I didn't exactly take a paternity leave. I'm a college professor and my son, Nick, was born three days after my last final exam of the Spring semester. Perfect timing (although we didn't actually plan it that way). I was able to spend the summer on a "de-facto paternity leave" with my wife, Amy, and Nick as we all got to learn how this whole "baby makes three" thing would shake out.
Here are four ways I benefited from the opportunity to be present during the first few months of Nick's life:
For me, bonding with Nick was immediate. Amy had to have an emergency C-section, so while she was in recovery, the first hour of Nick's life were just me and him. I spent that hour touching his little fingers and toes and vowing to him I would do all I could to be sure he would have a happy life.
My bond with Nick grew even stronger as, thanks to my ability to be at home, I was there to soothe him when he cried, feed him when he was hungry, cuddle with him when he slept and comfort him when he was sick. I experienced so many firsts with him. He sometimes drove me ragged and seemed to enjoy depriving me of sleep or of personal hygiene, but even then, suffering through it all for his benefit just made me feel closer to him. There is something primal about caring for a little ball of possibility that is so utterly and completely dependent on you. It creates a kind of love and devotion that is hard to describe.
Before Nick, I had never changed a diaper, mixed a bottle of formula, dressed a squirming baby or put one down for a nap. To me, raising a baby was a brave new world. Amy read all the books (I skimmed a few parts of one or two of them), and we attended a class or two, but I really wasn't prepared. However, by being around and actively involved, I quickly caught on.
Taking care of a baby is HARD because it is unrelenting and because of all the sleep deprivation. But I never found it hard to figure out diapers, feeding, snuggling and all the other basic blocking and tackling of new parenthood. Nick and I took to each other right away. The only problem was his alarming tendency to wake up over and over and over every night. But that was on him, not me.
These early experiences served me well as Nick got older. I'm fine being on solo dad duty, taking him outside armed only with a diaper bag and what was left of my wits (the sleep deprivation again). But I never felt like anything less than a capable parent, and I credit my early climb up the learning curve with this earned sense of confidence.
3. Sharing the Experience with My Wife
It was not just a bonding experience for me and Nick, it was also one for me and Amy. I always knew she was the right partner for me, but our first few months of working together caring for Nick reinforced for us that we are a great team and that we can always rely on each other to step up when needed.
Caring for a newborn is a crucible, and sharing an experience that is so maddening, wonderful, awful, exhilarating, depressing and inspirational as equal partners and true teammates can't help but make you a stronger couple. To this day, we are on the same page as parents, and I believe our shared early struggles helped get us there.
4. Confidence in Each Other
Because we shared so much of the parenting load and each got to see how wonderful the other was with Nick, we became very confident in each other as parents. Amy doesn't feel the need to hover over me, and she trusts that I can care for Nick (to her credit, she never tried to crowd me out by doing what psychologists call "maternal gatekeeping"). This gives her the ease of mind to take breaks, and allowed us to take turns on the overnight "Nick, why won't you sleep!" shifts.
I know Amy's a great mom. I'm pretty sure she thinks I'm a great dad. We do some things differently, but Amy has never made me feel like anything but an equal parent. I think the fact that we worked together so closely during those first two months helped set up our healthy, shared-care family dynamic. The fact that I really learned to parent Nick allowed Amy to return to work with confidence.
Our ability to share the load has served us well as Nick has gotten older. Now, if Amy has to work late or I have to travel to a conference, neither Amy nor I worry that Nick will be well taken care of. We know that the other has it totally covered, and Nick does too.
My paternity leave fundamentally shaped me as a person, parent and spouse, and I believe it contributed to the strength and resiliency of my family. I wish all fathers and families had the same opportunity. I see how important being home for the first few weeks of Nick's life was for my development as a father and for setting the stage for my family's dynamics.
This opportunity to develop as a person, a parent and a spouse should not be reserved just for new moms, or just for the a lucky few new dads with ultra-flexible jobs or awesomely progressive employers. It shouldn't just be for the residents of the three states (California, New Jersey and Rhode Island) that provide for paid parental leave.
I believe all dads deserve this opportunity, and that dads, moms, kids, families and our society all benefit when dads get to immerse themselves in the life of their children in such a uniquely intimate and transformative way. I'm not just an advocate for working dads because of my professional interests. For me, paternity leave is personal.
Please check out the following articles on paternity leave written by me, Brigid Schulte of the Washington Post, Liza Mundy of the Atlantic, and a study from Boston College. This petition is also worth a read.
Did you have an actual, defacto or non-existent paternity leave? Care to share your experience? Let's discuss in the comments section. Also, I'm collecting short paternity leave stories from readers. Please email me (Behson @ FDU dot edu) if you have a story you'd like to shared in a future post. Thanks!