Adventures in Paternity Leave20 Jul 2015
It started screaming for life. Sucking in air and yelling out with a beautiful pain. I couldn’t stop smiling.
I didn’t know what paternity leave was until I was already there. We spent months taking classes about labour and raising a newborn. We read books, and grilled friends for tips and product recommendations. Rarely if ever, did conversation turn towards paternity leave. Of everyone I talked to, I was the only one that actually had an official “paternity leave”, everyone else had “vacation”. All the fathers I spoke with took at least a little time off, though most seemed to only be able to muster 1 week out of their accrued bucket. In comparison, my company offered me 4 weeks of paternity at 80% pay.
Most people can conceptualize a maternity leave. We understand that it is necessary for the Mother’s body to heal, and for nursing a baby. What exactly does one do during a paternity leave? It’s basically vacation for the Dad, right?
We’ve got a system set up where my wife is in charge of feeding the baby, and healing. I try to tackle everything else in the baby realm. This means dressing, changing, swaddling, and cleaning. Before we go out, I pack the diaper bag, and strap the baby into the carrier. I try to anticipate things our baby needs and accomplish them before they’re too urgent. I started doing this for my wife, in order to take the load and worry off her, but it had an unexpected benefit - a closer bond with my son. I’ve always thought newborns were boring, but having one changed my mind. Every day is a small, if hardly noticeable growth, that is only visible through constant vigilance.
My schedule looks like this: I usually go to bed at around 10 depending on how much sleep I got the night before, but sometimes as early as 8. We swaddle, change, and nurse the baby, and put him in a bassinet by our bed. Every 1~2 hours he’ll wake up to be fed. My wife feeds him, I change him, burp him a little, and do any necessary clothing changes. I try to see to any needs my wife has if I can. The biggest one is refilling water (I highly recommend a thermally insulated spill-proof water bottle like camelbak podium). Best case scenario: we go back to sleep for a few hours. Worst case: a few minutes. I try to combat the fatigue by napping during the day, or by going to bed earlier and not getting out of bed until later. Once I get “up” I make coffee and bring my wife food when she’s ready. We are lucky enough to have family staying with us, so I don’t have to prepare meals or clean.
It’s hard to say what I do during the day. We still go through the same changing-feeding schedule, but it doesn’t seem as bad as when you’re not having to wake up. Even with naps and and early bedtime, I often find myself so drained that I can’t really focus on a task for too long. I had anticipated more downtime during paternity leave. We purposefully didn’t watch season 3 of “House of Cards” so we could binge it during this time, but we’ve not even watched the first episode. The best way I could describe life when we’re awake, is things seem to take 4x as long. Before, leaving the house took 15 minutes. Now it takes 1 hour. I’ve taken the opportunity to do some basic handy-person tasks in my backlog, such as changing my car’s cabin air filter, and doing some work on my bedroom vents so the baby won’t be cold at night. Even so, I find it difficult to heavily focus on one task for very long. Even after a good night, when I’m not exhausted, my attention is always split. I always have to be ready to drop what I’m doing and switch to baby gear. While I could imagine myself already back at work for a week, I can’t imagine it being healthy for me, my relationship with my wife, or my employer. In an industry chalk full of burnout, I can’t imagine anything more burnout inducing than showing up at work sleep deprived, and worrying about your little one when someone is demanding you to stay late to file your TPS report. My time away has been no vacation, but the ability to focus my life’s energy on a single undivided task has been greatly rewarding.
One of the hardest things about taking time off has been acknowledging that I can be replaced in my company, and taking active steps to make that replacement easier. I think this is a large reason many men don’t take a long break after a child’s birth even when they can. They think, “How will this place run without me? I’m really needed here”. It feels great to be needed by a team, or a department, or a company. It can be hard to feel needed when you’re deep in a diaper full of shit. Don’t make your partner pull unnecessary double duty if they don’t have to.
Since pregnancy, I’ve started looking at “job security” a little differently. If you’re so irreplaceable, how could someone ever promote you? The most critical members of the team aren’t those that single-handedly hold up the keystone, but those that lay down pillars of brick to help prop up their teammates.
A large portion of my job is supporting customers, so during the months before I left, I took deliberate time to document problems and fixes so others on my team would know how to handle them. The kind of things you don’t bother writing down because you know them so well. After publishing several documents and sharing with support, I was surprised to find it helped me even before going on leave by decreasing ticket count. With a hard deadline and a clear set of handoffs it’s hard to fudge things. I think my wife did a much better job preparing for the leave. She hired 2 employees and successfully delegated most of her job to 4 separate employees. She frequently says to me, “Getting pregnant was the best thing that ever happened to me professionally.” Even if you’re not going to have a kid, I think it’s a good thought experiment the next time you request a pay raise. Talk about all the ways you’ve made yourself redundant. If you got promoted today, could someone take over your job? Why, or why not?
P.S. I’ve only ever had one person ask me if I was going to go back to work after the baby (yes), versus the countless numbers that asked my wife (yes). If you want to ask maybe try “Are both of you going back to work?” or “what’s your child care plan after leave?” The best intended questions come with some of the worst pre-defined judgments.
Honestly there are too many things to share to make this a very focused post. I really wanted to talk about what it’s like to have some time to spend bonding with your partner and a new child. For me it’s been incredibly empowering. I can’t imagine coming home from an 8 hour day, then having to wake up every hour, change a ‘poopy’ diaper, and not feel any resentment. My time off came with the opportunity to grow with my family instead of us falling apart. If you’ve taken paternity leave or know someone who has, please encourage them to share their story-both good and bad. If you’re a male who is planning to have kids, ask your company if they have paternity leave or if they would consider adding the benefit. I think that men should take pride in being involved with their family. We can be incredibly involved in raising a child, even from an early age.