With the introduction of Shared Parental Leave, mums and dads can share parental leave to look after a new baby. Your leave can be split in different ways:
- one parent can take the majority and the other can just take a small amount
- leave can be taken in chunks and parents can take turns
- both parents can be off work together for up to 6 months.
So how does Shared Parental Leave work for dads. John, 35, shares his experience of being the first dad at his work to take SPL, toddler groups and wee emergencies…
John O’Malley, 35, works in banking and is married to Philippa, 35, a solicitor. They have two children Eleanor, 4 and Katherine, 2
It was day one of Shared Parental Leave. I had the nappies, wipes and a bottle in a bag and was standing in the sunshine in the park with Katherine, 7 months gurgling in the buggy and Eleanor, 2, playing happily nearby. I was in sole charge for the next 2 months as my wife Philippa went back to work full time. And so far it didn’t feel too arduous.
But within 2 minutes, it was a different scene. Eleanor had fallen over and had a bloody knee. As fat tears rolled down her cheeks, I cuddled her close to my chest. Katherine meanwhile started to make it abundantly clear she would like a bottle.
“I need a wee. Daddy,” Eleanor suddenly cried.
Anyone knows that when a toddler says that, it’s not something you press pause on. I scooped her up and hot-footed it across the park towards some toilets.
But it was too late. “I’m doing a wee, Daddy,” came the next cry.
And there it was; within 3 hours of starting my stint of solo parenting my shirt was covered in blood, snot and wee. I obviously hadn’t bothered bringing spare clothes for any of us, so it was time to retreat home.
This was my reality. And I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. Except for perhaps getting a bit more organised.
Maternity Leave Round 1
When Eleanor came along Philippa had taken the full 12 months leave. I adored our little baby but I was also the classic weekend dad.
If anything I threw myself into work more knowing Philippa was the primary caregiver at home handling it. I took ‘instructions’ well but I had little appreciation of what it was really like to run the house and look after children.
The second time around Shared Parental Leave had been introduced and Philippa was keen for us to do it. She wanted me to experience solo parenting and also loved her job and didn’t want to take such a long stint off. She wanted the freedom to go back to work stress-free, on her own terms, not having to worry about the juggle.
For my part, I liked the idea but I had reservations too. It might seem old-fashioned but I worried what people might think. I didn’t know anyone else who had done it and I certainly didn’t want it to look like I wasn’t ‘serious’ about my career. Looking back it was a very closed, stiff-upper-lip attitude.
In spite of those reservations we opted for Philippa to take 8 months, I then took 2 months while she went back to work full time before Philippa took another 2 months off at the end.
I was the first person to do it at work. It was complicated to sort out but they were really supportive.
Parenting was my new job
And so there I was immersed in the reality of solo parenting. You really can’t appreciate it until you’ve done it. Forget the 9 to 5, this was the 6 to 9 and beyond of looking after kids.
Changing nappies, making bottles, making meals; it was relentless. But it was also full of joy. Over time I found my own parenting tricks; everything from how to negotiate with a toddler to how to get them to eat vegetables. There were days when I was overwhelmed with exhaustion but there were many, many others that were full of so much fun.
While I had other female friends who were on leave, I did find it hard to build my social circle. I might have been over-sensitive but I found toddler groups cliquey, and as a dad I definitely felt like an outsider. I also didn’t meet anyone else doing the same as me.
True equals as parents
As a couple we are now so much more equal; for one I am completely in tune with the girls’ routine. I still hear other dads sometimes saying they are ‘babysitting’ their children because their wife is off doing something at the weekend and that is a far cry from our life.
We now both work full-time and share childcare responsibilities during the week; Philippa goes in late and finishes late and I go in early and finish early. Flexible working is so important to the reality of parenting.
I also got a really positive welcome when I went back to work. Several other men have now taken up the scheme. Professionally I believe the experience has made me a more empathetic manager, not to mention patient!
I feel incredibly privileged that we took Shared Parental Leave. The opportunity to give someone you love the chance to return to work on their terms is a huge positive to society. It has made us more equal in our careers as well as parental responsibilities.
Being at home is so much more than doing the childcare. I now fully understand what it is to be the primary carer with all the tears, laughter, stress, joy, boredom and worry that brings.
Wife Philippa says…
“You never really know what parenting is like until you are solely responsible and I’m so glad John got to experience that.
I also really appreciated being able to go back to work on my terms and professionally it made a big difference to me.”
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Lead pic: Getty