By Blake Woodward on 9 April 2019
I am a newish dad with a two-year-old son, Samuel, and another one on the way. Like many other dads, I want to be the best dad I can be by being physically present to care for my children while maintaining a career. Taking parental leave provided me with this opportunity from the start.
My wife Katie and I both work for PwC, which offers equal paid parental leave for both mums and dads. This policy allowed us to take turns being the primary carer during Samuel’s first 14 months of life.
I took 2 months off work when Samuel was born, using the time with Katie to look after our newborn baby together. I remember holding Samuel in my arms when he was a few minutes old, in total awe of this new life we had created, feeling completely clueless as to what to do next. The birthing classes had taught what we needed to know to get to this point, but had not prepared us for what to do next to keep the baby alive! Over the coming days, I waited for the instincts to kick in to help me know what to do, but they didn’t. I tried the best I could, but it always seemed like Katie instinctively knew more than I did when it came to caring for Samuel.
This was amplified when I returned to work for 6 months after the initial 2 months off. I felt so useless. Even though I tried my best, I couldn’t keep up with Samuel’s progression and relied heavily on Katie telling me what to do. I couldn’t understand what he needed when he cried, or worse (and to Katie’s annoyance), often slept through his cries when he woke up at night.
This all changed when I took the second period of leave to become the primary carer. During my 7 months as the primary carer, I was the one instinctively sensing how Samuel’s needs were evolving. I mastered the interpretation of his cries and gestures. I started waking up to his cries at night while Katie started sleeping through. We realised that our gender had nothing to do with our ability to care for our baby. The biggest factor was consistent time spent caring for him.
This period of time was, without doubt, the best time of my life. I have so many cherished memories of my time with Samuel. We have developed a very special bond, and it has also shaped my ongoing role within our family. Having both learned to be the primary carer, Katie and I have continued sharing the caring and household duties.
When Samuel was 14 months old, I returned to work part-time (4 days per week). I have continued this for over a year with Fridays being our father-son day. Since returning to work, I’ve found that I am far more efficient and focused in the way I work. I’m better at prioritising my workload and at managing and delegating work across the team. This partly because I have learned to use my time much more productively after caring for a baby..and partly because I have to be in order to pick up Samuel from daycare on time!
My taking parental leave has helped Katie’s return to the workforce and reduced the impact on her career after starting a family. In fact, within 9 months of returning to work, Katie was promoted to partner, a milestone for her career. Like a growing proportion of career couples these days, Katie is the primary earner for our household. So our family was financially better off by us both taking parental leave, rather than following the social norm of Katie putting her career on hold while I continued to work full time. While my career has naturally slowed a little (as it does for anyone taking a significant amount of time off), the net impact on our family has been far less by thinking about our parental leave as a shared experience.
Society is still struggling to embrace the idea of dads becoming primary carers. In the lead up to my parental leave, I was continually asked ‘so what are you going to do with all your time off?’, with an underlying assumption that I needed a side project to justify taking time off work when I became a dad. Imagine the reaction if new mothers were asked this question! My first ‘time off’ from Samuel occurred when I returned to the workforce after 7 months as a full-time Dad!
I experienced many of these double standards as a primary carer dad. It seems society has a very low bar for being a great dad, and sadly a very low expectation of the involvement dads will or should have with their kids.
My hope is to see a day when taking parental leave isn’t seen as ‘being a good dad’, but just simply what dads and all parents do (and are enabled to do). With a second child on the way this winter, I can’t wait to take parental leave again and make the most of these rare and important moments in time for our family.
Blake Woodward is a management consultant and founder of suittiestroller.com – a website supporting corporate dads to become more active in caring for their children and find work-life balance while raising a family.
Blake’s experience in assuming primary carer responsibilities made him realise how few men are afforded this opportunity. He was confronted by how much of the new parent experience is aimed exclusively at mums. He also found that much of this experience is driven by outdated parental leave policies (both government and corporate) that exclude men from becoming primary carers. This inspired Blake to develop suittiestroller.com and begin advocating for change.