True life: I lost my family by having an affair
Richards Parkes had it all -- beautiful, wife, two children and a thriving media career. But when work dried up, he found himself flirting with a neighbour, with disastrous consequences. Here, he tries to make sense of what started as 'harmless fun'
I am sitting in a café on St Valentine's Day staring at the empty place opposite me and contemplating my ravaged life. It was good this time last year. My stunning wife and I took our two children, Fred, who was then 10, and Lucy, who was seven, on a trip on the river.
We glowed with pride, real-life Smug Marrieds. We had lunch and stared at the beautiful hotel where we had stayed seven years ago to celebrate the success of one of my projects.
It was a gorgeous day, which ended, after we'd put the kids to bed, with a bottle of Laurent Perrier. My wife Rhian even refrained from restacking the dishwasher after my effort, such was our state of marital bliss. "I love this," I remember saying.
If you had said to me then that in a year's time I would be departing our home, my marriage in ruins, I would have stared at you in disbelief.
And now here I am, aged 44, on my tod on February 14, 2010, banished from my home. I feel a mix of sadness, envy, embarrassment and utter remorse. It is all my fault.
My happiness that St Valentine's Day last year camouflaged a problem. I had begun an affair. It began as innocent flirting in the school playground, which evolved into popping around to her place for morning coffee.
Then suddenly we were both overcome with lust. It became a casual habit. It was fun and there were no strings attached. Or so we thought.
I'd been looking for a pick-me-up after the follow-up project had been disappointing and a third had no takers.
Rhian told me not to worry about money, saying she was making enough in her job to keep us going for the present. But that in a way was the problem. Without a proper, well-paid job, I didn't feel "needed".
I am one of an increasing number of men whose wife earns more than they do. Forty-four per cent of women bring home the same as or more than their partners, according to figures from 2006, so the ratio may be higher now.
Those figures should be a cause for celebration, as they should give men like me the chance to immerse themselves in fatherhood as well as time to rediscover their creative side.
There are many benefits to being a home dad. You get time to yourself once the children are at school, you can fiddle about, downloading Morrissey songs, or watch DVDs rather than having the television commandeered for video games.
You can set your children's after-school agenda, which is more likely to involve a kickabout in the garden rather than music lessons. The kids get you past the sixth level in Transformers. They find short cuts on your BlackBerry.
You can bond with them, yammering away on the drive to school or over the tea table, rather than having monosyllabic conversations when everyone is exhausted.
But there's a flip side to being a home dad. Women like my wife work long hours to justify their salaries, but many want to remain in control of the home as well. After an exhausting day at the office, they still march in and begin tidying furniture, straightening rugs and barking orders. "Don't leave those boots there!" or "Why didn't you shut the fridge properly?"
You could say this supports the view that men are useless domestically. But on the other hand, are women hardwired to busy themselves with domestic chores, however conscientiously the man has tried before?
Sometimes it feels like a competition, and when Fred comes home and says: "Mum forgot to put a spoon in for my packed lunch", this can feel like a significant victory for mankind.
There is a cultural revolution going on here. A generation of women have emerged who are not only brilliant at work but also run their homes in the same utterly efficient way that they run their businesses. The staff (husband/nanny) are given tasks they are expected to perform and their execution is constantly assessed. When men were dominant, women found themselves having to kowtow to them and their self-esteem was eroded. In many families the boot is now on the other foot.
Here's an example from a couple of months ago. I've taken the children to school, picked them up and given them tea -- shepherd's pie and carrots. They've cleaned their plates. Rhian opens the fridge when she arrives home. "Why didn't you use the salmon steaks I left out for supper?" she demands. "I thought I'd have something in the oven while we were outside. I was going to do you the salmon." "I had a big lunch, I only want tsatziki." "Oh."
"Dad?" (A voice from the next room.) "How do you work out the area of a parallelogram?" "Hasn't he done his homework?" "No, I thought I'd give them some fresh air before they ate." "So he's going to be up working until God knows when!" And Superwoman, who has just done a 10-hour day, a Pilates class, the online shopping and defurred the kettle, marches up and sorts him out.
This leads to a feeling of helplessness, as if you don't know what your role is. Some people have called it the "mancession". It's a sense of being emasculated by the allround competence of women. And, as John Gray suggests in Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, men tend to withdraw from relationships and wonder why they should bother.
Depression sets in. "Not to be needed," Gray says, "is a slow death for a man." The suicide rate among middle-aged men is climbing and therapists are dealing with evermore cases of clinical depression.
Rhian even said that's what I might be suffering from. "Depressed? How can I be?" I laughed. "I have a great lifestyle, a fantastic family and a 42-inch wall-mounted TV." She was right, though. The worst aspect is that men at a low ebb tend to shy away from counselling.
Instead men embark on destructive behaviour -- the classic midlife crisis. They might turn to drinking, or motorbikes. Or to carnal pleasure.
So Playground Mum and I began to meet more often. Once a fortnight became once a week, then twice.
I still adored Rhian and the kids, and never dreamt of losing them, but Liz -- blonde and foxy in contrast to Rhian's dark, sleek sophistication -- gave me something else.
That something else was power. The power to satisfy a woman and contribute to her wellbeing. We took less care and more risks, and one day her husband came home unexpectedly and caught us.
Once the husband kicked me out and established the scale of the deception, he wasted no time in telling Rhian everything.
She was the victim of an awful set of circumstances. Her success, my stagnation and compulsion for self-gratification, the sexual liberation of women and the willingness of home dads to take advantage of it.
When she confronted me and I admitted my sins, there was only one option. I was fired.
Was it worth it? Definitely not. The loss of love from the woman you built your life with is devastating. But, more intense than anything are the enriching experiences you get from being a parent.
Rearing children is a bit like golf. Lots of irritation and scuffling about in the rough, all the mess, disruption and the tantrums. But one drive down the middle -- a cherubic face, a funny observation, a tickling session at bedtime -- make it all compelling. It's far deeper and more fulfilling than the brief thrill from illicit passion. I knew that before. Now I really feel it.
My complete priority in life was my children. A few months of stupid self-indulgence have totally jeopardised that. Their lives will never be normal again.
All names have been changed.