Phil Reay-Smith has reported from some of the harshest environments on earth: Mount Everest, the Arctic Circle and the frontlines of Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2012 he left journalism to be Ogilvy PR’s Head of Media, three years after he and his partner adopted their son. They all live together in central London.
The first time I saw our son he was 2¾ years old. It was a cold January morning. We walked up the foster carers’ garden path and knocked on the door. Sally, the foster carer, opened it and behind her legs was our son.
Sally turned to him and said ‘Do you know who this is?’
‘Philip and M------,’ he said. Those were the first words I ever heard him say. He knew us because we’d given him a video, photos, and an introductions book. It’s all part of the adoption process.
The introductory fortnight was a very exciting time. One hour on the first day. Two hours on the second. After our first meeting we left very excited. He was lovely and it had gone well. On the fourth day we took him to the park. Then he came to our house for a short while. The next day he stayed for longer. On the last day of those two weeks, we came in the morning. Sally said ‘I’m not offering you tea. I’m going to spend the rest of the day crying. You’ve got to take him out of the house. Take him home.’
Sally is in her 60s and had been fostering since her own children grew up. She must have fostered dozens of kids. She gave me the utmost respect for fosterers. Taking kids into her house without any prior warning, giving them routine where they had none, feeding and clothing them. And then ultimately, when they are adopted, letting them go. It must be heart-breaking but she's done it again and again. We're still in touch.
Being dad gave me permission to be more sensible about things. In my previous life I was an ITN reporter. It was really exciting. I’d be in Iraq with $20,000 in my pocket as emergency cash for a story, in case I needed to charter a helicopter for a story or something. Now I’ve done that, I want to do a job that’s more predictable. Moving from journalism to PR means I’m at home more predictably – at the weekends and evenings. I’m glad I don’t have the unpredictability of that life anymore.
Now, so much happens before 8am. I tend to answer a number of different questions in the shower, mostly about Arsenal’s position in the league. Life’s certainly less spontaneous. With a kid, you don’t get upgraded to business class on holidays any more, but it’s made me a better person.
When I hear a story of a child losing a parent, or a family losing a child, it affects me much more than before. I understand how having a child is a great… responsibility is the wrong word, although it is that. It’s a great life-defining thing for all involved. If either a parent or our son wasn’t around, I can’t imagine what that would be like for our family.
One of the things about being a dad rather than a parent is it’s made me think about my childhood. When I was a child my mum was a great source of comfort, hugs and all those traditional female qualities. When I thought about bringing up a son with two dads, one of the concerns I had was whether I could be that person for my son. With adoption it takes time for bonds to form, but I know our son can rely on that from us, from me. It’s so important in the parent-child relationship. I really value the moments when he comes to me for a hug, reassurance, when he rests his head on me when we’re watching TV.
Any dad should be able to do that. I think it’s a sign of a great relationship, that you can provide that level of comfort.
My partner took the adoption leave, which is 12 months off – the equivalent of maternity. It sounded amazing ahead of time, but it was tough. Our son just wanted to go to the park because it was the only thing that was common with his old life. I had two weeks paternity and took an extra month off. Our son was almost four when adoption leave ended, so he went to nursery. We had a childminder at the time, which meant that our son had some long days away from home – from 7.30am to 6pm. It's a long day, but he was happy. Now our son’s 10, we have an au pair – a manny! He gets to play football a lot now, which he loves. I get to see him in the evenings before bed and in the morning, which I value. Of course I'd like to see him more. I could work less. That said, now he's in school it wouldn't work me working three days. We're lucky actually because my partner is a teacher, so our son gets to spend all the holidays with him.
Before being parents, we lived a bit of a playboy lifestyle, with a bit of money and lots of free time.
The adoption process really made us work better together as a team. When you’re a parent you have to work as a team. You have lots more to worry about. I consider myself to be laid back, but I never would have expected how having a child forces you to behave in a way you wouldn’t want to. The red mist rises. You find yourself shouting, acting in a manner that I really would not want to do, or be. That forces me to think twice about how I behave. I’ve apologised to my son a number of times for shouting, because it’s not who I am. I know people who have adopted and it’s damaged, and in some cases, ended, their relationship. It’s certainly made us more of team, but it’s also challenged us.
