The Frog Pyjamas

Two mums, one blog, two takes on parenting


Leave a comment

Daddy-time: Why we all loved paternity leave

A couple of weeks into paternity leave with our eight month-old daughter, my partner T. phoned me at work.

Him: Would you like to meet for lunch?
Me: [Delighted] How lovely. Yes. Where are you?
Him: Just down the road. We’re outside A&E.
Me: WHAT?
Him: [Hastily] But it’s OK, we’ve been in, and she’s fine.
Me: What happened?
[Pause]
Him: A pan fell on her head.
Me: [Horrified silence]
Him: [Small voice] But only a little one.

So far, so stereotypical. But that was more than a year ago, and we’ve all survived. More than that: sharing the parental leave was one of the best things we’ve done.

For him… well, he can speak for himself. [And does, below.] A. got to forge a close bond with an already adoring father which will last her all of her life. More immediately, she didn’t have to take one huge step (doing without me) at the same time as another (starting nursery). For me, it was a chance to reduce the hit that maternity leave inevitably takes on a mother’s career but without, in the first instance, having to leave my beloved little dot with strangers. (I went back three days a week at first, and that helped too.)

It was good for us all in another way, too: it forced me to shift from keeping a steely grip on baby-related decision-making to being prepared to trust him. More than that: to accept that, for a while, he would know more about her routine, her development, her likes and dislikes, than I did.

That wasn’t easy at first. I’d been her primary carer from the day she was born: breastfeeding (after a traumatic start), learning to make sense of her wants, getting some kind of a grip on her routine. Then weaning her, encouraging her, watching her past each milestone. Learning slowly how to be a parent, and then learning again, by changing every day how I did things. And all the time having her there, close by me, kissable on demand and almost always consolable in my arms or at my breast. Now, I had to hand her over, knowing he would make mistakes, wouldn’t do as I did, wouldn’t be able to reassure her as quickly as I could.

To make it even harder, for nearly six weeks of those months of intense mother-baby bonding T. hadn’t seen her at all. He’d been overseas for work. My first day back at the office, Little A.’s aunt would have done better on a “what does she need when?” quiz than her father. Probably her five year-old cousin would have.

For all that, it worked. For a few days, T. phoned me every half hour to check some small detail of routine or ask me where her shoes were. For a week after that, I was phoning him almost as often – for reassurance. The only person who adjusted seamlessly was Little A. herself. But we got there. And it was almost worth the stress of learning to leave her, to come back in the evenings to small chubby arms reaching out of a high chair, and a radiant smile on a food-smeared face.

True, T. didn’t – still doesn’t – look after Little A. exactly in the way I would. There was an awful lot of what he calls independent play and I call leaving her on the floor while he gets on with his own stuff. But then independence is a useful trait. Plus she wouldn’t have been up so many of Edinburgh’s hills on my back, nor been introduced at so early an age (ever, probably) to the joys of ornithology. And at least I came home to find my supper cooking away on the hob, which is more than T. did when I was on mat leave.

As for his pan-related blip? Well, probably the biggest challenge to co-parenting (for me) is coming to terms with different attitudes to risk. But, being charitable, parenting is a steep learning curve, and it’s even steeper, in some ways, if you are suddenly presented with a crawling, grabbing little monster, than if you can build up to it through the transition from staying put to reaching, rolling, udging, etc. And I’ve said it before: if we can’t force ourselves to leave dads to get on with the childcare, un-micro-managed, we’ll always be the “experts”, and we’ll always be expected to do all the work.

That’s where the new legislation comes in. For a month now, dads in England and Wales have been able to share parental leave. They even get some statutory pay for. Let’s hope it makes a difference: in 2013, only 1 in 172 dads was taking additional paternity leave. (For an exception, see my fellow blogger.) Even in Scotland, where some sharing was already an option, T. was very much the exception among our friends and colleagues.

I’m not sure how optimistic to be. Employers can always find more subtle ways to discourage new fathers: making them feel more vulnerable to redundancy, or encouraging a macho culture in which this just isn’t “done”. (In 2014, around 2 in 5 dads didn’t even take the paternity leave they were entitled to, apparently believing there was a social stigma around it.) There’s also the financial aspect.

And, of course, it’s not for everyone. Some mums, understandably enough, don’t want to give up any of this precious time. (As one friend put it: “The day he takes some of the pregnancy off me is the day he gets some of the maternity leave.”) But I can’t believe that the current imbalance is down to no other couples wanting to do it. So fingers crossed. As for us, we’re hoping to be able to do it again, this time next year.

