Four Months of Dad -- Why I'm Taking Extended Paternity Leave

If we want to truly create equality in the workplace for women, and conversely more engaged fathers at home, we can’t just preach it.
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(Note: This article was originally written in April 2016. I have since returned from extended leave, into a new, and exciting opportunity. All thoughts and opinions are my own and not representative of my employer.)

For the next four months, I’m going to be a full-time, stay-at-home-dad, helping to care for my newborn daughter and our two-year old twin boys. I am absolutely thrilled about this. Seriously.

I’m doing this not because I’m in-between jobs or out of a job, but rather because I’m the beneficiary of a new gender-neutral parental leave policy established by my employer, Etsy.

When Etsy announced this new leave policy, I initially fantasized about packing the family up and touring all the national parks out West in an RV, but let’s be honest, that would be a total disaster. And to be truthful, a vacation this will not be.

As a family of five living in a one-bedroom Manhattan apartment, my days will be spent changing diapers, potty training, grocery shopping, cooking, staying just one minute longer in the bathroom for a few seconds of privacy, going to doctor’s visits, taking middle of the night feeding shifts and “sleeping” on the couch so my wife can sleep for more than 3 hours at a time in an actual bed, moving out of said one-bedroom apartment, occasionally showering, and doing endless amounts of laundry, all while managing the complex emotions of two-year old toddlers (“Mine!”).

Five hours of sleep a night will be a good night’s rest. Bonus points if it’s a consecutive five hours. Double bonus points if I get to sleep past 6 am.

I don’t expect or want applause for any of this. It’s what I signed up for when I became Dad. I’m simply doing what is expected of a parent. And as exhausting as it can be, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Becoming a parent is a full-time job, and without paid leave, it’s ridiculous to expect new parents, especially dads who want to be engaged, to return to work so quickly after bringing a new child into the home (especially if it’s not the first child) and perform at a high level.

Yet it’s the standard American companies have set by offering limited leave policies. In fact, 96% of new dads return to work after two weeks of leave or less. The FMLA, while preserving jobs, doesn’t really move the needle since it’s unpaid and can actually hurt families financially.

Bringing a new child into the home requires a huge reorienting of what “normal” means, and it deserves dedicated time to figure that out.

Extended paid leave is not just good for families, it’s good business.

Given what we know about the negative effects sleep deprivation has on job performance and productivity, it becomes a lose-lose situation. Parents return to work earlier than they want to because they need the money, don’t perform their jobs as proficiently, and might even leave the company out of bitterness. In turn, companies suffer lost money due to lower productivity and the eventual turnover cost.

And honestly, is America really OK being one of two countries worldwide that does not offer some sort of paid parental leave, leaving 15% of new parents applying for public assistance? No offense to Papa New Guinea, but America, we can do better.

Taking time off to care for a child should not be an economic punishment. If we truly want to espouse to uphold family ideals and a “focus on the family,” then as country we should recognize that we do more to hurt families than help without some sort of paid leave policy for parents.

Naturally, then, I’m excited to be a full-time dad for a few months and not be just a butt in a seat to collect a check, faking it until I make it (at home and work) to make ends meet until we’ve reached a relative place of new family normalcy.

But as much as I’m looking forward to this dedicated time, I’m nervous, too.

I don’t hold a high position at Etsy, so my nervousness is not tied to wondering if mission critical projects will continue to move forward appropriately. I’m in quite the opposite position. My team is under a reorganization. My role is largely undefined at the moment. If anything, this is the perfect moment to take extended leave and then come back to sort out my role.

More than anything, I’m nervous about the cultural perception and career implications of taking an extended leave. I’m all about being counter-cultural, but I still have reservations. Will Etsy truly not judge me for taking this leave? Will I stunt my career growth at Etsy? How will this look professionally beyond Etsy? What will my peers think?

I’ve also had moments of guilt. Can I really take this time? Am I cheating the system somehow? In these moments it helps to remind myself of paternity leave policies in Iceland, Sweden, France, Denmark and other countries and remember the US is merely catching up (except for California and now New York) to the world on this issue.

As I’ve dealt with these questions, my guilt, and stressing over whether or not I should jump back in at work (I initially returned after three weeks of leave under the old policy) or duck back out under the new policy, I have had a realization: the fears I am experiencing are the same women have been dealing with for decades.

