What to expect for parental leave

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Setting accurate expectations for paternity leave

When speaking to any father who has taken primary or secondary carer leave, you will no doubt be told that it was the most amazing and stressful experience of their life. Becoming a dad is life changing and comes with incredible highs that outweigh the lows. Bringing a human into this world is no small feat. Being there to witness all their firsts such as tasting new foods and becoming acquainted with gravity and watching them fixated in complete awe over the smallest things we take for granted is a humbling and precious experience. Experiencing this as a dad helps you appreciate life around you even more than you ever did before. For corporate dads who have a tendency to become caught up in their work, their industry or even their own self importance, taking time out to watch your baby sleep can help you rediscover the simple pleasures in life you have long forgotten.

However being on parental leave isn’t all smooth sailing - after all there is a small human in your care who is completely dependent on your for their very existence and survival. One thing that you can do before you go on parental leave that will help you deal with the highs and lows is to talk to others who have done this before in order to set yourself accurate expectations. From a change management perspective - a person going through a period of significant change will typically readjust to the new norm much quicker and easier if they form accurate expectations about the future. I personally have found this to be true with parenting.

By talking to new parents, you will quickly familiarise yourself with the prospect of screaming babies, sleepless nights and the feeling of always being a step behind in learning how to tend the ever changing needs of your child. Reading and familiarising yourself with the growth stages and cycles that babies go through across the first 12-24 months will help you know what to expect during your time off. If you also speak to dads with older kids who did not (or were not able to) take more than a few days of leave upon the birth of their kids, you will often be confronted with a sense of loss, regret and the negative impact of the difficulties in connecting and bonding with their child. This will also help you set your expectations of what life could be like if you don’t take parental leave. Setting accurate expectations will help reduce the level of shock you experience when going through the change, and help you readjust to the new norm more easily than if you ventured into the new world with inaccurate expectations.

Misconceptions about paternity leave can also negatively impact the father’s experience in taking parental leave and the overall negative stigma towards paternity leave in the workplace that drives men away from taking primary carer leave. When my wife took parental leave, I would return from work and ask her ask what she had gotten up to during the day. Each time she simply replied ‘I kept your son alive!’ This was also the only expectation that anyone had for her as a mother during her maternity leave. However when time came for our roles to reverse, the most common question I was asked was, ‘So what are you going to do with your time off?’, as if I had to accomplish some sort of side project while keeping my son alive to validate taking parental leave.

If fathers expect that they will have an abundance of time to kill on parental leave, they are in for an enormous (and negative) shock. The reality is that there are days when simply finding enough time to take a shower can be the benchmark for a good day. There might also be a sense of failure or embarrassment upon returning to work and not having a good answer to ‘What did you do with your time off?’, even if they succeeded in the main objective of keeping their child alive during this time. By setting yourself accurate expectations for your time off, you will find your parental leave far more rewarding and enjoyable when these expectations are met.