“That’s a nice idea, but you’re never going to do it.”
“You’ll change your mind, believe me.”
“Wow. I can’t believe you’d let him do that.”
These are the things people say to you when you tell them you are planning to split your year’s parental leave in half to spend six months with your first baby, then hand over to their Dad for the next six.
It’s understandable. Pregnant people make all kinds of unrealistic plans:
Of course I can work from home with a newborn!
My baby will never eat anything that comes from a jar.
My baby will sleep through the night from six weeks.
I will never, ever bore my friends silly with endless stories about poo and teething…
But this one, the plan that my partner Brent and I cooked up in the very early days of peeing on sticks and avoiding soft cheese, this one stuck.
When we decided on it, we had no concept of just how unusual we were. It seemed like common sense: We both had jobs we loved. I earned more money than he did, so the extra coin would be welcome. I was extremely keen that parenting would be shared in our home and Brent was more than happy to give it a go.
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He asked his boss. His boss said, ‘Help me find someone to cover your leave and you’re on’. He did. Plans were laid. We didn’t consider it a big deal.
But, turns out, it was.
Only two per cent of Australian men take parental leave. That compares with up to 40 per cent in (you guessed it) countries like Sweden and Denmark, and even Portugal.
The midwives at the Early Childhood Centre were sceptical. “Where do dads take babies?” one asked me. “The pub?”
Other people weren’t sure it could be done.
“You just won’t want to hand over that baby and go back to work,” I was told often.
And some expressed disbelief that a man – A MAN – could do the drudge work of looking after a baby, day after day. Only a mother, surely, knows how to fill those hours between naps. How your little one will only finish their mush if you feed them the first half in their highchair and the second on your lap. Only a woman, surely, knows the right way to jiggle that tiny person to sleep, to comfort them when they’re whingey, to remember tummy time and to pack the wipes and to make sure that bottle isn’t too hot, or too cold, but just right.
Holly and her first child.
And as the day came closer to me going back to the office, like every mum at that moment, I was a conflicted mess. On the one hand, I couldn't wait to get back to using my brain, to being around grown-ups all day. But on the other, I had an inkling of how much I was going to miss my daughter.
And I was right. Those first days and weeks back at work, I would sprint to get home just to hold her. The feeling I had, of anticipation of seeing her, holding her, smelling her, was exactly comparable to the first flushes of a love affair - when you can't stop saying your lover's name and their knock at the door sends your tummy hurtling up and down a rollercoaster of excitement. She was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. Love songs were about us.
So, yes, of course I missed her.
Holly and a very new Matilda.
But it turned out that after a bumpy start (Matilda fell through the high-chair on her first day, and there were many, many second outfits forgotten on poo-explosion days), a man can look after a baby. Brent didn't do it the way that I did it, the schedule lasted less than a week, but he found his own rhythm, his own routines, and he and Matilda became a tight unit. She didn't forget me, she still reached out her arms to me when I came home.
So when we had our son, almost two years later, we repeated our plan. Because that shared first year came to completely define the way we parent.
The true beauty of sharing those early days of parenting - of truly sharing them, not just getting 'Dad' to give the baby a bath, or take them out for an early walk on a Saturday morning, or to 'babysit' them for a rare 'girls' night out' - was not delivered in those six months, or in the second six of our boy Billy's first year. It's been in every day and every week and every month since then. In the fact that neither one of us is the "lead" parent, that one of us doesn't make the rules for the other to follow.
If the kids are sick, either one of us will do. Wake up scared in the night? We're interchangeable. Know what they'll eat for dinner and what they won't? We're both across that level of tedious detail.
And it's given me a freedom that's still uncommon among mothers of small children. A level of confidence that I can go out and do the things I've always wanted to, or have suddenly dreamed of, and I don't have to worry about handing over, or leaving lists of instructions, or labelled dinners in the freedom. It's actual equality, in action, at home.
This is the kind of scene you will encounter when Dad is on full-time baby duty.
I know that what worked for my family would not work for all. I know there are many, many couples for whom this would be an impossibility, or a dangerous risk.
We know men feel insecure about asking for parental leave, that it's still not widely acceptable in our blokey culture for them request time with their babies, and that they are less likely to be considered serious about their jobs if they do.
Employers need to become more flexible about men's working arrangements, just as they have had to about women's. About 47 per cent of the female workforce works part-time, compared to less than 20 per cent of men. It's changing, but it's changing slowly. And until it does, women will always shoulder the majority of the domestic work that goes along with becoming a parent.
So if you're a woman who's pregnant, trying to get pregnant, thinking about getting pregnant, don't assume that parental leave is all about you.
Try turning to your partner and asking: Do you want some, too?
She's also the author of a new novel, The Mummy Bloggers, and a parent to two small people.
Originally from the north of England, Holly has lived in Sydney for more than 20 years, is a card-carrying member of Generation X and loves stories above most things (not the aforementioned children, obviously, that would be a bad look).
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