“The first conversation went: ‘oh my god, I’m fucking pregnant’. We’d been married two years.” Guardian columnist Tim Dowling on an unplanned pregnancy and the mind-numbing tedium of young children…
Guardian columnist, author and father-of-three Tim Dowling, 51, talks to Annie Ridout about fatherhood, marriage and what his wife really thinks about his column.
Tim Dowling on fatherhood, marriage and freelancing
You have three sons, aged 16, 17 and 20. Were children always part of the life plan?
Yes, I suppose so. But life plan… that’s the thing I didn’t have. I guess you just, in terms of imagining what will happen to you, think: I’ll have kids. In terms of ‘I’m going to have kids at this time’ – I didn’t plan to that extent, neither did my wife.
So how did you decide when to have kids?
The first conversation went: “oh my god, I’m fucking pregnant”. We’d been married two years. I can’t imagine when we’d have got round to it on purpose so I’m glad it happened then. The other two kids? Similar conversation. That’s not true.
In terms of preparation, I’d have liked to have been rich. As it turned out, I certainly wasn’t rich but I at least had a day job. I was doing data entry, working for a company compiling a giant film database in the weird days before the internet was a thing. A bit like IMDb.
When I finally became a full time freelance writer – that’s an oxymoron, isn’t it? – I was working from home, and having a very flexible schedule made a huge difference in that I was able to see my children growing up.
My wife wouldn’t consider me a ‘hands on father’ but I’m still here. I was always available; like a friendly neighbour, sitting upstairs, looking out the window.
How did you find the early years?
It was an incredibly testing time. As much as I enjoyed having small children, the stuff you weed out is how mind-numbingly tedious it can be. Especially if you’re itching to work but instead you’re doing a puzzle over and over with a two year old.
With the first one, you’re absolutely amazed by every stage of development; you can’t believe how rapid it is. With the second one you’re saying: keep up with your brother; start walking.
How long did you take off work with each of your children?
I didn’t have anything to take time off from. And we desperately needed money. With the first one, I had my day job, so must have taken a week off. But it was very 9-5, just down the road. With the other two, I was at home.
The hardest thing is the sleeping. You don’t sleep at all. But my wife and I both had a healthy attitude towards getting the other person to get up in the middle of the night.
I actually didn’t mind that as much as the next day when you couldn’t function and were meant to be doing stuff. Weekends I could cope – you sleep when you can – but it was dealing with work that was tough.
I still worry my column will be taken away every time the phone rings
I remember with the third baby, she sent me to the spare room and said I’ll deal with it – you sleep in there. I felt incredibly guilty. She stayed in our bedroom with our baby, so she was basically up all night on her own. I didn’t feel guilty enough to not do it though.
By that point, I was working more or less exclusively for the Guardian. It wasn’t hard to fit in with the school hours – if they want a piece, they want it by 3pm. Well, they used to, deadlines are getting earlier and earlier as far as I can tell – now they want it by lunchtime, so they can put it on the web.
In terms of day-to-day demands, I’m usually finished by 3.30pm and if I don’t need to do any parenting – which I don’t, now – I’ll do whatever reading or research I have lined up for the next day. Or sometimes I do nothing. Or put the tennis on. The temptations that surround you when you work from home are often too great.
Why did you become a writer?
Someone from GQ rang me out of the blue and said they wanted me to write about living off my girlfriend. They’d come up with the idea, then looked for someone who’d fit the bill. So I was slightly embarrassed but said yes. They liked it and asked me to do another.
I branched out, started writing for women’s mags, occasionally for newspapers. Just when I thought it was going well, the rope was pulled out from under me. GQ appointed a new editor, who got rid of me, then Janet Street Porter became editor of the Independent on Sunday – who I was writing three pieces a week for – and she axed all those items.
It was very scary. I thought I was done for; that I might have to go back to data entry, but it very slowly picked up. I wrote an article for the Guardian and they started using me more.
I still worry my column will be taken away every time the phone rings. They stop without warning but it’s been going eight years, so it’s had a good run. I’ve done 400 columns – if I can get to 500, I might put it to bed myself. But I have a sneaking feeling someone else will get in there sooner.
Your weekly column chronicles your marriage and various aspects of your sons’ lives; does it help – having this space to vent?
If I don’t write about something, I don’t think about it that deeply so it provides a period of reflection and a compendium of terrible mistakes I’ve made. It can be quite constructive. But I can’t stop making mistakes, as I need the money.
Other journalists, like Liz Jones, have lost marriages over writing about their partners, how do you get away with it?
I think she set out to lose the marriages. I sat next to her on a Mumsnet panel and she was very odd. Someone asked: do you regret anything you write, and she said: I regret everything. Then she went straight out and wrote a Daily Mail column slagging off the whole thing. She’s very guarded, also compelling and a little terrifying.
