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The domestic affront of a father figure

Date

HECKLER

<em>Illustration: Caroline Adaszynski</em>

Illustration: Caroline Adaszynski

I'VE ALWAYS viewed myself as a reasonably competent bloke: a couple of university degrees; a 25-year career in financial services; a stint in London; local Scout leader; parent for 16 years to three children. Solid, dependable, trustworthy - or so I thought.

A recent overseas trip by my wife to attend a conference prompted a complete rethink of how I see myself and, more particularly, how society sees me.

My wife's two-week absence was the catalyst for a humanitarian mission worthy of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: meals offered; frozen food delivered; pick-ups arranged; sleepovers agreed; lunch orders organised; daily schedules typed; a whiteboard full of reminders, suggestions, appointments and just-in-case-you-forgets.

For two weeks my every step was foreshadowed in an intricate choreography of planning, scheduling, resourcing, execution and verification.

The schoolyard was filled with mothers' concerned looks and huddled whispers. ''That's him, that one there. He's looking after his children all by himself.'' Well, really. What was she thinking, leaving the children for that length of time with her husband? How are you coping?

Despite their concern, a number of mothers hissed at me that no one ever offered to help them when their partners were away. A fair enough point, but I was clearly going to be in the wrong, no matter the starting position. I quickly learnt to say little and quietly accept offers of help.

It was all quite confronting, really. After all these years can I not cook an egg, or tie a shoelace, or iron a uniform? Have I never helped with homework or brushed a daughter's hair or made lunches? Can I not start the washing machine or pack a school bag? Have I not read a bedtime story or bandaged a scraped knee? Of course I have.

Whatever the truth, society exhibited an unwritten and ruthlessly protectionist streak in safeguarding my children from their obviously incompetent father.

And so, I had to decide. Do I accept that I am, in fact, an idiot who cannot be trusted with his own children, or am I a fool for allowing others to run my household in my wife's absence?

The fortnight passed without incident and mother's return was heralded with a huge collective, societal sigh. Thank heavens she's back and the children have survived the ordeal.

The primal forces of parenting and motherhood are strong, so I have decided that while I may indeed be an idiot, I am no fool.

Matthew Brownlie

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