T. says:

Why don’t we have five day weekends and two day weeks? A common refrain in many an office. Well, when I took paternity leave that’s exactly what I got. Five days of fun every week. Only two days of paid work, right enough, but one of us was always going to take the leave and we’re paid roughly the same so the family income wasn’t affected.

Setting it up was a breeze: the HR manager at work ran the process like clockwork. Technically I was not on paternity leave, as employment law stipulates that one cannot take that part-time. Instead I made a formal flexible-working arrangement for three months. My employers could have rejected my request but had they done so I could have forced the issue by requesting paternity leave and working no days. This arrangement suited both parties – they got me for two days of the working week and I got Little A. for three.

I took the leave from January to April. I was never worried about my ability to take care of A. but I was aware it would take some getting used to. Was I prepared? What would I forget? With this in mind, I took a day’s holiday and had a practice run. A. and I went to the museum and met a friend for lunch with Liz at home ready to help out if necessary. As it was, it all went well and when the big day came we happily waved Liz off to work and got ready for our day.

It was easy enough; A. was still sleeping twice per day so we went for long walks up the local hills while she did so. Between times we shopped or played, or she played and I cooked and cleaned. I also got to join the weekly meet-ups of the mothers and babies from our NCT group, which up to that point had been a mostly all-female affair. They were one of the highlights of my week. A. was lovely to spend time with but her conversation was rubbish.

While I have no problem with Liz’s parenting style, it is not the same as mine. I am far more willing than Liz to let A. try something and fail before helping her. I also have more faith in her ability to bounce – both literally and metaphorically. A bruise won’t kill her and nor should a setback stop her trying. The three months of Daddy-time allowed me to shape my daughter in the ways I wanted; they also let me learn how to care for her.

So do it: it gives you time off work; it give you precious time to be fly solo and finally it lets you bring up your kid in the way you want. One note of caution, though: don’t drop pans on your child’s head; trips to A&E are a real waste of time.


1 Comment

Double standards and the hands-on dad

They’re not as light as they look, are they, children? The picture of the buggy on the Mamas and Papas website portrays a svelte hipster in an achingly nice sweater propelling his Little Darling along without a care in the world. Probably he would glide casually up Gipsy Hill. Well, I’m no hipster. I’m an overweight 1990s throwback and I used to dislike climbing up that hill when all I had to do was pick up our curry for two from Crystal Palace. With my child in tow I have seriously considered crampons and a rope.

It’s the trips first thing that bite the hardest, when the air is cold and apparently serrated as it stabs its way down to my pounding lungs; my legs still ache from wandering aimlessly around the lounge the night before fruitlessly trying to settle The Boy; and my head aches from dehydration because for some days now there hasn’t really been enough time to pour myself a glass of water. When I reach the top I pause and gaze back over London. I pretend it’s to enjoy the view, but when you’re basically crying because you’re so unfit you can’t see much anyway. I stop simply so I don’t keel over. It is on such a morning and in just such a state of obliterated reverie that a woman stops her car at the traffic lights, winds her window down and yells at me: “Nice to see a father doing a shift for a change!”

I don’t react, partly because I haven’t regained the power of speech after my mountaineering exertions, but mostly because I am a little shocked at being screamed at, and bewildered by what might cause someone to reach such as state of agitation that they bawl at me in the middle of the road before driving on. How egregious must my gender appear to her to be, that it should provoke such an odd reaction to the sight of a man pushing his child up a hill?

The Boy is sick, a consequence of eating mud, or poo, or another child’s finger, or some such hostile infiltrator of our carefully and endlessly sterilised and disinfected existence, and I am off to Sainsbury’s to buy some form of chemical plug for his effervescent rear end. His front end is pretty volatile when it comes to that, and my lurch up Gipsy Mountain has been accompanied by bouts of prolonged, agonized screeching. All illnesses suffered by an infant are of course exacerbated by their immediately catching a cold. In short, his world is ending, the ravens are leaving the tower, all is lost, and worse still his teeth are all hurty. Happily we are still at the stage where the dummy is a pacifier rather than a useful projectile weapon, and so it is that, finally becalmed, we mooch forlornly around the aisles looking for his medicine.

I used self-service supermarket tills long before The Boy was born, essentially because I am a misanthrope, and any form of interaction avoidance technology is absolutely fine by me. But there is a flaw in the system, a loophole exposed by The Boy’s company and ruthlessly exploited by enemy forces. The prowling assistant whose job it is to relieve bagging areas of their unexpected items will make a beeline for any buggy. The one in Crystal Palace Sainsbury’s is particularly persistent. “Breathe on her,” I plead with The Boy inwardly as she inevitably approaches, “breathe on her hard. Give her your cold. It’s the only way she’ll learn. It’s too late for us, but you might just save others.”

