This is my second week back at work after about three months of parental – or paternity – leave. I’ll use the term “paternity leave” going forward because this is a story for dads, or soon-to-be-dads, who are thinking about taking time off work to spend with their family. Kurt wrote a great piece about his lessons learned from a six-month paternity leave. He highlighted a lot of thoughts and feelings I had (and have), so I thought it best to focus on the advice I’ve given to dads who have choices to make as well as the conversations I’ve had with guys who aren’t entitled to parental leave or didn’t/wouldn’t/”couldn’t” use the benefit because of what it would mean for their career. And I want to have some fun, too. Here are 10 questions to ask yourself before taking paternity leave.
Are you all in?
It’s an understatement to write that being a parent is a big commitment. We know this. Having a successful paternity leave – however you measure it – will require you to be fully present with your child, rigorous with your schedule, and helpful on the home front. It’s not for everyone. To be honest, my extroversion was challenged incredibly during the first three weeks of paternity leave because I spent 90% of my time with three people (as opposed to more than 30 different folks every day at work). More on this later. Before you commit, talk to a few dads who have gone on the journey you’re thinking about taking, see if it’s for you, and talk it through with your partner.
Can you afford it?
Compensation isn’t equal among the sexes. On average, men earn more than women in Canada, so it might stretch your family budget to spend time away from work. Whether your leave falls within the first year or stretched out over 18-months, there will be a financial impact on your family. Or maybe your organization doesn’t even recognize parental leave for dads, which sucks dirty diapers, man. Whatever the case, start doing holistic math and think about the economic value of spending time with your kid(s) and what that might look like in terms of salary unearned and, perhaps, savings un-war-chested for a portion of the year.
But, like, can you?
“How will this impact your career?” and “taking paternity leave would be career suicide at my organization” are two things that I heard a lot from guys. Most of the men with whom I spoke were genuinely curious about the opportunity (I don’t think that any were opposed to it). Most guys were also skeptical that their employer and/or their community would fully accept them taking paternity leave and that the experience would negatively impact their career. Lots has been written on this. Like, lots.
There will be an impact, for sure. You can’t spend extended periods of time with a child – or in my case, a baby and a toddler – and not see the world differently. While I was away several things changed for the team I lead, an employee moved on to a cool new opportunity, a new person joined the team, and we launched a huge project. I can’t help but wonder, had I been there, what would be different and what would’ve happened anyway. If paternity leave is on your mind, start testing your assumptions and exploring the idea with your boss, colleagues and social network, too. So far, I have zero professional backlash to report, but I work for Vancity, one of Canada’s best and incredibly progressive employers, so this is to be expected, which is very cool.
What does the science say?
Here’s another way to think about affordability. In terms of the lifelong relationship with our children, science says that, during the first three years, it is critical for kids to spend as much time as possible with their parents. In fact, according to several doctors and psychologists, male involvement has positive effects on infants and young children. A study of fathers as primary caregivers has even found that:
“Apart from the quantitatively scored aspects of these babies’ performances, curious qualitative and stylistic characteristics emerged frequently. Most noticeably, these infants seemed especially comfortable with, and attracted to, stimulation from the external environment. They could quiet and regulate themselves, but their appetite for engaging the outer world and bringing it into their own was especially sharp.”
In general, kids spending as much time as possible with their parents in their first three years is good for their development. And there are added, different benefits from spending a chunk of that time with dad as the primary caregiver.
How to you feel about attention?
I like attention. Kurt tolerates it. During our paternity leaves we often found ourselves in the middle of moms, female nannies and a couple of grandparents. On any given Tuesday (or any weekday, really), we were usually the only men in playgroups, at the park or in kid-friendly cafes. Being different from everyone else will require you to explain – and re-explain – your story to curious moms or soak up stares from folks who might be too shy to talk, but are definitely interested in you presence. Especially when you’re “a regular”. Leaning into the situation, I have become known as “the dad with a giant beard and funny t-shirts” at the community and family centers that the boys and I frequent.
