It was the most rewarding four months of my life and I would recommend it to anyone.
Cat and I are clearly lucky that we both have good jobs and careers to which we are committed, and that we work for companies that are supportive of parents. Shared parental leave is not something that I’d imagined doing when I was younger – my mother didn’t work so there was no precedent set in that regard. But my father worked from home and was around morning and evening throughout my childhood; in fact, I can’t remember being aware of him not being around. When the topic arose a couple of years before George arrived, it soon emerged as a no-brainer; Cat and I were very keen to have as equal a role in our children’s upbringing as possible.
The reaction from others was mixed. Support from career-minded women, varying degrees of bafflement/intrigue from men (largely supportive nevertheless) and full-time mothers, and often mild condescension from maternity leave mothers. A lot of referring to “Daddy Day Care” from the latter and much presumption that I was simply holding the fort for Cat, that she did all the cooking and washing and basically ran the house from work. I wish! To a lot of guys, the concept seemed so foreign that they often didn’t seem able to grasp it at all.
It was both easier and harder than I had expected. Easier, in that looking after a six-to-10 month old baby is remarkably straightforward – they are sitting up and eating food, while being engaging and fun without being demanding. It is also harder, in that splitting the child-rearing role bang down the middle is far from simple.
When I took over from Cat, I took total charge. I weaned George, dropped bottles and naps. Of course, we discussed these things as we did when Cat was at home, but ultimately it was my call. Now, that’s great when you are in the midst of it – Cat could throw herself back into work and I was forced into total immersion with George. However when I returned to work it took months to re-find a balance. By that I mean who takes a lead on certain topics; I was very aware that it took me a while to let go of my “boss” hat and so Cat then struggled to reassert her equal standing. It was difficult and it was no doubt the greatest source of conflict that we have faced.
But for all that, I feel like we are happier and more fulfilled by our marriage/family as a result. It was damned hard at times; life would have been a lot simpler if we’d stuck to specific mother/child rearer and father/breadwinner roles. None of that conflict would have emerged. But then Cat would have gone back to work with a sense of guilt and I wouldn’t have had the chance to form the most amazing relationship with our son.
For every tricky problem that reared its head, it was worth it 10 times over. I am incredibly lucky to have had that time with George and I would jump at the chance to do it again. Indeed, all things being well, I will be doing it again in April next year.
Henry is an investment writer at Old Mutual Global Investors.
The decision to share our parental leave was such an obvious one that writing this now I struggle to remember if we ever even discussed the potential pros and cons. Some aspects seemed obvious, and were proven correct, most importantly that it has got us as close to equal parenting as is feasible once birth and feeding are out of the way. Others I had not anticipated, so hopefully these might give any of you considering doing the same a better idea of what it is really like.
Firstly, would I do it again? In a flash! Or rather, as Henry has said, in about three months time. Watching my husband breeze through four months of full-time care for our son made me happy and proud.
This meant I went back to the job I love after six months without a flicker of the guilt I had been told to expect. Knowing George was with his father meant I could throw myself back into work full-time, both literally and mentally, and therefore quickly slotted back in. Clients and colleagues remarked how quickly six months had gone by. I hadn't been away long enough to forget anything or, horror, “be forgotten about” either. The subsequent transition from Henry to childcare was, if anything, harder on him than on me.
Striving for equality at home inevitably means, from the traditional standpoint of a mother, giving something up. I gave up the right to know best, or to always be the one George wants when he is sad. This element has been hard sometimes, as it jars with our own previous experiences, not to mention preconceptions, and has caused rows, jealousy and a lot of compromise. I felt expendable sometimes as a parent, which perhaps is how many fathers must feel?
As a result of this experience I am now more in awe of mothers who decide to quit work, not less. I found the first four or five months of maternity leave absolute bliss, but also hard and sometimes boring. Work felt like an escape.
Perhaps the strongest pushback from many couples against sharing parental leave is financial. Our first attempt was a hit and we dipped into savings. Henry had recently moved jobs and therefore had to take an unpaid sabbatical. However, things are changing and it is worth checking out your respective benefits before making any assumptions. Henry’s new company is actually far more generous with parental leave pay than mine (a wonderful but smaller organisation), which means this time round we will be better off splitting our leave. Not a reason to do it per se, but not a reason not to either.
When you decide to do something different to your peers, there is clearly a temptation to compare, to justify your decision. I have to bite my tongue when people refer to fathers 'baby-sitting', or the even more patronising “Daddy Day Care.” We will never know if George would have been just as happy if we had stuck to the more traditional roles. Frankly he is a baby and will not remember this stage of life anyway. I think we are on safer ground when Henry and I reflect on how happy this has made us in our own particular circumstances, both working and wanting to continue doing so. If that sounds like you, then go for it. Happy parents = happy baby. Just get used to being called Daddy every now and then!
Cat is an investment partner at Veritas Investment Management.
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