When you’re a new mother it can seem like everyone is rushing to tell you to savour the first few months of your new baby’s life “because they grow up so quickly!” (advice that quickly becomes VERY boring), but I don’t think enough people think about the fact that this is often a time that fathers pretty much miss out on.
I mean, sure they are around at weekends and evenings, can do the occasional night shift when you are desperate for more than two hours sleep in a row, and can send you supportive (but pretty clueless) texts from their desk at lunch (having had a coffee and a quiet peruse of the day’s news on the way to work, a couple of intelligent uninterrupted adult conversations when they arrived, and spent the morning achieving a number of tasks that don’t involve baby wipes or nipple ointment), but they don’t really get it. Unless they do it. And I mean do it. All day, every day, for 5 days in a row. For several weeks in a row. Then they get it. And you get the coffees, the newspapers, the adult conversations, and the satisfaction of achieving non-baby related tasks. And your son or daughter gets to spend real time with your partner, who is, let’s face it, is probably very different from you, more exciting, more unpredictable (less organised), maybe better at animal impressions, probably lets them go much higher on a swing, maybe lives life more by the seat-of-their-pants (OK, enough about my relationship here). And this is a good thing. Because even though, as a new mother, you really don’t think anyone could ever do the job better than you (I certainly didn’t think that), your partner can do it differently from you, so that your son or daughter has different experiences, and develops a truly intimate bonded relationship with their other parent right from the get-go. And your partner ends up knowing how to pack a changing bag, what food your baby likes to eat and when, and what things work when your baby is crying their eyes out.
I can’t remember exactly when we decided that Greg would take additional paternity leave when our baby was born, but we had definitely decided very early on in the pregnancy that I would go back to work at 6 months, and that Greg would take three months off after this. I think both of us felt very strongly about trying our best to be equal parents and that sharing our leave would give us a great foundation for that. There were also practical considerations – I was in the middle of a PhD that I wanted to get on with, and we earned roughly the same amount so sharing leave didn’t financially disadvantage us.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved my maternity leave. I loved breastfeeding (after the first two horrendous weeks stuck in hospital with pre-eclampsia), I loved our gorgeous son, Lenny, and I loved being his mum and Number 1 go-to parent. But I always knew that I wanted him to get to know his dad properly, and that Greg had just as much right to quality time with him as I did. I was definitely nervous coming up to the end of my six month stint – nervous that Greg would be chaotic, worried that we wouldn’t be able to get Lenny to take bottles, worried that I wouldn’t remember anything about my work, worried that I would miss Lenny so much I wouldn’t be able to concentrate. But actually for the most part it was fine.
In terms of practical arrangements, the main things were to get Lenny on to bottles during the day, and for me to try and hand-over as much of my encyclopaedic knowledge of Lenny’s routine, what worked and didn’t work, to Greg. We had two weeks off together – I took annual leave to do this, but with the new shared parental leave rules coming in April 2015 you can arrange your shared parental leave much more flexibly. During those two weeks Greg was in charge of Lenny, but I was allowed to impart my wisdom (I had prepared an extensive handover document, but rather like Ikea instructions, he never read it). In terms of the feeding, I tried to drop one daytime feed every 3 days (expressing a bit on days 1 and 2 to avoid mastitis) and Greg gave him a bottle instead. In reality, he didn’t really take a bottle properly until I had dropped three daytime feeds and went out all day (before that he just drank more at the next breastfeed to make up for the missed one), when he finally broke – this took about 10 days and was the only hard part. The key was me not being there and him getting really, really hungry! Once he had ‘cracked’ with the bottle it was absolutely fine, and there were no problems with feeding after that. By the end of the two weeks I felt confident that Greg had the schedule branded on to his brain and that they would have a lot of fun together.
