23rd June 2014
Never in my life has twelve weeks gone so quickly.
As I return to work after my three month paternity leave I find myself experiencing a similar sense of trepidation as I did when I last left the civic centre in March. Nerves about work and about my son and a general sense of uncertainty about what the future will hold grip me much as they did when I last made the return journey.
Nonetheless, and despite the general sense of personal tension I feel today, I can honestly say that my experience of paternity leave was one that I genuinely enjoyed. It wasn't without its ups and downs but I look back on the weeks with not a single drop of regret. My son has changed so much in the last three months (as babies do) and it's been great to be a part of that from really close up.
In lieu of writing something a bit too soppy, and recognising that this will be very familiar territory to any parents reading this, here are a few lessons I learnt whilst on additional paternity leave.
1) Baby care really is a woman's world
With (good?) reason nearly everything in the world of baby-care is dominated by women. I think I knew this when I took my time off but the extent of it did surprise me a little. The only other men I came across on a semi-regular basis were grandfathers looking after this grandchildren (I assume as part of their retirement?) and in general there wasn't really an expectation that men would be regular attendees.
One afternoon after our swimming session I was changing my son and had a bit of a shock when a woman wondered into our changing room with her young baby (thankfully I had my pants on). My class knew there was a man attending and so left the mens for me but the other classes, it seems, had no expectation that men would attend and so just split their group between the mens and womens. It makes total sense but nonetheless did surprise me a little.
I wouldn't want this to seem as if people were unfriendly; indeed, the opposite is the case. Everyone I met was lovely and extremely tolerant of the new guy who was yet to learn how the various groups worked (most of the other parents were a good five/six months in and were fully to grip with everything; I was, especially at first, not!). I was just aware of my uniqueness.
2) Despite this there is, as you would expect, no reason why a man can't do it
At first I felt a little nervous about being my son's sole carer during the day. I don't know why but I just felt very concious that I wasn't his mother and needed to 'catch up' with my parenting. Despite this, and my own insecurities, there was nothing about looking after my son, especially once he was five months old that I couldn't do because I was a man (we'd moved him off of breast feeding in time for my leave to kick in). It may sound self-evident but there is no practical reason why a man can't do this.
3) Looking after a baby is really tiring
When asked about the most tiring thing you can do at work I always say that conducting job interviews is by far the worst. It involves constant concentration and provides little opportunity to mentally take a break. Looking after a baby is similar. Although the average baby day is not exactly intellectually taxing (although your project management skills are tested!) the constant concentration and the various needs of a baby over a 12 hour period often left me feeling more knackered by day end than a day at work.
4) And concentrating on anything else is tricky
I had thought that I would catch up on some box sets and stuff while I was off but it was absolutely impossible to concentrate on anything else whilst looking after the baby. I ended up resorting to old West Wing box sets; at least I already knew what was going to happen so it didn't matter when I missed most of it!
Likewise, getting house work, cooking, e-mails and all manner of other things done during the day was pretty tough.
5) My diet sucks
When you have a dependent you are very concious of the food you are giving them. I cooked, steamed, chopped and blended and all of the food was healthy (certainly no salt) and most of it was fairly tasty. Yet, at the same time as I was purée ing cubes of carrot I was making myself a sandwich and eating on the go (although I did occasionally steal some of his food!). The health visitor asked me if he was eating the same food as us yet and I didn't have the heart to tell her he ate far better than I did. I really need to sort that out.
6) Babies really do develop at a different pace and getting worried about it is a mugs game
My baby can crawl. He's very pleased with himself about it and seems to have mastered the skill before some of his similar aged colleagues. But he can't clap. For a while I tried to teach him to clap; so that he could join in with clapping songs. He didn't really want to learn, far more interested in exploring on his hands and knees. I worried about it a little but the more you think about it the more ridiculous it is. One day he'll be able to clap and likewise his peers will learn to crawl. The exact order of all of this stuff is really not that important. Interesting perhaps but really not that important.
7) I had no idea how stressed I was
This sounds silly but I had no idea how strung out I was when I finished work in March. I do find my job stressful at times and it has been a particularly rough few months on a large project (with some sleep deprivation at home thrown in) but I had no idea how bad it had got.
Within about two weeks I noticed that I was far more relaxed than I had been; just as tired but far less on edge. And the more I looked back on how I had been the more I realised that it had got bad. I mentioned this to my wife and she told me that she knew and had been worried about me and when I met up with a friend after a couple of months of paternity leave she said I looked five years younger.
If it is really true that a change is as good as a rest I really hope the change has reset me a little.
8) Changing tables in the Gents toilets are hard to find
A small complaint as most locations also had changing facilities within the accessible toilet but if there was any additional changing facilities they were generally in the Female toilets and not in the Gents. This was a little irking!
And now it is all over. My son is at nursery and I'm heading back to local government; wish me luck!