Paid parental leave is a hot topic here in the US and more and more voice is paid to expanding opportunities for paternity leave. We wanted to get the perspective of a dad who had actually taken advantage of the benefit and we had to travel all the way to Australia to find him!
James took 9 months off to be the primary carer for his daughter to help manage the work constraints of his wife’s start up. We asked him questions about his experience and some of his responses are not surprising (like he felt quite socially isolated being a stay-at-home dad in those early days) and some were downright shocking (the comments from his colleagues made us audibly gasp!).
There are more and more companies offering paternity leave but there needs to be a cultural shift which allows fathers to take their leave without enduring the scorn James here received.
Why did you want to take paternity leave? It was something that I always thought I’d like to do, but didn’t seriously believe I would get the opportunity. My wife ran a PR/Marketing agency and she and her business partner were pregnant at the same time, with my wife due with our first child about 3.5 months before her partner was due with her second. So they could either shut down the business, farm out the clients and let go of their staff, or my wife could go back to work at 13 weeks. We then had the option of either hiring a nanny/au pair, putting our daughter into fulltime childcare earlier than we would have liked or me taking parental leave. In all honesty, I had also reached a frustrating point in my career with a management restructure at my company making it highly unlikely that an anticipated promotion would be achievable. I welcomed the opportunity to take a break from my work environment and was grateful for the privilege of spending time with my daughter and being a more present father for her.
Were you at all concerned about what taking the time would mean for your career? Absolutely! The response I got from management and my peers was positive on the surface, but very derisive underneath. The attitude can best be summed up as “you’ve tapped out then, I guess you couldn’t hack it.” I had one colleague ask me how my vagina felt after the delivery, another asked how I was coping with the breast feeding and if my nipples were sore, but the most frequent comment was that I must be loving the break and enjoying the easy life away from work. My company employed over 100,000 people and I was only the second male to have ever applied for parental leave. It’s fair to say that it was a serious black mark against my potential career prospects at that organisation.
To be fair, none of the comments I received were said with malice, it was very much a ‘boys club’ kind of joke and no offence was intended or taken. I shared this more as a reflection of the underlying attitudes towards men stepping back from their career. In a similar, but perhaps less abrasive way, the support group for staff on parental leave was (and still is) called the ‘Mothers Group’ and all of the information about the company’s leave policy referred to she/her/Mum for the employee. This was quite noticeable as that sort of gendered language was strongly avoided in any of the other HR documents. My perspective was apparently such a unique one, that when I returned to work, I was invited to speak at the Women’s Leadership Forum – I declined as I didn’t want to commit total career suicide, but I also didn’t want to be dishonest about the experience.
My role was merged with another position while I was on parental leave, so I returned to a different role which was equivalent in title and pay, but had much less responsibility and relevance. I went from managing a team of 12 people and a P&L of $100m in revenue and $30m in EBIT to being the head of a one person department with no direct P&L accountability. This role change may have happened anyway given the restructure I mentioned above, but it’s hard to separate from the parental leave break due to the timing of things. In the recent interviews for my new job, it was an expected question and even though I had a prepared answer, I was concerned that it presented me as somebody who was not ambitious for promotion to more senior positions.
What type of paternity benefit did your employer offer? I received 8 weeks paid leave in total. 4 weeks upon the commencement of leave and 4 weeks following my return to work. There was also 10 paid days available as ‘stay in touch’ days during my time off. I came in for our strategy and planning days, but my manager didn’t really know what to do with me when I was in at work, so I only used 3 of these days.
What was the biggest benefit as you reflect on taking that time with your daughter? I loved the time with my daughter and I think I got to enjoy some of the best moments of that first year of her life. The initial 13 weeks are obviously very challenging for parents, but after the baby settles into a more regular feed and sleep cycle, things become a lot more manageable. I often felt that my wife got the rough end of the deal, having 3 months of an utterly dependent newborn who wasn’t very interactive and then going back to work, whereas I stepped into the full time parenting role just as my daughter was starting to give a lot more back. I got to witness a lot of ‘firsts’ with my daughter, her first laugh, rolling over, climbing stairs and I felt like we were really close. She’s just turned 3 and I think her Mum is clearly number one these days, but I still feel like I have a tremendous bond with her. However, I have no idea if this is greater or less than any father would feel regardless of whether they continued their paid work, or stayed home with their child.
I think the experience also made me more aware of what my wife is dealing with as the stay at home parent with our second daughter (now 6 months old). I definitely gained an appreciation of the challenge any career person – typically the mother – faces when taking time off to be the primary carer. I had no idea how much of my identity and sense of self worth was tied to my job and being successful in my career until this was absent from my life. Shifting from a world of challenging and mentally intensive work to one of repetitive domesticity was a big shock for me. Things that had previously been shared equally between me and my wife, became almost entirely my job as I was the one who was at home and it just made sense for this to be the case. While some people might find household responsibilities satisfying, I did not find a great deal of intrinsic reward from a clean house, laundry, shopping and meal preparation. I became defensive about my productivity and what I had accomplished during the day, and even if my wife said something nice like ‘the house looks amazing’ when she came home, I felt this to be patronising and unwelcome. We were living away from our home town and we did not have many friends who were also parents, so I found the experience quite socially isolating. I had not anticipated the loss of self I experienced from becoming a stay at home dad and it took me a while to realise what was going on in my own head and stop the negativity I was letting in.
I think if you are going to promote the benefits of parental leave for Dads, it would be worthwhile preparing them for some of the challenges of the change in lifestyle when becoming a primary carer. A bit of warning about what they’ll be dealing with and some tricks to help manage the adjustment would have been really helpful for me.
How did you find transitioning back into work after your leave? The transition back to work was relatively simple for me as I returned to a different role and it was just like starting a new job. I came back with a gradual increase in workload, 2 weeks at 2 days a week, then 2 weeks at 3 days a week, then 2 weeks at 4 days a week, before working full time again. This helped us manage our daughter’s introduction into childcare and I was able to go into the centre with her for a couple of half days so she could get adjust to the new environment and new people.
James is a finance and strategy manager with 15 years’ experience with large commercial organisations and major projects. At age 35, James and his wife had a daughter and he took a 9 month career break as a stay at home Dad, starting when his daughter was 3 months old and returning to work just after her first birthday. After 8 months back at work, James left the corporate world to start a small business. Over the last 18 months, he set up two stores and welcomed a second daughter, however this time, his wife has been the primary carer for both of their girls.