What it means to be a Dad going on parental leave

We’ve heard a lot about maternal leaves and what working moms go through, the insecurities, the challenges, the fear of being left behind in their careers, stories of people who were replaced/laid off on returning to work and everything else that comes with it. But, strangely for some reason, I’ve never come across a Dad-story, and so I thought I’ll may be go ahead and share mine.

What this article is: This piece is a gentle nudge to remind all you new (soon to be) dads out there, that YOU are worth it too!

yupPhoto by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

Context

This is the first time in over a decade that I had the opportunity to slow down, stop running and actually enjoy a breath of fresh air, and focus on family without having to think of work, projects, slack messages, zoom calls or anything career related.

Me and my wife were expecting our second child, and my workplace had a 20 week paternal leave policy for new dads that could be availed all at once or broken down into smaller breaks over the course of a year. We were quite excited about this massive privilege of my being able to stay at home to take care of the baby for 5 whole months. This was very different from how things were when I had my first born, Liam. My previous work place had a 5 day paternal leave policy, while my wife’s employer gave new mothers the standard 6 months. So, for someone such as myself this was a huge deal!

Flashback: When we became parents the first time

Chaos! That’s how life was. Five years ago, we were quite under prepared and clueless on what the baby needed. Whether he was sleep deprived, hungry, had colic issues, soiled his diapers etc. Its funny how the entire family (grandparents included) used to stay awake throughout the night, taking turns to calm the crying baby, not knowing what he was actually experiencing. It was an absolute disaster!

On the work front, I wouldn’t say it was hard to focus or get into the zone. But, my sleeplessness, had clearly slowed me down. And, coffee being a savior, is an understatement!

Every time I missed my infant, I’d smell my hand.. it had his scent.. that smell of a new born.. it evoked a whole different bundle of emotions.

My heart yearned for the day to end quick so that I could get back to my son, and relieve my wife from the chores she was clearly overwhelmed with.

Some of Liam’s old clothes still has that faint scent of him from when he was an infant. Though there is one question I do ask myself today.. Why didn’t I use my earned / paid leaves and stay back for a few more days? I don’t remember.

Present day: The skepticism of making use of the parental leave policy

As our due date arrived closer and I had to decide my leave plans, despite the excitement of being privileged, I could feel a sense of skepticism creeping in. And, this only grew more as the dates progressed. I even mentioned it to my manager about considering to forfeit a couple of months and resume work. (I know it sounds stupid, but that’s how I felt).

May be it was more to do with dealing with the “guilt“ for getting paid to do nothing.

Or may be.. I didn’t feel worthy of those leaves because I was just a dad, and not a mum.. Or was it the awkward feeling that my entire team was working, while I didn’t have to.. May be it had to do with the pace of my career graph being affected that I was concerned about (this was quite trivial, but I did feel a pinch of it in a deep corner of my heart). But, the biggest one I remember was the impact of my not being there for my product teams, and the shortage of designers we already had.. This was up there on the list! I just couldn’t walk away. It made me feel super guilty (a.k.a crappy)! That was one hell of an emotional phase personally.

Thanks to this wonderful human in the form of my boss, who put some sense into me and pushed me to make use of this opportunity of a life time. These were her wise words..

“Are you gonna forfeit your leaves today only to look back at it 5 years from now to feel stupid about the decision you made Kasi? Work will take care of itself. These days are never gonna come back. Decide well.

And guess what, the adamant me still went ahead and took only a month’s break and planned on getting back to work thinking I’ll take the rest in similar chunks so that project work doesn’t get impacted. Besides, taking my leaves once my wife exhausted her’s seemed super pragmatic on paper.. But, what a huge blunder that was! I should have listened!

Parenting struggles: Back to square one

From the moment the new baby came home, we realized that no amount of mental preparation, effort, acceptance of life, or honest intent was going to be good enough. Especially while dealing with our older son Liam, who was so used to being pampered and spoiled for four years straight. It was quite naive on my part to think that one month of undivided attention from me towards the older child, while Nancy took care of the infant, would do the trick and help him (and us) deal with this new transition. Big mistake!

We were falling short in almost every aspect of parenting!

I’d still claim that we were pros at dealing with the new born child though, since we were already aware of the drill – Sleep, Milk, Potty, Repeat. Besides the fact that, this boy happened to fortunately be on the calmer side. Lets hope I don’t jinx it!

Liam loved his baby brother and adored him, but, it did take a toll since we expected him to magically be more matured and behave like a grown up child out of the blue!

“Be gentle”, “Don’t scream!”, “Don’t play with noisy toys!”, “The baby’s asleep”, “Don’t touch his face!” “Did you wash your hands?”, “Don’t kiss the baby, you have a flu” and an endless list of “Don’t do’s”.

This was very subconscious on our part, but, the number of nights we went to sleep with guilt for venting out at our older child who was clearly struggling, was one of the worst feelings as a parent.

Not to mention the emotions of not being able to offload your wife from all this trauma, and letting her focus peacefully on healing and getting back to life. That was a whole different sense of falling short for me personally.

Addressing the elephant in the room

The only thing that worked in our favor was, we were still willing to be kind to ourselves and accepting of our flaws as parents, and constantly reminding ourselves that we were human too. This is extremely hard to do. All our energy went into tweaking one parenting strategy after another, day after day. By noon we’d usually find ourselves totally drained of every ounce of energy.

Though it did feel good to keep persevering to be better parents, I was clearly struggling.

Eventually, I had to acknowledge the elephant in the room. My trying to balance work and personal life, was what was making everybody’s life a lot harder than it was actually supposed to be. So I did the obvious..

“F**k this, I ain’t gonna wait till my wife exhausts her maternal leave, or take my breaks as one month chunks.. I’m just gonna take all of mine at once, and be available 24*7 for the family.. and most importantly for myself.”

By far the second best decision I’ve made in life! (We’ll reserve the first best decision for a different day). And, as my boss said, work did take care of itself afterall!

The wholesome four months

It was quite appalling to realise the amount of head space work life actually took.. and how relieving it could be to not have to constantly hustle or think about any of it. That feeling of being present in the moment, was beyond empowering!

Liam began doing a lot better. We were able to conserve our energies for longer. The new baby was (and is) growing insanely fast, and we are beginning to hit one milestone after another. And, Nancy is finally able to get those 3–4hours of undisturbed sleep at a stretch (we are yet to be consistent though), but this is a huge win for us as a family.

This progress that we are experiencing, is something that me and my family are truly grateful for.

To all you new Dads out there

Not many have the privilege to stay back at home for weeks, let alone months to spend with their new born children or help out their partners with everyday chores. To you I say, I truly empathize with you. And, I don’t take my privilege for granted.

My appeal to all you new Dads though is, even an extra week or two of you being wholly present at home for your families, can do wonders! Not just for them, but for you too!

You’ll realise you are able to be a much better parent, partner, and a more liberated employee at the end of all this.

One thing men fail to remember is that, you are also going through a transition yourselves just as much as your partners are. Off-course there is no comparison to what a mother undergoes, but your mind is also experiencing an array of complex emotions, anxiety, fear and all those insecurities that are playing in an endless loop.. only you know what’s happening deep within.

Takeaways

  • Be kind to yourself, and take that much needed break. And do it guilt free.
  • Plan your paid leaves better incase you don’t have a good parental leave policy.
  • There’s nothing to feel embarrassed about. You’ve earned it.
  • And remember.. You, are worth it too!

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Kasinatha Rao

Senior designer at Atlassian. I write about Design, and what it means to be a Designer in the world of tech.