In the year that the world turned upside down, I became a parent for the first time. During a period where so many people lost, I was lucky enough to gain. Since becoming a dad, I have learnt an incredible amount about my son, myself and how I want to parent.
The conundrum of work life balance was something I worried about before my son was born, but I soon realised that it simply came down to choices. Choices that my partner and I could make to ensure we could be the parents we wanted to be, but also to continue to attribute the focus to our own careers and achieve the success we both wanted.
Preparing for our lives to change
When my partner and I discovered we were expecting a little one, our minds immediately turned to the type of parents we wanted to be. Supportive, involved, encouraging and loving, all came to mind. I knew I wanted to be an active dad, one that contributed equally, not fulfilling any antiquated parenting stereotypes.
We talked about how we would balance work and family life which led us to the topic of maternity and paternity leave. We quickly agreed that we would take advantage of shared parental leave, allowing us both time to spend with our first child and be the primary caregiver. My partner’s enhanced maternity leave led us to decide that she would take the first 9 months, and I would then take months 10-12. At one year old we would send our little one to nursery, and both return to work.
The decision to collectively take the full 12 months off meant we would be down to a single household income for 3 months, and a reduced income for more than 6. Taking the decision at the beginning of the pregnancy allowed us to set aside a budget that would become a monthly allowance throughout the shared parental leave period. The allowance meant that whoever was off work had some degree of financial independence. Although lockdown restricted many of the plans we had for our son, the financial freedom this allowance gave us was huge in reducing the stress of a single income household.
Preparing for shared parental leave
The circumstances of lockdown made the idea of shared parental leave significantly less intimidating for me. I worked at home throughout the UK lockdowns, so I had the opportunity to see our son’s behaviour at different times of day, and importantly the tactics my partner used to keep him entertained and happy.
The reality of shared parental leave didn’t hit home until 2 weeks before I was due to leave work. This wasn’t a handover for 2 weeks, I was handing over my role and responsibilities to people around me, in the same way I would do if I was leaving the business. I was lucky, I had a very talented team around me, and I felt secure in the role that I was leaving. That isn’t to say that I didn’t have doubts, but I didn’t let those doubts overshadow the excitement I had for the 3 months ahead of me.
Becoming the primary care giver
The shared parental leave experience was a hugely enjoyable one. That isn’t to say that I didn’t have moments of panic, or absolute self-doubt. At times I had never felt so unprepared for anything in my life. In the first couple of weeks, I must have phoned my mum and sister – who has a baby one week older than ours – about 4 times per day each, just for reassurance.
But I soon established a routine that worked for me and Harry. As I moved out of survival mode, I began to notice small changes up close. These would become the significant developments you look back on as milestones. I remember Harry when he started rocking on all fours, which then became crawling.
I began to really enjoy our time together, I learnt what would make him smile and what would make him giggle.
I‘m not claiming it was a perfect 3 months. It wasn’t all laughs and giggles. Being the primary care giver can be an incredibly frustrating and lonely job. The times when no matter what I tried he wouldn’t take a nap and would then become over tired, or when he just rolled around crying for no reason. But those are the memories that fade and become less vivid, allowing the happy memories to live long in the memory.
There were so many happy moments we spent together that I never would have experienced without spending each and every day with him for those 3 months.
I have established an incredibly strong bond with my son, that I wouldn’t change for anything.
What I have learnt from shared parental leave and how it will impact my actions at work.
Since returning from shared parental leave I have reflected on what I learnt and what I can take forward with me as I engage with family, friends and colleagues.
1. Patience is a skill that will support the development of others
There were so many times where it would have been quicker and easier for me to do something for Harry, rather than allow him to try it for himself. We took a baby led weening approach, which saw Harry feed himself almost entirely from 6 months. The additional time and mess at mealtimes was hugely testing. But the learning curve this gave him has made a significant difference to areas such as his coordination.