My partner is great inspiration to me as dad. His parents are very laid back and so is he. So maybe that’s an advantage of being in a same sex couple – you have someone you can learn from, you have another role model.
When you’ve got no important responsibilities, and you disagree with people, fixing a problem is easy. I felt I was spending too much time cleaning the house. So instead of arguing about who should do what, we got a cleaner. It fixed the problem.
But if you have different parenting styles, it’s not so easy to fix. We have different styles, and sometimes we’ve found ourselves arguing about how to deal with our son acting up. For us, it’s about moving on past disagreements. We all do stupid things, say things that we don't mean, or things that are mean. Dwelling on that isn't helpful. We always move past it, because we know we both respect each other.
Going into a war zone and becoming a parent are very different experiences, but I suppose one thing that helps in both situations is patience and perseverance. Keeping calm under pressure is important. But nothing could prepare me for the stress of raising a child. I consider myself laid back in most instances. In hostile situations in Iraq or Afghanistan it was not much fun. But I never experienced the stress and red mist rising compared to when our son behaves in a maddening way.
I don't have too many grand expectations, because I know life has a way of making other plans. We're very lucky as a family, and watching my son grow up makes me happy. He had a very tough first 12 months and was lucky to find a good foster family. Perhaps it's because he's adopted, but I don't have many superficial expectations where what he does reflects back on me. Studying a certain subject or getting into a good school doesn’t matter to me. I hope that if I get to be old, he's alive and is happy in whatever life he chooses to lead. That's actually quite a big ask, because it's hard to be happy in life.
When we first did the course around adoption, they talked about attachment disorder. In the first few years, if you're upset and comforted by your mother picking you up and putting your head against her heart it helps to regulate you. If you don't have this it's much harder for a child to learn to regulate their emotions. They can be very up and down. This means that it's likely to be much harder for the child to make meaningful relationships later in life.
When we first had our son, he was very up and down emotionally. We were able to see a play therapist thanks to social services. She taught us these techniques to help develop attachment. We did a lot when he was young, but we still do it now occasionally, even though he's 10. One technique is to encourage eye contact. You feed them yoghurt by the spoonful and they touch your nose in between each spoon. Each time it creates eye contact, which is important for forming relationships. We still do this occasionally. It’s such a lovely moment.
One of the things the therapist said to us was that you're always urging your child to grow up, hit the next milestone. But with a kid who’s been neglected in their early childhood, it's good not to push them too soon. Let them be a baby around you and get some of what they've missed.
It’s amazing to see him getting exponentially better each year. We understand each other so much. If we see him heading down the spiral that's going to end in an explosion, we can spot it and get him out of it. Our son can now see when he's going down a path that would end in a big argument. He says 'hold on, rewind, I love you dad.' and gets himself out of it. We've made so much progress since he first came to us.
When you get into those downward spirals, you have to really be a man about it. You have to really use your mind, step out of any argument and let it pass. When it could be so easy to shout and react, you have to stay in control.
One of the things that they ask in the adoption process is 'if this doesn’t work out for you, is that going to be a problem?' Many people, who are desperate to be parents, say it's all they want to do is be a parent. Actually that's not what adoption agencies are looking for. Staking so much on being a parent is risky.
My life before being a dad was fine. If I'd have never been a dad, my life would still have been fine. But I can't help feeling that being a dad has given me things that I would never have had. It gives you an answer to some of life's questions. I don't want to take away from people who don’t have or want a child, because there are many answers to life’s questions. There are many times I'm jealous of my childless friends, so I'm not saying it's a good or bad thing, but it does help you answer the big question: why am I here? Now, I'm here because I'm helping our son grow up.
Every week I send out one email with insights, questions and stories to help you be a better dad. If you want to join hundreds of other dads please subscribe here.