Shared Paternity Leave: Let the Mad Men stay home

2 December, 2013

One of the best parenting decisions Tim and I ever made was to share our employment and stay-at-home- parenting equally. After a long maternity leave- 14 months- I went back to work for 2.5 days and Tim reduced his days to 2.5. It worked perfectly; we both enjoyed solo time in adult environments and both got to spend quality time with Ramona. Ramona continued to breastfeed when I was around, we learnt how to hold a more linear conversation again and our status as co-parents, equal to Ramona in everything, was consolidated.

Just last week the government announced new plans for shared paternity leave. Fathers have been able to share leave with a mother for a couple of years now but new policies make the arrangement more flexible and could mean far more parents take it up. Policies like these, and workplaces that allow flexible working such as mine and Tim’s arrangement are VITAL for gender equality in the workplace and at home.

But what is actually like for a couple who share their parental leave? Here I speak to my colleague, Ian, who also writes beautifully at Royal Blue Baby, about what it was like taking over the full time parenting of the “precious one” after six months. As he points out, workplaces are still structured around gender roles from the Mad Men era and this must change.

What made you decide to share parental leave?

The precious one’s mum is quite organised so we were chatting about it before the first scan. I hadn’t really pondered what it would be like to spend so much time washing up pink garish plastic things in a sink, so I just thought “Yeah, sounds like fun. Why not?” Besides being up for a challenge we both know that we’re lucky to have been able to make the choice, but the main thing was that we see parenting as a partnership. And I thought it’d be fun and different.

Was there a single moment that made you realise you wanted to do it?

Not really. As I say, I’d committed to it like you might respond when someone suggests a pint or two a week on Wednesday. But I knew I wanted to do it as it just seemed like a fantastic chance to experience something that a few years ago I never thought I’d do.

How did your work respond to the request?

I was lucky. People have said to me that it would be career suicide where they work but for me my manager was especially supportive. He’d done something similar when his son was little as he’d been a free lancer and built his work around caring for his son. He almost ushered me out the door. Weird.

How did you find it amongst the community baby activities? We hear horror stories of dads being made to feel alienated at Mums and Tots…

People ask this a lot. I hear stories but I haven’t experienced it. Before I went on leave I was adamant I wouldn’t be a joiner-inner but then whether it was for my sanity, for his development or just to stop being housebound, I went to stuff. Whether at baby college or music groups and the like and I never had a bad experience. Although I preferred structured play to a glorified toy room in the days before he was truly mobile. That’s not to say that people were always coming up to me and giving me hugs and firm handshakes as I strode through the door radiating modern man. They weren’t.

Lots of times I went to things and sat on the periphery but I never thought I was being picked on. Often I’d go to groups and people clearly knew each other. I never expected that I’d jump into the middle of a group and start telling them all about my travails with the precious one. In most situations people talk to the people they know. Often I wasn’t bothered about swapping stories about poo and sleep. Sometimes I would meet people and chat. I’m pretty relaxed about it when I go to things. Now he’s fully mobile I go to a play group most Friday’s and I know the odd person, sometimes people offer me a brew and sometimes they don’t. I’m not always trying to make friends so I’ve always concluded it’s about my attitude as well as other peoples.

PS – “mums and tots” how sexist. “Parents groups” “primary carers and kids” please!

There is one particular group of people who suggest that under threes should never leave their mum, as even their dad doesn’t have the same instinctive response to a child. How would you respond to them? Did you feel any deep down instincts kicking in?

I never met those people at play group (maybe they alienate the dads?) I had great fun with the precious one and I think that he did too. He seems to have survived as happy as he always was. I think that this touches on the most profound change that me taking over at the six months mark had on our family. At first neither of you know what you’re doing, then you start fumbling along and then the mother surges ahead as she is spending so much time with the baby. Then, and I think this is visible in 99% of parental couples – you kind of fall into a pattern where the woman becomes the project manager and the man the project officer. Sure, I was “hands on” and getting stuck in to the tasks but it’s the woman who knows when they need sleep, food or if they’re just a bit miffed about something. I don’t think that’s instinct as much as experience – especially from having that daily ongoing close contact. So, after we swapped it only took a few weeks (as they change all the time) for us to become much more equal and in many ways I started making the calls.

I don’t think we would have got to that point if I hadn’t taken the leave. I don’t think of it as a release of some ancient instinct, more I just really didn’t want anything bad to happen on my watch.

Men would say to me “I couldn’t do that.” And clearly some women think men are hampered by their penises but I just don’t see it. Anyone can do it – it’s not like a cryptic crossword.

What were you favourite bits about taking paternity leave?