The same could be said of people around you who are developing their craft at work. In many cases it may be easier to the do the job yourself, but then no one benefits. You are replicating a task that is familiar, that prevents you learning new skills, and it restricts the learning opportunities of individuals around you.
2. Being childlike is sometimes a good thing
Taking the perspective of a child provides two significant benefits.
- It simplifies decision making and encourages progress. We have become incredibly skilled at overcomplicating decision making, over scrutinising inconsequential details so that it takes a huge amount of time and number of people to reach a decision. It sees people consumed by choice or indecision which prevents progress. Children see the world in very simple terms. They identify the challenge, getting from point A to point B, and then they try different methods to achieve that goal. Learnings are immediate, but they all contribute to the progress toward the goal.
- It makes everything more fun, and this breads greater creativity. I smiled and laughed more in those months with Harry than I have in any previous 3 month period of adulthood. I made games out of the simplest of objects, to both challenge Harry, and also to allow myself time to make coffee. Taking the time to see a situation through the eyes of a child can open up new possibilities and much more interesting ways to get to the answer.
3. A person’s actions are rarely intended to offend you. Assess your reaction and consider their motives genuine, before you let it get to you.
There were times that something Harry would do would annoy me, like throwing a meal on the floor I had just made for him. I found it incredibly frustrating seeing the work I had put into food prep go immediately to waste. It quickly became apparent that getting annoyed only served to impact me and the way I felt. Harry was 10 months old, he wasn’t acting to annoy me, he wasn’t trying to get a reaction out of me. He simply wanted to know what would happen when food hit the floor.
The way we receive information is impacted by a number of factors – our current mindset, our previous experiences, our cognitive biases, to name a few. None of these account for how the information was intended to be received or the motivations of the provider.
Before assumption and interpretation allow you to become annoyed, spend some time to understand their motivations and what has led them to communicate with you in that way. We are all human, we are all imperfect. Understanding what they actually need and why will support a better relationship and more transparent communication in future.
To confirm… Harry still throws food on the floor.
Calling on more dads to take shared parental leave
What quickly became apparent during my leave, was that our family situation was the exception. There was a thriving new mums’ community in our area, but no more than a handful of dads who were planning to do more than their allocated period of paternity leave. In the very few baby classes that ran during my period of leave (due to lockdown), I was most often the only dad in the room. Many mums were not clear on the shared parental leave policy available to them and their partner.
I am fortunate that OMD EMEA has a clear and easy to access policy on shared parental leave, which was explained clearly by the People Team. I have also seen other dads from across the business take up the opportunity. My decision was not only supported by the business, but also recognised by individuals across the business, particularly mums, who had taken the entire parental leave period. Any concerns I had when I started the conversations immediately disappeared and it felt like I had made the right decision.
My reasons for taking 3 months of Shared Parental Leave were entirely self-motivated. I wanted to take action in order to be the Dad I aspired to be. I wanted to take advantage of my opportunity to spend time with my son, with the security of a job to return to.
But I acknowledge that my decision, if repeated by other Dads, will start to have a more important impact.
- It will challenge stereotypes and the unconscious bias that exists, whereby we assume it will be the Mum who is the primary carer.
- It gives greater choice to Mums. If more Dads actively and meaningfully volunteer to take shared parental leave, it allows Mums to choose the maternity leave they want to take, not the leave they feel pressured to take.
- Research suggests that longer absences from work impact career progression and earnings. If more Dads take shared parental leave, it allows mums (if they choose) to reduce time away from their career, supporting career and salary progression.
To those considering shared parental leave I encourage you to make the decision that works for you and your family. Don’t be limited by the choices most other dads have made before you. Start talking to your partner. Initiating the conversation that shared parental leave should be a joint responsibility, immediately challenges the assumption that the primary care giver will be mum. And this is the starting point for shared parental leave to become the norm.
Note: Shared Parental leave is a statutory scheme standard for all UK employees/employers.