Olympic giant James Cracknell is just about as competitive as a person gets. Following his glittering rowing career, life has taken him through ultramarathons, a race to the South Pole, brief forays into politics and trekking the long road to recovery from a cycling accident in 2010 which damaged his brain’s frontal lobe. Whilst his instinct to be the best hasn’t changed, it seems his latest competition simply involves being a great dad.
James recently took part in a notonthehighstreet.com celebrity dad-panel – part of President and Founder Holly Tucker’s ‘dadpreneur’ initiative – which aimed to address the issue of work-life balance for fathers in the UK. Although the struggle of mothers juggling work with motherhood is well-documented, dads and the importance of the role they can play at home is often overlooked.
For James, making sure he is able to set aside ‘quality-time’ with his children is a real priority – not just to make the most of great experiences now but so that as they get older, they still want him to be a part of their lives.
Sam Skelding caught up with the Olympic hero to talk about the challenges facing modern fathers, what ‘quality-time’ with your children really means and tackling the ‘dads can’t multi-task’ myth.
What was this dad-panel all about?
Well it’s just about getting the balance right between working – obviously there’s nothing wrong with striving for success in the workplace – but making sure you’re not missing out on time with your kids and they’re not missing out on time with you. That’s the basis of it, I think there are loads of things dads can learn from each other about making time with your kids fun so that when they’re twenty, they want to hang out with you.
Jason Atherton, Dave Bond, Phillip Hodson and David Cadji-Newby all took part. Was there a sense of common ground?
I think what really came out of it is that there are common themes, no matter what employment, whether it be from a writer, to a Michelin starred chef or a sportsman, there are different challenges in working out what time you have and making the most of it for your kids.
Apparently, 62% of UK dads with children aged 16 and under have missed a parents’ evening. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing modern fathers?
I think it’s time – we work longer hours – but also when I was growing up, when my old man left the office, he actually left the office. Now, with email and mobiles, you’re never out of contact so the pressure is there to get back to people straight away and that means you’re never 100% focused on home life. That’s where you need to be able to shut the door to work if you can and open the door to the family. Kids are very quick to spot when you’re not 100% there – I’m far from saying I’m perfect at that – but I’m aware it’s something that needs to be done.
Modern dads are an evolving breed and many do want to spend time with their kids – but do you think the fatherhood role has changed?
I think it’s harsh to say, but my old man probably had it slightly easier in terms of expectations where he just had to go to work – although my mum worked as well – and it was very much a demarked process for my dad’s generation, whereas for us, it’s having to multi-task in a way allegedly blokes aren’t very good at anyway. So yes, staying committed to work and being a modern dad is hard – not really any harder than my dad had it – but he missed out on time with me because he was working a lot.
How are you at balancing everything?
The real difference seems to be that when I’m focused on work, I’m really good at doing just that, whereas my wife is much better at not forgetting that the kids need to be picked up at a certain time. So the minute details that make the household run are not on my radar and I tend to forget about them, but I think there’s always one parent in the house who has that at the back of their mind burning away and never loses it. Blokes generally may do more than their share of looking after the kids but plenty are not actually doing that micro-management. In the same way that if I look after the kids, the house is a lot more messy because I don’t stay on top of the other stuff. I think a big part of being a modern parent is staying on top of every little bit to make the house function in a week’s time, not just for a few hours and that’s definitely where I fall down.
Is there a clear line between being with your kids and ‘spending time’ with them?
Yes, I think the real telling point is that when you’re 100% with them, it means you can turn all the other stuff off and just give yourself over to them. If you’re thinking about other things or checking your emails, like I said, they’re very quick to spot that and I’ve become more determined to make sure that if I’m with them for the day, I try not to look at my phone. You need to block it all out, because the days you don’t that you’re only half there. I know it’s not easy, because phones can mean everything to people, but it’s so important!
So how does this feed into the dad-child relationship?
Dads who don’t spend that time will regret it later on, because you want to make sure your kids want to spend time with you. If they think you’re there because you have to be and not because you want to be, in twenty year’s time when they have the choice to be with their mates, they’ll choose them and that’s a real shame. For me it’s very simple, it’s not about grand gestures. Rather than doing something special every few weeks, you just give over some time to them. It’s time without any distractions and it’s something I often have to police myself on – it makes a real difference.
Do you think outdated gender roles still stop guys saying “forget about my job, I need to spend some time with my kids”?
It’s more likely way too many guys saying I can’t do this and this and this when mum isn’t around. I think we just need to take a bit of control and show we can do two things – there’s no reason we can’t do anything, all it takes is a bit of planning.
You had an incredibly successful rowing career, did you miss out on moments with your children?
You’re always going to feel like you are missing out. I was only a sportsman for the first year of my eldest son’s life, but it would have been really hard to carry on because we were away for half the year and training seven days a week for six weeks. So I was there in the mornings but that’s not enough. It’s hard in a number of different jobs, sportsman being no exception. Look at the armed services, they are away for six months at a time. It all just comes back to when you are there, you need to be there both physically and mentally, and it’s something that is taking me time to get to, but it will pay you back throughout your life and theirs.
Is it tricky finding activities where you can connect with your daughters?
Interesting question! At the age they are now, it hasn’t been an issue but I think moving forward it will become an issue and I’ll need to work on it. They wanted to make my wife a congratulatory cake recently and it would have been great to say ‘ah…this is what we do!’ but instead it was a case of looking online and trying to get it sorted. With girls, there are lots of activities that need a bit of planning rather than being things you can just instantly do. Anything’s possible with planning, but some things don’t come naturally I would say [Laughter].
Is trying to be a great dad your real competition now?
Yes, but I know some people try to live vicariously through their kids and at this age, it’s not really being competitive because they don’t have any choice but to be with you. They are unconditionally your responsibility, but once they have their own lives, you want them to choose to share their time with you. I think that only happens if you have a relationship where you can talk honestly and you are mates – that mutual respect doesn’t happen unless you’re prepared to put the time in! Put quality time in, but don’t think of it as so many hours, instead it’s about you both getting something out of it. It’s competitive in the sense of making sure that when they’re moving out, they want you involved in all aspects of their life and that’s something to look forward to.
You had an awful accident back in 2010 and the recovery is still ongoing. Has it changed the way you look at life?
I think the one thing that has changed is it gives you an appreciation of some of the things you may have taken for granted in the past. You realise you’re a day away from never seeing your wife or kids again and it’s really makes you think and reassess. I mean I obviously wish the accident hadn’t happened but it gives you the chance to have a different perspective.
Finally, any advice for new dads?
That it’s going to be a big change. A lot of guys say I’m going to be able to this, this and this, but no, it’s going to change. For me that was a shock, you think you can plan for it but you can’t in a way, so if you’re the first of your mates then you’re in for a real surprise. My second piece of advice would be to not let that shock delay you having a second, it’s far better to have two closer together as they will entertain each other and grow-up together. I think having a big gap between one and two actually makes it harder and although you might think the opposite at the time, you will reap the benefits.