I learned to be comfortable with an Orla Kiely bag. I danced to the Spice girls with nine women that I’d never met (and babies!). As well as those self-perception changing memories, it was such a good chance to do something totally different and be challenged in a new way. I loved being in charge and the stuff I said above about what that meant.

Once the winter ended and he got mobile the two of us did lots of midweek road trips to friends and families – that was loads of fun. I think people were surprised to see me as a self-sufficient parent. I also think that without his mum being there friends felt more able to get involved with bathing and bottles and sleep. The two of us loved it and I love seeing him hanging about with old friends.

Do you feel there might be any long term benefits from it?

Definitely – I think it’s changed my perspective about work and family. And I think the precious one is quite relaxed about spending time with both of us. It’s hard to say about specific things as its more that it’s totally changed our family dynamic. I would recommend it to anyone who can.

What is your situation now?

Now we’re both at work doing four days and he goes to nursery for three. So we both still get our time with him individually and our time together. Plus we get the break from the sterile sanity of office life. In truth, I was ready to go back so I like this balance. He also loves nursery and is gutted on the days when he doesn’t go.

Do you feel you have a totally equal parental partnership?

I think so. We both bring different things to it. I’m the strict one. I play a bit rougher but we’re both comfortable taking on the main role. If one of us goes away with work the other knows what they’re doing and he is fine with it.

I feel that policies like this could have an enormous impact on gender equality both in the workplace and the home. What do you reckon?

Absolutely. I think we’ve got so far to go – if you look at the low pick up – to change the culture but getting the policy in place is a starting point. Having a better balance in how we care for our children in a world where most couples need to both be in work is so important. It’ll be great for women who want careers but it will also help men claim their right to be involved with their family and I can’t see how it can do anything but good for the child.

What else do workplaces and government policies need to do to generate gender equality amongst parents?

It’ll take a while. It’s how you shift the culture and who will drive that shift. Most businesses are run by middle aged men who often have sacrificed their family for career, it’s unlikely they’ll push it. For women who might have sacrificed career for family they can easily resent it. It’s one of those areas where our generation is saying to our parents generation, we want to do it differently. That means that shift will probably be clunky and take time.

One of the interesting reactions that I got from a lot of women before I went on leave was, “do you think she’ll still agree to it when the time comes.” And “I wouldn’t let my husband.” Which was symptomatic of a wider sense that is the woman’s leave and I was muscling in. That’s what has to change.

I was chatting with a friend of mine who has just gone back to work and we agreed that we were both surprised that how to manage family and work is so low down on public discourse. Essentially office life was designed in the days of Mad Men and despite all the changes over time we’re still confined to a largely 9-5 go to a certain place model. It’s not compatible with a young family. Change this and then (wo)men can have it all!

Finally…… Would you do it again?

I will be in a few short months time.

Thanks Ian! I reckon sharing the stay-at-home parenting role is the least mad thing a man could do. It’s most often better for the family and society when parents can do this.

I’d love to hear from readers- what is your situation? How does it effect your experience as equal co- parents? What do you think needs to change in order to attain gender equality at home and in the workplace?

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  • Leslie Kendall Dye 2 December, 2013 at 1:04 pm

    My husband works at home part -time and I cannot imagine raising our daughter the way we want to without his help. It is true that full term breastfeeding, freedom from strollers, etc… is really dependent on a full community of support and I wish we had that, but having two parents is a huge good start. I could never have given my child so much freedom without the help from her father – who is an expert in baby-carrying and has buys an ever larger parka to fit my daughter into when the winter comes! And I have been able to go to auditions and to work part time as a nanny because my husband can stay home while my daughter naps (or er, not, and he makes the hours up later, but we make it work. We are lucky his job allows for it.) I love these photos – too bad Mahattan has to be so far from some of the lovely mothers and fathers I read about and talk to here on the Internet! The photos inspire me to take a trip with baby in tow… Thanks for another lovely post!

    • Lucy 2 December, 2013 at 9:28 pm

      Thanks for sharing your story! Babywearing dads are brilliant, eh? Sounds like you’ve got a good one on your hands 🙂
      Is this pretty rare in the states though?

  • Primrose 2 December, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    My partner took over the care of our child when she was 9 months old.
    If anything, this prepared our full time breastfeeder and bottle refuser for nursery. It was not very easy in the beginning. I did have to come home often to feed her until she managed to drop her day feeds.

    He did get some looks at baby groups. Some ladies always jumped in to “help” him out because he was a man and therefore incapable?

    The mum’s instinct is definitely an old wives tale. I found I could “read” my daughter because she had been with me all day every day since she had been born. I could write a PhD on her! It took dad a few weeks to get to this point too.

