Oh, really? Wow! Shared parental leave... sharing our experience, two weeks in.
Updated: Jun 2
Surprise, admiration, perplexity – just some of the reactions Dan and I experienced when explaining our #sharedparentalleave plans with friends and colleagues last year.
Big fans of the concept of co-parenting, Shared Parental Leave (SPL) was always something we’d talked about doing with no.1 but it wasn’t a realistic option for us back then, so when no.2 came along we were keen to give it a try.
We decided that I would do the first six months, the newborn stage, where I would be (hopefully) breastfeeding and of course bonding with the new baby. Then Dan would take over for the next few months until our SPL allowance expired and we would both be back at work.
I knew that it would be hardest for me on an emotional level – what if I didn’t feel ready when the time came to handover? What if I missed the baby too much when back at work?
The ‘mum guilt’ felt huge around this decision. Was I a ‘bad mum’ for returning to work before a full year? Of course, many women have no choice financially but to do so. Would people think I didn’t love my baby enough or perhaps that I wasn’t the ‘maternal type’? – two things that couldn’t be further from the truth. However, as all mothers know, the universally experienced ‘mum guilt’ is something that takes a lot of mental strength to overcome.
I didn’t feel worried about Dan at all from a baby care point of view. He has always been an amazing daddy and very hands-on, from helping me syringe colostrum in the early days (if you know, you know) to generally sharing the load.
Any worries for Dan centred around work – what would he be missing out on from a career perspective taking a chunk of time off? Obviously, legally, this is what maternity/paternity leave is all about – you shouldn’t technically need to worry about that kind of thing, but of course you do.
Six years since the introduction of shared parental leave and take-up is still just 2%*! From my own experience I can totally believe this shocking statistic. I do see a few dads pushing babies around the high street and local parks on weekdays, yet out of my wide circle of friends and acquaintances I know no other couples who have embarked on SPL.
We did find it fairly challenging from an administrative point of view to make our SPL happen. The process and forms seemed unnecessarily lengthy and overwhelmingly complicated and no two HR professionals ever explained things to us in the same way. Even halfway through my maternity leave we were still on the phone finalising the admin side of things with our HR departments – not the kind of thing you want to be dealing with while breastfeeding a newborn and home schooling in a pandemic!
I’m really pleased to say though that we did make it happen. One week down, me being back at work and Dan taking on day-time baby care and it’s all very real!
So far, so good and I am so proud of them. It’s obviously an adjustment for both Oliver and daddy but they have done so well together – a proper dream team! We have just started weaning and the daily reports of the foods they’ve enjoyed and little things they’ve done together have been so wonderful and reassuring to hear. Seeing the bond grow between them is just so lovely.
For me, the emotional side was hardest at first. For the first week I did miss feeling like I was his number one – the person who was with him at all hours of the day, totally tuned into all his little facial expressions and gargles. On the flip side, it’s so good to be back at work, using a different part of my brain and talking to adults about things other than nap routines and weaning accessories, although these are still very much two of my specialist subjects!!
I feel very lucky to have a husband who has always been so supportive and encouraging of my career and I’m so pleased he’s able to have this amazing opportunity..
As for Dan’s experience so far, in his own words…
As the door closes and Sarah leaves for work, taking Arthur to school on the way, for the first time, Oliver gives me a look that either says “what are we going to do now Daddy?” or “I’m going to be sick”. It turns out to be the latter and is an expression I’ve seen a lot in the first two weeks of parental leave.
I have a routine written down and a long list of father/son bonding activities for the day including storybooks, singing, and playing on the mat, so we get started. 10 minutes later I’ve exhausted the activities for the day, he hates them, and he’s been sick on me two more times.
A week later and he still isn’t impressed by what I serve up as entertainment, but I’m really enjoying my parental leave experience so far. I’m learning something new everyday - such as the fact that stuffing a muslin into my back pocket as I chaotically stagger out of the house does not count as “making sure to pack plenty of muslins” – and I’m amazed by all the little changes and new things that Oliver is doing everyday. I got to go to my first baby sensory class with him last week and seeing his eyes light up and the concentration in his little face was incredible.
It probably says more about me than anything else but I do feel like a bit of novelty on the day-to-day baby-care circuit. I’ve yet to cross prams with any other dads on parental leave, and whilst there is admiration amongst the mums I’ve spoken to I also imagine there’s an element of “bless him he thinks he’s up to the job”, when they see me wrestling with bags, buggy, baby and a 5 year old who’s favourite hobbies now seem to be shouting “no” and trying to catch squirrels on the walk home from school.
It’s difficult and can be a bit overwhelming at times, but it’s something I would recommend without a second thought to any dad that’s considering taking an extended period of parental leave. I was worried about being away from work, but my employer has been very supportive and it has given me an opportunity to experience a side of parenthood that I never thought I would and it’s giving me a sense of perspective on life and work that I hope is only going to be beneficial in the long-term. I’m also really pleased that I can support Sarah in this way and hopefully allow her to re-adjust to and enjoy her return to work.
Currently my favourite part of the day is breakfast, with everyone else out of the house we can play some of my favourite music. This was previously something I did by myself because a lot of what I like is an “acquired taste”. But now I have a new best mate to share it with, and who, in between mouthfuls of mashed banana, gives me a look that says “we’re a team daddy, and this music is neither boring nor unlistenable”, either that or “I’m going to be sick”. I’ll pretend it’s the former …
So, I’d say all parties agree it’s going well so far and I’d like to think we’re a good advert for taking Shared Parental Leave. It’s only a shame that more dads don’t want to or indeed don’t get to experience it. Hopefully over the years ahead as more families make it the choice for them, the accessibility of it will get better (or at least the forms will get easier!) and it will be something that employers continue to openly and genuinely champion.
As for us, it’s still very early days and I’m sure, as with all parenting, there’ll be challenges to come. We’ll keep you posted!
*SOURCE: Personnel Today, 14.04.21