Taking paternity leave in an unlimited vacation day company

It doesn’t work, but here’s how we fixed it.

“Take as much time as you need.”

I’ve worked for Articulate for about 9 years and have taken full advantage of the Flexible PTO policy. I’ve backpacked through Europe, driven the Road to Hana at 3 AM (don’t ever do this), met Mickey, lazily laid on a beach in Mexico and countless other vacations, sick days, personal days, mental health days, babysitter-cancelled days, and much more.

I’ve never felt guilty about the time that I’ve taken off since my co-workers and management lead by example. We share our escapades on slack, on social media, and chat about it during our daily stand-ups. “Take as much time as you need” is a really easy concept to grok when everyone values time away from work. When it comes to family leave, that’s a different story.

Family leave is not a vacation.

When my wife and I had our first child, it was the most amazing experience. Since I almost fainted dissecting a frog in 7th grade, the idea of “catching” my son shot waves of anxiety pulsating through my brain. As I suited up, I kept imagining myself passed out on the floor as our son emerged. Fortunately, my heart was stronger than my brain. Everett came out with his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. Before I even realized what had happened, our doctor lassoed it off. My wife had just given birth to a beautiful, healthy, open-eyed baby.

As I held Everett in my hands for the first time, I realized he was no longer a dream or a prayer…he was a living person no longer shielded from the outside world. He needed me 24 hours a day and I wasn’t going to let him down.

Over the next couple of days in the hospital, we didn’t sleep at all. We had gone to baby classes, read books, listened to podcasts, asked family for advice, and all of the normal things that first-time parents do. However, nothing prepares you for the emotional and physical exhaustion you experience. Every cry, every breathe, and every moment of silence breeds anxiety and hope. After about 48 hours in the hospital, we were finally able to go home.

How to not set a precedent.

Prior to taking paternity leave for my first child at Articulate, I had asked a few of my co-workers how much time they had taken off. Most of the non-primary caregivers that I spoke with took anywhere between 2 and 4 weeks. Being the squeaky wheel that I am, I took off 5 weeks. HR told me to “take as much time as you need”, but I simply wasn’t comfortable with that. I’m the father. Most people that I know barely get 2 weeks. How could I complain about 5 weeks?

My goal was to set a precedent for other people in our company. Anytime someone would ask me how much time I took off for paternity leave, I would proudly gloat and encourage them to do the same. In fact, I’d challenge them to take even more time.

Unfortunately, the stigma and realities of being the non-primary caregiver here in the United States won out. Many of my co-workers were pressured into coming back to work much earlier than they had wanted. I tried to set a precedent, but I had failed miserably. Still, 5 weeks isn’t half bad, right?

Life isn’t easier after your leave ends.

On January 8th, four days after I came back from leave, my wife was in excruciating pain. She described it as pain worse than she had experienced just a few weeks earlier in labor. I was absolutely frightened. My wife’s tolerance for pain is incomparable. I’ve seen her get cleated by another player when she was on the ground on the soccer field and obliterate opponents with a body check. She doesn’t ever complain. I knew this was serious.

My wife was admitted to the hospital with Pancreatitis. She needed to have emergency gallbladder surgery. I told my manager that I would be out for the unforeseeable future. My wife was about to have surgery and I needed to take care of a 6 week old. This is exactly why Articulate has Flexible PTO. Keeping up with my work responsibilities was the last thing I was concerned about when I had to feed our baby every 3 hours including 2 AM and 5 AM feedings, change diapers, give baths, soothe him when he cried for his mom, ensure he takes his naps on schedule, keep laundry up, and the million other things you have to do for your child. That doesn’t include the anxiety of my wife having a major surgery. For a period of 5 days, I was the primary caregiver for our son. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Although I had been involved in every moment of my son’s first few weeks, it was nothing like being completely responsible for his every need…and I only did it for 5 days. His mother is on that level 24/7. Mothers are awesome. Mothers are the real heroes.

The pressure is real and it was worse than I thought.

Paternity leave here in the United States is a really sensitive subject. All of my friends and family are surprised when I tell them that I can take 5 weeks off. “That’s awesome! I wish my husband could have done that.” However, anyone that has had a child will tell you that any amount of time that you take off is not enough. Even companies like Netflix that have unlimited parental leave can’t convince their employees to take the time they need.

As I approached the birth of my second son, I started asking my colleagues again how much time off they took off hoping that things had changed. Some of the fathers had taken 4 to 6 weeks…same for the mothers. After everything my wife went through including the labor, surgery, multiple bouts of mastitis, and everything else that goes with having a child, I just can’t imagine a mother taking 6 weeks off. I was pissed.

I shouldn’t be the catalyst for this.

Guilt and shame. That’s how I felt after I started conversations with HR about parental leave. I shouldn’t be complaining when I got more time off than most other fathers did. However, I had an innate sense of responsibility to stand up for my friends and colleagues. No one should feel anxious about putting their career in jeopardy when adding a new member to their family. At a time when there’s so much hate in the world and sexism in tech, why should a white, way below average height, balding, lover of hip hop and video games, 33-year-old Okie who has never experienced racism, sexism or bigotry choose to fight this fight?

Change doesn’t happen until someone is not only willing to recognize it, but do something about it. Although it makes me really uncomfortable to call out problems, I have a responsibility to my team to make their lives easier and less-stressful. After all, work is easy…having a kid is hard.

How Articulate stepped up and fixed the problem.

5 minutes. That’s how long it took for Adam Schwartz and his team to reach a decision on the new policy. They were able to recognize the problem with the “take as much time as you need” approach and corrected it immediately. Only 6 days after my initial contact with HR, a new Baby Bonding Benefit was born. Here’s the gist:

Both primary and non-primary caregivers can take 17 weeks of paid leave. You can take it all at once, split it up into chunks, or extend it by working part-time.

I originally planned on taking about 5 weeks off and then phasing back into work for 2 weeks. My new plan is to take 8 weeks off and phase back into work for 2 weeks. Then, I’ll take additional time off around Thanksgiving and Christmas. When my wife decides to go back to work, I’ll take advantage of the leave that’s left to help with that transition.

Stop waiting for legislation. We can fix this now.

The FAMILY Act was introduced in February of 2017 and recently endorsed by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. It would provide both mothers and fathers with up to 12 weeks of partially paid leave. While it’s a step in the right direction, policy like this takes time to implement and there’s no guarantee that it would ever get voted on.

You can fix this now by simply asking your company to match Articulate’s new Baby Bonding Benefit. If your policy is already better than Articulate’s, please ask around and make sure people are fully utilizing it. “Take as much time as you need” means “Take as much time as your manager thinks is reasonable.” Parental leave shouldn’t be up for interpretation.