How Paternity Leave Shaped Me As a Father and Strengthened My Family

I was fortunate to have been able to spend the first few months of my son’s life at home with him and my wife. How this experience shaped me as a father and husband.

 My paternity leave fundamentally shaped me as a person, parent and spouse, and I believe it contributed to the strength and resiliency of my family. I wish all fathers and families had the same opportunity
My paternity leave fundamentally shaped me as a person, parent and spouse, and I believe it contributed to the strength and resiliency of my family. I wish all fathers and families had the same opportunity

I didn’t exactly take a paternity leave. I’m a college professor and my son, Nick, was born three days after my last final exam of the Spring semester. Perfect timing (although we didn’t actually plan it that way). I was able to spend the summer on a “de-facto paternity leave” with my wife, Amy, and Nick as we all got to learn how this whole “baby makes three” thing would shake out.

Here are four ways I benefitted from the opportunity to be present during the first few months of Nick’s life:

1. Bonding

For me, bonding with Nick was immediate. Amy had to have an emergency C-section, so while she was in recovery, the first hour of Nick’s life was just me and him. I spent that hour touching his little fingers and toes and vowing to him I would do all I could to be sure he would have a happy life.

My bond with Nick grew even stronger as, thanks to my ability to be at home, I was there to soothe him when he cried, feed him when he was hungry, cuddle with him when he slept and comfort him when he was sick. I experienced so many firsts with him. He sometimes drove me ragged and seemed to enjoy depriving me of sleep or of personal hygiene, but even then, suffering through it all for his benefit made me feel closer to him. There is something primal about caring for a little ball of possibility who is so utterly and completely dependent on you. It creates a love and devotion that is hard to describe.

2. Confidence

Before Nick, I had never changed a diaper, mixed a bottle of formula, dressed a squirming baby or put one down for a nap- to me, it was a brave new world. Amy read all the books (I skimmed a few parts of one or two of them), and we attended a class or two, but I really wasn’t prepared. However, by being around and actively involved, I quickly caught on.

Taking care of a baby is HARD because it is unrelenting and because of all the sleep deprivation. But I never found it hard to figure out diapers, feeding, snuggling and all the other basic blocking and tackling of new parenthood. Nick and I took to each other right away. The only problem was his alarming tendency to wake up over and over and over every night. But that was on him, not me.

These early experiences served me well as Nick got older. I’m fine being on solo dad duty, taking him outside armed only with a diaper bag and what was left of my wits (the sleep deprivation again). But I never felt like anything less than a capable parent, and I credit my early climb up the learning curve with my earned sense of confidence.

3. Sharing the Experience with Amy

It was not just a bonding experience for me and Nick, it was also one for me and Amy. I always knew she was the right partner for me, but our first few months of working together caring for Nick reinforced for us that we are a great team and that we can always rely on each other to step up when needed.

Caring for a newborn is a crucible, and sharing an experience that is so maddening, wonderful, awful, exhilarating, depressing and inspirational as equal partners and true team-mates can’t help but make you a stronger couple. To this day, we are on the same page as parents, and I believe our shared early struggles helped get us there.

4. Confidence in Each Other

Because we shared so much of the parenting load and each got to see how wonderful the other was with Nick, we became very confident in each other as parents. Amy doesn’t feel the need to hover over me, and she trusts that I can care for Nick (to her credit, she never tried to crowd me out by doing what psychologists call “maternal gatekeeping). This gives her the ease of mind to take breaks, and allowed us to take turns on the overnight “Nick, why won’t you sleep!” shifts.

I know Amy’s a great mom. I’m pretty sure she thinks I’m a great dad. We do some things differently, but Amy has never made me feel like anything but an equal parent. I think the fact that we worked together so closely during those first two months helped set up our healthy, shared-care family dynamic. The fact that I really learned to parent Nick allowed Amy to return to work with confidence.

Our ability to share the load has served us well as Nick has gotten older. Now, if Amy has to work late or I have to travel to a conference, neither Amy nor I worry that Nick will be well taken care of. We know that the other has it totally covered, and Nick does too.

Our shared introduction to parenting have helped  keep our family strong
Our shared introduction to parenting have helped keep our family strong

My paternity leave fundamentally shaped me as a person, parent and spouse, and I believe it contributed to the strength and resiliency of my family. I wish all fathers and families had the same opportunity. I see how important being home for the first few weeks of Nick’s life was for my development as a father and for setting the stage for my family’s dynamics.

This opportunity to develop as a person, a parent and a spouse should not be reserved just for new moms, or just for the a lucky few new dads with ultra-flexible jobs or awesomely progressive employers. It shouldn’t just be for the residents of the three states (California, New Jersey and Rhode Island) that provide for paid parental leave.

