Child Bonding Time – My return from the fabled land of parental leave

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Today is my first day back to work full time after an extended paternity leave. I’m one of the few very lucky American fathers/partners who received the corporate benefit of child bonding time.  Not only am I blessed to have this benefit, the company that employs me recently increased the allotment of time-off from 2 weeks to 8 weeks paid time-off.  Like many in the tech industry, I am benefiting from the competition between startups and established companies for engineering talent. The result is benefit packages being improved for everyone. While not a tech company, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently made the news when they introduced a 52 week paternity leave. You read that correctly – having a child while working at the Gates Foundation will garner you a full year off of work while maintaining compensation. I’m hopeful that this is a trend that will continue by more companies outside of the tech industry, and eventually trickled down to less desirable occupations.

Enough with that though – I really want to focus on what I did with eight weeks off of work; specifically how reality faced up to my expectations. At 29 years old, eight weeks is by far the longest period of time I’ve had off work since I was 18.  A far second was when our first child was born, close to Christmas, and I received three weeks off; two weeks parental leave and an additional week due to the company’s annual holiday closure.  During my first foray into parental leave, after doing all of the cooking, cleaning, and diaper changing, I was left with a lot of free time. I read a book, played through a video game that had been gathering dust in my steam account, and painted miniatures. I watched television with my wife (Nicole), cuddled with our new baby, and took a lot of naps. We lived in California by ourselves, far away from our extended relatives in Washington State, and so we were spared the nonstop visits from extended family that are feared by so many new parents. Returning to work was fantastic – I came back rested and eager to dive back into projects.

Two and a half years later, as we approached the birth of our second daughter, I was very much looking forward to an even longer break, and this time, with a certain level of expectation as to what I could accomplish in those 8 weeks. In addition to bonding with our new child, I knew I had one additional responsibility, taking care of our now two and a half year old, who is practically a full time job in her own right. Despite this, she still takes naps fairly regularly, and has quiet time where she plays independently.  I figured I would have plenty of time to care for and build relationships with my family, while also accomplishing the things I set out to do. My list included things like finish chopping up two felled trees in the backyard, playing Zelda Breath of the Wild, and of course, starting our new online tea business.

Within the first week, I found myself re-examining any plans I had. Our first few days back from the hospital were spent recovering from the general lack of sleep that comes with the 48 hours of activity just before and after you give birth to a child. Nicole needed multiple return trips to the hospital for complications(non-critical). Finally, the whole family (baby included) was stricken by an obnoxious cold. It didn’t phase the two kids much, but noticeably affected my wife and I’s abilities to do much more beyond feeding and clothing our children. So, it was with a dismal look at the end of day seven, with seven weeks to go, that I established new expectations.

I decided that I was going to put some of my mindfulness practice to work, and rather than maintaining an agenda, focus on whatever event, task, or excursion was directly in front of me. What followed was not the most relaxing, or accomplished seven weeks of my life – but definitely seven of the most enjoyable weeks. With no schedule, or concrete goals, we let our mood and the moment determine our day. Sleep, while interrupted, was buffered by late-morning walks to the coffee shop and blissful afternoon catnaps.  When our older daughter was bored, we drove to the mall, walked around, and let her play on the indoor play structure. As the weather got nicer, we spent more time outside, and took trips to the zoo. Now living in Washington State, we entertained visits from family members, and hosted a “sip-and-see” for the new baby. These types of activities when squeezed into a normal work week, or a fleeting weekend, tend to generate a lot of stress for me. I’m constantly torn between the responsibilities of a job, trying to spend time with my family, meeting my values, and everything else. On paternity leave however, it was like living my life was my job.

Those familiar with me know that I usually love working. It’s like a game with imaginary accomplishments, and the rewards are money! I’ve been playing this game since I was 14 years old, and while it’s not always rainbows and sunshine, this game has some serious replayability.  So imagine, when my job, my game, became my life. This concept is what motivates super high functioning new-age entrepreneurs and social media stars like Casey Neistat and Gary Vaynerchuk.  You only get one life in this game – make it count.  As someone who follows many  motivational influencers I’ve heard this mantra more times than I can count. However, this was the first time in my adult life I felt I had truly experienced what it was like to enjoy each day for exactly what it was, and nothing more.

I didn’t want to go back. This is what people talk about when they say they are “busier after retirement”.  I caught a glimpse.  And I loved what I saw. Throughout the break, Nicole routinely apologized for me not being able to spend enough time on my goal list. I in turn, told her it was more than fine, and that I had my whole life to finish everything on that list. The thing is, I wasn’t procrastinating the things I wanted to accomplish, I was just gradually fitting them in where they didn’t compromise my family time. I focused on patience, which was easy when I realized I have a long life ahead of me, and spending that life relaxed and in the moment, was far more important than finishing the next thing on my goal list two week earlier.

At the end of my leave: I had chopped up all of the wood in the backyard(it was hard!), played Zelda (three divine beasts down!), and worked a considerable amount on the Tea Business (it’s not ready yet but it’s really close). More importantly, I had used my paternity leave for it’s intended purpose: To care for my family, bond with my new little, and figure out how do life with a fourth person in mix.  Coming back to work today, I definitely was not as excited as I was returning from my first paternity leave. I was however, refocused, with my sights set on completing my day’s work efficiently, so that I could continue to devote time to my family and my goals outside of work. I don’t have it all figured out yet, and I’m sure these first few weeks(months?) back full time will present their own set of challenges, but I am extremely grateful for the time I have had. I will be actively considering ways to improve my work/life balance, and in a few years time, may even request additional time off every year in exchange for a pay reduction or in lieu of a raise.

My motivations for starting our own business, and doing something I love are clearer than ever.  While I hope that our business is extremely successful – I am realistic in my expectations that this phase of our lives may very well last a decade or more. I’m learning daily how to make the next decade count, and truly embrace my life for what it is.  If my own personal experience can be applied to others, imagine what an increase of companies providing increased leave benefits, and not just parental leave, could do for work cultures around the world. Our concepts of retirement age could change not just because our finances required it, but because our souls desired it. Working well into old age could become common-place because it was a part of life, and not just the thing you did for 50 years until you had a enough money to give it up.

Parental leave won’t solve all of the world’s employment problems. But it’s certainly a promising step in the right direction. The future is bright.

Thank you so much for your attention.

-M

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