“How much parental leave would you like to take? Two months?” This was the question my wife asked me before our first child, Rafael, was born. We were in the midst of discussing her maternity leave at a top FTSE firm and the time I would be at home. I knew shared parental leave was something I should, and more importantly, wanted to do. But in over 10 years with CNC I had not been away from my desk for more than two weeks in a row, and when I had been out of the office for a prolonged period, I’d kept a close relationship with my iPhone and CNC email server. In the end we agreed that I would take a month.
My month away from the office, a fraction of the time most women commit to when nurturing society’s newcomers, is sadly a month longer than almost all men in the communications and advisory industries take off to spend with their children. Well, at least that’s the case in the UK where I spend most of my working week.
But, as my enlightened colleagues in Sweden pointed out, there is an alternative parental path that has been trodden – one that caters for both partners within a relationship.
The problem here is that most men are simply unaware of shared parental leave, despite the policy having come into effect in 2015 under the leadership of then Deputy PM Nick Clegg. It wasn’t something I was particularly aware of until recently. In contrast, my female colleagues were acutely aware of their legal rights. Fortunately, CNC is very supportive and understands how mutually beneficial this time is for company and parent.
My time with our little boy was enlightening, exhausting, and a huge amount of fun. It was more difficult than a day in the office – a trite phrase for many with first-hand experience but a new reality for me, having essentially enjoyed ‘fun time’ at the weekends with my wife around to pitch in. My parental leave made me realise that men need to step up and educate themselves as to the responsibility and the opportunity within their careers to play more active roles in their children’s early years.
Taking the plunge
My clients appreciate me being accessible to them almost 24/7, particularly in times of crisis or significant change. It’s also something I pride myself on, so knowing that I would be incommunicado for clients for a period, in favour of singing nursery rhymes or doing swimming lessons did make me anxious.
I was loathe to put on an “Out of Office” for this very reason, but I’m glad my wife convinced me to do so. It’s important for colleagues, clients and the industry more broadly to acknowledge that for differing reasons, we all need time away from work. And when I had conversations with key clients beforehand, they were nothing but supportive. My Swedish client sounded perplexed when I had mustered up the courage to tell them: “A month… Why only a month…?” came the reply.
This acceptance allowed me to quickly get into the swing of my new daddy routine. I am pleased to say male friends in the legal, media, sports and fashion industries who have also taken time with their little ones have also been supported by their firms. Too right. My time at home also afforded my team members the opportunity to step up and try new approaches that they would perhaps not have taken with me around.
Last man standing
Parental leave gave me a rare, if brief, insight into how it feels to be part of a minority. I’ve rarely felt on the edge of the circle. As a dad attending playgroups with Raf, I stood out and was out of my comfort zone – no messaging or media strategies to discuss here. I gained a new empathy for those who might often feel like that in the workplace and beyond. My playgroup experience was so positive because I was met with open arms, listening ears and a shovel load of support by the mums and carers around me. It is an attitude and approach that the communications industry, sometimes too focussed on margins and targets, could benefit from.
Shared parental leave was a winner on so many levels. I was proud to have taught our son some new things – some useful (crawling backwards down stairs), some not so useful (using the garden hose as a water canon). I am happy to have spent some real quality time with Rafael, and although he won’t remember it, I always will, and have plenty of iPhone snaps to embarrass him with when he’s older. But above all, I have even more respect than I had before for those who spend the lion’s share of time bringing up children. I’ve learned that organisation is key, not just because my wife loves planning but because you do need to be really well prepared. I’ve learned why sleep and downtime is so important for kids – and your sanity. And I’ve learned that those in your professional surroundings will not only forgive you for being unanswerable for a while, but will probably respect you more for dedicating time to the most important job one can ever do. My experience has given me a fresh perspective on life – what’s important, what commands thought, care and attention, and what really doesn’t. Surely a skill that makes you better at your job too.