New dad David reflects on how the realities of Shared Parental Leave compared to his (too) great expectations
It had long been my desire, since well before my daughter was born, to take a period of Shared Parental Leave to look after her. I had read success stories of men that had grown a strong bond with their child whilst off and returned to work with a spring in their step and a new zest for their career and I wanted to experience the same.
My experience, although thoroughly rewarding and a lot of fun, was less rose-tinted than I had imagined. Don't get me wrong, I do not regret spending three months with my daughter at all, but on reflection I went into it with far too high expectations for both myself and my daughter which unfortunately affected my enjoyment of it.
I have always been one of those dads that wanted to be able to do everything that my wife could do (anatomy aside). I pushed hard to be able to bottle-feed expressed milk, I wanted to get up in the night and to be able to soothe my daughter as well as my wife could. As I'm sure many new dads will have felt, it was a like a knife to the heart when I couldn't settle her for those early months. I put it down to the time they were together and convinced myself that when I was spending more time with her things would change. I was wrong. My daughter would be settled by me when there was just us, but as soon as my wife was there, she didn't want to know me. That was tough. Looking back, I regret putting so much pressure on us both to perform to my expectations and wish I had been a little more relaxed about the situation, maybe that would have helped.
During my time off, I wanted to continue taking my daughter to the classes she had attended with her mum. I thought I would be viewed as the pioneering dad, welcomed into the fold of maternity-leave mums as the great guy who was taking a career break to care for his child. What I found, with the occasional exception, was that I was treated with a mild disdain. I don't believe it was done maliciously, just that it was different seeing a man enter what had been a female-dominated domain. I tried to integrate myself by being friendly, chatty and approachable, but to no avail, I was the black sheep in the room. I continued to go as my daughter loved the classes, but I could imagine this unwelcoming atmosphere could deter some men from returning to a place where you and your child are meant to have fun together.
I don't think I appreciated how lonely looking after a young child can be. We would wave my wife off to work and, on some days, wouldn't speak to anyone else until she returned from work 10 hours later. My male friends were at work, my parents didn't live locally and there was minimal support for dads off work, which led to me feeling pretty isolated at times. On a lighter note though, I formed a lifelong friendship with Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson and his rendition of 'You're Welcome' from the Moana soundtrack.
I know it might seem an unusual sub-heading for an article on Shared Parental Leave, but when I am around the house I am terrible at snacking. Chocolate, biscuits, cheese, anything I can get my hands on. I was really concerned that spending three months mainly at home would lead me to over-eat and put on weight. To combat this, I was really strict with myself, I would prepare our lunches the day before and lock the kitchen down to any tasty treats. Yes, there was the occasional (twice weekly) trip to the local marina café (where they do humongous cakes), but as you will read, they were quickly burnt off.
As a young baby, my daughter would only nap in certain places, they were the car seat or the pushchair and at her sleepiest was having three naps a day. On the days where I didn't feel like increasing my carbon footprint by starting up my 2L diesel engine and driving for an hour, I could walk anywhere up to 12 miles a day pushing her around our village. One of the best things we bought was a running buggy (I highly recommend it if you enjoy running), this meant I could still get some good exercise in the form of a 45 minute run, enabling me to keep my mental health in check, whilst also meaning she got a really good nap in the process.
I've spoken to many male colleagues about my parental leave experience and I have tried to be honest with them. It can be tough and you will feel a little isolated at times. There will be times you wish it was you getting in the car to go to work instead of your partner. But in my opinion, despite the challenges, it has been the most rewarding experience I have ever had. Being there for the highs and the lows of daily life, being able to talk to my wife and appreciate what she has been through on maternity leave and growing a connection with your young child that will last a lifetime, it's priceless.