In the months before you become a parent, you’ll get a lot smarter. You’ll take classes that prepare you for your “journey” into parenthood. You’ll Google your way to a working knowledge of everything from nursery feng shui to stroller ergonomics; and you’ll absorb a mountain of advice from every parent you know.
If your pre-fatherhood experience is anything like mine, it won’t include much information about extended paternity leaves. You’ll likely be expected to follow some version of the standard American template for infant care, with mom taking a twelve-week maternity leave, you taking a few days off after the birth of the baby, and both of you returning to work as soon as possible.
The trouble is, that template doesn’t work for everyone. It certainly didn’t work for me. After my son was born, I struggled to reconcile new family responsibilities with longstanding professional commitments, and parenthood upended the “50/50” partnership that had sustained my marriage.
Eventually, something had to give, and I decided to pursue a parental leave of absence from work. The decision wasn’t easy to make at the time, but ended up being invaluable, often for reasons I didn’t necessarily expect. Here’s what I learned from the experience:
1 | Your employer and colleagues will support you
Before I decided to take an extended leave, the entire concept was alien to me. I rarely took so much as a long vacation, and no one ever discussed paternity leaves around the office. I had absolutely no idea how such a thing would be administered through our HR department, and I worried how my colleagues and supervisors would react.
I needn’t have. Employers are required by the Family Medical Leave Act to allow for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave within the first year of a child’s arrival, and it’s relatively simple to file the paperwork.
More importantly, once your leave is booked and you share the news, you’ll likely be cheered on by your peers and co-workers. I was surprised and touched by the support I received from my company’s leaders, and by the number of colleagues who told me they appreciated what I was doing and hoped it would influence more men to do the same thing. Notably, this support continued upon my return to the office.
2 | Your leave is not for you – It’s for “us”
Once my leave began, I quickly discovered that it really wasn’t about “paternity.” It was about family. Paternity leaves help you clarify your priorities as a partner, and sharpen your childcare skills.
That doesn’t just mean changing diapers and giving baths either. Prior to my leave, I was plenty capable of all the baby care basics, but it wasn’t until I was home with my son for weeks that I really learned to read his cues, get onto his tiny wavelength and feel certain that I was as capable of caring for him as my wife was.
That confidence proved invaluable later on when my wife decided she was ready to go back to work. We could now move forward knowing that we could handle any employment scenario, and deal with anything the little guy threw at us. We also restored some of the balance that made our marriage tick, and learned that an investment in the future of “us” was much more valuable than a temporary loss of income.
3 | Your leave is a job, not a “sadaddical,” a “stay-cation,” or a “break”
For those of us in a corporate world defined by a prescribed allotment of holidays and vacation time, the idea of a leave of absence can seem like a fantasy. Any extended time off work can easily be confused for a total escape into a world of self-reflection and rejuvenation.
Maybe some leaves are like that, but paternity leaves aren’t. Full-time parenting is a job. It’s an amazing job, but it’s a job. That means you’re probably not going to have the opportunity to pursue that long-delayed project, or try your hand at woodworking, or read all the classic novels you were supposed to read in high school but didn’t.
What you will have is the chance to become a pro dad, which is a pretty enriching thing. The sooner you embrace that singular opportunity, the more fulfilling your experience will be.
4 | You don’t need to do any homework beforehand, but you might want to work out
Once you get your leave on the books, it can be tempting to start planning for tons of baby-friendly adventures and activities. You might find yourself Googling things like “how to hike with a baby” and shopping for baby adventure gear.
Honestly, that time might be better spent working on your core. Sure, once your time off starts you’ll do some adventuring, but you’ll mostly just be hanging out with a baby, generally in awkward and uncomfortable positions. You’ll sit cross-legged on cold library floors. You’ll fold yourself over a crib for 20 straight minutes, and you’ll fish around under beds and tables in desperate search of pacifiers and “lovees.”
All that physical stress can take a toll, especially for those of us used to working at a computer all day, so it’s worth preparing for. Besides, Google will always cooperate when you need to research a new adventure. Your back won’t.
5 | It’s the best opportunity you’ll ever have to “disconnect”
Speaking of working at a computer, if you’re considering a paternity leave, you’re probably also considering how you might be able to stay “connected” to your work while you’re out of the office. Maybe you feel a sense of obligation to your employer, or maybe being removed from work feels so different and unusual that you would actually prefer to keep some of your old routine.
Those feelings are natural of course. If I could do it again, I’d probably attempt a complete disconnection from all of my email and projects, and maybe a complete social media detox too. During your leave, your job, colleagues, and projects will all adapt. While they’re adjusting to your absence, your baby will be adjusting to your presence. He or she will show you exactly where you should be focused, and it won’t involve email, status updates, or your digital life. My best advice is to listen.