A lot of people have asked me if it was very hard going back to work when Lenny was just 5 ½ months old, and the answer is no. That’s not because I’m some sort of cold-hearted anti-mother, but because I could go to work knowing that Lenny was with his other parent, who loved and cared about him just as much as I did, so it was a completely different situation to leaving him at nursery or with a child-minder. And work felt exactly the same as when I had left. On that first Monday I had to keep reminding myself that six months had passed since I had last been there, because it felt like just a weekend. I didn’t miss Lenny too badly during the day (as long as I didn’t look at too many pictures of him), but as soon as I left the building to go home, my heart jumped into my throat and the journey home always seemed interminably slow until I could get in the door and give him a cuddle.
The result of sharing the parental leave was that I really felt like an equal parent with Greg. I ask Greg’s opinion on what to do with Lenny just as much as he asks me. They have a great relationship. I have some space in my life to do and think about other things without being distracted by worrying about whether Greg is doing a good job with Lenny. Greg now works four days a week and they spend Tuesdays together. I work full time, but half of that is from home so I can do most of the ferrying to and from nursery (and don’t have to rush him in the mornings). We take turns to look after Lenny when he is sick, so that it doesn’t impact too much on either one of our jobs. Now Lenny is nearly three old and we are so glad we did it that we are about to do it again with his little sister Rae, who is eight weeks old.
I want to encourage other parents to take up shared parental leave, for all the reasons I’ve gone into. But there is also a broader point. I believe that the current situation, where women are generally expected to shoulder the whole burden of maternity leave, means that women are disadvantaged in the workplace. Not only do many mums take a long career break of up to a year, but because you become the ‘default’ parent by doing this, mums also take on most of the burden for taking time off when their kid is sick, or not being able to work late because of childcare arrangements. And this perpetuates the idea that employing women has disadvantages to employers. I want to see this changing. I want to see a society where it is normal for both men and women of ‘a certain age’ who want to start a family to take parental leave, work flexibly or less than full-time, and leave on time to get home. I want people to start talking more about ‘working parents’ and less about ‘working mums’.
My philosophy – if you could call it such a thing – at the start of paternity leave was to rather selfishly try to take Lenny along to a lot of activities I fancied doing while I was off work. I thought it would make both of us adaptable! So we went on ambitious trips to galleries and museums in central London, or got in the car and drove to the coast or popped down to the local for a leisurely lunch.
Yes, we had plenty of disasters with late feeds, missed sleeps and chaotic nappy changes – in the boot of the car or on the gents’ toilet floor. Once in a pub kitchen. Shhh! Over time I became more realistic about what we could and couldn’t do together. Our trips became a bit shorter and slightly less spontaneous. But the key thing was I developed my own way of looking after him.
I became more confident and less self-conscious and that’s stayed with me really.
Seeing him develop for hours each day rather than for minutes each morning and evening was something really special.
I had to put up with regular doses of well-meaning advice from strangers – usually older women – and I had one person ask ‘where’s his mum?’ but generally people we met were pretty supportive.
Downsides? If there was a downside it was going back to work. On one hand I loved talking to grown ups and the chance to stretch myself intellectually but it certainly felt like things had moved on without me, and I really missed Lenny. I was conscious also that people might question my commitment to my job so I tried hard when I returned to show that wasn’t the case.
I think at work I was viewed as something of a curiosity – the first bloke from 7,000 employees to share maternity leave. However most people – including my boss – were positive and recent mums and dads in particular told me they thought it was a great idea and that they knew I would get a lot out of it.
Sharing paternity leave is still unusual and I know not easy for many couples to do. I am conscious that we were lucky with my employer and our financial situation. I’m really looking forward to doing it again with our new baby, Rae.
Where to find further information on shared parental leave:
Acas provides free and impartial information and advice to employers and employees on all aspects of workplace relations and employment law. They have a comprehensive guide to the new shared parental leave rules (which apply if your baby is due after April 5th 2015).
This is the official government guide the shared parental leave
A Q&A by the Guardian from 2013
Great blog by a Gin Fund dad on his additional paternity leave
American blog on work-family balance for fathers