My Paternity Leave Wasn’t a Vacation


In order to survive in Silicon Valley and to survive as a parent I developed a thick skin. You try to be great at your job and you try to be a great parent and then you deal with all the little paper-cuts that your life at work and home bring to you.

How was your vacation?

Coming back from a nice vacation is full of wonder and excitement. You feel refreshed and with any luck you’re gearing to go. Coming back from parental leave was nerve-racking. Oh, I have a new family member and I’m just getting used to that and I need to figure out how to work while sleep deprived.

My manager probably didn’t realize that “How was your vacation” was the worst thing to ask me after I came back from paternity leave. If this was just one of a handful of tiny little slights, I could have ignored it, but this felt like the 1,000th paper-cut.

I suppose context is needed, because to many a paternity leave is a vacation — because patriarchy. I suspect for a lot of people paternity leave is just letting mom take care of the new addition. This trend continues beyond paternity leave and into most of child-rearing for many families.

Parenting

Patriarchy would have us believe that parenting is primarily the concern of the mother. Therefore paternity leave is a few extra days off for dad to chillax with his family and help mom out. He might even go into his garage and build a highchair or go into the woods and hunt and forage for food.

Siddhartha and his newborn brother — Photo by Meghan MacAskill

Being a mom or dad through biology or proximity makes you a parent. Parenting is an activity. My wife is a stay at home mom, but outside of my work hours we strive for equal participation. Certainly this is aspirational and honestly I don’t really enjoy being on the hook as much as my wife is, but it is what we decided is fair in our household. It’s not just that it’s fair, but the responsibility can be rewarding.

While some of my leave was just helping my wife, much more of it was to bond with my new son, and to help adjust my eldest to his new brother. For an active (almost) four year old that meant a lot more than teaching him the fragility of a newborn. It meant taking him to the park. It meant picking up his Grandma. It meant playing terrible board games like Candyland.

Once the baby is larger some things are okay.

It also meant trying to solve all the logistics that my wife will soon face alone:

  • How to shower while the baby sleeps and keep child 1 from crawling into the crib with his brother.
  • How to load two kids into a car without the stroller careening down a hill or child 1 running off into traffic.
  • How to re-babyproof a house that’s recently been un-babyproofed.
  • How to easily create playlists of the DisneyCollector on the YouTube app on the AppleTV.

Leave Time

Paternity leave and vacation are conflated for another reason. They are too damn short. Paid paternity leave is not mandatory in the US unlike most countries. In California, there is a six weeks paid family leave program which pays parents a portion of their salary. Many employers take advantage of this, and combine it with their own generosity (read “competitive hiring advantage”).

While having six weeks at a portion of your salary is better than nothing, it’s not quite enough. I was fortunate to have my full salary through my employer for four weeks. All those new expenses don’t get easier with a thinner paycheck.

Data from MotherJones

The thing to note is that in all but three of those companies in this chart, most places discriminated against men in terms of the parental leave they could take. Beyond a recovery time from pregnancy, much of parental leave is learning to be a parent and adjusting to your new family and bonding with the baby. I can and did bond with the baby, but not as much as my female coworkers bonded with their babies.

I don’t mean to highlight the inequality to say “men deserve things too.” This is another situation where patriarchy also screws over men as well as women. Women are expected to stay at home with baby. Men aren’t and in general men don’t get to if they want to. If I was a stay at home dad and my wife had a career and had a longer leave, that would be awesome. Having a short leave prevents me from spending time with my family, and therefore makes things more difficult for my wife who does stay at home.

I should also state, that I don’t just want equality, I want a long time to bond with my child. Three months or more sounds nice. Not only can I learn to soothe him when he’s upset, put him to sleep without worrying about being paged, but I can be around when he does the amazing things babies do in their first year: learning to sit, crawl, eat, stand and even walk.

This is Siddhartha’s fire-vehicle.

In exchange I will lay the foundations for my child so that he can become a productive member of our society. Helping a baby in that first year establishes a pattern in parenting. The baby trusts you to take care of it into toddlerhood and beyond. You can teach kids simple lessons like how not to torture the kitty, how to be nice to others and how to build amazing things out of Lego bricks.

I prioritized my newborn son quite a bit, I took what leave I could (I had more than I did when I had my first child), and conquered a lot of those anxieties that I had. My baby is almost a year now and I can take care of him almost as well as my wife. I can put him down for a nap, for sleep and keep him fed, clothed and cleaned. With my first son, I was trying to find my balance and found all of these things difficult. Some of this is no longer being a novice, but I think time well spent made this happen too.

Vacations

My leave was no vacation. Vacations are a time where you can relax and unwind from the stresses of everyday life. You can go on a trip, you can work around your house, you can spend time with your family. This is different than the rough adjustment life gives you when you are caring for a newborn.

Vacations are important. My friends would joke that the one way to actually be able to take vacations was to keep having children. Here the conflation was in jest, and also a caricature of the reality of vacations at startups.

Employees deserve vacations and paternity leave shouldn’t count against that. If it’s okay for employees to take a month off each year, it should be okay for me to have that same month off in addition to my paternity leave. In fact, I should be able to take every other Friday off and it shouldn’t be any different than someone who takes two two week vacations a year.

That’s not reality. The reality is with unlimited vacations there’s pressure both as an employee to still be around, and pressure from management to not take vacation. Sure, some companies do a good job encouraging their employees to use their flexibility, but most don’t. Most companies spend their time driving metrics to the top-right.

Better than unlimited is to have a policy with a generous amount of vacation time. Perhaps better than that is to establish a minimum vacation policy. Let’s be explicit about what we mean and what’s acceptable. Otherwise we need to test the waters to find out what’s okay and what’s not. We’re bound to ruffle feathers.

Better leave policies lead to better bonding with children and honestly better relationships with children. Even if you don’t have children and never intend to, my children will be a part of your world and it’s best that I help raise them correctly so their contributions are positive.

We do need better structures in place. Everyone should be able to spend time with their kids. Companies should be explicit with their expectations of their employees and in general supportive of new families. Companies should also train their management better. Because the best policies and aspects of culture are only effective if everybody is on board.


Upon request I’m now tracking companies various parental leave policies in this Github repository. Please submit information for where you work.

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