge sacrifice — what if you’ve given up all this time and they turn out to be a little scrote!
What’s tough about being a dad?
I always say there’s a lot of stuff in my life that’s happened in the wrong sequence. When I became a dad I got offered all these journo trips to go abroad. I had a boss who didn’t have kids who kept saying it’d be good for me to have a break, but I didn’t want to be away from them. I went away recently, spending two days away from my kids and I found it quite difficult.
People talk a lot about women’s careers taking the biggest hit, and they do by a long way, but as a bloke you can see opportunities closing down for you too. If you’re going to share the childcare, you both take a bit of a hit on your career.
On a magazine you can work some crazy hours. But I make sure I take my kids to school in the morning four days a week. It means that no matter how late I’ve worked in the evening, I’ve seen them once a day. It’s not easy because the mornings are about cajoling, hustling and shouting to getting them out the door. Although, as long as you’ve got enough time, once you’re out the door it’s great. You can have a really good chat with them in 10 minutes or so.
I’ll do long hours to keep weekends clear. I want to have that time with them. I believe you have to have these sort of red lines, even if you’re worried about them impacting on your career. No one has ever died saying ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office’ did they?
Discipline is tough. I do it, but I hate it. Particularly when you know they haven’t acted out of malice, but you have to go in hard to make sure they don’t do it again.
Once I had to get very draconian with my lad. I told him: no telly, no toys, all that. The only book he was allowed was his kids’ bible. I left him reading it in his room. When I went to see him half an hour later, he said he was reading his favourite story and he asked to read it to me. Naturally, it was The Prodigal Son. He reads it and the end it goes ‘the dad forgave the son and gave him a big hug.’ He looked at me and said ‘what do you think of that dad?’ I’m sitting there trying to take that in, trying to remain stern, all the time thinking that’s brilliant.
What keeps you on track?
I love the Oscar Wilde quote ‘life is simply a dreadful 15 minutes made up of exquisite moments’. Sometimes it just feels like I’m being propelled along by events. But I’m always looking out for things that will interest them, something we can talk about or do together. Sometimes the week is about just getting through, so you need something to look forward to, it makes it worth it.
One of the nice things about being a parent is you experience all their first times.
“You’ve seen the sea 300 times, but when you see it with a kid seeing it for the first time, you see it again in a different way.”
Kids are very genuine in a way that most adults you interact with aren’t. In the adult world, people have to play a role, but kids are just honest.
This post was previously published on What it means to be a dad and is republished here with permission from the author.
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Photo credit: David Willans