Not a vacation: lessons from six weeks of solo paternity leave
My six weeks of paternity leave are ending. It somehow both feels like a lifetime and the blink of an eye. I’m so incredibly grateful to my company for providing the opportunity to spend these six weeks fully dedicated to my boys and laser focused on being an engaged and active dad for them. Though it has often been mentally and physically trying and difficult to handle the two of them at once, I wouldn’t trade back this time for anything. Not only has it given me an opportunity to form a stronger bond with my children than would have otherwise been possible, it also taught me several lessons that will strengthen my relationship with my wife and my kids for the rest of our lives. If you have this opportunity, take it.
When I went on leave, I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I think I drastically underestimated not only how difficult it would be, but how much time the boys take each day. I had thought I would have plenty of time to both interact with them as well as time for some hobbies and personal projects. I wasn’t entirely wrong, but I ended up spending far less time on coding projects, blogging, and brewing than I anticipated and far more time feeding, changing, reading to, and playing with the boys. Given the choice I’d do the same again. The time I was able to spend with them was invaluable and so rare for most fathers. The bond we’ve built — which so far only manifests in huge smiles when they see me — will I’m sure last for our lives and provide a foundation for a phenomenal relationship.
While I was able to blog at a pretty good rate, work a bit on some Amazon Alexa coding, and do minimal research for the brewery, this mostly came toward the end when I began to figure out schedules a bit better and really take initiative to control the little slices of time I did have. In the first few weeks, I was so much more at their beck and call, partly because of their age and needs then, but mostly because I hadn’t figured out how to plan around their schedules yet. With them beginning to stretch longer between naps and feedings and occupy themselves longer, I got more time for active activities. The first few weeks I could only really watch tv, and watch a lot of TV I did. I started and finished all of Stranger Things, two seasons of Kimmy Schmitt, the first six episodes of Westworld, and a season of Portlandia and the first of Mr. Robot. While I knew it was bad for the boys to have these on in the background, without having some escape I think I would have gone crazy. Toward the end I realized that I could read one handed with the Kindle fairly easily while feeding one and read through four books, two of which were actually baby focused and helped with the days.
One place where my plans did not go as well was with running. At the beginning of leave, the boys were taking consistent multi-hour naps in the afternoon, but a week in they started staying awake considerably longer. After three days of increasing frustration from having to hop on and off the treadmill for each cry, I took a two week break from running. Thankfully, I was able to make up for it in many regards with walks. While my wife had been on leave, she was taking two walks each day with the boys so I strove to continue the trend. By the end I was taking a 1.5 hour walk in the morning with them and a 1~ hour one at night with her as well, getting five or six miles of walking in daily. I even took them on a few longer walks at nearby parks on nice days. My Fitbit stats have never been better. Now to figure out how to try to maintain some semblance of fitness when I go back to work and keep off the dreaded dad-bod.
Beyond walking, I accomplished some other pretty momentous achievements as well. I realized the other day when we were out and didn’t have books with us that I had memorized the entirety of Dr. Seuss’s ABCs. This is sure to come in handy at the next long meeting at work where entertainment is needed. I also got so sick of the same four kids’ songs I could remember that I invented several new ones including the boys favorite of Old John Hammond had Jurassic Park. Roar.
I also built a tremendous bond with the boys. Before leave, they obviously recognized me, but only my wife could elicit the huge smiles they’ve learned to make. Now, we both can, sometimes without trying. Yes, there were times when I not only thought about shipping them to Abu Dhabi, but actually found Amazon boxes large enough for it, but 99% of the time we hit our groove and had great times.
It wasn’t only important to me to build a bond with them, but also to develop the habit and find ways to be an active and engaged father. According to statistics from LeanIn.org, dads who are active and engaged raise happier, healthier, and more successful children. The effect is magnified the earlier involvement is as well. With six full weeks of time with just us, I feel I have left a strong impact on both of them and myself. Additionally, children who are raised with parents who have a 50/50 split of duties and contributions, especially against the traditional gender roles, are more likely to break these boundaries themselves and find financial, emotional, and mental success and happiness. By breaking the traditional mold of mother as care provider and father as breadwinner, both with shifting responsibilities during both of our leaves and splitting these duties as we both go back to work, the boys have a more balanced view of the world and gender roles and are more likely to hold non-traditional views themselves. It also has been shown to provide children with a view on life where they actually believe they can do anything. By showing them that their parents can succeed in non-traditional roles it shows that they too can think outside the box and find success where they desire. My kids know that if they really work hard, one day they can be dinosaur farmers, or bus drivers.
The benefits of this engagement with the twins lasts far into their lives as well. Children with involved fathers have higher self-esteem, score higher on cognitive tests, exhibit stronger social skills, have fewer behavioral issues, and achieve higher levels of academic achievement and success. Boys also demonstrate higher tolerance to stress and are less likely to engage in problematic behavior like fighting, drinking, and smoking. Kids with happy parents also tend to end up in happier and longer lasting relationships and marriages as well. For twins, I expect that this reduction in fighting is because they can take it out on each other, if playtime on the jungle mat for our boys is any indication.
