Eyes glazed. Hair wild. Clothes dishevelled.
No, I’m not describing myself after an overenthusiastic HIIT class.
When he first volunteered to take parental leave to assist in my return to work after having our second child, we both got caught up in the romance of it all. We’d be so modern! So Scandinavian!
I looked forward to easing back into my job without the distractions of domesticity. I envisaged coming home to three-course dinners and piles of neatly ironed laundry.
He imagined quality time with our daughter, sipping babycinos and frolicking in the park. In his downtime, he planned to catch up on some reading. Fix that dodgy tap downstairs. Perhaps solve world peace.
OK, so we were both deluded.
Don’t get me wrong, it certainly wasn’t disastrous... but let’s just say there are a few extra grey hairs – his and mine – that will forever mark the experience.
Here's what we learnt:
1. It really is as hard as you think it is.
You know when it feels like you’re surrounded by perfect parental specimens, while you’re a scrambling mess of a human who can barely function? You see other mums coping – seemingly unfazed – and start questioning why you seem to be the only one who can’t get their sh*t together.
Well just a few days of role reversal with my husband vindicated any existential crises I may have experienced during maternity leave. Because guess what? It is hard. Very. With a high-pressure corporate job, my husband is no stranger to stress. But I have never seen him as frazzled as his first few days at home.
The word ‘leave’ might be in the title, but let’s be clear: being home with the kids ain’t a holiday. He admits he was unprepared for the relentlessness, the lack of downtime. He quickly had to adjust his expectations accordingly... which meant so did I. After all, how many three-course meals had I prepared during maternity leave? (Spoiler alert: none).
2. The stakes are different for men and women.
Can you imagine anyone asking a pregnant woman, ‘How are you going to cope?’ as they cradle that first ultrasound picture? Yet that was the most frequently asked question when people first heard about our plan.
The vast number of offers of help and food drops – while lovely – seemed disproportionate, and left me channelling my inner Shannon Noll: ‘What about me? It isn’t fair...’
We seem to think women have some sort of inherent ability to parent simply by virtue of our sex. However, rather than some sort of ‘secret women’s business’, it really comes down to sheer logistics: the more time you do it, the more experience you get.
3. There are some things men really can’t do (and many they can).
Look, I’m going to come right out and say it: men can’t multitask. Or at least, they’re not natural multitaskers. In comparison, I’m often found stirring something on the stove while bouncing the baby with my foot and unpacking the dishwasher with my spare hand. Hell, even Instagramming while breastfeeding is a juggle.
And then there’s the sartorial situation... by his own admission, my husband simply doesn’t ‘get’ girls’ clothes: ‘Why is she still in her pyjamas?’ ‘Oh, I thought that was a tracksuit.’
But while the male approach may be different – everything still got done. And well. Things were completed around the house that I hadn’t even thought of, as he brought his goal-based approach to the domestic sphere.
And when things went pear-shaped, instead of collapsing into a dramatic heap (as I am perhaps prone to do), he’d simply regroup and try a different tack.
So I had to learn to let go when he didn’t do things how I would normally do them (I mean, seriously not how I’d do them), and just trust the process.
As for the baby, she just ended up wearing a lot of dresses (one item = no room for error). At least it was summer.
4. Practice makes perfect.
Before taking man-ternity leave, my husband tended to defer to me as the baby expert. So when first left to his own devices, I was pretty much bombarded with frantic ‘WTF do I do now?’ texts.
But it didn’t take long till he did what every other mum and dad before him has done... just figured it out. Sounds obvious, however, it takes a certain amount of confidence to start trusting your instincts as a parent and that doesn’t happen overnight.
And it was extremely liberating to be able seek his counsel on things, or for him to apply his signature baby-calming move (patent pending) when my own failed.
Was it worth every grey? Yeah! (Although my hairdresser may beg to differ). Like most things baby-related, the learning curve can be Everest-steep, but if there’s an option to share the parental leave load, then I say go for it. After all, any quality time spent with your kids are memories you’ll treasure... from here till man-ternity.
Chloe Flynn is a Sydney-based TV producer, writer and mother of two. Her first novel Group is out now. Click here for more.
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