“Isn’t he amazing?” asks the assistant, apparently rhetorically, bending over the buggy. I smile. As it happens I agree with her. The Boy glares. We routinely tell friends The Boy takes against that it’s random and he’s just in a bad mood. He isn’t. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He just doesn’t like you, and he doesn’t like the persistent assistant in Crystal Palace Sainsbury’s.

“You’re amazing,” she continues, firmly unabashed, “but you don’t need that, do you.” With that she reaches into the buggy, removes the dummy from his mouth, and then wanders off to help someone buying a six pack of Tennent’s who can’t do so without its being verified that he is eighteen. That it’s 8.30 in the morning, and the singular odour of the individual in question suggests that he’s already put away three or four, is not an impediment to the persistent assistant’s willingness to verify, cheered as she is by her heart-warming encounter with my child, fortified by the sense that she has righted a hapless father’s mistake.

You will think I should have said something to this idiot. You might say I should have retorted with something sharp and witty to the woman who stopped her car to yell at me. I should certainly have said something unpleasant to the toothy Underground gate attendant who, having obsequiously held the luggage gate open for the improbably attractive mother pushing the ostentatiously vast pram, let it swing back on The Boy and me at Tower Hill. I might have been more aggressive in pursuit of a seat on the train home from London, when all those miserable bastards looked up, thought, “he’s a man, he’ll cope” and stayed exactly where they were. I could have pulled my colleague up when, after what I will admit was a fairly melodramatic, morning-after rendering of the story of what a nightmare The Boy had been when I tried to get him to go to sleep the night before, she replied with a sympathetic tut and the line “sometimes they just want their mum, don’t they…”

The truth is my stock reaction to all of these offences – and they are offensive, not innocent mistakes or me taking it wrongly, but considered, prejudiced views of fathers generally – is to smile weakly and walk on. The anger hits me ten minutes later, when having run the incident or conversation back through my mind I realise that it would not have happened had The Boy’s mother been pushing the buggy. The delay is caused by the fact that the prejudice is in me too. I can’t very well be morally outraged (I have a good go, mind) because ten months ago I would have made a lot of the same mistakes. Although I like to think that I wouldn’t have snatched a dummy out of the mouth of someone else’s child, and it wouldn’t have occurred to me to stop my car to yell at a dad in the street.

There’s an extent to which we bring this nonsense on ourselves. Just one in 172 fathers take Additional Paternity Leave. Certainly among the couple of dozen fathers at my office I am the only one who has done so to date. Worse still, four in ten fathers don’t take paternity leave at all. Statistically, therefore, fatherhood is a relatively rare public sight. I can be as upset as I like by it but I ought not to be surprised.

A recent Frog Pyjamas post makes the point that the very terminology of fatherhood is wrong. I am not “happy to help out”. Happiness doesn’t come into it. (For the sake of clarity, I am well beyond merely being “happy” to be a father, and never more so than when I returned to Sainsbury’s the following weekend and saw the persistent assistant sneezing heavily.) But I know dads who refer to looking after their kids alone in the evening as “babysitting” without thinking it’s at all an odd way to put it. When I breathlessly announced my impending fatherhood to my male colleagues, my trembling hand clasping the grainy picture of what we had been assured by the medical staff was some form of human life, I felt the searching glances of more than one of them, trying to determine whether I regarded these tidings as wonderful or a dire, personal tragedy.

My own father, for whom such things as Additional Paternity Leave were not available, gazed sagely down on his grandson on hearing these complaints and remarked that such sexism will probably be a thing of the past when The Boy is staggering around with his own buggy. I’m not so sure. Equality tends only to come to those who campaign for it. At the very least it requires dads like me to stop grinning and walking on.

Guest blogger: Steve

Grumpy father trying and failing to resist the unbending and thus far all-powerful will of his first child


1 Comment

Let’s change how we talk about dads and childcare

My partner and I both have full-time paid jobs and our one-year-old daughter is in nursery four days a week. I work a compressed week (five days’ work in four days) and do about two thirds of the childcare and half of the housework and cooking. T. works five days a week and does the rest. I’ve lost track of how often I’ve been told how lucky I am that he does so much. No-one (apart from me) has ever told him how lucky he is that I do even more, or for that matter how unlucky he is to have less time with little A. Instead, he gets told how unusual he is.

