I know why a record number of Londoners moved out of the capital last year – more than 300,000, according to figures just published – joining an exodus to the countryside. After all, we did it, inspired by a different life for our young family. It’s not difficult to understand; we parents are biologically programmed to want the best, free-range lives for their children.
But what this new figure hides, however, is the growing army of people who live in the sticks and work in London “Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday”. I’ll leave you to work out the acronym…
Rather than opt for the relative security of the Surrey commuter belt, we had our heart set on Somerset – more affordable, and with great schools and green, rolling hills.
My husband’s job as a solicitor allowed him to work from home for part of the week; I breezily reasoned that, as a writer and brand consultant, I could, in theory, work anywhere with a broadband connection and a laptop, so one of us would always be on hand for the school run, walking the dog and the general running of the household. Simple.
With good legal jobs not being terribly plentiful in south Somerset, Andrew would be the one making the biggest sacrifice, commuting to London early on Tuesday, coming home on Thursday.
We told ourselves that this would be no different to those husbands who arrived home late from a hard day at the office – just with a longer train ride at either end. And he’d have two nights a week to paint the town red with whomever he chose, as well as two nights off from small children climbing over you at three o’clock in the morning. What more could he want?
We left the capital confident that we were doing the best thing for our young family. And it has been a success – it’s wonderful having a garden, more space and the children are happy at their school set in acres of green pasture. But, like any major life change, there have been a few downsides. On paper, the nights apart would ideally be a welcome rest – for him, a break from any nagging, and for me a chance to catch up on Netflix box sets where I can eat salad or ice cream for supper.
The reality can sometimes be a little different.
A difficult day can feel worse when you’ve got no one but a mournful Labrador to talk to. FaceTime is a great, long-distance connector, but it doesn’t always work when we’re on conflicting schedules. I feel a guilty wrench when he’s 200 miles away and patently missing us all. It can take time to get back into a routine, especially after holidays, when we’ve had a few weeks to get used to being a full-time family-of-four under one roof.
Harry Benson, research director of the Marriage Foundation and co-author of What Mums Want (And Dads Need To Know), is unapologetic in pointing out that there isn’t any evidence to show that time apart is harmful to family life: “It’s horses for courses. Some families will thrive and others won’t.” He uses the extreme example of military marriages to make the point that time apart isn’t necessarily an issue, particularly when technology is such an enabler for families to stay in touch.
He is adamant, perhaps rather unfashionably, that fathers need to step up in terms of being attentive, even when they are away part of the time. “Somebody has to look after the relationship. If you think both of you are equally responsible, then nobody will be. But if the husband can see that his first task is to love his wife – whose eyes have now shifted down to their baby – then she can love him right back. In that order. It takes one to lead.”
The emotional and physical disconnecting and re-connecting each and every week can be exhausting; we’re not always in sync with one another. It’s tempting to throw the Aga oven gloves at Andrew when he walks in the door at 8pm on a Thursday night. We do try to have a meal together to talk about what has been going on. But, truthfully, half the time I’m so tired, I can’t even remember what I had for lunch.
Jennie Miller, co-author of Boundaries: How to Draw the Line in Your Head, Heart and Home (Curtis Brown), points out that the competitive aspect of who has the hardest life can escalate. “It’s easy for the one who is working from home, jiggling the house and children to become resentful, thinking: ‘All you have to do is your job.’ But, equally, the other partner might not be entirely happy being away from the family home.”
Both Benson and Miller emphasise the need to prioritise adult time together alone. “Unlike any other, this generation are incredibly focussed on their children,” says Jennie. “It’s the not-doing-very-much-together that is the key”
Her advice? Put down a boundary around family time – cancel the kids’ parties and swimming lessons and enjoy the weekend.
Be intentional about putting relationships first, says Benson: “Converse with one another intimately. Discuss your hopes, fears, dreams and worries.”
Which pretty much covers everything.