In November 2015 I went back to work. My husband, Alan, stayed at home with our then 10 month old son to finish the year of parental leave. It was both the most amazing experience for all three of us and a steep learning curve but we would do it again in a shot. It was something we decided we would try fairly soon after we found out we were expecting. Alan wanted to do it and who was I to hog the baby? Then we had Evan and fell madly in love with him. Even if I had wanted to I don’t think Alan would have let me stay off instead of him.
For me 10 months was plenty of time off, I don’t think I could have gone back before 8/9 months but the last month of maternity leave I was chomping at the bit to get back. Alan was a little more nervous about being at home and “in charge” of our independently minded son but still very keen. Although his vision of building forts and playing all day quickly vanished.
What we learnt was that being a new dad on shared parental leave even when the baby is 10 months old and you think you have done lots of shared parenting isn’t that different to being a new mum but without the support of a team of health visitors and other new mums. It was a big change and not always as Alan expected it to be. Suddenly he had to do all Evan’s meals, get him to nap (particularly hard in the first few days when Daddy being home was far better than napping), shop, do washing and socialise. Even though we knew this would be the case it was a shock – partly because he tried to do things my way, rather than finding his way.
I had 2 things I did every week – Monday Playgroup and Baby Sensory. Both were with friends Alan knew and he did head off and do them. I think the first time he had to sit in a circle and sing “Evan’s here today, Evan’s here today, let’s all wave our hands, Evan’s here today” was so far out of his comfort zone it might as well have been on a different planet but he carried on going. Probably because of the scones. They bake nice scones at play group.
This is pretty much the scene –
Baby sensory was a more enjoyable experience. Probably because it was activity based so there was no awkward chatting to other parents and Evan loved it.
Both Baby sensory and playgroup were easier because he went with our friends, he wasn’t the only dad at play group but he was by far in the minority and the only one at Baby Sensory. Mums bond in the early days of babyhood with sharing intimate stories of birth, not sleeping and hormonal crying. Dads on parental leave join the party late, can’t really talk about stitches and pelvic floors and don’t have many other dads to talk to at the things set up for parents. This can only really be rectified when it becomes the norm and there are more new dads on leave, doing whatever suits them rather than trying to fit in with things that suit new mums. Saying that just having more dads at anything would help.
It was interesting the different comments Alan received compared with me. He was a novelty and nobody once asked him if he was going back to work. He was but he might not have been. Even our amazing health visitor who in all other regards was my rock in the early days reacted to Alan being off (she knew he was going to do it) as if it were a novelty at Evan’s one year check. I ended up crying telling her how unsupported we were in doing this. I suggested that health visitors should give any dads starting shared leave a call or even visit and treat them like the new parents they are. She was brilliant and said she hadn’t thought about it like that but would definitely take it on board and start to think what they could do to support new dads who are on leave.
For all the difficulties in adjusting Alan says he would do it all again in a shot. His bond with Evan is awesome, it has made us even more equal parents and it made my return to work easier. Until you have been off with a baby you really don’t know what it is like. It probably took 6 weeks to really settle into the rhythm of being at home and by then it was almost Christmas and it was almost over.
For Evan it was a great experience, he got 2 months of time with Alan which were different to time with me. The connection between them strengthened and we think it helped him when he went to nursery as he had already experienced a change of carer, albeit a less dramatic change than starting nursery.
We were lucky – we earn similar figures so financially it made little difference who was off but I know many couples find this the barrier to doing it. However I would say if you absolutely can do it then do – even if you don’t take the whole year to make it work. It gives the mum the chance to explore how she wants to go back – full time, part time or not at all and the dad the chance to be a dad.
We did learn some lessons and would do a few things differently next time –
- Have a handover week or fortnight – we had had a few weekend days where Alan had been in charge of things like the changing bag and deciding when Evan needed to eat or sleep but weekends are different.
- Alan would find his way of doing things. I never told him he had to do anything a particular way but he felt he should replicate my routines. I am an extrovert and multi-tasker. Alan is neither of these things and needed to find his way of doing things.
- Do activity based things so baby is occupied but it doesn’t involve lots of talking about how amazing it is that he as a man has done this amazing thing. (This amazing thing which is exactly the same non-amazing thing I had been doing for months)
It isn’t just about us though, until it becomes the norm for people to share parental leave it will always be tricky, not least until people stop treating dads as a novelty and think before they say or do something “would I be saying this to the mum?” They also need to acknowledge it is hard and it is more supportive to encourage than to comment on how it must be because it is so unusual.
Employers also have to get behind it. Difficult in a time when we are still fighting discrimination against women on maternity leave but if all parents take time off would it help that fight? I hope so. We have a very long way to go as as society until we catch up with Sweden and their Latte Dads but if we want an equal society we have to aim for it. It takes the pressure off men to always be the one to carry on working and allows women to return to work sooner.