I’m blessed with a wife who really doesn’t care how she’s portrayed. She can attest to the accuracy – if I ever misquote her, she lets me know. But I think it requires a certain amount of tact and judgment.
When she gets really pissed off, it’s never about what I expect – and, in my opinion, it’s hugely irrational. But I don’t say that. If she asked me to stop, I’d have to stop there and then. So I’m doing it with her ongoing permission, which is constantly subject to review. She knows what’s at stake though; we’ve got a mortgage to pay.
There was the superdad who was on his way to work: sharply dressed, shiny shoes. You never see them in the afternoon but often in the mornings. Then some single dads who everyone loves. Obviously. Then there are people like me who nobody likes
In your book: How to Be a Husband, you say that you’re resigned to not being very good at childcare. Is that true?
I think one of the things that fathers learn quickly and that mothers struggle with is that it isn’t a contest – you don’t have to be good at it, you just have to do it. The school gates scene is very competitive, but as a man I don’t have to buy into it at all. I never took cupcakes.
I found it quite a harsh environment and I was grateful to be able to dip in and out without entering into the spirit of it. Parents are competitive about their children; they tutt if you’re late; very often, women are quite well dressed for what is basically a boring errand. But I’m not – and neither are my children, when I get them ready.
There was the superdad who was on his way to work: sharply dressed, shiny shoes. You never see them in the afternoon but often in the mornings. Then some single dads who everyone loves. Obviously. Then there are people like me who nobody likes.
I was almost always in a position to pick up but didn’t do it often unless there was something exciting going on – like the sex education film. They had to show it to parents to see if it was suitable for Year 6 kids, so I told my wife I’d go.
What tips do you have for surviving parenthood?
You have to develop your own strategies, because mother strategies don’t always work. If you can get one child out of the equation, that’s always helpful – swap with a neighbour, take the middle one’s friend and give away the youngest one for a Saturday.
Also, be very vague about where you’re going until you’re in the car. Just say that there will be ice cream at the end, and don’t mention the art gallery, or who you’re having lunch with.
I think how idyllic it was that we played outside all day but it was only because there was nothing good on TV
In what ways has fatherhood changed you?
It makes you very patient. It forces you. Because impatience has no effect on anything. As a strategy, among adults, your impatience might make people adjust their behaviour – kids don’t do that; they don’t give a shit that you’re irate.
What lessons do you hope you’ve taught your sons?
I try not to lead by example, wherever possible. I don’t want them to be like me. I try not to let them see me when I’m operating outside of my comfort zone. I put my best self forward but they see a lot of things I find shameful.
A lesson I try to impress on them is that there is a lot of success to be had from straightforward application and you shouldn’t worry too much about talent or aptitude. If you want to learn to do something, or be good at something, you probably can. Life requires a lot of patience. But they don’t listen to me.
I was a very withdrawn, shy child – and they’re not. I’m quite pleased it’s not contagious or genetic. I think they know that I’m the sort of person who has to psyche himself up to make a phone call.
You raised your sons in London, what was your upbringing like in the US?
It was very suburban. It was stricter than my kids’, but that’s because it was fifty years ago. I have two sisters and a brother and we were left alone a lot; we had a lot more freedom. I walked to school from the age of five.
I think how idyllic it was that we played outside all day but it was only because there was nothing good on TV. In fact, we were incredibly bored because there was so much less to do in the old days. I remember walking around town in winter, bored out of our skulls, looking for trouble.
My dad was a dentist. We lived in Connecticut, in a commuter belt suburb, and everyone else’s dads worked in New York, so took the 7am train. Like in Mad Men. My dad was raised in that town and had his own dental practice so in the summer he came home at lunchtime and took us to the beach to go swimming.
We were babysat a lot because my mother was a schoolteacher. When we were all born, she gave up teaching but later went back. She turned up as a substitute teacher once, when I was in fourth grade. I was horrified.
You’ve mentioned still feeling like you’re a foreigner – even after 25 years in the UK. Have you ever tried to move the family to America?
To be honest, I’d feel like a foreigner if I went back, at least initially. I’ve left so much of my life behind. I’m getting to the stage where I would have lived fully half my life in England. Also my wife definitely wouldn’t go. I’ve never suggested it, except to annoy her.
Lastly, what are you working on this morning?
I’ve actually been working on a book about fatherhood for the past year; a collection of Guardian columns that I’ve got to write around. I’m finding it very difficult to go back over old material and find any value in it. It will be called something like How to Be a Father.
Tim Dowling on Twitter: @IAmTimDowling
(This interview was originally published on Boxing Day 2015)