I did an unusual thing
I did an unusual thing and I’m going to tell you about it. I took a lot of paternity leave.
While my wife and I were expecting, I surprised myself with the depth of my feeling about being an especially present husband and father. I knew that those things were important to me, but you can never really be sure what your priorities are until they're tested. I negotiated with my boss to take 6 months of unpaid leave, instead of the UK statutory 2 weeks on a pittance. (The negotiation was not hard, he was very cool about it, A++ good boss).
(Full disclosure: Several months in, I decided not to return to work there, so technically I went on indefinite paternity leave. Or became, y'know, unemployed. That’s a different discussion, I’ll focus on the paternity bit here. I think most of what I say below would also apply if I had returned to work at 6 months. Taking time off worked out great, and I’m now happily contracting. I’ll write more about that soon.)
I took long paternity leave, at the cost of 6 months of salary in a well-paid tech job, and yeah, some social stigma. The message I would like you to take away is that I don’t regret it at all.
I think there are (probably?) two, maybe three, main things that discourage expectant fathers from doing this.
- Prestige/career capital/social pressure.
- Ridiculous ideas about being a “real man”.
Let me opine on all three.
- Money. You have it or you don’t. I have been privileged in many ways, and I am not under the illusion that I earned all of them. Still, I lived below my means to save, and in taking time off, I took the risk of spending those savings instead of putting them somewhere sensible. Maybe you can do that too, maybe you can’t. For those who can’t afford the time off, I wish you could, and I hope we can create an equitable world where everyone who desires it can save enough to take a break.
- Prestige. The implicit context for this commentary is corporate enterprise software and research career ladders, but I bet it applies elsewhere. I was working as a Principal Research Engineer and tech lead for a team of other research engineers in a mid-large Silicon Valley tech company. Among a certain kind of person, prevalent in corporate America, taking more than a week or two for paternity leave simply isn’t done. It also seems to be uncommon in the UK.
Honestly? This wasn’t really a concern for me. I did not wrestle with the perception others would have of taking long paternity leave. Certainly not the flavour of grind-culture tweeter, maybe a VC or C-suite exec, who gets off on short email SLAs, congratulating themselves, and claiming it's a red flag if someone takes more than twenty minutes of PTO for the birth. Pretty much anyone who would have a negative view of taking six months to begin raising their child is someone whose outlook on work and life I do not respect, definitionally.
My advice to those who do struggle with the hustler's perception of paternity is not particularly helpful, especially since I've exited the corporate world. Just, like, be your own person. It’s difficult for me to understand the attitude of extremely careerist people. I think we all kind of know that most career accolades and titles aren’t very indicative of ability — excepting the ability to progress upwards through an organisation — and it's all just a sort of show we put on for each other. I guess that people who are good at climbing corporate ladders understand this, and find playing ball to be worth it. So, if you’re wrestling with the negative perception that LinkedIn people will have of taking time to parent, uh, don’t. Use your own brain to decide what you value, then show integrity and volition.
- Patriarchy. This might be the same as point 2, but I feel like it's worth spelling out and I hope it helps someone. There are people out there who think that it is somehow unmanly to be a present, kind father. One who is a place of safety, rather than authority. If any of them are reading this post, they probably already tuned out, thinking I’m soft, weak, beta, a simp. Maybe that I’m failing to provide. I’m lazy for taking time off work (buddy, do you even know how much work a newborn is?). I could counter those points individually, but honestly, I don’t care.
None of those things are true. The opinions of self-styled “real men” (lol, "alphas") on social media don’t really interest me. They’re juvenile. It feels silly to even write about them. The primary virtue of a parent is probably something like compassion, and that is incompatible with any version of masculinity that seeks to bully children, rather than nurture and teach them. And that is what it is, right? An adult man who is feared by his children is a weak, overgrown bully. I will always strive to be a compassionate father and husband. It’s much harder this way, but I’m very comfortable that I’m all the man I want to be. Here endeth the dunk.
Of course, leaving my job entirely — a decision I made several months in to paternity leave — was not without risk. Whenever I had doubts (did I ferret enough savings away to last until I find a new job? [yes]. Have I sacrificed my career entire? [no, obviously]. I don’t know anyone else doing this, am I stupid? [maybe stupid, but not about this]), I think of otherwise mundane Tuesday afternoons, or Thursday breakfasts, or any other time with my young cub.
I remember rolling around on the floor when he first began crawling (a wonderful, curious age!) both of us giggling away as he's chased by the daddy monster who’s going to eat his tummy. Those squeals of joy, those bright eyes, the smiles, the connection. These are the purest and most cherished experiences of my life, with no hyperbole. When I die, if it is a long and considered affair, those memories will be my bedside companions. In case I am violently shuffled from this mortal coil, be it by accident or malice, I hope I am granted a short few seconds to bring them to mind.
Alternatively to all this, I could have continued to lead applied machine learning research for a tech co. We would have shipped some cool stuff, we would have made a couple of hires, and work would have had roughly 13% of my attention while I listened to those delighted squeals down the hall instead.
I don’t regret taking time to be a father. It isn’t close, not remotely. Spending time with my son, being present, being around for all the introductions, so much new. This is the very fabric of the life I want to live. The job, the manufactured prestige of enterprise corporations, the endless fucking delusions of grandeur of “tech” — these things are lint.
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