The Fear, Self-Doubt and Infinite Rewards of Paternity Leave

This past weekend Canadians celebrated Thanksgiving, and for me it was a special one as this was our first Thanksgiving since welcoming our son to the world. It was also my first weekend after returning to work from three months of paternity leave.

When our son was born I made the decision to take some time off this summer. As I quickly learned, it’s not something that a lot of dads in our industry do however from the time we knew we were having a baby, I assumed that I would take this time. I saw a chance to build a bond with my son that will hopefully last forever, to gain some unforgettable experiences and to finally be there for those “first” moments for our son that until that point I would only hear about from the office.

With that said, as I prepared to go on leave, I wrestled with a number of fears and questions. After all, I’d never taken this much time away from work before. Would things change?

  • Would I still belong? Would things fall apart without me… or conversely, would anyone even notice I was gone?
  • What’s my worth? As someone who for long time defined myself by my work, how would that change when it was no longer a factor? Would I get rusty in my work?
  • Would it be worthwhile? Would I actually be able to step away from the work? Would I be any good at being a stay-at-home dad, albeit short-term? Would I go crazy cooped up at home?

Fortunately for me, the financial side of things was made easier by the 12 weeks of top-up pay that Edelman Canada offers for both moms and dads on parental leave.

Now that I’ve been back for a week, I’ve had a little time to reflect on some of these fears. (A side note: I was on paternity leave for three months – a fraction of the time many Canadian moms are away on leave. I can only imagine how the fears I faced must be magnified for them, and I have a whole new respect for moms on the back of my own experiences.)

On Belonging…

I’ve spent the last eight years at Edelman, building a team that at this point was hired almost exclusively by me. It feels in many ways like a second home. Given that, I was confident that the team would do well in my absence. In fact, my biggest fear was that it would do so well no-one would really notice my absence or, frankly, that the organization would notice that my absence wasn’t felt.

This really gets to the core of a key tension in any leadership role. My belief is that for a leader to do their job well, you need to build a team that doesn’t hinge on any one person – including you. That in turn creates its own insecurity, as you realize the world doesn’t revolve around you. Preparing for paternity leave, for me, just put a microscope on that insecurity.

True to form, the team rocked it while I was out. Business grew, accounts were won, projects moved forward and the world didn’t end. Far from it. The team performed as well as I could have possibly hoped.

It was perversely gratifying, though, to see the number of notes and conversations with colleagues when I returned to the office reflecting that they were glad I was back. My inbox quickly filled up with requests for input and it was comforting to know that this high-performing team still felt at least a little discomfort while I was away.

One unexpected benefit (so far) from my leave – I feel like I look at situations very differently nowadays. I’ve always been very logical (my Myers-Briggs profile is ISTJ, with a heavy dose of the last three) but I think that being around a little person who only responds with emotional extremes has helped me to bring a tiny bit of new-found EQ back to work. Maybe. I’m pretty sure the team will tell me if that’s not true.

On Self-Worth…

For a long time many people would have described me as a workaholic. That (I’d like to think) changed when our son was born, but either way my career and my work has been part of my self-identify and self-worth for as long as I can remember. I worried: what would happen to that once work was – albeit temporarily – not part of that equation?

Was relieved that the transition turned out to be seamless. Really the transition began when we found out that Caralin was pregnant and accelerated when our son was born; paternity leave just gave it another solid kick. Far from creating a void, I found that being on leave led me to reprioritize the things that made me feel worthwhile, in a very positive way.

I don’t really know how to frame the transition, other than through an example. Two years ago, if you asked me how things were going I would almost certainly have led with a work-related story. Something about a project, or a challenge at work. Nowadays, I’m going to lead with something about my family. That doesn’t mean I’m not fulfilled at work or that I’m not going to continue to hustle, but it’s no longer so central to my sense of self-worth. I think that’s a very healthy thing.

On the Value of Paternity Leave…

As I wrote earlier, going on paternity leave was an incredible experience for me. I went cold turkey on work – I uninstalled work apps, handed in my laptop, and stepped away from my inbox. This was certainly made easier by my colleagues, who essentially banished me from everything (I sent an email to my manager with a quick thought on something early on, and his reply was a tongue-in-cheek “Sorry, who is this?”).

More importantly though, I found that taking care of our son was all-consuming – in the most rewarding way. I’d never really appreciated how much work it is to raise a child, but I certainly do now. From first thing in the morning through to our son’s bedtime (and sometimes beyond), the day was packed to the brim and there was no room for anything else, let alone boredom.

Someone once warned me that my leave would be, “All joy and no fun.” In a way, they were on to something. Paternity leave was exhausting, challenging and overwhelming. However, it was also irreplaceable and full of wonderful experiences I will never forget. I have an infinitely closer relationship with my son than before I went away, and I return to work energized and with a renewed sense of purpose for my own career.

To all the dads who are considering taking paternity leave, my advice: grasp this opportunity with both hands, and don’t second-guess it for a second. It will be one of the best experiences of your life.

Dave Fleet
Managing Director and Head of Global Digital Crisis at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.