Can dads really just slip back into work after parental leave? How does work react?
A year ago last week, Little Bear and I went into shared parental leave together. 7 months, 2 new back-pains and a toddler later, I emerged from full-time care of my little troll. Going back to work was a culture shock. It’s like you’ve been on a fast and slightly dangerous roller-coaster, before stepping off and walking along the mundane pavement feeling giddy. For the first week at least, you feel a little shell shocked. Every few minutes or unusual noise in the office, you look around for your little guy in panic because you can’t see him, only to remember that it’s because he’s several kilometres away at nursery.
The day’s challenge is no longer trying to write a blog post whilst tackling an excitable toddler in an attempt to prevent him from running out of the train at every stop on the way to soft play. Nor is it thinking up new ways for your babba to keep the food you’ve given him in his mouth and stop him from losing the plot and throwing his spoon, bowl and lunch at the wall. Nope. Now the challenge is to write emails whilst tackling excitable stakeholders in an attempt to prevent them from causing a scene. Or thinking up new ways to keep colleagues from losing the plot and- [better stop there before I incriminate myself]
For the three days a week I’m in the office, I’m sitting in meetings or at my desk. If I disagree with something or want someone to think differently, I can talk, set out an argument, and discuss. My daily tasks use quite a bit more thinking all of a sudden, and I have to start remembering stuff I’d forgotten over the last few months. But I also get a lot less control, since I can’t just opt to head for the soft-play or on a stroll round the park. My old management on parental leave would have been laid back about these sort of activities. My new management less so. But there are also plenty of similarities.
I’ve heard that childcare can be a thankless task. I’ve yet to feel that office work is really a ‘thankfull’ task, but luckily it isn’t just gratitude that we’re looking for in either. In my job it’s quite easy to calculate how much money my day-to-day work is saving people. If I crank up a few quid in savings, or do something that encourages big companies to behave better, I feel satisfied. If you’re a nurse, a plumber, a teacher, a care-worker, solicitor or architect, you hope that the things (or people) you put effort into will improve. When they do, you’re pleased and your job becomes more meaningful.
Whether you’re parenting full-time or part-time, you’ll be getting this same satisfaction. The first time Little Bear put one lego block on another, the shit got real. I was really excited. He’s not just going to be a destructive little terror his whole life! Maybe he can also make things! We both had a little celebratory clap and some arm wiggling (his invention, not mine). His first words, steps and even every time he wonders around singing or comes to give me a hug (normally followed by some carry-walking instructions), makes everything feel great. I’m helping make this little person do all these things, and it’s awesome.
Back in the office
I’ve gone back to work for 3 (long) days a week, with Little Bear in nursery for those days I’m not looking after him.
The unusual thing about working part-time as a dad is that at first, no one expects it. They also don’t know how to deal with it. I’m pretty sure mums have been through the same issues for every part-time worker for a while now, of being given a full-time amount of work to do for less pay; of people getting annoyed because you’re not there every day of the week; co-workers getting a little irritated when you have to change plans at short notice to pick up your sick toddler from day-care. The only added thing for doing this as a dad is that no-one’s expecting it, and they haven’t yet learnt that it’s not ok to make all these things clear. The evidence for this extra dad-bias is mounting.
Things have certainly changed since I started part-time working a few months ago. I now feel safe and on a decent career track despite my part-time and responsible parent working patterns. Unfortunately, even where I work, which is probably as far ahead as you get on the gender equality front in the UK, I could feel the rough edges of the daddy-bias.
I've not had it as bad as some of the dads in these studies, but as things were settling down and people were a bit disorientated, I’ve had comments challenging my commitment to work, and whether it was really my ‘priority’ any longer. I’ve also been told that ‘before parental leave you showed leadership in your area. But after you became a parent, that’s become less clear’… Wait, I was a parent for 6 months before I went on parental leave, and you never complained then. You mean after I took 7 months of parental leave?
People have claimed that me being difficult to get hold of during my non-work days should count against my performance, and my ‘lack of visibility’ (because of 7 months on parental leave) was a bad sign of my motivation. When my boss argued that this risked being bias, someone retorted that they had some mums in the office as well, so it wasn’t… That’s really not a response to what he said. The people that made this comments are people I respect and like, which is what makes it more difficult to talk about.
These attitudes did not make me question my parental choices, they just irritated me. By I could well imagine that for a lot of men, if these comments were stronger, if they were less determined to change people's attitudes, if they felt more pressure to perform in their career, or if they just felt their ability to be a traditional bread winner in their family was in danger, they may well give up and fall back into a back-seat parenting role.
The thing is that since I’ve come back to work, I’ve become so much more productive than before Little Bear was born. I’m doing what feels like a full 5-day week in 3, and really enjoying it too. Being responsible for a demanding yet fragile little terror makes you take on the world like you’ve never taken it on before. It’s worth saying it: I think parenting makes us better, not worse, workers. Whether they train us to have lightning fast reflexes because of their magnetic attraction to danger; they make us find monotonous basic tasks exciting; or they just force us to do and think about half a dozen things at once on almost no sleep, these little people are forging us into more efficient and more resilient employees.
As for my changing priorities, people are right in one way. But my priorities changed from the day Little Bear was born. If there was a real choice between putting him over my job, of course I would, but I’ve not had to do that so far luckily. The only way my attitude to work has changed is that my mood is now stuck much more to his. It used to be that bad things as work meant a bad day, and good things a good day. But now, if Little Bear was tearful and clingy when I drop him off at nursery, whatever great things happen at work there’ll be a cloud over my head until I see him again.
But if the moment I take him out of the Babybjorn he runs to his breakfast seat grabbing a piece of toast on the way (spilling the rest of the toast on the floor) waving bye-bye with a smile on his face, then no crap at work is going to bring my mood down that day.
This isn’t us caring less about our jobs than we did before, this is us finding other sources of motivation and enjoying a bigger world outside of the workplace. Our babies, toddlers and kids are a source of strength. With companies trying to prove their ‘family friendly’ policies, it’s time that we started expecting more of how part-time parents and parents back from parental leave are treated.
What's it like as a working dad before parental leave? Working Dad I
I'm Dave, dad of Little Bear. Also known as 'Pappa' to the little man as we try and bring out his Swedish roots