We recently spoke to ITV Daybreak presenter Matt Barbet about how he has managed to juggle the career of a high-flying television journalist (which has included postings to Afghanistan and post-earthquate Haiti) with the responsibilities and duties of a fully-involved parent. Before Daybreak, Matt worked as a presenter and correspondent for 5 News, a presenter for Monocle Radio and a newsreader on BBC Radio 1.
What have you been up to over the last twenty four hours?
MB – It couldn’t have been more parental-based if it had tried. This time yesterday I was planning to go to film screening, and then I got a call from my wife saying that the kids were really not well. So I dropped that. I was supposed to be meeting someone for lunch as well, and I dropped that too. I had to get home and get involved. They’re much better now, but I suppose I’m lucky that I have a job that’s fairly flexible in terms of daylight hours – I can always get involved with my kids if need be. I tried to have a nap in the afternoon, because I only tend to get about five hours sleep a night. If I want to see my wife in the evening I can’t just go to bed at eight o’clock, especially as we’ve only put the kids to bed at half past seven. So I try to have a nap. And then I gave the kids their dinner while my wife went out to run, and then she came back and gave them their bath whilst I went out for a run too. We’re both pretty big on fitness, and with the funny hours I work I think it’s important to keep the blood flowing.
And then round about the kids bath time, about half six, I start to get e-mails about the stories that are going to be on the next day. I get a warning from our Day Editor about how the programme is looking and who we’re having on. For example, we had Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary on this morning, talking about new rules to ensure that doctors are up to scratch. And an amazing story about a woman with amnesia for thirty six years who’s only just been reunited with her sisters. So there’s all this stuff that’s been set up the day before that starts coming through, and I have to get my head around it and I usually try and do that before I go to bed. I’m welded to my iPhone which, again, can get on my wife’s nerves. Then bed.
And the alarm is set for three forty at the moment – it’s always a mad rush to get showered, shaved and out the house. A car picks me up at about ten past four, and it’s a twenty minute ride to the studio, newspapers in the back so I can get an idea of the lead stories. Then I get in and there’s a meeting at half four, going over the programme and the stuff that I might have missed whilst asleep, especially from the States, that all comes up then. We work on the bulletins, the six or seven minute round-ups of the top stories, and then the rest of the programme is us revisiting those stories in more detail, with interviews or reports or whatever.
You’re on air continuously for a full hour – it must be difficult to stay as on-the-ball as you always appear to be?
MB – You take a lot of it for granted. I’ve been a journalist for thirteen years, I studied up to postgraduate level and a lot of it is just learned behaviour after many many years doing these kind of jobs. This is probably the weirdest time in the morning that I’ve had to do it, but then having young kids prepares you for a life of feeling permanently jet-lagged.
What do you think about the shift in attitudes to fatherhood and parenting over the last couple of decades?
MB – Who really knows how much of a leap it’s been between generations, but the way my friends and I behave as fathers is such a long way away from where my father and his friends generation were – we’re so much more hands on, we’re proud of being hands on and enjoying it. And with a career like mine there’s a lot of thought that goes into what I do, not just doing the job but also managing the career – it’s pretty competitive and every decision is competitive as it could be your last. And so juggling that kind of stuff with parenting, well, it takes a bit of doing. I suppose the time I spend with my kids doing bath or bed – that’s the time that my dad would’ve spent at the pub all those years ago. And, aside from the fact that would make it hard to get up in the morning, I just couldn’t deal with the guilt of not being around to help.
And as much as anything, just the act of questioning whether you think you are being a good dad, and asking yourself whether you are spending enough time with your kids…
MB – Absolutely. And it’s also got to do with being enlightened about women wanting to have careers and there obviously being nothing wrong with that. I think sometimes it boils down to fundamentals – women have babies and men don’t. Women have maternity leave and men have a pittance. Some of those sorts of things are just immovable. And as much as equality as important, men are never going to have babies themselves. But the other things can be shared and that’s what I try to do.
One thing I’ve learned over the last year, while I’ve been working solidly and whilst my wife has been solidly on maternity leave is that she’s way ahead of me in a lot of things and I take guidance from her. I don’t want to get things wrong. On the other hand, we have different views on things. You might laugh at this, but I have a slightly different view of the kids watching TV, but I suppose I would, wouldn’t I? She’s pretty adamant that it’s not a good idea, and I do agree with her about under twos watching things on a moving screen. So we do have different views, but I would be mortified if my three-year-old said something like, “Well, daddy lets me do this!”
And some of the career decisions I had to make shortly after the birth of our first daughter, like presenting a show for Monocle Radio for example, well, I think the kind of quiet stresses that career-minded men go through aren’t always appreciated by women who are on maternity leave! Wanting to be there but also needing to make the money to pay for it all, it’s a quandary and there’s no perfect path – you’ve just got to try your best.
You’ve reported from some fairly hairy locations in the past…
MB – I was embedded in Afghanistan in early 2009 as a correspondent for Channel Five, when my wife was five months pregnant. It was pretty difficult, but I an naturally inquisitive anyway and I’m trained to be inquisitive as a journalist so to turn down the opportunity was impossible. My wife made me promise to stay out of trouble, and we went with the aim of talking to the soldiers and seeing the development work going on, money being spent on midwife programmes for example, rather than looking for kinetic warfare – guns firing. Arguably the hardest thing we did was actually getting back at the end – we were at Lashkar Gah, and we couldn’t get a helicopter out for love nor money – they were all being used for other, more important things. And I’d be on the satellite phone to my pregnant wife explaining that we weren’t going to be coming home today and, of course, the hormones kicked in and she was pretty cross about the whole thing.