This realization has helped give me confidence in taking this leave. If we want to truly create equality in the workplace for women, and conversely more engaged fathers at home, we can’t just preach it. It must be practiced.

Etsy gets this, as evidenced in its research behind the new leave policy. So I’ve got to trust in Etsy’s culture-shifting policy. I have to trust I won’t be punished for choosing to be Dad for a few months and that new and exciting opportunities will await me when I return.

And although I’m nervous about the cultural perceptions and career implications of taking extended leave, I am more afraid that if those of us that have been traditionally viewed as secondary caregivers don’t take extended leave when offered, and even talk about it, then progressive leave policies such as Etsy’s will remain progressive on paper only.

And truth be told, the implications of acting on such a policy are about more than a few months at home as a family to establish a new normal.

It’s about generating a larger conversation about why paid leave for both parents is a good economic decision.

It’s about supporting gender equality in the workplace and at home.

It’s about ensuring greater health for babies and overall healthier families.

It’s about creating more engaged fathers and the psychological and sociological benefits that has on children.

One could argue that to be truly progressive I shouldn’t take the effort to call out taking extended paternity leave, and instead talk about these things in a more egalitarian, gender-neutral way. I get that.

But if we want things to change, it’s important to name what needs to change.

Under Etsy’s former leave policy, primary caregivers were granted 12 weeks of paid leave, and secondary caregivers five weeks. When my daughter was born at the end of February, before the new policy was announced, I initially planned to take three weeks off, return to work, and then take my remaining two weeks a couple months later when my wife’s leave ended.

As one can gather from this statement, choosing to take five weeks off is equated with being the secondary caregiver. To be honest, this is something that my wife and I never really talked about. Sure, she’s the primary caregiver in the sense that she’s the one that carried and delivered the baby and the only one capable of breastfeeding (though an East Village herb shop tried to convince me otherwise about the latter). But in all other aspects, we are pretty much equal caregivers. We both work outside the home and therefore have to do equal parts in the home. We prefer life this way.

Perhaps the reason we never thought about me asking to take 12 weeks as an equal primary caregiver is tied to cultural norms and expectations of the traditional roles of moms and dads. Yet if we want more engaged fathers at home, we have to stop viewing them as “secondary.”

Furthermore, not only are these role definitions now outdated, they are discriminatory. How does one decide who the primary caregiver is among a same-sex couple?

I applaud Etsy for recognizing both the gender bias and (unintentional) definition of family roles inherent in its former policy, along with the need to grant more leave and be more in line with countries worldwide.

They have made it clear that employees should not feel forced to return to work in an unreasonable timeframe (eight weeks of consecutive “use it or lose it” leave must be taken within the first six months) and will indeed have a role waiting for them upon returning.

I fully recognize I’m currently in a privileged position to even talk about this. I have a full-time job at a company with the resources to offer such leave and not just wish for it.

But hopefully this policy, and others similar to it, are one day not a privilege only a handful of companies can offer to full-time employees, and instead a mandated federal policy that benefits all families and workers (full-time, part-time and self-employed).

As I wrestled with my desire to be at home with my family alongside my desire to be at work, I’ve felt fully supported to make the decision that is first and foremost best for my family. It’s helpful, too, having the precedent set by our CEO, Chad Dickerson, who took his full leave and then some a few years back. And when he tweets things like, “Be a Man. Take Paternity Leave.”

Yet while I feel supported within Etsy, I know the cultural expectation of men taking extended parental leave remains the same — don’t do it. Or, don’t do it unless you’ve achieved a certain career status.

But taking extended paternity leave shouldn’t be left to the VPs and CEOs of the world. Everyday employees should feel empowered to take leave as well.

I know I will catch some side-eye from my peers, and worried looks from family, but this is the right choice for my family at this moment in time.

What finally tipped the scale to stay home was this: In 18 years, I don’t know where I will live or where my career path will have taken me. But I do know that I will still be Dad to three wonderful children. When else over next 18 years will I get to have extended time, alongside my wife, paid and with health care, to bond with my children? Never.

And I can go ahead and guarantee that looking back 18 years from now, the words “I wish I had not taken time away from my career to bond with my family” will never leave my mouth.

See you in four months. I’m off to change diapers and make dinner.

Want to see what I’m up to the next four months? Follow me on Instagram @cgashcraft or the hashtag #FourMonthsOfDad

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