I think all dads should take paternity leave (even unpaid if necessary), and stagger it with their wife.
Many dads don’t take paternity leave at all. Those that do often take a few weeks or a month off right when the baby is born to bond with the baby and help their wife learn how to do this crazy new parenting job. It is overwhelming, and many women will really appreciate having her spouse at home in those first few weeks.
Here’s what my husband and I did, though. My husband took a week or so of vacation right when each of our kids were born to help us all settle in and get through those early feeding issues and sleepless nights and increased laundry loads. But then he went back to work during the rest of my maternity leave. It wasn’t until my maternity leave ended and I returned to work that he took 3 months of paternity leave (his company allowed for 1 paid month, and 2 unpaid, which is what he did). This meant each of our sons was more than 6 months old when they went to daycare. It also meant I had the support of a full-time spouse at home while I was navigating my return to work (this turned out to be HUGE). And my husband had a wonderful opportunity to bond with each of our infant sons as a full-time parent – an opportunity that dads should absolutely get in addition to moms.
Neither of us can even begin to measure the value of that time he had as the full-time stay-at-home parent. He gained a gut-level appreciation for how much work it takes to care for an infant. Many men give lip service to understanding this, but they don’t really know. After doing it for 3 months, my husband truly knew. Every parent I know says “people tried to tell me what it would be like to be a parent, but you just can’t understand until you do it yourself”. The same is true for being a stay at home parent. You can intellectually understand that it would be hard, boring at times, exhausting, rewarding, etc. But you won’t viscerally understand that intense mix of emotions (and exhaustion) until you’ve done it yourself.
My husband has never forgotten what it felt like to be desperate for me to get home from work at the end of the day so he could hand off the baby. Having lived it, he doesn’t make the mistake of assuming he is more tired than I am because he worked and I stayed home. Yes, he worked all day. But so did I. We are both tired and in need of a break. And neither of us will get one until the kids go to bed.
He understands how intense it is to be 100% responsible for another human being’s life, taking care of all the feeding, sleeping, burping, dressing, and playing needs for 8 hours straight, often putting his own need to eat, or go to the bathroom, or shower, aside. Having done that all day himself, he understands how ludicrous it would be for him to come home from a day at work and expect me to feed him, too. Just because I was home all day does not mean that dinner should be solely my job – we all need to eat, we can all contribute to the work to make that happen.
One important distinction we learned to make was the difference between childcare and housework. It’s easy to mentally group these together, but they are not the same job. When you hire a babysitter or a nanny, you are paying them to take care of your child. There are also some expectations that they might also do the child’s laundry, fix some of the child’s meals, and keep the play room and the child’s room tidy. But the whole family’s laundry, family dinner, grocery shopping, scrubbing toilets and cleaning the rest of the house, are not part of a nanny’s responsibilities. You would need to hire a chef and a housekeeper (and other professionals as well) to get all of these jobs done. By staying home, my husband learned how easy it was for all housework to fall to him simply because he was at home all day, even though taking care of the baby was often a full time job already. We both learned to internalize that childcare was the responsibility of the parent at home with the baby, but housework was still both of our jobs.
By staying home for 3 months, my husband learned how isolating it is to be home with a baby. All day. For 8+ hours. With no human interaction unless you count the checkout lady at the grocery store. And he understands how much work it is to counteract that by finding groups, going to classes, planning play dates, and then making the huge effort to get out the door with everything you’ll need so that you can have a few hours of companionship. These lessons are ones every parent, men and women, should learn.
He also learned how unbelievably rewarding it can be to spend so much time with your child, and experience all of those tiny moments that make your heart melt. Most dads miss those moments. My husband feels incredibly lucky to have had so many of them.
My husband proved that my xx chromosomes are not the magic key to taking care of a child. He was physically and mentally able to do all of the tasks that needed doing, and he did them well. We were both brand new at it when our baby was born, we both learned and practiced and got better at it. It’s not inherently easier for a woman to do this work, women just get better at it because they do it more. My husband learned to be great at all of these jobs too. He takes great pride in knowing that he is a competent parent, and my equal as a parent, not just my sidekick. And by learning to do all of the childcare tasks himself, he understands and appreciates all of the work that is required to care for an infant, and never underestimates the job due to lack of understanding.
We also both learned something that we’ve had to re-learn and remember again and again. There is no one right way to parent. Just because he does something differently than how I would do it does not make my way right and his way wrong – being the mom does not make my way the only way or the right way. One example is from when our kids were older and had become picky eaters. There were a number of foods I just wouldn’t bother to fix because I knew the kids wouldn’t eat them. My husband is less likely to remember who will eat what on any given day, so he often fixes things that make me shake my head wondering why he’s setting us up for a dinner battle over foods there’s no way the kids will eat. And shockingly often when he does this, the kids eat the food I would have sworn they wouldn’t touch. His way wasn’t my way. And in this case it was better. Sometimes my way is better, sometimes his is, sometimes it doesn’t matter whose is better, the job just needs doing. But being jointly responsible for all of the childcare and home care tasks has helped us learn from each other, see more ways to do things, and be better parents.
Another great benefit of having my husband take his paternity leave alone was that we doubled the amount of time our kids were at home with a parent before entering daycare. Although I loved our daycare and am an advocate of daycare in general, I was glad that both of my kids didn’t need to start at daycare until they were 6 months old.
For me, having my husband at home for my first 3 months back at work made a huge difference in how smooth my return to work was. When men return to work after having a baby, they have the comfort of knowing that their baby is 100% cared for by a loving parent at home. I had that same luxury. We did the transition to daycare 3 months later, and that was another set of hurdles to get through so I know how hard that can be, and I am very glad I didn’t have to tackle my return to work and our baby’s entry into daycare all at the same time. Having my husband at home meant that I was the only one who had to get out the door on time in the morning, not all 3 of us. It also meant that our son’s transition to bottles during the day happened with my husband instead of a daycare worker. The information we had about how much milk our son needed each day was much higher bandwidth than what we got later from the daycare. As I adjusted to pumping at work, and had the inevitable milk supply issues, my husband was able to help by coming to meet me for lunch occasionally so that I could skip a pumping session and help keep my milk supply up. Our son’s nap schedule also wasn’t interrupted, so we didn’t have nighttime sleep disruption right when I was returning to work. Our son was able to stay on his same schedule during this critical transition for me.
Taking a long paternity leave also let my husband experience firsthand what it felt like to step back from work for 3 months to take care of family. He had to make arrangements for his work to be covered by co-workers while he was away. He had to accept any consequences for appearing to be not as dedicated to his job when he prioritized family in order to take such a long paternity leave. He understands better how hard it is for women to take this step away from work every time they have a baby. He is much more likely to support a female co-worker who is taking maternity leave and help her exit and return successfully now that he’s lived the other side of it. He knows she’s not slacking off, or turning away from her career. She’s just doing different work that needs doing right then.
Another benefit is that by taking that step away himself, he set an example for ALL parents doing this, not just women, and that helps normalize maternity leave for women, too. Right now, only women take this long break from work, and only women are penalized for this. If men do it too, hopefully making a choice to focus on family when necessary won’t be a gendered thing, it will be a parent thing.
Not all companies offer paternity leave, so you may have some work to do to figure out what your company’s policies are. Here’s a great article about paternity leave that will help you with this.
If your company does offer paternity leave, I recommend taking the maximum amount they will allow, even unpaid if you can afford it. If your company doesn’t offer paternity leave, ask for it. For yourself, and for all the men and women coming after you who are trying to find better balance. Changes like this happen over time, and they happen because individuals ask about, raise awareness, and help move the needle as far as they can.