This week marks the first of my eight weeks of parental leave so I can attend to the birth of my second child. Men (and really by extension non-mothers) taking parental leave isn’t something that gets a lot of attention, so I wanted to take advantage of my platform to talk about it today.
I’m going to start with some uncharacteristic vulnerability and introspection. To be honest, I’ve been putting off writing this post (as I sit here finally getting this done, it is fewer than 24 hours before my child is scheduled to be born). The last couple of months have been deeply, frenetically stressful, as I have worried and planned and fretted about precisely how to make sure nothing falls apart during my absence. It’s safe to say I’ve spent probably about as much extra time working this summer as I’ll be taking off this fall, just to make sure that I can take time off this fall.
I know from speaking with other parents (including my spouse, who’s been much in the same boat trying to get all of her ducks in a row in preparation for her own leave) that this is incredibly common. Our culture of normative–and performative–productivity infects all of us, employees and employers alike. It’s easy to blame my spouse’s employer for making her feel like she has to make sure everything is done before she leaves, but whom do I have to blame for the fact that I (who owns the business!) feel the same way?
These pressures drive people to take off less time than they need to. And they give employers cover to offer less time than they ought to–particularly in the United States. Sitting here right now, I don’t have a solution. I’m frustrated. Hell, I’m resentful. It makes me feel powerless, and like I’m part of a problem rather than part of a solution. I feel like I’m letting down my family, my business partner, my employees, and my customers.
And I know that these exact feelings, coupled with probably about 1,000 times the unfair external pressure, is what drives so many women to “lean out” (a problematic term itself, as though the solution to institutionalized sexism were so simple as “choosing” to ignore it)–something few would expect (or support) a man opting to do.
I wish I had a profound segue here, but I don’t. All I can say is that I hope by at least talking about this, I can help drive a conversation that maybe will make this all a little bit better for my kids if and when they become parents themselves.
For those who haven’t done it, having a kid is a big change in your life, much in the same way that the Pacific Ocean is slightly damp. My daughter Dana is three years old, and already exhibits the warning signs of having aspects of my personality. I endeavor to stop working at 5:30 most evenings and (along with my spouse) take over watching the Danasaur to ensure she doesn’t harm herself for several hours until bedtime. I want to be very clear here–this is parenting. This is a basic responsibility that you sign up for when you make whatever series of choices leads to you bringing a child into the world or into your home and saying “yup, I’m a parent now.”
I am guilty of half-assing
I want to be honest: I fall short, a lot. I’m not present with my daughter the way I wish I were. I’m on my phone too much. I often feel flustered, or annoyed, like she’s encroaching on time I could be doing something else (… working?) I feel like I’m doing parenting wrong, and I find it frighteningly tempting to slip into the cliched absent-dad role. I tell myself that Bethany is better at parenting than I am, and I justify to myself that I should focus what I’m good at – Dana’s better off if I just do that, and let Bethany take over the role she’s clearly superior at…
No. This is how harmful patterns replicate themselves. This is how we slow the pace of much-needed change.
Dads don’t babysit.
Tech is, to be direct, a trash fire in so very many ways. It’s hard for men to take time off to spend time with a new kid in this culture; it’s perceived as “vacation” instead of adjusting to a pretty dramatic life change. Child care and parenting are not respected as the actual, valuable, critical (like, propagation-of-the-species level important) work that they are. Corporate culture, in its rush for ever-higher profit margins, frequently acts in a manner suggesting it considers itself above the mundanities of treating human beings like human beings instead of fungible profit-generating productivity units. Far too often, we buy into the notion that playing along makes us good corporate citizens–as though such a calling is a higher nobler one than being good parents.
Making sure Dana doesn’t kill her new sibling or feel forgotten about is important; so is spending time in solidarity with Bethany at 2AM when Screamy McDiaperChange wants a feeding (not to mention, you know, getting to know the new little gremlin myself). I can get another job, start another company, mock a different cloud provider–but I won’t ever be able to get these days back.
We found out that we were going to have a kid all of two weeks after I left a giant company and attendant benefits package and set out as an independent consultant. My timing is awesome. I was able (thanks to a giant pile of privilege and a spouse who’s a corporate attorney) to make it work, but my revenue that year wasn’t anything to write home about. I took the first few weeks “hard off” and then worked part-time as I eased my way back into running this place. It wasn’t ideal, but it spoke directly to my reasons for going independent: to work when I want to work, how I want to work, and not having to bend a knee to ask permission.
I can’t do that this time. I won’t do that this time.
We’re now ten people. Whatever I say, what I do has the effect of setting an example for the rest of the staff. If I say “I’m going to be working part time but I don’t expect anyone else to do that” then I’ve set up a dynamic where doing what I say instead of what I do is the expectation–and that’s fraught.
After a lot of deliberation with my business partner Mike it became pretty clear that the only way to humanely do this is to take time all the way off–and that’s what I’m doing. I’ve spent the past few months preparing for this.
I’ll begin by taking one solid month away, with scheduled content and other tricks that you’ll soon see to ensure that whatever happens, I don’t have to think about work until at least November.
Secondly, I’ll likely be staggering my two months of parental leave (which every employee gets regardless of gender or familial situation as a standard Duckbill Group benefit); taking the second month intermittently over the first half of next year seems like the right move for me–and that’s as important as taking it at all. The entire point of leave policies is to serve as a benefit, not a cudgel to wield against people. “You’re on leave so we’re going to restrict your access to systems,” particularly during a pandemic, is a potentially isolating thing; with so much changing, if people want to pop into the social Slack channel or whatnot, why not encourage that?
Like it or not, by accepting a managerial position you become someone who sets an example–whether you want to or not.
I’m going to fall short again. I hate that I’m going to fall short again.
I’m going to keep trying to do better. I hope talking about this can normalize all of us trying to do better.
Thanks for reading this.