James Frith - balancing being an MP and a Dad of 4.

Proxy voting and Pairing

Until very recently MPs had to be present in parliament in order to vote, a recent high profile news story made parliament take note of it’s own procedures and at the end of the ensuing debate that changed parliamentary procedures, I saw James Frith speak powerfully in favour of equality for Dads.

We met last week in the House of Commons and I asked him how he juggles his responsibilities as a father of 4, husband and MP representing Bury North.

How do you juggle those very different responsibilities?  

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James:                  It's a good question. So, the juggling is a very real, daily, weekly kind of appreciation really.

We have to be careful as a married couple that we're not just basically forever planning, but we're living in the moment or as much as you can - but with kids anyway, you can quickly be just spending weekends dropping them off at parties, picking them up and sometimes you think, actually we need a weekend where we're out as a family and we go for a walk and that sort of thing.

So really, I don't think it's much different to what a lot of people do, but what we add in is a degree of this sort of public life to it. So sometimes we think about where we're going that just allows us to kind of switch off as well. Because although there are really good opportunities for me to do things in my constituency as a dad, I'm also known and the family's known.

When you are there as a public figure and your kids are misbehaving, it's a lot of pressure to put on yourself. So, you kind of brief the kids to within an inch of their life - do not misbehave! and you make sure you've got bottles for the younger ones.

Working away from home

James:                 From a parental point of view, I make sure that the kids always know that I'm back more often than not on Wednesday night. I tend not to tell them if there's a chance of getting back earlier because they're disappointed if it doesn’t happen.

Ian:                        Do you come down on Sunday nights?

James:                  I come down Monday morning and I'm back late Wednesday night for Thursday morning. So I'm down for two nights usually, but the third night's missed because I'm not back in time for bedtime, but I am there Thursday morning. From their perspective, it's essentially three nights away, three bedtimes, but it's okay.

When I come down after a hectic weekend it's quite nice, but by Tuesday I'm kind of like…. It's a bit quiet and you wake up in the middle of the night and you're in this strange flat away from the kids and stuff. There are moments when a degree of homesickness is quite real, basically what I do is I work flat out and then I leave as soon as I'm able to get back to the constituency.

Routines and rituals

James:                  For us it’s even things like coming through the door. If in the rare occasions I get home and no one is at home, there's that ability to then receive them as they come home as opposed to get home and be overwhelmed, before you've even put your bag down, which in the films is meant to be like the best feeling ever. In reality, you're exhausted. Just let me put my bag down. Let me get my coat off and then…

I mean it's probably very detailed, but we talked about that as a family in terms of just giving ... or like straightaway if Nikki wants to go out for a run or whatever, I'm like yeah, yeah go. I've got it. Go, go, go so that she gets that carved out time individually whilst at home.

Ian:                        There's routine as a family. There’re rituals.

James:                  Little rituals. Little kind of cognitive things about how you end up feeling 'cause I yearn for time at home, Nikki yearns for time out of the house. So how can we make that work? It takes some real management.

*** You can learn more about Nikki and her business Granny Cool by clicking here.

What other kind of practical things have you learnt? 

James: Coffee! I think all of our children have grown up knowing there's little point in asking for anything from me or my wife until we've had two coffees in the morning and Sky, Sky TV, and you're sorted (!)

Practical things - I think it's the same challenge that parents face anyway, which is concentrating on playing with your children and not just managing them. That's the thing I really struggle with because instinctively, not least because we've got four, but because of how busy, it's very easy (and I'm too guilty of it), very easy to just basically be managing your children rather than playing with them.

So having good walks or taking Henry to football or my daughter to drama or reading a book with my little boy or reading a story or watching a little film with my little girl, they're sort of quite deliberate activities so you're not simply just tidying up after them.

Ian:                        So for you it’s almost planned “quality time”?

James:          You've got to just have that time when it is quality time, and more often than not, that needs us to be out of the house for it to be really useful. Otherwise, you just get, I do anyway, kind of subsumed into just the management of the house and keeping on top of everything and tidying up!

Good team around me

James: It does take a considerable amount of effort to make sure it works and some of that is about just having good balance with your team, they have empathy as to my time. They'll ask themselves, before they ask me, whether another Thursday night or another Friday night or another Saturday afternoon is realistic. So we've built in some provision.

Ian:                        Core time?

James:                  Yeah, and we alternate weeks. So I'll do a late finish Friday and work on Saturday one week and then finish normal time Friday and not work the weekend . So a team of six in the constituency and then I have support three days a week when I'm down here.

