My wife was 8 months pregnant, and my boss and I were discussing my paternity leave. This was three years ago.
“I wouldn’t take too much time off,” Jim said. “Your students could really suffer.” I was at my desk, and Jim was sitting across from me.
When Jim said the word “suffer,” I felt a heavy weight on my chest. He crossed his legs and looked me in the eyes, and suddenly I felt selfish. I don’t think this was Jim’s intention, honestly. But at the same time, it gave me pause. Jim was in his mid-40s. He’d worked in education for nearly 20 years and was a single dad. He wasn’t the kind of boss not to take his employees’ families into consideration, but he also thought a lot about the program and what it meant to help our students excel.
At the time, I worked as an academic counselor in a program that served underrepresented students. I had about 80 students I met with every two weeks, and that term alone I could’ve named a half-dozen students who would’ve had to leave college for one reason or another if I hadn’t intervened. My wife, Mel, was due right before the end of the spring term, which is usually when students need the most attention.
But at that same time, my wife and our new baby were going to need attention too. We’d lived in Oregon a little over one year, a 14-hour drive from our home state of Utah, and Mel and I often talked about the fact that we were really all each other had. My mother-in-law was planning to come help, and we had a few supportive friends, but that was about it. Mel needed me, and I wanted to be there for her and our baby.
I had enough sick pay that I could take seven weeks off. According to university policy, I could take up to three months, but I wouldn’t have been paid for all of it. This was my first professional job after college, but it was our third child. With our first two children, I was waiting tables while finishing my degree. I took what time we could afford (usually no more than a few days). Paternity leave wasn’t an option, and at the time, I hated this fact. With our first two children, I felt like I missed out on those important first few moments of bonding, and the opportunity to be there for my wife when she really needed me. I often told myself that once I was done with college, I’d take as much time as I could when we added to our family.
However, suddenly I was faced with something unexpected: the weight of professional obligation. The feeling that if I took too much time away from work, my students would suffer because I wasn’t around. The program I worked for was underfunded and understaffed.
That evening, Mel and I talked about how much time I was going to take off. The kids were in bed. We were on the living room sofa.
“Seven weeks would be awesome,” Mel said. “I could really use your help.”
But then I told her about what Jim said. “I’m not worried about losing my job, but I am worried about my students,” I said.
Mel thought about it for a moment. We discussed a few things, and then she said, “Having you around would be nice, but my mother will be here. I want you at the hospital, but other than that, I’ll be fine. We’ve managed it before.”
I like to tell people that I’m a father first and an employee second, but when faced with the choice between spending time with our new baby and helping my wife recover and my job, I felt so conflicted.
It felt selfish. I was struggling with what a lot of men do with paternity leave. The reality was, my students would probably be fine. Work would go on like it always had, but I felt bad for taking the time. I felt like, as a man, being a provider was my primary function. I felt like I needed to be there for my family in a financial way and to be there for my job and my co-workers professionally. I felt like me taking time away for my family was some sort of cop-out, like calling in sick when you were really well. It felt shameful. I was the new guy, after all. So many things ran through my head, and most of them were rooted in the antiquated idea that if a man takes leave after a pregnancy, he’s milking the system.
I know that there is so much more to taking time off from work when a baby is born than simply recovering. It’s a time of support and bonding, a time of adjustment and transition.
The reality is, so much of parenthood comes down to trying to decide when work or family should be the priority, and when it’s right to put one above the other. I struggled with how much time to take, and in the end, I let my job take precedence over my family.
I took a total of two weeks off.
Looking back now, I hate myself for this.
Like with our first two children, I missed out on the opportunity to connect with our new baby — to hold and care for her during those first few remarkable weeks of life. And I missed the opportunity to care for my wife when she needed me most.
Mel and I are done having kids now, but if you are an expectant father and reading this, I get it. I get the pressure. But I also know the regret, and I can say, without any reservation, that if you have the option to take paternity leave, take it. Take every last moment of it. Suck it dry. It’ll all be fine, and your family will be stronger for it. You won’t regret it.