It’s now around seven weeks since I donned my suit for the first time in 13 weeks and hopped on a train to Manchester to return to work after my shared parental leave. After a little round of applause as I walked back into the office (nice touch!), it didn’t take me long to get back in the groove. Sensibly I eased myself back in with a couple of shorter weeks (a day off for Tessa’s birthday and then the bank holiday) and then had a week off in Devon over Tessa’s half term – you didn’t expect me to go all out straight away did you? I’m now back fully in the swing of things and my shared parental leave is already starting to feel like a distant memory! So now is the time to have a look back at my time off and see if it was what I expected and see what lessons I’ve learned.
When I started my leave and started this blog, I did a post setting out why I was taking shared parental leave (https://bethedaddy.blog/2019/01/21/the-journey-begins/). Clearly the main reason was to spend the time with the kids, but I also wanted to use the time to better myself: as a Dad, a husband and in my own mind. I also wanted to see what I could take from it and apply to my working life too. Looking back now I definitely feel the time off has bettered me in these respects. I also feel we will be much better off as a family unit for my time off too. And if that’s the case, then it’s all been well worth it!
I suppose the sorts of questions I’m being asked now I’m back at work are:
1. Did you enjoy it?
2. Am I glad I did it?
3. Would I do it again?
And my answer to all those questions is a resounding yes. And I’d encourage any other Dads in waiting to consider it too. I’ve got so much out of taking that time and the kids have too. The obvious reward from taking the leave is the time together. Time we’d never otherwise have had and time I won’t get again in normal circumstances. It’s back to making the most of holidays and weekends together now. Whilst I was off I’ve been able to do the school run on a daily basis, nursery runs, go to classes such as messy play and play groups, do craft activities and make things, go out places, and enjoy taking on a much more hands on approach – all things which some parents (be it Mums or stay at home Dads) might consider a little mundane and sometimes take for granted, but which I will be forever grateful for having the opportunity to do these things. I feel like it’s helped me ensure I am not letting parts of my children’s lives pass me by and I’ve experienced those special moments with them.
The benefit of shared parental leave
A new Dad, adjusting to a monumental life change and learning to get to grips with being responsible for a living, breathing tiny human, will often get just two weeks off at home before returning to work. Those two weeks pass by in a blur and you’re back in the day job, tired and confused and your wife is literally left holding the baby, fending for herself. This means that a new Dad barely learns how to hold the baby, change a nappy and bath the baby, before he’s back in work and getting evening snippets of baby time (often over the grumpy witching hour!). After a short sharp burst of paternity leave a dad might end up feeling a little redundant, won’t understand the issues Mummy has going on at home and both partners might face growing resentment of each other – Mum wishing she had the freedom to go to work and not be tied to the child all the time and Dad wishing he had more time with the baby. After only a short bit of paternity leave, a Dad may also have to wait a longer period to develop a stronger bond with the baby too. It’s by no means a natural or easy stage to go through, particular after such a life changing event. It’s no wonder why many new Mums and I’m sure (even if less spoken about) new Dads, may feel down or suffer from post-natal depression after the birth.
It’s for this reason that shared parental leave (SPL) is great all round. It allows parents to share 50 weeks of leave between them, 39 of which will be paid leave (excluding any enhanced packaged your workplace might offer). You can take time off together or in whatever format you like and that works best for you. In my situation, Karen had the first 9 months off with Toby as maternity leave and then part shared parental leave (which bit she took unpaid). I then had 13 weeks off which included 3 weeks off together at the start. This allowed us some time off together which was great and then I was let loose on my own with the three of them! It meant I got some special time alone with Toby and so he is probably closer to me than the girls were at his age – comfortable in going to either me or Karen if he is upset and equally happy to see us both if we’ve been out and away from him. I’m lucky that I have close bonds with my girls too, but I think that’s through my efforts in spending time and having fun with them, but I definitely think SPL gives a Dad a chance to cement that bond earlier on.
So what have I learned whilst I’ve been off ?
Parenting is tough! – I started this blog predominantly as a means to record my time off and something for us as a family to look back on, particularly when the kids are older. Now looking back at some of my posts, it’s very clear that taking my leave has reinforced the basic fact that parenting is tough (see https://bethedaddy.blog/2019/03/18/a-tough-gig-why-parenting-is-like-being-in-the-sas-well-almost/) . Especially with three little ones running rings round you! Of course I knew this beforehand, but now I really know and understand the difficulties and pressures Karen faced on her first two periods of maternity leave and again with Toby and that she has on her time with the kids on her day and a half off each week. Parenting is relentless. You cannot stop and take a break if it gets a bit too much. If you’re suffering from lack of sleep or have a load of life admin issues preying on your mind, you have to keep going. But, and this BUT is bigger than J-Lo-s, Kim Kardashian’s and Beyoncé’s butts all together – parenting is wonderful gift and opportunity. If you get through those tough bits, the rewards are endless and you will invariably better yourself as a person and be able to see the fruits of your labour in your beautiful children as they grow.