    Finally, things have changed now though. Maybe it is because we are still breastfeeding but now at 15 months old my baby does not want to leave my apron strings… It does feel a bit sad that dad spent quite a long time with her, just both of them and still sometimes she doesn’t want his cuddles. Not sure i can explain that one.

    • Lucy 2 December, 2013 at 9:44 pm

      Even when Ramona was over a year Tim brought her into my office everyday for a month for a breast feed 🙂 I think it’s a great way of transitioning them.

      I believe in the instincts thing, but I think it’s a general parenting one that is emphasised and encouraged in mothers but not in men. So when given a chance then it comes up- in terms of responding to a child’s cry etc. However, simply being there is the biggest thing I think!

      Thanks for sharing your experience 😀

  • Emma 2 December, 2013 at 3:11 pm

    I’m really keen to share parental leave with my other half when we have kids (probably around the six months mark as I hope to breastfeed too). I think my dad really missed out on a lot as my mum was a full-time stay-at-home parent and he only got one day of leave back in the ’80s, so I really want my kids and my partner to have a different experience. Plus I’m a control freak, so it’ll be good for me to learn to let go! It’s really encouraging to hear from someone that’s done it, and that it worked so well for them. It makes me really optimistic that I’ll be able to do this too.

    • Lucy 2 December, 2013 at 9:34 pm

      Yes, handing over for a bit of time may well help with you trusting him to make as good decisions as you- think that’s the case for most, not just control freaks 🙂

  • sharon 2 December, 2013 at 9:38 pm

    I like the idea in principle. I went back to work when my son was 6 months, and my husband who was only working 2.5 days at that stage got the chance to really be in charge, equalising things as described.

    I do worry a little bit of things moving to much toward “equality” though…because it’s not equal, is it? Maternity leave isn’t just about childcare, some of it is about recovering from childbirth and that’s kind of one sided. While some women bounce back, others can take that 12 months to feel a bit less like they’ve been in an RTA, to feel able to scoop that newly acquired doughy flesh back into their work clothes. The current legislation takes away from mums what it gives to dads, seemingly without recognising this.

    • Lucy 2 December, 2013 at 9:49 pm

      Very true about the recovery, you are right. There is other physical things going on to- for some women “baby brain” is a genuine thing, their brains switch gear for caring.

      I’m not sure it takes away though because it’s still totally optional- I like to think families will be able to make the choice that best fits them.

      I think the main people who will take this up will be the ones where the mum was planning on going back early anyway. I wouldn’t have taken it as I really valued my year at home for attachment and breastfeeding etc.

      But this really works for babies whose mum was going to return after 6 months- now they get a full time patent home with them for a year.

      • sharon 3 December, 2013 at 12:10 am

        Totally agree, just wish the new legislation had considered this and provided greater access to paternity leave without this having to come from maternity. As the use of paternity leave increases will all women who need that whole year really feel able to say “no, I need this, I’m not ready?”

  • Mrs_scholes 3 December, 2013 at 8:45 am

    I feel so blessed as my husband is more than capable with our daughter. We were at an event once and I was desperately trying to feed a screaming baby her lunch, and he just looked at her, and took her off for a nap in the car. What a star. It made me feel so relieved when he took control of the situation.

    Nowadays, the days I go to work he gets her up, gets her ready and cycles to work with her. It is amazing to share parenting in this way. I couldn’t work more than two days a week (I did some overtime for a month recently, and realised I definitely didn’t like it – I recommend it! Try out a new plan before settling on it!) but my husband really is responsible for our daughter on those two days which again gives me real peace of mind.

    In addition we are blessed that his work have allowed him to shorten his normal 1hr lunch break, to accommodate Nursery times; and I have heard no complaints from them when he has taken time off to be with her when she’s been ill. This is probably the minimum I should expect but I am sure the reality is very different for lots of people and I was pleasantly surprised by all of this, especially as none of the other staff have really little children like we do.

  • ThaliaKR 3 December, 2013 at 10:22 am

    Oh, so good to read all this, Lucy and friends! More about us in the morning (I’m at home most of the time but my husband works less than half-time for money, so we’re co-parenting a lot), but I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed the interview!


  • Naomi 3 December, 2013 at 9:52 pm

    I felt really privileged that both me and my husband could look after the kids 2 days each and my parents one day every week. I agree with Ian, it’s not instinct it’s just time and experience. I did have to bite my tongue though when I tried to suggest to Martyn what he should do on his childcare days! He didn’t do the baby group thing, but thankfully had some mates who were also looking after their children, so hung out with them.