Paternity Leave in a Pandemic

Today is my first day back in the “office” after a completely surreal three months of paternity leave. This was my second such leave, after I took time off in 2018 with our first-born (I wrote at the time about the conflicting emotions I felt about going out on paternity leave).

This time things were… different… in some hugely obvious ways and some less apparent to those not in my immediate circle. And while last time around I learned a huge amount about being a parent during my leave as I was encountering every aspect of paternity leave for the first time, this time I learned a few different life lessons.

Our happy family
Our happy family (well, mostly happy).

Lesson 1: Roll with the punches

Paternity leave in 2020 looked nothing like what I thought it would be. Not that anyone’s 2020 is what they imagined. The COVID-19 pandemic obviously threw all of our plans out of the window, so rather than traveling with our kids as we planned,  we bubbled with my in-laws and hunkered down for most of my leave. But everyone is dealing with that, so our family tried not to dwell on it. I was taking time off to spend time with my son – I figured the place I would do that ultimately didn’t matter.

Picking up my son for the first time after injuring my back
Picking up my son on June 26, for the first time after injuring my back.

Then, on my second day of leave, I threw my back out at perhaps the worst time. As any parent of a nine-month-old will tell you, the ‘learning to walk’ phase is tough on the back, and our youngest was just getting ready to start. There was very little I could do with the kids for quite a while. It was more than a month before one of our kids could even sit on my lap, and almost two months before I was able to pick either of them up again. Two days ago, I lifted one of our kids into bed for the first time since the first day of my paternity leave.

The effect of a parent having to withdraw from many daily activities on young kids can be tough. They started to heavily prefer their mom, or their grandparents. Our youngest would push away from me if I tried to give him a hug. Not fun.

I certainly spent periods of time grieving for what I thought paternity leave would be. But eventually – with the help of others – I forced myself to focus on the positives and to make the most of what I could do. I could sit and play with our youngest for short periods. I spent lots of time with our eldest – playing outside, helping him to learn to ride his new balance bike. Now that I’m somewhat on the mend, I try to make the most of the moments I can get. And I appreciate what I have.

I also reminded myself that with everything else going on in the world, others have it much tougher and ultimately I remained in a very privileged position. We’re healthy, I still have work, and I have little to complain about in the big picture. This is a useful mindset at the best of times but was made all the more powerful as I educated myself on some of the important issues in play at the moment.

As I return to the home office, I’m resolute in staying focused on that silver lining, and on taking control of my own mindset and actions when things aren’t going the way I’d like.

Lesson 2: Take care of yourself so you can take care of others

Parenting is tiring at the best of times. It’s non-stop and there are few moments of downtime. As an introvert, it is incredibly draining and I genuinely find it more tiring than working in my job. Being a dad brings me more moments of joy than I ever could have imagined, but there are times that it just feels like your stamina is getting chipped away bit by bit.

Our two boys playing happily.
Our two boys playing happily.

What’s more, as plenty of people have pointed out, parenting during a pandemic is even more exhausting – while we would normally have some kind of major outing each day, we were instead stuck in the same setting day after day.

Self-care is something that I have a bad habit of neglecting. You know how airplane safety videos tell you to put your own mask on first, before helping others? That’s never really been my thing. I throw myself into whatever is in front of me, to the exclusion of everything else. My (incredibly patient) wife has learned to recognize the signs that I’m falling short and knows how to gently let me know when I need “Dave time” lest I become a third baby in the house.

But over the last few months I’ve learned a lot about the importance of taking care of myself first.

Suffice to say, it didn’t take long during this paternity leave to get worn down, especially with everything going on. Before long I could feel my fuse getting shorter and shorter – and if there’s one thing a toddler can pick up on (and by “pick up on” I mean “see as a bright red button to push”), it’s a short fuse. This time I fortunately recognized relatively early that I needed to do a better job of looking after myself in order to do a better job of being a dad.