After my eldest was born I also went to Haiti to cover the earthquake. She was about six months old at that point, and it was difficult. It was probably more dangerous than Afghanistan – you’re quite well protected when you’re embedded with the army in a war zone, but in Haiti it was just me and a cameraman. It’s a fairly law-less place at the best of times. There was an unspoken amnesty I think with all the ne’er-do-wells in Haiti because I think they realised that having the press there would make things better following the earthquake, but it was still dangerous. And, inevitably, having had a daughter, my view changed.
I saw an eighteen-month boy who didn’t actually look that much older than my own six-month-old daughter (because of malnutrition) and he was alive and had a sort of serene look on his face, and then I noticed his arm which had been badly crushed in a falling building. He’d been sedated, and I can see it now – he had a really beautiful face, he was a really lovely looking little boy and it really just hit home at that point that I’m a dad now, and this is someone else’s little child. At that point, as a parent, I really appreciated exactly how moving those kind of stories can be and how much it touches you when you’re a father yourself.
When you’re doing these stories you’re hitting the ground running and you’re thinking about your deadline and telling the story properly, and some of the experiences don’t really sink in till you’ve finished. I freely admit that, when I got on the plane home, I could breath a sigh of relief at having done a good job and done justice to the story and the people involved, but the relief came over me and I was upset and I shed a tear on the fight home because it was just so godawful.
As a father with two young children, can you see yourself doing that sort of work again?
MB – It’s a good question. I just don’t think you can say until you confront it. I still want to get out and about – I do miss being out and about on a story. I love presenting and I think I have a fair degree of skill in terms of being in front of the camera, but the studio is no substitute for being out in the middle of a story. From a selfish point of view, the adrenaline you get is what makes it all worthwhile, witnessing things with your own eyes. I genuinely think stories make the world go round, and being in the middle of those stories and telling it is a privilege. I think I would do it, and it’s important to me. And, when they’re old enough, I would explain to my daughters why it’s important that these sorts of things are done. So, to answer your question, I would discuss it carefully with my wife, but I don’t think having children should stop me, and it hasn’t stopped a lot of others. I think it’s important to carry on doing what I do best and enjoy best.
Were you more of a researching parent or someone who wa happy to let things happen and learn on the job?
MB – The latter I think. My wife read a lot of books, and we both decided that we wouldn’t do the Gina Ford method – we agree d that routine is important but not to that degree. Not really our cup of tea. I believe that, basically, you can find any baby book that’ll tell you what you want to hear. I don’t think that makes me any less interested and, now the girls are here, I think that a lot of parenting is really down to instinct, not just following the rules that someone else has put in a book. I was never one of those dads who goes on, “I must have a boy!”.Both times, all I was concerned about was that a healthy baby turned up. And having had one girl I was delighted I had a second girl because they’re a lot less boisterous! Manon is now three, and we’re looking at schools now, and Blythe is just one. Both get on reasonably well, you know, there’s the odd bit of jealousy from the older one. There is a bit of received wisdom that goes about between parents who have been there before, and figured out various ideas, like giving a present to the older one from the baby.
Recently I went on a boys weekend to Copenhagen with four of my mates – we went to Noma which was amazing – but it was interesting that a lot of the conversation was about our home life and we ended up talking about our kids and our careers. I imagine that, with my dad, it would’ve been about fishing and ale and all that kind of stuff in the pub.
What advice would you give career-focused guys who are thinking about having children?
MB – That’s a tough one. You know that you can only prepare so much, and nothing hits you like the birth of your first child. Well, except maybe the birth of the second one. You can’t underestimate the work involved. I guess I just knew that it was going to be difficult and left it at that. I didn’t try to second-guess what it was going to be like. I didn’t panic. On the other hand, we did decide to move house. You know, you have one of the biggest stresses of your life on the horizon and then you decide to compound it by adding another one. We thought we could move in and do it up. We couldn’t and so we moved in with my in-laws while we did the work, and Manon was born while we were living with grandma and grandpa and spent the first two months of her life there. So, if you are going to nest and get a bigger place in preparation to have a family, do it before you get pregnant! I have no idea how I managed to keep down a job, project managed doing up a family house, all whilst living with my in-laws, and going to Afghanistan in the middle of it!
I would also say that it’s really just the first year that’s extra hard. In fact, I would boil it down to three months to nine months – for the first three months they just sleep a lot. But from three months you’re dealing with teething, and feeding can become a problem. My wife was really adamant about breastfeeding up to six month and she achieved it but, my god, it took its toll, especially the second time. She was stressed about looking after the first one, and the stress means you produce less milk and that was all so so hard and she was getting very little sleep. And I’d landed a job which meant that I had to get up at three thirty and having a baby in October means that you’re going through all that with the longest of nights and the shortest of days. But when they get up to one and they start walking and talking, those moments are just priceless – I’m loving it at the moment with Blythe. What she’s learning to do, it never ceases to be fascinating. I love it. It’s brilliant!
Do you have any favourite London spots where you take your daughters?
MB – We practically live in our local park, Clissold Park in Stoke Newington. It’s been expensively renovated in recent years and has the best playground for miles. The Discover Centre in Stratford is also super, and we recently went to see The House Where Winter Lives, which is an immersive production by Punchdrunk Enrichment. Before kids, my wife and I saw their seminal performance of Mask of the Red Death at the Battersea Arts Centre, and so we knew we were in for a treat. This production aimed at 3-6 year olds is actually loads of fun for mums and dads too.