What’s not unusual is, unfortunately, this discrepancy in how we’re judged. Take the disapproving reaction to my friend’s announcement that she would have to spend a few nights away for work when her daughter was 11 months old. “But what will happen to the baby?” she was asked – not once, but repeatedly. “Err – she has a father.” T. spent five weeks abroad when Little A. was five months’ old, and not once were we asked who would be looking after her.

Or take this mother’s article, which the same friend posted on Facebook. The author had attracted cyber-fury for daring to say that looking after children can be boring, but what horrified my friend was the casual way in which this liberal, professional woman described her husband as ‘helping’ her with their young children.

And that’s the particularly depressing thing: it’s not just men who are using this vocabulary (although particular mention should go to the two male friends of friends who describe themselves as ‘babysitting’ when they look after their own children, especially the one who demands a day playing golf to recover). It’s also women, including intelligent, modern, well-educated women for whose opinion I generally have a lot of time.

I have no problem with saying I am lucky in some of the things my partner does. I’m lucky that he’s a great cook, that he is a ‘morning person’ happy to do breakfast and the nursery drop-off most days, and that he has become so obsessed with vacuuming (a task I hate) that he doesn’t trust me to do it properly. I’m less lucky that he thinks sheets should be left to fester on the bed for at least a year, regards his mountain bike as second in importance only to our daughter, and is apparently incapable of putting washed clothes away or taking out the recycling.

But that works for him too. He’s lucky that I have juggled my working hours, starting early and foregoing lunch breaks, so that we can keep Little A. out of nursery one day a week. He’s less so that I never do the washing up, and am so monumentally bad about getting out of bed that every one of those early starts becomes a whirlwind of rushed crossness which I somehow make into his fault. We are both lucky in having an enchanting, affectionate and good-natured little girl (5am rage aside), which tips the balance in the delight/endurance see-saw that is looking after a toddler.

However, I do have a problem with being called ‘lucky’ for the mere fact that T. takes on any of these tasks. Yes, there’s one sense in which I am, if ‘lucky’ means ‘luckier than most’ or, for too many of the mums I know, ‘luckier than me’. A recent mumsnet survey confirms what plays out among most of my friends and family: that even working mothers still do the majority of household chores and childcare. But using terms like ‘lucky’ (me) or ‘good’ (him) implies that a father who does more than nothing (although less than half!) is going well beyond what can be expected of him. Subtext: childcare and housework are a mum’s job. Even when she has another one as well. (Or, for the stay-at-home-mum, even in weekends and evenings, when other people’s ‘day jobs’ come to an end.)

This infuriates me. But then I can hardly criticise when I do something almost as bad myself: incessant micromanaging. It won’t help to correct any gender imbalance that dads are so often written off as incompetent carers. (My friend, asked who would look after her baby when she was away, was not only outraged on principle but also insulted on her husband’s behalf.) And it will be hard to do anything about that impression if even those of us who don’t believe it are incapable of handing over the baby without a list of detailed instructions.

Of course, stopping is a lot easier said than done. (I’m saying it, but I’ve so far failed completely to do it. Just ask T.) The very fact that mums do more childcare tends to make us the experts – plus we are often more risk averse – and it’s almost impossible to leave anything to chance when it comes to your little one’s well-being. But maybe we should bite our tongue sometimes. Is the baby actually in danger? No, then let it go. Because every time we explain to a father how to feed, dress, or entertain his own child, we only reinforce the archaic idea that it’s our role to do all that, and we are just temporarily delegating.

I realise that for some women that’s not necessarily a problem: two thirds of working mums are happy with the way things are, according to mumsnet, or at least don’t want their partners to do more. I certainly don’t want less time with my little daughter. But I wish the women surveyed had been asked not just whether they wanted their partners to take on more childcare or housework, but whether they would have liked them to find more time to do things together as a family. I have a feeling the results would have been different.

Where the current situation suits both partners, great (although that still leaves us with the question of why dads are so much less likely to ‘choose’ time with children rather than at work/exercising/in the pub). But for the sake of those mums who aren’t so happy (and there are plenty), perhaps we could all rethink some of the signals we send. It won’t solve anything: we need social, legal and cultural change to do that, starting with Scandinavian-style parental leave. But it would show that we don’t buy into a set of stereotypes our grandmothers would recognise.

So let’s try to trust our partners a bit more when they are looking after our (and their!) children. And please can we have a ban on terms like ‘lucky’ or ‘helping out’ when it comes to dads and housework or childcare. If you wouldn’t praise a mum for doing something, don’t praise a dad for doing it. Or better still, praise them both.