The nature of it, as with any job, just takes a lot of teamwork and a lot of diary management and committing to solid things. Good time away, weekends off, good walks, time for bath, football, taking Henry to the Carabao Cup Final, which I can't wait for!

It is a lot of work, but there are a lot more dads in hardship. The status, the money, the reward for the job is significant. So I'm not complaining.

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What’s the best thing about being an MP?

James:                  Genuinely it's that ability to change somebody's circumstances who've come to see you. The individual case work, which actually is somebody else's success largely. It's one of my case work team who work through the authority of the office essentially, but the case work then plan of action is then agreed and ordained by me or action is taken and letters written

Ian:                        In your name?

James:                  In my name. Through an effective office operation we're able to transform or change circumstances, some of it very small. It can be appropriate railings outside of school or it can be sorting out the Motability license for a newly diagnosed Parkinson's sufferer who actually is going be able to use their car for a period of time having been sanctioned by the DWP or it can be saving the walk-in centre which we did quite early on.

So my SEND focus on special education needs is because I've been inundated with case work. 50 plus parents come and see me with issues about the struggle and there's a universal view across the country which is why I pressed for the national inquiry from the committee that I'm on. (Education Select Committee)

It's that ability to influence change and improve circumstances for people. That's for sure.

Elected by surprise

Ian:                       You said earlier that it was a surprise to get elected. How did you feel after the first time when you lost, it was '15?

James:                 Yeah, 2015. So I lost by 378 votes, it was 0.8%.

Ian:                        I'm not sure but I think I might have fallen asleep on the sofa by that stage…

James:                  That was a better option than being at the count. I was gutted. I spent some time getting over that frankly. I threw myself into the company that I ran, but it was quite a significant challenge to my outlook because you feel, you can't help but take it personally.

Ian:                        Yeah. Investing so much of your soul….

James:                 Two and a half years of being the candidate and running campaigns and working really hard, all in a voluntary capacity so our family had endured that. But when '17 came around, the opportunity to stand again…

There was no hesitancy in me. I was just cautious of putting the family through it again, but Nikki was just like absolutely you've got to go for it, and of course we had our eyes wide open in this instance. So, we knew what we were headed for whereas previously it was just like, oh my god this is taking so much!

In 2017 we were pregnant with Bobby. That was an active decision and we'd been pregnant with Lizzie the election before. So, some say it was a cynical ploy to win votes with my pregnant wife! “Kiss a baby”. It doesn't have to be your baby as somebody pointed out.

But it's all good. I'm loving work.

Political Heroes

James:                  Last week, I hosted Kerry Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy's daughter, it was amazing. She was awesome. She does a lot for human rights globally and she wants to do a Human Rights festival in Manchester.

So I put together some MPs and she came and spoke, we were just like hanging off every word.

She told the story about the night as a nine year old girl, the day that Martin Luther King was shot and how she remembered watching the news with her dad and he decided he needed to go down and address the crowd. He went upstairs, put a suit on, came down. She saw him leave the house, walk out into his car and pull up 10 minutes later on the news and delivered this incredible speech in Indianapolis. A speech that he delivered which helped keep the peace. It was just amazing. Absolutely brilliant.

And we talked about Shared Parental Leave

Why take Shared Parental Leave?

Ian:                        The thing about Shared Parental Leave, it really needs to be more powerful. There aren't that many places that fund it the way that maternity leave is funded. You need one partner to be earning enough that you can cover a second salary being lost, and it tends to be the man in part because those gender pay gaps come in quite early.

James:                  It's a good way of looking at it. It's an argument for equality that is often not made in terms of that need to have equality so that there is freedom for both the man and the woman to go back to work and what's best for their family rather than just necessity. Usually, as you say, because of the ingrained in equalities on pay still, then it ends up being the man that goes back to work. There should be that freedom.

Ian:                        Yeah, it's that straight jacket of choice. For a lot of couples, the certainty of dad working, mum looking after children, raising children, that's great. For a lot of dads, it's like, actually I want to be more involved and I can't or for mums - actually I want to work.

The example I like to use is of 2 candidates – 30 something, recently married. If you, as a potential employer, didn’t know which one was likely to take a year off to look after children then you wouldn’t be able to make a judgement in narrow terms based on gender.

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James Frith, Labour MP for Bury North was interviewed by Ian Dinwiddy, Founder of Inspiring Dads and he kindly made the following endorsement afterwards. Need some help Being a Great Dad AND Having a Great Career? Why not get our FREE top ten work life balance tips…