Over the last little while I’ve learned to maximize the moments of downtime that do exist. I started going for a walk each day during the kids’ afternoon naps. Once I got the all-clear from the chiropractor to ride my bike again, I managed to get out for a few rides too. I used time in the evenings to recharge, introvert-style (i.e. away from everyone 😊). I pinged people I hadn’t spoken with in years, and set up video chats to catch up. These things together helped me to weather the wear-and-tear.

I’m now also paying more attention to my wellness as I return to work. Before I left on leave, I successfully argued that we should support employees in establishing a healthy home-office setup. However, I didn’t do so for myself – I worked long hours sitting on a folding chair in front of a folding card table for two months, and I paid the price (metaphorically and literally). I’m not making the same mistake twice.

Lesson 3: Make time for the things that make you smile

Alongside taking time to recharge, I also recognized the importance of making time for my own interests, and not to lose the things that bring me happiness and satisfaction.

People who know me know that if I’m not feeling challenged, I get bored quickly. So, I decided to spend time each day brushing up on a long-lost skillset and dove into online courses on coding (I started my career as a developer). Nowadays there’s little practical application in my role, but it felt good to keep the cobwebs at bay and to be learning again.

I also started reading again – I’ve long been a bit of a bookworm, but my reading fell off a cliff after we had kids. I‘d almost forgotten how much I enjoyed books. This time I started listening to audiobooks which I listened to on my walks. Along the way I took the time to begin to better educate myself on some important topics. The Black Lives Matter protests of recent months helped me realize that I had a huge blind spot in this area, so I dove into books on this topic. I also worked through books on topics like climate change and how to be a better parent, along with some lighter material. All told, I finished 15 books in my three-month leave.

Being a parent has brought me so much joy over the last few years – moments of laughing to the point of tears, and of wonderful, touching experiences that I would never trade for anything. But it’s also easy as a parent – especially at the moment – to completely neglect yourself, and for parenting to just feel like a long tunnel with no light at the end. Over the last few months I think I’ve reached a better balance on this, and I plan to focus hard on maintaining this as I return to work.

Lesson 4: Be present

With everything going on in the world at the moment, it is easy to just get sucked into doomscrolling and to lose yourself in the barrage of never-ending news. Before paternity leave, it was easier to set boundaries while working full-time, but with the structure removed it’s easy to just get buried. We were constantly taking pictures of the kids, so I constantly had my phone out, so I’d constantly flip between apps.

Mid-way through my leave, I realized that this was distracting me from my kids – given that I couldn’t participate in many activities with them, it was all too easy to get sucked into the latest NYT story or to just scroll down one more time on Reddit. I thought my phone was a useful tool that was helping me to capture moments with the kids, but it was actually leading me to miss them.

So I stopped bringing my phone with me a lot of the time. And guess what? I didn’t miss it. Sure, I may have missed out on some cute pics (not that there’s a shortage). But that was more than offset by the joy from being truly present and focused on spending time with my kids. You can bet I’ll be leaving the phone at home more going forward.

Silver linings

Paternity leave wasn’t what I thought it would be this time around. There’s still a portion of me that mourns what it could have been, and mourns the plans we’d been making for this time since we found out in late 2018 that we would have a second child.

But I’ve also been able to witness a slew of moments that I would have missed if I’d been working – our son’s first steps, the first time he ran to his brother for a hug, his first words and many, many more special moments.

In recent weeks I’ve also started to see things come back together. As my back has improved and I’ve been able to do more and more with the kids, they’ve started to react more positively to me in turn.

Yesterday, for the first time, our one year-old walked over to me and sat in my lap on the floor to read a book. It was a small thing, but after months of being able to do little with him and of him pushing me away as a result, it felt like both a new beginning and a perfect end to a rollercoaster paternity leave. One that has left me with a slew of happy memories and taught me a few lessons that – I hope – will serve me well into the future.

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.