Rethinking paternity leave
A heartfelt guest post about family, work, and what happens when a new baby arrives.
By Karan Chada
I’m writing this on paternity leave. It’s my second child so paternity leave isn’t new to me, but this time it’s very different.
The first time round, I took two weeks off. Didn’t go in to work. Took the odd call – emergencies only. Then it was back to normal at work and a new normal at home. It worked out fine but I’d like to have been home more.
Back then, I fell into the trap of thinking that two weeks paternity leave was what you should do. As if a statutory minimum set by government is any standard by which you should make such important decisions.
I didn’t even ask work if I could be more flexible with my hours. It wasn’t the done thing back then (only four years ago).
This time it’s all change. The biggest difference is that I now work for myself so I can, to some extent, call the shots. So my wife and I decided to try to build paternity leave to suit our family.
You get what you get
The best piece of parenting advice I’ve ever received is: you get what you get.
It came from a friend who has three boys. All raised by the same parents, in the same house and they all went to the same schools. All three of them are different in their habits, interests and personalities. You get what you get.
In terms of planning, this makes your new child a complete unknown. Will she sleep well? Will she feed easily? Will she like being passed around all the people who are so eager to meet her?
Alongside that, there are the unknowns of childbirth and the biggest unknown of all: how will the boy react to becoming a big brother?
With all that in mind, we decided that I would be at home for the first week, do very little work during it, and then see where we stood. It meant treating everyday from late January onward as possibly my last day at work.
Clearing my inbox, staying on top of things, not booking in too many meetings. I became incredibly efficient.
Attention when it’s needed
The thing no one really admits about babies is that they need very little attention some of the time and intense attention at other times.
When our little girl’s asleep, like she is now, she doesn’t really care what we’re doing. So she’s in her moses basket next to my desk. I’m typing, she’s sleeping. My wife’s sleeping too. Our four year old son is off at Monkey Music with his Gran. Everyone’s getting what they need both emotionally and, crucially, financially.
And finances are critical, however, it’s the bit no one really discusses. Everyone talks about the importance of being at home in the early days but you need to keep earning a living.
If you work for yourself part of earning that living is being seen. There’s no employer paying you on the last Thursday of every month. You need to keep going to events, tweeting, writing, calling and meeting. You can’t let your profile drop or new business will drop a few months down the line.
With this in mind I’m still going in for meetings, although stacking them all into a single day. Over the coming weeks, I’ll be out and about more and at home less, but the shift will be gradual. It’s not two weeks of being omnipresent and then disappearing back to work.
I’m giving attention to my family when they need it and attention to my work too. Over time, they’ll find a natural balance. Or, more accurately, be in a state of constant compromise.
One month on
The initial drafts of this post weren’t quite right. So I’ve sat on it for a bit and pondered. Our little girl is now five weeks old.
Over the past few weeks I’ve found that the key to it all is being present in whatever you do. If I’m playing Lego with my son, I don’t check your phone. If I’m working, I close the office door and let the world drift on by.
Friends pop round, but I’m in my office until I’m done, then I’ll pop down and say hello. Stopping every few minutes means nothing gets done and no one’s happy.
In order to do this, however, the working day needs to stretch. You have to fit in work around the demands of a newborn. Often, this means working early and late. Our son goes to sleep at 7pm, after he’s in bed, all of a sudden a huge amount of capacity become available.
At the moment, I do my best work between 7pm and 10pm. This means meeting deadlines early. A Tuesday deadline means things are finished on Monday, often delivered at some time after 8pm. Don’t read this to mean ridiculously long working days, it means broken up working days and no telly in the evenings.
It takes a village
There’s an oft-quoted African proverb: It takes a village to raise a child. I really buy into it. We’re very fortunate to have lots of family and friends very close by. So we’ve not short of support.
Pretty much everyday we’ve got someone popping round for a bit. I can hide away in my office while others play games with our son or hold our daughter.
Having people coming and going, and trusting family and friends with your children is absolutely critical to getting work done.
Two adults with a new baby and a four year old wouldn’t reasonably have the capacity to look after them and work in the early days.
You need people. Lots of people. Remember, you have to be there for them too; you’re part of the village.
I think we’ve achieved a much better balance this time round. We’ve had more time together and work has blended in nicely. Fewer meetings has also meant the chance to explore a few tools and services that I’ve not had a chance to play with.
If I was working for someone else, I don’t think I’d have the flexibility I do now, but I’d make a strong case for working from home two days a week from the second week onward for at least another month. The tools exist and with a bit of planning it will not affect anyone’s work.
I’ll stick my neck out and offer some advice: you need to choose. You need to make choices before your baby is born and often revisit them afterwards.
Your choices might be different to mine. Different circumstances, different children, different personal preferences. But do make choices and make them clear-cut.
If you don’t, you’ll constantly be reacting to events instead of spending time with your new baby.