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Taking extended paternity leave made me a better dad - and better at my job

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A Women’s Business Council study shows that just 1% of UK men have made use of a revolutionary policy giving them the opportunity to take full-time care of their newborns.[1] “A huge shame,” says one dad, who’s currently on a three-month career break to look after his daughter following her mother’s return to work. Here, he shares how he and his wife arrived at the decision to share parental leave, and why the experience has afforded him both wonderful bonding time and the chance to reflect on his next career move.

 

Before my wife became pregnant we hadn’t really discussed how childcare was going to work once we started a family. But then we had that first scan and everything suddenly became very real. It happened to coincide with a lot of press coverage around shared parental leave,[2] and so as we started to discuss how it would all work out, the conversation naturally evolved into whether or not the new regulations could work for our situation.

 

The first question for us to answer was how long we wanted our baby to be at home before going into some form of external childcare. Then we had to consider how long my wife wanted to be the one to be at home, and what that meant for us financially. Knowing that we wanted our baby to be breastfed for as long as possible made the decision about how we’d divide the time that much easier-my wife would stay at home for nine months, then she’d return to work while I became the primary caregiver for the remaining three months.

 

Though the decision was driven by practicalities, there were emotional factors at play too. Knowing that the option was there for me to spend some time at home alone with the baby, made me think about the sort of example I wanted to set my daughter in terms of gender equality. We didn’t know any other parents making use of shared leave, but we wrongly presumed it would become far more commonplace than it’s turned out to be. And we hope that by being part of it, our little girl - when she reaches an age of understanding - will be proud of and pleased by the path we took.

 

Though I was determined to forge ahead with the plan, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t any nerves. Becoming a full-time dad was a big leap into the unknown. I was less concerned about any potential damage to my career; I’ve worked hard over a long period to build a good reputation, and was confident my employer - known for its flexible, family orientated culture -would be supportive of the move.

 

I’d mentioned my intention in passing to my boss, so it wasn’t a huge shock when I made the formal application. But there were a few stumbling blocks in the early planning stages. It’s not that my employer was difficult or unhappy about the decision; rather that as the first man at the organisation to make use of the new policy, there was no precedent to follow, and some initial hesitancy about how to proceed. Once we’d ironed out the details, it was full steam ahead and I received nothing but support and encouragement from management and my peers.

 

It definitely helped that I gave way more than the required notice period, and that I worked hard to stay engaged right up until the day I left, ensuring a smooth handover with the colleague who’d be stepping into my shoes while I was away.

 

A couple of months into my stint as full-time dad, the experience has been more positive than I could ever have expected. As the weeks have gone by, I’ve grown in confidence and relaxed into really enjoying it. While my wife was on maternity leave, I tried to be as hands-on as possible, but there’s nothing like being thrown into the role to really test your parenting skills and make you realise how reliant the whole family is on the primary caregiver. I feel so much more capable as a parent, and quickly found my own routine - when my wife was at home, I didn’t interfere with her system, and thankfully she’s taken the same approach, so I’m doing things my way. She’s always been there for me to ask questions, particularly in the early weeks, but she’s pretty much left me to it.

 

That’s been good for the baby too. Before, she would have been used to how her mum did everything. Inevitably, my approach was going to be slightly different, so she’s getting new experiences. At the same time there’s been good continuity for her - my wife had built up a solid network of mum friends, so when I go to baby groups everyone knows us and makes a big effort to be welcoming. I’ve realised how important it is to get out and about - to do the singing classes and the baby swimming. It gives the day structure and keeps us both connected to the outside world.

 

Another surprising benefit of paternity leave has been the focus it’s enabled me to have on my future career. I’ve spent what little downtime there is thinking about what I’ve achieved so far and where I want to focus my efforts when I go back. That time for reflection has given me confidence - I’ll be returning to work with a clear vision of how I want to progress, and prepared to have that conversation with my boss.

 

During any kind of career break, I imagine it’s very easy to focus on what you’re missing out on in your absence, but I’m choosing instead to concentrate on the ways I’ll have grown, and looking forward to showcasing my new competencies when I go back. There’s the whole idea about taking on a new challenge and how important that is for your confidence. There’s also the experience of finding yourself in new work situations where you have to fit in and adapt, which is quite similar to being the only man turning up at an established mother and baby group. And certainly my organisational skills have been tested recently - when you’re going anywhere with a baby you have to plan every last detail, so I’m hoping that will shine through when I’m back at my desk.

 

I’m conscious that as one of a minority group of men who’ve made use of shared parental leave, I’ve a duty to advocate for it within my peer group. Everywhere I go I share my story, and when I’m back at work, I’ll definitely be encouraging those new dads coming up behind me to have a go.

 

 

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[1] The government expected a low take-up of 2-8% when it introduced shared parental leave in April 2015, but research published one year on from the policy’s launch suggest an even tinier proportion of those eligible have done so.

[2] Under the new laws, women must continue to take the first two weeks after the birth of their baby, but for those eligible, the remaining 50 weeks can be split between both parents in any division of their choosing.