Status anxiety

Do-gooders neglect their children. Just look at my dad – and me

Since I set up the West London Free School, I've been a much less hands-on parent

26 July 2014

9:00 AM

26 July 2014

9:00 AM

A few years ago, a family friend described my father as being a bit like Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House, by which he meant that he neglected his own family in favour of helping others. By way of proof, he cited the famous occasion when my father abandoned all of us on Christmas Day to spend time with some elderly widows in the local cemetery, pouring cups of tea into the graves of their dear departed husbands.

He had a point. My father wasn’t a deadbeat dad in the conventional sense of the word, but he was a workaholic. The only time I can remember him playing football with me was on my birthday — a huge treat. The rest of the time he was either at work or ensconced in his office at the top of the house. As a result, I became reliant on other people’s dads, like Max Herman, whose son Lucas was in my class. He used to take us ice-skating every Saturday at the Michael Sobell Leisure Centre just off the Holloway Road. I remember thinking at the time that it was odd of Lucas’s dad to want to spend so much time with his son. I now realise that it was my father who was odd.

Before the friend pointed out my dad’s similarity to Mrs Jellyby, I hadn’t made the connection between the neglect and the good works, but it was obviously true. If my father had been a banker, he probably wouldn’t have been able to justify spending so little time with his wife and children. But because he was a social entrepreneur — helping to set up the Open University, for instance — he didn’t feel guilty about it.

Curiously, my father often used to tell stories about his adoptive mother, Dorothy Elmhirst, that made her sound a lot like Mrs Jellyby. She was an American philanthropist — the richest woman in England at one point — who co-founded Dartington Hall, the famous progressive school. When my father became a pupil there at the age of 13, she took him under her wing and for the next five years she effectively became his mother. He remembered her inviting poor children to the baronial mansion she shared with her husband and handing out children’s toys — her own children’s toys, including much-loved teddy bears etc. It’s hard to imagine a more explicit link between the conscious desire to be kind and the unconscious impulse to be cruel.

The reason I’m dwelling on this, of course, is because I’ve started to take on my father’s bad habits, just as he took on his adoptive mother’s. I was a much better family man when I was a cynical journalist with an eye to the main chance than I am now, with virtually all my time taken up with the charitable trust I set up five years ago.

I’m at the West London Free School until 7.30p.m. every evening, and when I get home, I spend on average another two hours doing school-related admin — drafting policies, writing job adverts, catching up with my emails. My six-year-old son Charlie fixes me with his big eyes and asks me when we can play football, and the best answer I can give him is ‘the weekend’. But I know from experience that I have very little spare time at the weekend, too.

So what’s going on here? What’s the psychological pathology? Have I thrown myself into this all-consuming charitable venture in order to furnish myself with an excuse to neglect my family? That seems too perverse an explanation. I think it’s more that, like my father, I don’t experience the guilt a normal dad would, because I regard the time I spend away from home as having a strong moral purpose. There’s also the profound sense of satisfaction you get from helping someone who isn’t a member of your family. Like Dorothy Elmhirst, I find it easier to do things for other people’s children than my own because the spark of human contact you experience — the connection with another soul — isn’t freighted with that complicated family baggage. If I’m honest, I also enjoy the occasional expression of gratitude, something you never get from your own kids.

The truth, though, is that it’s easier to do your duty to mankind than it is to your family. Ultimately, there’s something more heroic about the Max Hermans of this world than there is about the Michael Youngs. One day, I will visit his grave, pour him a cup of tea and thank him for being such a good father to me.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • tjamesjones

    billy graham once said something similar, that the price for his ministry was neglecting his kids

  • John_Page

    Every minute Toby spent wallowing in this guilt piece could have been spent with his kids. Is he so bored with them?

    • EschersStairs

      I think it’s pretty clear that he is writing this article precisely so he doesn’t excuse himself, and so his family can hassle him out about not spending enough time with them.

    • grammarschoolman

      How do you know they weren’t at school when he wrote it?

  • satguru

    I could probably write a book about my own childhood on this but won’t get into that, suffice to say any increase in parental contact would have been highly welcomed. I have no children and little work, but do know as a result I was able to be on call to my late grandparents till the end, and now my aging parents who have no one else left besides me. And all the time I’ve personally devoted to family members was more valuable than any work for others, especially as my grandma only wanted help from family and friends and she looked after me more than just about anyone besides my parents when I was younger. In the end your family will both appreciate and remember what you did for them than anyone else, so that’s probably where the focus should be.

  • Bill Thomas

    Just wait – for a very short time – until your wife, wisely, pushes off. Then you will realise what an *rs*h*l* you have been over all these years.

  • souptonuts

    Enjoyed your contribution at Port Eliot today. If you became an actual teacher for a while you could be a real hero.

    • GraveDave

      He’s not that much of a do-gooder.

  • StephanieJCW

    You’re very lucky. At least people won’t try and guilt you.

    Try being a woman and doing the same and then see the comments that follow about your parenting…

  • StephanieJCW

    Anyway – you wrote an article saying secretly you preferred not spending time with your kids and didn’t blame it on being a do-gooder; you blamed it on being a bloke!

  • misomiso

    How hard you work is indicitive of how hard it is too fight against the blob. The amount of time and effort you put in to try and defeat the education establishment is how they always defeat reform.

    The big lesson of the Gove reforms is that it is not enough to have the right policy, you have to have the right implementation strategy. The Academies programe was more politically successful as the sheer number of schools converted meant the establishment couldnt fight against them, where as free schools have been much easier to oppose.

    Maybe simply abolishing teacher training colleges and making all training on the job experience / apprentiship? That would have removed the politisisation of teachers while training and denied to the left institutions that they can abuse.

    The lesson for the right from your article Tobes is that they need to learn to fight smarter and not harder. Then you can play football everyday!

    Still a big fan though.

    • GraveDave

      We’re all Marxists now….

  • rtj1211

    You and your father made the common decision to pass on to your children your beliefs about what family life is about.

    In your case that is a workaholic father expecting the mother and others to nurture the children, assuming (rightly or wrongly) that modelling being a workaholic will make your children driven, well-adapted happy people.

    The usual outcome is that a subset of your childreh will thrive on that and the others will not.

    Truly playing God aren’t you, Mr Young??

    You’d be in good company: the Queen did it and Princess Anne thrived and old Charlieboy didn’t really. Andy became Randy like his dad and who knows what Edward became.

    Bottom line, Mr Young: your world revolves around you and your children had better understand that.

    All I would say is make sure that most of them spend their 20s a very long way away from you………

  • Aldabaran

    Yes, read Bleak House again. Dickens knew. So should you.

    • GraveDave

      Mrs Jellybea neglected her children to help the more poor and needy Africans. A sort of microcosm for what was to come.
      He was a fukcing genius that Dicken’s geezer.

  • GraveDave

    Talk about blowing your own trumpet. Anyway, three cheers for Toby and Mrs Jellyby. Pip – pip – !