32-year-old dispatch production operator Tom and his wife Emma live with their three children and Misty the dog in a three-bedroom mid-terrace on what would have once been a council estate, before Mrs Thatcher sold off all the council houses. Whenever I’ve seen it, it’s always spotless, despite the fact that Tom and Emma have both generally worked long shifts.
“Tom does most of it”, admits Emma, referring to the chores. “Most of the hoovering, cleaning the oven – the horrible jobs”.
“I don’t feel I do enough”, Tom cuts in. “Emma does more during the week, but at the weekend we share it. And Emma does the important jobs, like checking the settee works.”
He chuckles. He’s often laughing. I remember the time we all accompanied our kids on a school trip. It was lunchtime, my husband was being grumpy because he was on the Lighter Life diet, and a few tables away Tom was making his kids laugh.
“Look at him”, I’d said pointedly. “He looks happy to be with his family.” “Course he’s happy”, Alex had replied darkly. “He’s tucking into a sandwich.”
I wonder what, if anything, makes Tom grumpy.
“Having a lie-in”, is the unexpected answer. “Even pre-kids. If I’m still in bed at 10.30 I feel the day’s wasted. I’m not really an angry person, though: the occasional stress with work; quick telling off for the kids now and again, cos they do fight.”
“I’m the grumpy one”, adds Emma, “especially if I don’t get enough sleep. Our body clocks aren’t synched. Tom’s an early bird and gets up at 4.30 for work, so he goes to bed early too, but I don’t sleep till 1 am.”
I ask Tom about his work and any career aspirations. After all, fulfilment in work is usually cited as a major factor when it comes to quality of life and consequent happiness.
“For me it’s about how I go about the job. It’s physical work and I take pride in what I do; I like to see it done properly. I feel frustrated if it’s being rushed and corners cut. I did have a dream job, signing. I bought all the makaton books, but the funding was too expensive.”
“Is that something you still dream of doing?” I ask.
He shrugs, smiles again. “I’m comfortable where I am, so it didn’t happen.”
I briefly reflect on how many things, big or small, irritate or worry me on a daily basis, and ask Tom what, if anything, he considers worth worrying about. Does anything cause him anxiety?
“I do suffer from a bit of anxiety, which running has massively helped”, he says, perhaps surprisingly. “I want to succeed on a day to day basis. I’ve suffered from panic attacks before, but got through with Emma’s help. I’ve stopped being a people pleaser. If someone doesn’t want to talk to me or doesn’t like me, that’s fine. I used to try too hard to get people on side, but Emma’s influence has helped change that.
“I don’t worry about finances: Emma deals with all of that. My priority is providing for my family. I’ve only been out of work for two days since leaving school. I’m happy to do anything; let the kids grow up and have what they need.”
I ask about work-life balance, another long-cited happiness essential, and one that is woefully out of kilter in many households.
“My job’s great for the kids, but not so much for finding time as a couple”, admits Tom. “Being with the kids is sometimes energising for me, but sometimes drains me a bit when they argue. I run to recharge. A lot of weekend time is taken up with CJ’s football and the housework. Saturday afternoon we do nothing at all: Em has a nap, I might watch a film, the kids play.”
Running has become a huge part of Tom’s life in recent years, and he recently completed the London marathon – his first ever marathon – in just over four and a half hours. As someone who tries but struggles to jog a few kilometres, I wonder what motivated that level of training and dedication.
“I started running years ago, to lose weight for our wedding, and got serious two years ago. I’d done mud runs etc and wanted to push to the next goal. I was lucky enough to get a ballot place for London, which was so motivating. It was fantastic when I crossed the line; so emotional. I couldn’t believe I’d done it. I missed out on collecting my medal from the royals, though – I filtered off the wrong way!”
Everyone encounters loss, tragedy, or other major stressors at some points in their life. I ask Tom how he deals with the very difficult times.
“I’ve always had the support from Em”, he says simply. “We were both crushed when we couldn’t get a mortgage. It put a bit of a downer on the year. We look at our friends, and they’ve all bought their houses and are now getting their caravans. Em had lost her job but she’s about to start another one.”
There is something deeply uplifting about witnessing a couple so perfectly in tune with and accepting of one another, despite being busy, self-confessed opposites with clashing schedules. I ask Emma to sum up life with Tom.
“Like being married to a big kid”, she replies immediately. “Also, I’ve supported Tom a lot with his anxiety over the years, but then when I lost my job for four months and needed support I had to tell him as he just wasn’t seeing it. When I told him, he was there for me. He lives in his own bubble sometimes. The kids can be a handful, and there’s Tom, mucking about with them like another big kid. It’s good, having them at a young age, because he can do all that. I’m always tired – maybe because of my epilepsy – and I feel bad that I can’t be as much a part of that.”
“Emma gives me some advice sometimes and I’ll just … dismiss it”, says Tom, with a snort of laughter.
“We’re definitely opposites”, says Emma. “Tom’s sporty, outgoing, full of energy. I’m relaxed, happy in my pyjamas. Tom suggests things for us to do together, to try and find a hobby in common. We’ve even tried jigsaws, just to find something we both like to do! But everything we’ve ever planned or want to do in the future, we’ve decided together. The vow renewal last year [an incredible superhero fancy dress affair!], our holidays, trying to buy the house … we always look ahead, facing forwards together. We’ve got things we want to plan with the family, and we want to retire to a caravan one day.”
I ask Tom how he’d like to be remembered, and what he considers his greatest achievement to date.
“My family’s my greatest achievement. And I’d want to be remembered for having fun. You can’t live your life in fear, so just go for it.”
Guessing the answer, I ask him to give a mark out of 10 to indicate how contented he is with his lot in life.
“10”, he says without a moment’s hesitation, looking me right in the eye. And smiles.