When is the best time?
After crowdsourcing some ideas for this piece the most common question people raised was this one. Timing is different for every family. Some folks favoured having “two parents in the box” during the first six months. Others chose to “bring in the dad” later in their baby’s first year because, at the time of this blog post, most people who identify as men can’t breastfeed and a lot of babies prefer boobs-to-bottles. I chose to take time towards the end of my baby’s first year to best align with biological logistics, family finances and dad-value-adding. Every family will come to a different conclusion about their needs and the tricky thing to navigate is that you might not know exactly what those needs might be until a few weeks or months into your child’s first year.
What’s your story?
Every year I give one or two presentations about building a personal brand to big and small audiences of students, non-profit leaders and/or HR professionals. My story has evolved a lot since becoming a father. To say the least. Think about how being a dad factors into your story. For example, reviewing my non-Twitter social media channels tells me that (1) I post less than I did before children and (2) most of my original content is about my family. I journal daily and review my writings every weekend. My family captures the majority of reflections on gratitude as well as my personal evaluation of how I listened and repressed/managed my digital distraction (I give myself a five-point rating for each thing every day). Needless to say, being a dad has dramatically shaped my story, which is impacting how I see my career unfolding as well as the choices I make as a citizen of this planet. Spending the majority of time with my kids has undoubtedly shifted my life’s story to focus more on family, which is different and awesome.
How’s your park/play-gym small talk game?
Parents need to tolerate or embrace small talk. I’ve written about the potential of small talk and how you can connect mundane topics like grocery story lineups to big ideas like healthy local food systems and the impact of automation on employment. Because sometimes you will get tired of repeating the age of your child and their developmental milestones to curious, shy, awkward, weirdly competitive, and/or insecure parents who engage folks with what we have in common with each other. My position on parental small talk is that we’re all doing our best, kids are awesome and that reinforcing such things fosters contagious enthusiasm and generates energy for people who desperately need it. And it’s okay to be disruptive every now and then.
How will you stay connected?
Paternity leave can be lonely. Life happens on the kid’s schedule, which usually means a couple of naps per day, early bedtime and frequent pooping. Something that I could’ve done better before starting my leave would’ve been to express clearly how my extroversion needed to be stimulated by non-baby, non-toddler humans on a semi-frequent basis. My wife and I arrived at a shared understanding eventually, but it took some difficult conversations to understand what being connected meant for both of us.
For the record, my need for connection was social and wasn’t about checking email or visiting the office to catch up on the latest gossip. A couple of colleagues who also took paternity leave advised me to “hire great people you trust and then be surprised three days into your leave because of how easy it is to let everything go” and “never check your email and never ever respond to email because doing so when you’re away does nothing except tell the person you hired to replace you that you don’t trust them”. So, stay connected, but within reason.
What are your expectations?
A great piece of advice from my former boss was that I needed to manage my expectations and be realistic about what could be achieved in a day with one or two kids under four-years-old. He told me some hilarious (at the time they weren’t) stories about what he had planned for a day with the kids and what he actually achieved. Being a guy who likes to do lots of things with lots of people, this was great advice that helped our family stay focused, local and simple. Keep things simple and you’ll wrap up your paternity leave happy. For the record, though, I still haven’t sold our single bike trailer (it’s in good condition) and our fence probably won’t get stained before winter.
Finally, I’ll wrap things up by highlighting the consensus opinion of the men and women who advised me on taking paternity leave or who celebrated the experience when they learned I was doing it. Everyone – moms and dads alike – told me that they wished they had done it if they hadn’t (mostly dads, but some moms who returned to work early because they felt that they had to). Or folks told me that they did it, they loved it, they are grateful for all the weeks and months that they were able to spend with their kid(s), and that it positively impacted their relationships with their children. What you can expect is that if you can do it then you should because taking paternity leave is a great and memorable opportunity for every dad to deeply connect with his family.