When Tatum O’Neal told John McEnroe that she was pregnant with their second child, his response was decidedly underwhelming. “There goes 1987,” he replied.
At the time, the couple’s first son was barely seven months old, so McEnroe was grimly aware that small kids divert a ton of attention and energy away from your primary focus. In McEnroe’s case, that was trying to stop a relentless Ivan Lendl from hoovering up even more Grand Slams.
Many years later, McEnroe expanded on the challenge that fatherhood can pose for professional sportsmen. “There’s no tougher opponent than kids,” he said. “When you try to juggle that, try to spend the time necessary to be the best player in the world and be a great father and husband, it gets more complicated.”
Essentially, this is the frantic juggling act between family and career that any working parent faces. McEnroe was acknowledging an inconvenient truth: the hurly-burly of early parenthood often dulls your professional edge.
“My first child was at 27,” McEnroe explained. “And I don’t remember a whole lot of major wins from 27 on.”
Professional athletes, after all, reach their elite level not just by dint of pure talent but through single-minded focus. Routine, meticulous preparation and plenty of rest are a necessity on the pro circuit if a player is going to perform at their peak. Career-wise, having children is therefore a momentous curveball.
Fortunately, sportsmen are generally pretty good at dealing with balls no matter their angle of trajectory. Indeed, most professionals continue to maintain their sky-high standards after having kids. McEnroe’s words on the disruptive impact of children came when he was asked to comment on Roger Federer’s impending fatherhood. The Swiss player appears to have coasted through fatherhood – two sets of twins no less – with the same effortless grace that he rifles away his backhand winners. As a dad, Federer has gone on to win another five Grand Slams to bring his overall tally to 20.
Yet there’s no denying that top-level sportsmen are unusually well-placed to deal with the demands of small kids as they’re more likely to have financial muscle to get help with the domestic grind. Take the Premier League footballer James Milner, for example. The night before every home game, the Liverpool veteran and father of two, checks himself into a hotel because he believes it helps him to get “a good night’s sleep and then wake up the next day with a routine I’m used to, with no distractions whatsoever.” Suffice to say, if the average dad attempted that same trick before a client presentation, it probably wouldn’t go down so well with his partner.
I’ve interviewed a bunch of sporting dads over the years and while they invariably gush about the joys of fatherhood, they also acknowledge that it forced a change of tack. “Becoming a dad was a shock,” Tim Cahill told me. “Before that I was just eat, sleep and focus on football. Suddenly we had this little man, this little king! I now had serious responsibilities and football started to come second.”
Once again, this is clear-eyed recognition that, during that early blur of parenthood, your professional focus is compromised. This was borne out by research from the Pew Research Centre in which 43% of dads admitted they didn’t feel like they can give 100% at work after having children (51% of mothers said the same).
This almost certainly has some impact on workplace productivity in the short-term at least. Longer-term, it affects staff retention. A lot of working parents start looking for alternative employment after kids or a job that’s a better fit for their new circumstances (I know that I did). Studies again suggest that men often struggle to reconcile their two roles without much help at work. According to one survey, 73 per cent of US working fathers say there is little workplace support for fathers.
Reflecting on my own experience of managing a small team, I was as guilty of this as anyone before I had kids myself. When the 20-something designer on the magazine I was editing became a dad, I responded in probably the same half-arsed way that bosses have for time immemorial. I congratulated him with a fancy(ish) bottle of booze and waved him off on his two weeks’ of parental leave.
When I consider the situation now, I realise that this new dad – I’ll call him Nick – was struggling a bit at the time. His infant son didn’t sleep through the night until he was 18 months old and Nick started to look noticeably exhausted and dishevelled. Luckily, he had the raw talent that his work remained solid, but he was clearly operating way below his optimal levels.
Unfortunately, having not yet stumbled through the same sleep-deprived blur myself, I didn’t offer any extra support. His direct line manager – who had three kids of his own – recognised Nick’s plight too, but was curiously unmoved. He spoke of it as a paternal rite-of-passage to be endured, noting that his own family had been forced to manage alone.
In retrospect, what followed was hardly surprising. Within a year, Nick quit and the rest of the team was gutted. He was an excellent designer, a committed team player and, most importantly, a cracking bloke.
Writing this story I actually gave Nick a buzz to check in and offer a belated apology. Gallantly, he shrugged it off. “It doesn’t really make sense before you go through it as a dad yourself,” he admitted. But he also conceded that part of his reason for leaving had been to find “an easier option that was more sustainable”.
Interestingly, Nick had just had another kid two months ago, so I asked him how the experience had been this time around with his current employer. His reply was accidentally chastening. “They’ve been very flexible and accommodating,” he said.
I’d like to think I was a more supportive boss with new parents after I had kids myself. But you shouldn’t require lived experience to be an empathetic boss. What should you do then when there’s a new dad in your workplace? Nick’s point about being “flexible and accommodating” is certainly a good place to start. Retaining your top workers is rarely easy, but you can at least avoid sabotaging your efforts.