I can’t tell you how many people have asked me that recently. I know they probably don’t mean anything by it and I’m certain they gave very little thought to their words, but it still irks me something fierce. Because if you’ve ever done it, you’d know that paternity leave is most assuredly NOT a vacation.
I took two weeks of paternity leave after Sam was born. Luckily for me, they were two PAID weeks. I’m one of the fortunate few who works for a company that actually offers new dads two weeks of fully paid paternity leave. But even if my company didn’t offer the two weeks, I would’ve taken time anyway — either via vacation time or unpaid FMLA. Because I think it’s very important — hell, I’ll go so far as to say it should be mandatory — for both moms and dads to be home with the baby in the weeks following birth.
Mainly because those weeks are 1) really important and 2) really damn difficult.
Some guys just take a few days, but that barely covers the time it takes to get out of the hospital after your kid is born. And the hospital doesn’t allow for any kind of routine because the nurses are coming in every hour to check mom and the baby. That goes double if it was a c-section. Once you get home that’s when the real work starts, and that’s especially true for dads whose wives are breastfeeding because the baby needs mom most of the time and not you. But that doesn’t mean you have to stay completely on the sidelines.
Newborns eat, shit, and cry. A lot. Very few of them start out with any kind of discernible schedule — especially when it comes to the sleeping. But spending a couple of weeks with them is the absolute best way to really start figuring things out, and to get a handle on their personality. And that’s exactly what I did for two weeks.
I soaked Sam in, totally and completely. Even though he cried like a maniac just about every time I held him because all he wants to do is eat and I’m not equipped for that, it didn’t matter. I held him, rocked him, relaxed with him, took naps with him, talked to him, studied his facial expressions, and enjoyed (almost) every second with him. To my amazement, I didn’t even so much as check my work email that entire time — something that comes as a shock to those who know me well. And all of those experiences just wouldn’t have happened without paternity leave. There’s just no way.
It’s a shame most companies don’t offer it to male employees (it’s a shame about the lack of maternity leave too, but I’m focusing on paternity for this article). But what’s an even bigger shame is many studies show even the men who are offered paternity leave sometimes decline it in part or in whole. Why is that? A few reasons.
First of all, many guys who take paternity leave face a very real stigma. Parenting is still looked at largely as a female issue, and some supervisors simply don’t see the need for men to delve into it. Furthermore, those men risk being thought of as slackers — people who aren’t genuinely serious about their careers. There’s always the worry that if you’re out for an extended amount of time you’ll be dinged come bonus/promotion time. And, at the heart of it all, some people think men who take extended time off are just wusses and pansies.
Of course anyone with half a brain knows this isn’t true at all. And thankfully, a small but increasing number of employers are seeing the light when it comes to paternity leave and flex scheduling for fathers. We’re not there yet, but slowly but surely we’re seeing a change.
But — and listen closely here — I want to reiterate to people that being on paternity leave is NOT a vacation. Not if you’re doing it right anyway. It’s a helluva lot of work and you basically turn into a sleep-deprived zombie. I know that doesn’t sound appealing, but trust me it is. It was so worth it to me to have that initial time to get to know my son. It’s the foundation of a solid father-son relationship and I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like to try to fit that all in while I’m gone for work 12 hours a day.
It’s my sincere hope more companies start offering dads paid leave, while more dads realize the importance of using every available bit of it without fear of corporate retribution.