Preparation is key – Being prepared and organised as a parent helps makes things a little easier. I wrote a blog post titled “planning and preparation permits plentiful participation (and prevents p*ss poor parenting performance)” – alliteration at its best (https://bethedaddy.blog/2019/03/04/planning-preparation-permits-plentiful-participation-playtime-and-prevents-pss-poor-parenting-performance/). That post still rings true and more so now Karen and I are back at work. If I was organised when I was off – school uniform out, breakfast fruit chopped up and in the fridge ready for the morning , bags packed ready the night before, the following day was always much easier. It freed me up to be able to have a shower, reduced the stress of having to get to school on time and made morning a lot better and meant I could get out and about in the day time. It did mean being disciplined, but it was worth it and we were able to get out and about and do things a lot more. This leads into the next issue…
Get out and about every day – Looking after children, particularly ones under the age of one who can’t talk back to you, who need constant attention and caring for, if you don’t get out and about to do things and see other people, life can become difficult and it’s easy to let things get on top of you. I wanted to experience parenthood in the first year of Toby’s life in all its glory – play groups, health visitor check ups, planning food and also doing things with the girls like school and nursery runs too – and I threw myself into it. About just over half way through my SPL though, Toby had been sleeping badly, I was tired, the weather had taken a turn for the worse and I found myself having a couple of days where I didn’t get out as much and they were tough. Another post I wrote about mental and physical well-being as a parent summed up my thoughts on this – https://bethedaddy.blog/2019/04/26/parental-well-being-battling-the-mental-and-physical-devils-on-your-shoulder/. As well as getting out and about, I was also lucky to work with Karen so I could fit in exercise as well – another essential ingredient to a balanced and healthy life!
Make memories and spend time with your children individually – Whilst I was off on my SPL we did loads of stuff as a family, but I was also able to spend time with both Tessa and Tilly individually as well as Toby. With Toby we had play groups, messy play and loads of fun filled time together. With Tilly, I had some time with her on my own when Karen was off on Tuesdays and would take Toby off to a class herself. Tilly and I went out for lunch together a few times, went to soft play and it was great hanging out just the two of us.
I was also able to take both girls out together – once to a great place in Liverpool call Imagine That – full of role play, science and craft activities – and Karen I also took them to Gullivers World whilst we were away with her Mum and Dad (who had Toby for us). I took Tess out for a trip to a Total Ninja/trampoline place too which she loved. Both for the activity and for spending time alone with me. Lovely memories all round!
Whilst we know that we can’t spend any significant time with each of the kids alone each week, we can have snippets most days – for example, stories before bed or playing a game. Then, occasionally we will each try and do something a bit more exciting with each of them on their own as a special treat. It’s these sorts of memories that are important and which the kids will remember when they are older. You do have to plan this time a little, but I think it’s so important. So if you have more than one child, try and spend time with each of them on their own if you can!
Families working together makes it all possible – having done the SPL, one of the big plusses is how we’re tighter and more understanding as a family unit. I understand a lot more of the ‘mother load’ that Karen has been harbouring for the last few years (i.e. before I’d had chance to fully understand the parenting home life on my own day-in, day-out). Even though I’ve always helped out a lot around the house with the day to day jobs, I think Karen is pleased that I’m now naturally thinking of all the other things that need sorting out that I might not have thought about before – bags for school or nursery, what’s needed for after school activities like Brownies or gymnastics, pick ups, holiday care and so on. There’s certainly been less arguments over these issues since I had my time off! I think she also appreciates that working when your partner is at home with the kids can bring about it’s own issues and thoughts: whether it be a hint of jealousy over time with the kids, or the nice feeling you get when you walk in after a long day and tea is already prepared and the place in a semi-tidy state! I did try whilst I was off to maximise the household jobs each day and to organise meals as far as possible (although this isn’t always possible with all the running around we have to do!) and we’re now pretty well balanced as a family – more so than before my SPL I’d say.
Well, the above is a bit of a whistle-stop look back on my SPL and some of the things I’ve learned along the way. I experienced the reality of baby groups and messy play sessions (if you see me singing nursery rhymes on the train commute to work now you’ll know why!), I enjoyed playground chit-chat with other mums and dads, I made robots out of cardboard and bottles, prepped meals, changed more nappies than you could shake a stick at, endured sleepless nights … and had loads of fun and loved it all.
I’m really pleased I took SPL and proud of myself for doing so as well. I know the uptake on SPL amongst working men in the UK is pitifully low – less than 5% on figures to date since 2015. The reasons for this are multiple it seems, some common ones being:
- fear of how you might be perceived by friends and peers – i.e. it’s not the done manly thing to do (hello dark ages!!);
- fear that it might impact your career and progression in the workplace;
- fear you might not be able to cope at home on your own with the baby;
- financial worries about taking time off if you’re the main bread-winner.
Fear can consume you and if you live your life ruled by it you’ll not make much progress. I was all too happy to go out of my comfort zone with my children on my SPL and although I did have some doubts about how it might be perceived, I adopted the view that I didn’t care. It was something for me and my family and, actually, the overwhelming response has been incredibly positive – a lot of older men I’ve spoken to about indicated they’d have liked the chance to do something like SPL when they had their children and there’s been less than a handful who have poured scorn on my decision. I hope to take this attitude back to my working life now too – not to let fear hold me back. To be more confident, to go out of my comfort zone and challenge myself. In a very cheesy type of way – to ‘be the Daddy’ in every walk of life!
In fact, the positive responses I have had to taking my SPL and to writing this blog mean that I now want to get across to as many people as possible what a great experience SPL is and can be. I was lucky that we weren’t hit too much financially by my time off as my work did have an enhanced scheme for SPL, and I see the finance issue as the one reason which does make it difficult, but I would have looked to have taken sometime off regardless and I urge others to do so too – it’s time you’ll never get back and which is so special – even if it’s an extra 2, 3 or 4 weeks later in the baby’s first year after the initial paternity leave.
Anyway, that’s my story and my lessons. I hope to keep writing this blog and to write a few bits for other organisations/bodies who promote SPL and flexible working for Dads. I think it is possible to be a great Dad and have a good career. It takes determination, discipline and drive (more alliteration), and there’ll certainly be bumps along the way, but it means you won’t let life pass you by (or your kids’ lives) and I guarantee you’ll be much better for the experience.
Thanks for reading and see you all soon!
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