Over the last 7 weeks, I have been lucky to take a second stint of parental leave in addition to the 5 weeks I had at the start of our child’s life. This experience has given practical meaning to what I have intellectually known for some time: parental leave is tremendously important to bond with a new child, to develop as a parent, and for fathers, to pursue a fatherhood that works to meet motherhood as an equal.
My wife, Allison, had 6 months of paid parental leave. At the end of this time she was a pro, at least to the extent any parent can be a pro in this humbling experience. As I was transitioning to leave, it was clear that she was the better parent. She simply had done the job for more hours than I had. Add to that the specialness of the breastfeeding connection (and the fact that Allison is the most loving person I have ever known), it added up to a seriously impressive set of parenting skills. She interpreted sounds and movements, had a suite of nurturing tools, made the logistics look second nature, and just understood our child’s cadence so well. During her leave, I took those things for granted. She was an expert to whom I could always defer, whether it was affirming “Is it time to put him down for a nap?” or to pass off the baby for a more practiced sway.
In my first week of parental leave, I interrupted Allison’s work day multiple times with questions like, “You think I should try to get him back down?” or “If I feed him now, will that throw off the rest of the schedule?” I didn’t know the answers and wasn’t confident that I could figure it out. Any level of confidence I might have felt was only further undermined by the background noise of a baby crying. Like nearly anything else in life, you can’t get good at something unless you are willing to be confused by and uncomfortable with it.
After a handful of weeks, that confusion and discomfort left. I do not pretend I have caught up with Allison, but at least think I am playing in a similar league. This struggle has been key to my development as a parent and an important reorientation around what it means to be the “lead parent.” Having extended parental leave while Allison returned to work has been essential to push back against the built-in disparity of responsibility and societal assumptions about heterosexual parenting.
This extending, enduring bonding time also makes me appreciate what child care really means. It is hard. It is relentless. It is exhausting. (And our kid can’t even really move yet.) It is also among the most important things we as a society do: grow the next generation of humans. This truth enhances my appreciation for those who do this work, for their own children or others, and shines a spotlight for me on how inadequately our policies protect and support this essential work that our nation depends on. This reality has only worsened during the last six months as the already fragile system has been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Most fundamentally, this time has allowed for my child and my bond to grow. We do everything together. The cycle of food, diaper, nap, repeat. Daily adventures to parks and monuments. Exploring what earns a smirk versus a giggle and which toys occupy one minute of engagement as opposed to four minutes. And seeing how a young mind starts to perceive and process the world. I will hold onto moments where my son and I are playing on the floor and my mind is free of any other thoughts. After this time together, I feel so close to him—somehow I love this person more than I knew I could two months ago. It’s a closeness I didn’t know I didn’t yet have.
All of these truths make more stark how I felt in the weeks leading up to this period of leave. I was apprehensive about clarifying and communicating my plans and felt defensive when engaging in conversation about them. I was riddled with guilt. I am sure this was informed by the biases about childcare–and specifically men prioritizing child care–that have been mapped onto my brain throughout life, and the real and/or perceived biases I felt from others. Despite deeply believing in the principle of prioritizing parental leave, when faced with it personally and practically it seemed selfish.
On the other side, I am almost embarrassed to admit it. The time was incredibly special for me as a new parent, important in pursuit of a marriage that strives for equity, and I hope part of the cement that will bond my son and me. It makes tangible for me what I have felt strongly about for some time – that we need a society that prioritizes and demands time for people to take care of new family members and loved ones. We are not there as a society. The majority of working parents in America do not have access to paid family leave. Only half of new mothers in this country take any paid time off at all when their babies are born.
The Children’s Defense Fund fights alongside our partners for paid family leave for all new parents–mothers and fathers alike–because we know that this bonding time is critical to children’s early development. And while I have always been strongly supportive of paid leave–for CDF staff and for all people across this country–I now understand on a deep and personal level just how critical it is that we expand this opportunity to every child and parent in America.