I’ll start this post with an admission: 50% of the reason I wrote this is as an excuse to brag that I am now a father!
On July 10th my incredible wife gave birth to our beautiful daughter, Arrietty Rose. The month since has been one of the most wonderfully insane journeys I have ever been on, with an incredible amount to take in. It’s made me think a lot about how men and women experience the transition to parenthood differently, and reflect in particular on how we as a society treat the transition to fatherhood. So the other 50% of me wants to use this blog to give any other new dads, or men about to become new dads, some advice to help make this period of transition marginally less chaotic.
Note: though my experience was somewhat ‘traditional’, I believe most of my advice still holds true for those men becoming fathers through adoption, or really any circumstance!
In short, I have three tips for new dads:
Let’s get into it…
I didn’t fully work out what my rights were in terms of paternity leave until pretty late in the process; I imagine other men out there may well be the same. You can find out what your rights are here, but the bottom line is that usually, it’s pretty short. And depending on when you started at your organisation, and how pregnant your partner was when you did start, you may not be eligible for any official leave at all. Discovering that you might need to take extra holiday or unpaid leave to be there for the birth of your child is an experience you want to have sooner rather than later – so don’t delay in doing the research!
Regardless of your rights, though, my top bit of advice would be to have a conversation with your employer to work out a plan for this awesome and unique time in your life. I count myself incredibly lucky that Connor has backed me to the hilt in my bid to be there to support my wife and to enjoy the first few weeks of my daughter’s life. Among other things, we agreed that I could take a week’s holiday and spread it over two weeks working half-days after my traditional two weeks of paternity leave was up. That gave me an incredible four weeks of being able to enjoy Arrietty’s life, and to be there to support Georgia (and chaps be warned – depending on what kind of birth you end up having, your partner will need A LOT of support!), while still keeping my work moving and staying connected to what was happening in the office. It also meant that going back to work full-time wasn’t quite the shock to the system that it could have been, which is incredibly important – as we’ll discover below.
Work is hard. Having a baby, while a lot of fun, is even harder. The thing is, it’s not always easy for new fathers to admit they are struggling. I remember various conversations during my wife’s pregnancy with friends and colleagues where I would hint that I was finding it a bit hard to cope. The automatic response, nearly always, was “imagine what it’s like for her!” And while people rarely mean anything by that, it can over time create a bit of an impression that you can’t be struggling, because look how hard it is for the mum!
This doesn’t go away once the baby is born – because no matter how much sleep you’ve missed, or how busy you are, or how much the baby’s crying cuts through you like a knife (and oh my goodness it does), you’re stood next to a woman who is dealing with all of that too (and more, since she’s likely to be primary carer once you’re back at work), while recovering from the physical and mental trauma of the birth itself, having just wrestled her way through nine months of pregnancy.
It’s not exactly an easy space for a man to stand up and say that he’s struggling too. But I really needed to. I was spending as much time caring for the baby as was physically possible (I do the first couple of night feeds while Georgia rests and hand Arrietty over at about 3am), caring for Georgia while she went through the ups and downs of the first few days, and trying to process the experience of watching the woman I love going through one of the most painful experiences in her life. And then I had to go back to work. It was incredibly hard and I’m still processing various parts of it.
So my second piece of advice is to push away the desire to tell people you’re alright when they ask, and tell them how you’re really feeling. My colleagues have turned into a surprise pillar of support for me – they give me a space that’s just my own to talk about my worries and stresses without adding to Georgia’s. Doing that not only puts me in a better frame of mind to go and enjoy my time at home with my new family, but also strengthens the relationships I have at work – it’s a win win!
A lot is written and discussed about the transition women go through when they have children. As a new dad I am going through my own transition too – even though I haven’t taken a year out of work – but it’s not one that seems to get a great deal of discussion. I remember walking back into work feeling like it was such a distraction from the rest of my life – quite a change from two weeks previous when things had felt just the opposite!
Just as it is with mums, this transition is an opportunity for new dads to grow – and one that should be seized with both hands. So firstly – if you’re debating whether to take paternity leave, just do it. I’m betting that some men out there are feeling glad of an excuse to not have to get involved with the messy side of parenting. But trust me, those two weeks where you can focus solely on your new family are essential to your sanity, and despite nappy changes and crying are such an incredibly gladdening experience.
And if this transition causes you to re-evaluate your priorities and goals – embrace that too. What does being a father mean to you? Does it change how you want to balance your work and home life? How does it change your relationship with your partner? These are all good questions to ask yourself. And if you can involve your employer in those discussions, so much the better. If approached properly, this period of your life can be a time when you not only get an incredible amount of fulfilment at home – you could also increase your happiness at work.
Even though we’re now only five weeks in, I can already say that Arrietty has been one of the most profound experiences of my life – and one of the most challenging, in just about every sense of the word!
I do think a lot of men still try to compartmentalise their family and their working lives – partly because they’re conditioned to do so, and partly because it can feel like dealing with both at the same time is just too much to handle with a newborn baby. But in my experience, engaging with your employer and your colleagues can help you to manage the transition to fatherhood more effectively than keeping them separate. In fact, I would go so far as to say it can benefit your working life as well as your personal life.
I’d love to hear any other men’s experiences of juggling those first few weeks with a newborn, or with a new family of any description – did you find things the same as me? Were they different? Because of course mine is just one opinion – and the more opinions we share and the more we discuss, the easier it will be to process the difficult side of this transition and focus on the wonderful side of it.