A few months ago, my wife and I were expecting our second child, an event that had us both really excited and slightly apprehensive. Our oldest had just turned two, started attending daycare two-days a week and for the first time since becoming parents, it felt as though we would finally be able to find time for ourselves now that our toddler was a little more independent. At the same time, we were struggling to adjust to this new phase of life which included the wonderful “NO” phase, not even dolphins on wheels were good enough to get us a yes.
My original plan was to take a leave from work for four weeks to spend time with my family and bond with our newborn. This was the plan I followed during our first go around and although I wished I had more time then, it was all I could take at the time. As the due date drew closer and closer, both my wife and I started worrying that my time away from work wouldn’t give us enough time to get used to life with two kids. After spending a fair amount of time thinking about it and discussing it with my manager, I decided to put a plan in place to extend the leave to eight weeks instead.
I come in to work early and am happy to work late when I need to in order to feel like I’ve done my job right. My work ethic is one of the few traits I’ve learned from my father who was one of the hardest working people I’ve known. I love the feeling of a good day’s work and I was afraid that taking time off would leave folks with the impression that I don’t care about my job. A lifelong exposure to workplace culture that rewards herculean efforts to push for deadlines by burning the midnight oil and interprets the dedication of the workforce in terms of number of hours at the office has definitely skewed my view on what it means to be committed. I was worried that taking a longer leave would limit my opportunities in the future by signalling that I care about other things than my job in the tech industry.
I’m lucky enough to live in Canada, a country that offers parental leave which can be taken by either the mother or the father. Although the country ranks 34th of 37 countries to have kids in according to this report by Expert Market, which compares OECD countries by: hours worked by parents and total paid leave for either mother or father.
I still consider myself lucky as there are many folks I’ve worked with during my career who lived in places that offer no support whatsoever from the government. In Canada, the program covers 55% (up to $51,700) of the full time salary of the parent for up to 52 weeks. Of those 52 weeks, 35 can be shared amongst the two parents, the other 17 being reserved for the mother.
Based on a study published in 2017, only a small percentage of men in Canada, roughly 28%, take advantage of the parental leave program compared to 63% of women. Even though most men agree that paternity leave is important, it seems only a small percentage end up taking any.
Life as a dad
So as you would expect, the first few weeks was all about changing diapers, finding new techniques to rock baby to sleep, sing a bunch of songs until I’d find one my little one actually liked and some amount of screaming. As I’ve said to many folks in the past, being a dad is both really challenging and the most rewarding experience in my life. When that baby finally quiets down and sleeps cozily in my arms, I feel like I can achieve anything.
It was weird to go to all sorts of activities with my kids outside of evenings and weekends. I realized just how few of them are attended by fathers. I saw more mothers, grandmothers and even grandfathers taking care of the kids of all ages than I did dads during my leave. At times this made me feel very self conscious, especially when I was either dealing with a toddler tantrum or a newborn crying in public. For the most part, strangers are very kind when witnessing a parent dealing with difficult children. My favourite memory of this was walking my screaming three-week old baby past a group of dads who all gave me supportive looks and words of encouragements through the screams. Part of me couldn’t help but feel a little out of place as the only dad going for walks with a group of moms and their newborns or toddlers. Thankfully, this was all me projecting my insecurities, and not the result of my experiences with those groups.
I got the chance to bond with my toddler, who, thanks to my leave, was able to keep a fairly sane routine through the first eight weeks of becoming a big sibling. It was really cool to finally get to meet some of the people in my kid’s life that I just never met because they were “weekday” people.
Coming back to work
When I came back to work after my first child was born, I opened my laptop and was immediately welcomed by instant message from angry engineers. Something had broken the week before my return and before I had a chance to catch up on anything else, I was dealing with a clusterfuck. And that was only after being away for four weeks!
Returning to work after eight weeks, I wasn’t too sure what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised when I was able to sit down and get caught up on things. I was glad to see that all the efforts that went into preparing everyone, planning the roadmap and setting expectations with people paid off in the end, the ship ran smoothly. Folks that helped fill in the gap that was left by my absence were enthusiastically welcoming me back and relinquished the additional responsibilities they incurred. My manager brain-dumped a backlog of things that happened while I was away and helped me ease back into my full duties. Everyone at all levels of the organization was really supportive and it felt like things were back to normal in a matter of a few days.
One of the things that has changed is that I am more determined than ever before to ensure a work-life balance that allows me to be home, present and upbeat to support my family. This doesn’t mean that I work any less hard, but that I value my time and assert my needs more effectively than I did before. This was definitely a skill that I learned during my paternal leave, between entertaining a toddler and managing an unpredictable newborn, I had to manage my free time and needs effectively.
Why does it matter?
There has been a lot light being shed on pay inequality between men and women. This is an ongoing struggle in many fields, women are even more likely to be held back in their careers if they chose to become mothers. This has been researched, documented and written about many times over. A recent research highlights the fact that even in a country like Denmark which has an excellent leave policy for new parents and heavily subsidized childcare, mothers end up earning as much as 20% less than women without children.
Paternity leave is important because we need to rethink what we expect a caregiver to look like. Mothers end up paying a pretty high penalty in their financial security by birthing a child, whereas fathers don’t. The only way this will change is if fathers push for more opportunities to be present in their children’s lives, and when presented with opportunities, act on them. I will definitely support any dad wanting to take his leave any way I can.