19 JUNE 2018

I’ve got a more unusual experience of taking leave as a new dad - we adopted our son, and I was off work for just over a year.

My employer was brilliant – I was a little apprehensive about breaking the news, more because it was a bolt from the blue, but they were incredibly supportive. We had the proper HR processes in place so it went really smoothly. The team were supportive, and quite a few male colleagues said they wished they’d had a bit more time off when their own kids arrived. And so, one day in mid-October, we had a send-off in the pub. In the first of many new experiences, I left carrying many bags filled with baby items I had never seen before.

I’ve always been really open that I was naïve when I went on leave. I knew there would be a lot to do to look after a growing baby, but surely there was also going to be lots of time to watch box sets and read books? To visit cultural attractions and meet friends for lunch? Oh, and I would hone my culinary skills and tackle lots of complicated recipes. Nappies, baby food and milk – was this really going to be that hard?

Reality came knocking pretty quickly – about two hours after our son had moved in. You think you know that a baby is a lot of work, but the reality of it just threw me completely. I swiftly realised just how much work goes into looking after someone so small. And the most shocking thing for me? I was totally fine with it, and coped with it all. I coped better than I ever thought I would. I didn’t mind the mess, the every-growing pile of laundry, I got through the sleepless nights. My friends might disagree though – I did end up cancelling my birthday dinner as I had not slept for the best part of three days and nights, but forgot to tell some of them. They called from the restaurant to ask where everyone else was. I’ve not totally lived that down.

But what did this extended period of time mean for me? I focussed on what mattered. Priorities shifted. I definitely perfected the art of getting a laundry load done in record time, but I had the luxury of a lot of time with my son. We could bond. We hung out at home, at soft play, in cafes – and those moments were not rushed. There was no pressure to rush and pack in as much as possible. I talked to other fathers who got the standard two weeks, and had a deep sense of how privileged it is to be able to spend as much time with my son as I did.

So it was all fantastic. Or was it? No, it wasn’t all sunshine and that “new baby smell”. The early years of a child’s life is mum-centric. Ludicrously so! Adverts aimed at mums with dads missing, or an afterthought. Coffee mornings were for mums. Come to our playgroup for the chance to “meet other mums”. Online groups were for “mums in your area”. You get the picture. It did not feel welcoming, it was not aimed at me. I went anyway, as I’m at the stage in life when I’m not too fussed by what someone else might say. And if I wasn’t like that, I think it would have been a really lonely year. At the end of the day, we’re all parents with young children. Parents who don’t get much sleep. Who worry when their child eats only peanut butter for days. People who’ve heard and sung the same nursery rhyme dozens of times, while our baby looks at us, silently and quizzically. We all need support, and it’s pretty intimidating when there are a lot of subtle and not-so-subtle messages that a venue or event is not for you.

What does subtle look like? Well, once I really was on my own all day. I had to build a social life – I wanted to make sure my son got lots of stimulation, and I wanted to make sure I did not end up crawling up the walls. So I went to a lot of those events from parents. And I was almost always the only man. Mums were polite, but I always felt like the odd one out – what could this guy have to say? He’s probably just taking a day off, or doing a day a week, maybe helping when someone is ill? It was really quite surprising how often I had to repeat that I was a full-time dad for the foreseeable future before it actually sank in. If I’m being kind, I can put this down to mums having been together through NCT classes and those early days of parenthood, but it feels like being in school – there is a clique and you’re not part of it. I knew there were lunches, meet-ups for coffee, tea and cake at someone’s house. As I say – it’s lucky I had the confidence to push on and brush it off.

But surely no-one would say “you’re not welcome here”? Well, I contacted one online forum to find out if it was also for fathers. No, they answered. This is just for mums. On a human level, I felt humiliated for trying to engage.
I hope this does not sound depressing. I made some fantastic friends – mums and dads – on the local baby circuit who we still see today, and those babies have now become friends with each other. And I got to know a few of the nannies that work in the area too – they took me under their wing, and were a wonderful source of support and good humour. Being off for a year with my son was a blessing and a privilege. I am so glad that I did what I did, so truly grateful to have that time.

To any man wondering if leave is right for him, I think the answer must be yes. Use it to support your partner, get to know your child, take on some of the load, travel together – and let’s try to make sure we set a culture that encourages this to happen. I found the number one ice-breaker with new mums and dads was how they were finding it all. And we were all finding it tough, even if we tried to show we were in control and it was all perfect. And talking about how tough we found it made it easier. And we found that there was less of a difference between mums and dads, as we were all parents, trying to get through our days with our children. And trying to get them to eat something other than peanut butter.

So I’ll finish with an ask. If you see a dad or a mum with a baby, smile and say hi. Maybe have a chat. Ask how they’re doing. They’re probably doing the best they can, but chances are they’ll appreciate a chat. Maybe they’re lonely, maybe they’re not. You might get on. But the more we see mums and dads as both forming part of those early years of childcare, the bigger the chance that we’ll get more dads joining in too.

And my son still adores peanut butter.

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