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.
Him: [Hastily] But it’s OK, we’ve been in, and she’s fine.
Me: What happened?
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.
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.