I believe all dads deserve this opportunity, and that dads, moms, kids, families and our society all benefit when dads get to immerse themselves in the life of their children in such a uniquely intimate and transformative way. I’m not just an advocate for working dads because of my professional interests. For me, paternity leave is personal.

Please check out the following articles on paternity leave (written by me, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and a study from Boston College). Also, if you would, please sign this petition to lend your voice to the cause.

Did you have an actual, defacto or non-existent paternity leave? Care to share your experience? Let’s discuss in the comments section. Also, I’m collecting short paternity leave stories from readers. Please email me (behson @ FDU dot edu) if you have a story you’d like to have shared here on FWF. Thanks!

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26 thoughts on “How Paternity Leave Shaped Me As a Father and Strengthened My Family

  1. What a wonderful example. And you’re so right. We should all be able to share this experience together, not just those with employers who allow it or flexible schedules that do. And for all the reasons you’ve so beautifully outlined.

  2. I was lucky enough that my employer at the time gave me 2 weeks off to spend with the family. I wish it was more. Because usually in those two weeks you have family coming to visit and to help. So in the end 2 weeks really adds up to nothing. There isn’t much time to bond with your child or your wife.

    • I suppose 2 weeks is FAR better than none, but, as you say, the first few weeks (esp. with a first child) is chock full of well-intentioned people visiting (and this is definitely not always helpful).

      I tend to think a good model for companies is to offer 2 weeks right away then 2 days a week for the next two months or so. In this way, you can spread the leave out, stay connected to work, and still get the benefits of bonding time.

      • I have sense changed employers and they don’t have paternity leave. But I can carry over my PTO days so I could potentially have 3 months off. In my current position there is no way that I could take 3 months off however I have situated myself that I can work from home when I need to. I think more companies need to give their employees the opportunity if they can to work from home.

        This will be extremely handy when we have our second child in a couple years.

        • For most jobs, people can do a good percentage of the work from home. Smart employers allow and encourage this.

          This is an example of the “less rigid forms of flexibility” I advocate for employers.

          Thanks for reading, your comments, and your writing!

    • Thanks. Even if Nick were born during the academic year, my work is more flexible and autonomous than most. I probably would have had colleagues fill in for the first week or so, and then just restrict myself to class time and office hours.

      It wouldn’t have been nearly as good as how it ended up, but it would have been more time than most dads get.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      • You got it.
        While it was not nearly as long, my first son was born just before spring break. I was off for nearly two weeks.I enjoyed the time and my wife spoke about how helpful it was. She stayed home for 3 months.

  3. I can really identify with what you’ve said here, Scott. As a fellow academic, being legally entitled to take paternity leave made a real difference. Our son was born during term time, so it wasn’t the sort of time when I could have used up some of my annual leave.

  4. Great article, Scott! It is really wonderful that you and Amy got to spend this time together getting to know your newborn son. Even if some men do have a couple of weeks off, it isn’t long enough. My husband took two weeks after both our children were born, but honestly, it was such a crazed time that I don’t even remember him being there, haha! This definitely needs to change. Thank you for being such a great champion for working dads!

    • Hi Emily. Thanks for your comment.

      The first few weeks are so stressful with the intense sleep deprivation, nervousness and oftentimes too-frequent company.
      It is far better to have 4 hands on deck through that crucible, but I agree that more time allows for a more relaxing environment for bonding and skill development.

  5. Scott – I couldn’t agree with you more, and I truly hope that more fathers get the chance that you did. My husband thankfully works with a company that falls under FMLA, and he had enough accrued sick time to take a couple of weeks off after our kids were born, and then work only part-time for 2 more months. It was incredibly special and gratifying for him to be not only a part of the first few months of our kids lives in a very hand-son and present way, but it helped to create a strong bond and confidence (as you discuss). Great article!

  6. Back in the early 80s my wife and I were fortunate to work half- time while our daughters were still young. We both taught elementary school but for two different school boards. She worked mornings and I, afternoons. The next year, we switched. The year after that, she worked all day every other day while I again worked half a day. I found, for my part, that my health improved and we ate much more healthily.
    Then, even better, in the late 80s, we both applied for what’s called self-funded leaves. Our school boards withheld and invested a portion of our salaries (in my case 25% for three years and, in my wife’s case 1/3 for two years. Then, in 1991-92 we took our leave and spent it in the south of France where our three kids attended the local French school!
    What an experience (albeit an expensive one as we each lost one full year of salary)! However, it was a once in a lifetime experience, not to be forgotten.
    In December 2009 we had a Christmas reunion with our then adult kids and our grandson and they became reacquainted with our friends and their adult kids!

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