I am just back from five weeks of paternity leave, and now that I've hung up my weekday dad jeans, I thought I'd offer some reflections on my experience as a temporary stay-at-home dad with that little cutie you see in the picture below (and her two bigger sisters). I started my leave when my wife returned to work after her own maternity leave, so it was a period of transition and new routines for all of us, which we're dealing with again now that I am back at work.
The experience was, not surprisingly, as much -- or more -- about my older kids as it was about the baby. And that was just fine with me. It was amazing to spend the extra, relaxed time with my older kids, and I did still have plenty of bonding time with Sophia, the baby. Being able to pick up or drop off my older ones at school, or cook dinner with them, or just be around for the late-afternoon homework-dinner-bath mania was important and memorable to me, as I hope it was to them. As my leave neared an end and my 7-year-old asked if I could teach our babysitter some of the recipes we cooked for dinners, I knew it had had an impact. Same with my 3-year-old, who regularly asks in the mornings, heartbreakingly, whether we're staying home with her, even as she sees us getting dressed and ready to leave for work.
Still, I realized I do not aspire to full-time SAHD status. While I do wish I could have more time at home with my kids and spend more of their waking hours with them, I am not the guy who would become a full-time dad if I won the lottery tomorrow. I cherish the balance in my life between home and work, kid activities and professional pursuits. Needless to say, it's a personal choice and I mean no judgment on those who choose otherwise -- quite the contrary, I love hearing about the choices so many men have made to be SAHDs -- but it's important to know what is right for you.
I was (happily) shocked at how many dads I saw out and about. I don't remember feeling the same way the last time I took a paternity leave like this, seven years ago. My memory from then is of feeling like the only dad around during weekday work hours. Not this time: Dads -- and grandpas -- were present with their kids/grandkids everywhere. It was great to see and made me feel like less of an outlier.
You can't be partly on leave and partly working. Like being "half pregnant," it just isn't possible. For the first half of my leave, I did a decent job of staying away from email and really unplugging, at least when I was with my kids. But when my team here at work experienced upheaval, I found myself drawn back in and wanting to be back at the office to help, and truly felt torn between work and home. It led to the more-than-a-little absurd afternoon when I dropped my oldest at gymnastics and drove on the highway for the sole purpose of getting the two younger kids to fall asleep -- at which point I pulled over and called into a meeting. In the middle of the call, my 3-year-old woke up, noisily, understandably demanding to know what we were doing and when we were going home.
Life happens whether you're on leave or not. Duh, no surprise there, but I still found myself extra resentful when my basement flooded and I needed to spend several of my precious paternity leave days dealing with the fallout. Not that I expected all bliss and sunshine, but really? A flood? Of course, the stay-at-home parent inevitably also must take the lead on shopping, cooking, waiting home for the repairman, and all things homemaking, regardless of the fact that my leave was intended to be about spending quality time with the kids. When it came to day-to-day tasks, I was more than happy to do them, and still got plenty of great moments with the little ones. But at times, like when I was sloshing through my flooded basement, my focus had to be elsewhere temporarily.
People seem to assume I took leave for my wife, to ease her return to work. Several people made comments to this effect. But while helping her was a nice benefit, it takes a very mom-centric worldview to make the assumption that that was my primary motivation. I took this time to bond with my baby, and to prolong the time that she spent full-time with a parent before our nanny became her primary caregiver during workdays. I took the time to be a full-time parent for a short period and spend more time than I otherwise could with my older girls. I took it so that I could have some time when they, my daughters, were the center of my day. Yes, it helped my wife and put her mind at ease, but she would have been fine without my taking leave, and this was not among the top reasons I took the time off.
I am Stroller Man. Yes, it's true: I earned a new nickname (and a new beard, but that's a different story). Perhaps it's my new superhero identity. It came from a moment of absentmindedness, when I stopped at the bakery with Sophia asleep in her stroller, and in my haste to get out before she woke up, forgot my order on the counter after paying for it. I returned to find this note:
All in all, I feel like paternity leave accomplished what I wanted from it. Despite the intrusions I mentioned above, I was able to focus for this period on spending quality time with my three children in a (mostly) relaxed environment where they were my main concerns. Not to imply that it was all peace and bliss -- I do have three children, after all, and we had our share of tantrums, yelling, fights, and frustration. But I wasn't seeking some fairy-tale existence: The point was that I was there. And, of course, happy as I am to be back at work, I miss the girls during the day. When it comes to work-life balance, finding that happy medium remains an elusive goal.