The benefits of this engagement also extends to me. Fathers who contribute to the caregiving and wellbeing of their children exhibit higher measures of patience, empathy, and even record higher job satisfaction, regardless of role or industry. Fathers who feel satisfied with their parenting are also linked to health benefits such as lower blood pressure, lower rates of cardiovascular disease, and a higher life expectancy. Even if you do it only for selfish reasons, there are plenty of benefits to being an active and engaged father. These lower rates of stress and blood pressure are of course not measured when two infants are screaming to be fed or both ruined their outfits with spit up or a diaper explosion.
My leave also hasn’t just been about bonding with the boys. It’s also given me an excellent chance to realize just how much my wife does around the house and chip in more fairly. I hadn’t really thought about how nearly every night for the last few years, we’d both get home and while I plopped on the couch and read Twitter or put on the TV to decompress from work, she was cooking dinner and doing dishes for up to two hours sometimes. Being home forced me to not only recognize this imbalance, but to realize how much planning and strategy had to go into it. You have to have a plan to tackle dishes and make food between feedings and freak outs from the boys. Getting the bottles ready every day and cleaning them in the morning got me to start doing all the dishes at least to balance one aspect. Now we hit the couch at night much closer together and typically earlier since the work is spread out. The only downside is that I had to hire a witch doctor to put a curse on the baby bottle manufacturers for the complexity of their bottles and how many pieces require disassembly and cleaning every single day. It’s about the same complexity as cleaning a gun, times four, every day.
I also gained a huge appreciation for how painful doing laundry is in this family. My last full time laundry duty was in college and while washing my clothes then was no picnic, it’s nothing compared to the work that goes into doing it for not only twice as many adults, but also two small humans who on many days seem to exist only to soil clothing. Stain removal for formula and poo on miniature clothes is dreadful, especially with creatures that seem to find ways to projectile spew on both the front and back of clothes somehow.
This contribution is not only good for our relationship, but has positive benefits for the boys as well. A study showed that fathers who contribute to household chores, especially those at around a 50/50 split raise children who believe they have a wider range of career options. This has a stronger correlation with daughters, but holds true for sons as well. This belief also has a correlation to wider career success and satisfaction. There is also a tie between this and children that grow up to have more equal households as well. Equal households in turn lead to higher relationship satisfaction, fewer fights, and longer marriages. It’s a flywheel that turns itself. Couples in balanced relationships also have more, eh “intimacy”. Just probably not in the first few years, like 18 or so. And don’t question your in-laws’ parental skills, this is a sure fire way to counteract all the benefits.
Lastly, contributing like this sets a strong example at work. My team sees that it is not only possible to take time to spend with your family, but it is encouraged and there are no repercussions. The main reason both men and women do not take leaves for their children is fear of their career being negatively impacted. Additionally, it builds a strong culture where work / life balance is encouraged and rewarded. I already know my personal story of this leave has helped in some part to encourage two new employees to pick our company over other similar offers. When I return to work, I’ll have stories of my time with the boys and my contributions at home to share, which in turn improves the culture there. Discussing my contributions and the reasons for them encourages equality at work as well and helps reduce some of the gender bias implicit in the work force. Women are often afraid to speak up in meetings or push to advance their careers in the same way that men can feel more comfortable due to the stereotypes of men being the breadwinners and women being the caregivers. By shifting that picture, the biases start to erode. I hope in a small way my personal experience and stories can contribute to breaking these barriers.
If anything, my time on leave and with the boys changed my views and priorities. I know it’s going to be a bit harder to sit in meetings now, especially late ones when I know I have the boys at home. My goal is to ensure I always prioritize time with them when possible and don’t become a father who misses bedtime. I don’t want to be the dad from “Cat’s in the cradle”. We’ll be together soon. No, we’ll be together as often as daddy can humanly make possible. And I hope my coworkers see this and know that it is ok.
This time has also shown me how we absolutely need a national policy for parental leave for both mothers and fathers. Instituting it for mothers is a great first step, but fathers have need of it as well. It isn’t enough just for mothers to have the opportunity. Fathers need to be engaged early on as well and it begins with feeling support from the government, company, and co-workers. A national policy would incentivize companies to not only provide the option, but provide support for dads to actually use it. Unfortunately discussion of it, though more so than it had been before, has been largely eclipsed in the recent election cycle and to my knowledge, hasn’t been discussed by any candidate.
Because I feel so strongly about this and all the benefits to dads and their families this provides, I’ve started a LeanIn circle for dads. Anyone is welcome to join, though the focus will be on providing new dads with the support and tools they need to be there for their children and wives. It’s time to start being the change we want to see. You can learn more and join here: http://leanincircles.org/chapter/lean-in-dads
My six weeks of paternity leave alone with the boys was such an incredible blessing for me and my entire family. I see now why more and more companies are expanding leave options and more fathers are taking advantage. There is still such a long way to go though. Now that I’ve participated in it, I feel even stronger that we need to allow and encourage more fathers to take advantage as well. Six weeks sounds so long, but it went by in a flash. I know this time will be so foundational to my relationship with the boys over our entire lives, but wish it could have been longer. It surely wasn’t a vacation in any way and while my expectations had to shift, it was such a rewarding time that I wouldn’t trade it for the same amount of time in any other situation. I hope one day you have the same opportunity.
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