You’ll have seen the old clip already. Professor Robert Kelly is being interviewed live on BBC News about South Korean politics. Mid-sentence, just as he’s delivering hard-headed analysis on foreign policy, his daughter bustles in with the lunatic swagger of a typical four-year old. Manfully, the professor attempts to regain his composure and focus on the geopolitical matter at hand. That works for, ooh, maybe a millisecond. Until his nine-month-old son steams in on a walker, followed by Kelly’s lunging wife in hot pursuit.
The video went super-viral for good reason. Here was the slapstick reality of trying to keep a lid on the domestic carnage of parenthood, while maintaining a professional veneer (think mission impossible in a puke-stained business suit).
Worldwide interest in the Kelly family soon cranked up to fever pitch. The kindergarten of his daughter was even forced to deploy a security guard in order to protect her. Carpet-bombed with interview requests, the family was eventually moved to come out with a formal press release.
Reading it now, certain lines feel prophetic in the context of our Covid-19 lockdown. They reveal some of the anxieties that any parent trying to work from home currently wrestle with. “We are just a regular family, and raising two young children can be a lot of work,” Kelly says with heavy understatement.
What then follows is an understandably fawning message of thanks to the BBC for their “gentle and tactful treatment”, “professionalism” and “kindness”. Reading between the lines, you feel like Kelly is begging here for another chance: “Don’t hold this against me,” he seems to plead. “It won’t happen again! Please don’t kill this opportunity of international exposure.”
Because despite the warm-hearted reception of the clip, Kelly’s family was genuinely worried about the fallout. “We were mortified,” he admitted. “We assumed that no television network would ever call me again to speak.”
That mortification came from the fact that this video lifted the kimono on the reality of any working dad’s life. The desperate plate-spinning act between work and home was brazenly exposed.
Men, in particular, have traditionally maintained the illusion that these two worlds are separate entities. Perhaps it’s because we fear that allowing the domestic to encroach upon the professional suggests a lack of vocational commitment. Or the fact that our public identities – for better or, let’s face it, worse – are invariably defined by our places of work.
At any rate, under Covid-19 we are all BBC Dad right now. The reality of working from home with small kids is that interruptions are inevitable. Whether you’re trying to get work done on a shift basis after fractious negotiations with your partner or guiltily using Bluey as stand-in babysitter, there’s no way to escape. Desperate times call for desperate measures. This morning, when my wife gently questioned her brother’s decision to buy his eight-year-son, Fortnite, he replied his an exhausted sigh. “In the current scenario, take the recommended age-rating and halve it.”
The bottom line: however inventive your distractions, at some stage your video meeting will be gate-crashed by a marauding toddler. And the single biggest take-home? No one really seems to mind.
In fact, breaking down these barriers could be a good thing. Hopefully, it’ll nudge employers into recognising the duality of roles that the working parent is forced to juggle, something that’s definitely been missing when it comes to men.
A few years back when I was a magazine editor, one of my writers asked to reduce his shifts to four days a week. With two young children and a wife studying to become an anaesthetist, he needed an extra day off to look after the kids. While I was fine with that, I had to run it past my boss and I still recall her response. “But why does he need to do that?” she repeated.
I had to detail this guy’s domestic scenario at considerable length and explain why he was also a bloody great writer. To be fair, my boss eventually relented. But her lack of initial comprehension did surprise me. This was an industry veteran who, until then, had always overseen women’s titles. As a result, she’d had to navigate the issue of childcare and part-time work countless times with her largely female staffers. Faced with a male employee, however, she just assumed it wasn’t a problem.
The reason Professor Kelly is now the spirit animal of every working dad is that he’s still the most visible example of professional man as frazzled parent. Women have, of course, struggled with this balancing act between work and family for decades. But as men – belatedly, it’s true – take on an increasing share of the childcare responsibilities, they now face a similar challenge.
By dissolving the boundaries between work and home, Covid-19 nakedly exposes the reality of #dadlife. Fingers crossed, this normalisation process will lead to employers acknowledging the challenge and offering ways to cope with it – be that in the form of greater work flexibility or parental leave.
At any rate, the genie is out of the bottle. Only it’s not a compliant genie. It’s a howling three-year-old who’s refused to eat his breakfast and is now running around half-naked with an open tub of Sudocream demanding another episode of Thomas The Tank Engine. Meanwhile your work deadline is looming…
This is our world now so let’s just admit it. The first step in solving a problem is to acknowledge it. Or get a better lock for your office door.