Being Dads: David Willans on his fatherhood project

What does it mean to be a father in 2015? Once thought to be the providers of food and shelter, rather than hands-on with the kids, the father’s role is changing. We speak to David Willans about being a dad…

David Willans is a director at OgilvyEarth, helping brands with sustainability, the founder of Being Dads – an online series of interviews with dads about their experience of fatherhood – and a father himself. He lives in east London with his wife and their two sons, aged four and six

“The idea for Being Dads came to me one morning when I was trying to get my kids out the house to school and nursery. We were late after a broken night’s sleep, I had a big work meeting on that morning, the kids were taking an age to get their shoes on and I ended up really shouting at them.

Finally we got out the door and they scooted off happily. When kids change their environment, particularly when they get outside, they’re so good at leaving whatever’s just happened behind and enjoying the moment they’re in. Adults are crap at that, so inside I was stressed and seething. But I caught myself and realised what had just happened.

In that moment I was an angry dad. That’s something I never, ever wanted to be. Then I asked myself what kind of dad do I want to be and realised I had no frame of reference, no role models other than my own dad who is brilliant, but things are different today than when I was a kid.
So I thought I’d figure out what it means to be a dad. I’m a strategist by trade, which basically means I ask a lot of questions. I think really hard about what’s going on, acknowledge emotional bias and work out how to get to where I want to go.

With Being a Dad, I know that there isn’t one definition – each situation is different. So the answer to the question: “what does it mean to be a great dad?” isn’t objective, it’s subjective – dictated by our own personal values and situations.

But the job of being a dad – developing and deepening the relationship between parent and child, supporting them to grow into a well-rounded person and equipping them to deal with the world – is broadly similar. Yes, there are many contextual changes, but there will be some principles that underpin it.

I had my approach, but I know I’m not the only dad wrestling with wanting to fulfill a role that, let’s be honest, in terms of our culture is pretty shallow and ill-defined.

Being a dad can be a fuck of a to-do list if you let it. So don’t

The concept of motherhood is really deep in our cultural history – the concept of fatherhood far less so, especially in terms of being a really involved dad. So I thought I’d put my exploration out into the world and hoping it might help other men too.

It’s not something men talk about much, perhaps because it’s quite emotional, perhaps because it’s not really the ‘done thing’. You do the NCT dads pub nights thing, which is great, but the conversation very quickly moves onto work, sport, banter.

That’s probably because for the firstborn, the majority of men have no expectations; it’s a total unknown. Women’s bodies changes, they get tired a lot. We support them as much as we can, but can’t empathise with them because it’s so alien to us.

We’re on the sofa at 9pm, partner in bed, thinking “something big is coming, but I have no idea what.” You try and read about it, but it’s such a big change you just can’t relate to what other men are saying.

As I realised, the cultural narrative of the father role is pretty one-dimensional. Lots of the dads I’ve interviewed have told me that they’ve never talked about being a dad: what it means, what’s hard, what they’ve learnt – in the depth that we do in the interviews. They’ve said it’s helped them understand themselves and their parenting much better.

Fatherhood, for me, has been the hardest, most rewarding, unexpected, fulfilling and meaningful journey I’ve had in my 35 years on earth. I’ve experienced a depth of love I didn’t know existed. I’ve stretched my mind and body beyond what I thought was possible and still functioned (sleep deprivation!).

Victkor Frankel, a Jewish psychologist who survived the holocaust, said one of the ways humans find meaning through suffering. Parenting is a form of suffering. I had an immense sense of gratitude and guilt towards my parents when I became a dad, because I realised how much they loved me and how hard I’d made their lives.

I think that ‘getting out the house’ moment, when I was someone I never wanted to be, gave me a purpose which is manifested in the blog. It sounds a bit grand, and I don’t give the blog – in analytics, SEO etc – the attention it needs, but I do think it’s given me something bigger to pursue.

I wrote a blog about a piece of research that found that the number one factor in the definition of what it means to be a man is providing for his family. The research found that’s been consistent for 20 years. I think that definition refers to financial provision, not emotional provision.

We need to be broadening that definition of provision out to mean far more than it currently does. To do that, we need more father role models who talk and are talked about in the context of being a dad. Not just a single story of a footballer, celebrity, businessman, musician, entrepreneur who’s just had a kid. We need the media to ask them about fatherhood, alongside their career.
One of the guys I interviewed, together with his wife, chose to invest years of his life in building a business that would set them up for life. He spent a few weekends with his kids a month – that was it. Thankfully it worked and he’s really well set up now. But for him it was never a question of ‘if’ he would do this, it was always ‘when’.

He felt it was better to do that while they were young, because he’d be able to give them much more when they were older. He’s really honest and says he’ll never know if that was the right decision, but he chose it.

For me that choice is crucial, because we all have things in life we want to achieve. With kids it means you need to focus more and be really careful about where you spend your time. As another dad I interviewed said “why spend all your time working to provide for a family you never see?”.

One incredibly wise man I interviewed, who’s got four kids with two different partners and has weathered huge ups and downs in his life, said “being a dad can be a fuck of a to-do list if you let it. So don’t.”

As someone who is very self-critical and constantly thinking I should be doing more, this really struck home. Most of my experiments with my own lifestyle – getting up before everyone else, doing tai chi, daily dad-reflection time, checking myself and lots more – have all stemmed from this thought: it’s all on you.

Jonathan Thomas, an amazing guy who’s designed his life to create the conditions for his kids to live a full life, said: “It didn’t hit home until the death of my father. He was my role model. I’d go to him whenever I had a problem that was philosophically tricky and we’d chew the fat. I can’t do that anymore. It’s all on me now.”