Deciding to take paternity leave was easy for me. I wanted to do what I could to support my wife as we embarked on a new stage of our life together and I was fortunate that my employer allows dads two weeks of paternity leave on full pay rather than the somewhat meagre amounts that most dads are entitled to under the government’s statutory rates.
I did think about the fact that there might be a few practical challenges that I would have to overcome due to the nature of my job as a university lecturer. I knew that there was a good chance that my paternity leave would coincide with a pretty busy time of the academic year and that this could mean that some of my colleagues might have to take on a bit of extra work for a week or two in my absence. However, I tried to plan ways to minimise the disruption and inconvenience, and a lot of this was to do with communication. I knew that I had to inform my line manager of my intention to take paternity leave at least 15 weeks before the due date, which I did.
As it happens, I also did things that I wasn‘t required to do but thought would make things easier for my colleagues and students. Our son was due to be born in early April 2013 and I told my students in late January that I would be going on two weeks of paternity leave during the second half of the semester but couldn‘t be sure exactly when. So that I wouldn‘t have too many classes to catch up on in a short period of time after paternity leave, I brought forward a few classes in the hope that I’d have fewer to rearrange after my wife gave birth.
My students were really understanding about this and the fact that I ended up having to cancel some classes at short notice (or have some really kind colleagues stand in for me). In the end, I taught quite a lot of rearranged classes in a fairly short space of time during a week that was supposed to be a revision week rather than a normal teaching week. My colleagues were really helpful when it came to organising this, and the vast majority of my students attended the rearranged classes.
I wasn’t sure what paternity leave would be like, but I did know that I wanted to be around to help out and take in everything during the first two weeks of life as a family of three. As my wife ended up having to give birth via an emergency c-section, the first few days involved trying to make sure everything was tidy and ready for her return home and remembering to bring in lots of nice little things to her in hospital.
It felt really strange not being able to be more present during these first two days after our son was born, but our local hospital unfortunately only allows dads to be present with their partners on the maternity ward from 1.30pm to 7.30pm. I was really excited when I knew that my wife and son were definitely going to be coming home, and I decorated our living room with streamers, balloons and a ‘Welcome Home’ sign.
I’d initially thought that I might be able to sneak a moment or two to read some things for work during paternity leave, but I ended up not doing so. Our son quickly decided that his favourite napping position was curled up on top of someone who was sitting on the sofa, and I watched several films while he snoozed away on my lap.
During my wife’s pregnancy and labour I had done my best to be as supportive as I could. However, I felt that there was only so much that I was capable of doing, given that it was my wife who had to endure the pains, tiredness and everything else that is a part of being pregnant and then giving birth.
One of the most satisfying things for me during paternity leave was feeling that I was able to help out in lots of small ways by doing simple things such as going to the supermarket and stocking up on baby supplies. In addition to providing practical support, I feel that paternity leave is also a time when dads can help to provide emotional support by being there for their partners when there are midwife visits and potentially hospital trips. We had both during our son’s first two weeks, partly because he took longer than average to return to his birth weight.
In the week after my paternity leave ended, I worked from home on a couple of days so that I could be around to give my wife a break if and when she needed it, and so that I could be present for one of the health visitor’s calls. The health visitor seemed somewhat surprised to see that I was at home once my paternity leave had finished, and said something along the lines of, “I’m sure you’ll be looking forward to getting back to normal and working in the office again.”
Whilst I was looking forward to seeing my colleagues and students, it was hard to get used to not spending as much time with my wife and son. I swiftly went from being with them more or less all day every day to leaving the house at 8am when they were still asleep and not seeing them again until 6pm. I relished being able to give our son his bath when I got home.
I didn’t see returning to work as a return to normal but rather as the start of a ‘new normal’. This new normal involved feeling less fresh than I normally would at the start of the week and indeed most mornings. I’d gradually got used to having fewer hours of sleep and more broken sleep during paternity leave, but it was a new challenge dealing with it once I was back at work.
Since our son was born in 2013, the UK government has announced plans to make it easier for dads and mums to share parental leave. In general, I welcome this and particularly the fact that men will be legally entitled to time off to attend two antenatal appointments with their partner. However, there are some issues that still need to be addressed.
After attending the 12-week and 20-week scans, men will have used up their antenatal leave allowance, which is a potential problem in areas like here in North Wales where antenatal classes often take place during working hours. I was fortunate in having an understanding line manager and being able to reorganise a few work engagements.
For me, the big issue about needing to make it easier for dads to attend antenatal classes is that being an involved parent starts before a child is born. Antenatal classes provide a great opportunity for both mums-to-be and dads-to-be to ask questions and become more confident about the challenges associated with the latter stages of pregnancy, giving birth, and the first few weeks of being parents. I certainly see the new parental leave system as a step in the right direction, and I hope that it will be followed by more steps that will make things easier for both mums and dads.
Jonathan Ervine is a lecturer in French at Bangor University in North Wales. He lives on the edge of Snowdonia with his wife, son and two chickens. He writes a blog about his experiences of parenthood at dadsthewayilikeit.wordpress.com.
First published in Issue 37 of JUNO. Accurate at the time this issue went to print.