I am often told that the reason I’m cynical about marriage is that I spend all my professional time seeing people who are going through a divorce. So on holiday in Norfolk this month, I decided to “family watch” in the hope of discovering that the majority of the married population is, in fact, happy.
What I witnessed, however, was the potential seeds of divorce flourishing even against the backdrop of a glorious summer’s day on a picture-postcard beach, far away from the stresses and strains of everyday life: Mothers struggling on to the beach laden with picnic baskets, rucksacks and child buggies while the fathers strolled along without so much as a shoulder bag to weigh them down. Mothers battling to set up wind-breaks, change their children’s clothes and generally organise the family’s needs, while fathers stood around, looking detached, and gazed out to sea.
I also saw fathers bonding well – with each other! Standing slightly apart from their respective family group, they chatted animatedly together; later they engaged in a highly competitive game of football. Sometimes the kids joined in, but not for long: they soon tired of being all but excluded by their high-octane dads.
What struck me was how many fathers seemed unable or unwilling to play with and relate to their children – at least at the start of the holiday. I did notice that as the week went on, dads I’d noted as being distant when they first appeared on the beach became more engaged with the family as the days passed.
I saw, too, numerous fathers having long conversations on their mobile phones or tapping out text messages, their brows furrowed, and it made me think of the men I’ve heard justify their long working hours by saying they want to earn enough so the family can go on lovely holidays.
My observations coincide with a leading psychologist’s warning about taking laptops on holiday. Professor Cary Cooper of Lancaster University says workers who fail to “switch off” during their annual break are leading to family breakdowns.
He says the problem of professionals taking their work on holiday with them has mushroomed with the spread of wireless hot spots. “People simply should not take laptops on holiday with them,” he was quoted as saying. “For many it means they never switch off. They are taking their office with them. A holiday isn’t just for rest and recuperation, but to commune again with your family, connect with your kids.”
Whilst I realise it can take some people several days to unwind and relax on holiday, it is crucial for families to spend quality time together and cement the bond between them. We supposedly live in the age of the “new man” but it’s interesting to see how women still take most of the strain when it comes to looking after the children, even on holiday.
Having family-watched for a week on the beach, I now have more understanding of why the beginning of September is one of the busiest times for divorce lawyers. There are too many mothers for whom the word “holiday” means even more hard work and stress than usual and too many fathers who fail to see it as an opportunity to log on to the family they’ve been working so hard all year to support.