After six months of being the primary caretaker of my 8-month-old daughter, I am returning to the workforce. Tomorrow I hand off most daily childcare responsibilities to my wife, who had her last day of work today. I learned many things over the past half-year; as much about myself and my relationship with my wife as about my child. One of the most important only really sunk in after I became a full-time papa. I would like to share this lesson with other new fathers out there, whether you are taking paternity leave or not. It is primarily about the management of expectations, but is deeply connected to teamwork, communication, planning, endurance and support.
Marathon, not a sprint
In the couple of months following the birth, my wife stayed home to watch the baby and recover. I worked full time but made an effort to be home as much as possible to free up my wife’s time so she could have a break. I wanted to give my wife as much support as possible, so she could simply hand off the baby the moment I walked in the door. On weekends I stayed home with the baby and encouraged my wife to go out: shopping, coffee, foot massage, whatever she needed to do to recharge. I had an image that caring for an infant was taxing, and knew my duty to provide as much support as possible. At least, that is what all the new daddy books said.
Once I took over, when the baby was only a couple months old, I learned the opposite side of the equation. Truthfully, taking care of a baby over short periods of time is not that difficult. It is caring for a baby over an extended period that is fatiguing. It is a marathon, not a sprint. This requires an immense amount of mental endurance. For comparison’s sake, paid labour, on the other hand, tends to concentrate work in an 8 hour blocks of time, 5 days a week. Childcare is 24/7, my son! Furthermore, for paid labour your workplace is separate from your home. In childcare, you live at your desk. This adds to the general stress level geometrically (freelancing from home sort of approaches this, but not quite).
Watching a marathon on tellie, most men are confident they can run faster than the marathoner at any one point of the race. But you cannot match the mental toughness that is required to continue running for 42km. Moreover, stay-at-home parents also have a million other things to balance: childcare is a like a marathon being run on a tightrope. This makes spousal support all the more important.
Pulling the rug out
When novice tightrope walkers train on a medium height rope, helpers on the floor hold long poles vertically, moving in to give the walker something to hold onto if he looks like he is going to fall. Every time you offer to take the baby, vacuum, wash the dishes, bath or feed the baby is like providing a handhold for your spouse to grasp and catch her breath. The easiest lesson can be found here: in this race, there is no such thing as too much support. However, I learned an even more valuable lesson once I became the tightrope walker myself:
“Negative support” costs much more than “positive support.”
Let me unpack that statement. Consider the following: every time you provide a single piece of support, you are awarded +10 points of positive support. Additionally, every time you back out of a single piece of promised support you are docked -100 points (negative support). Note the difference in scale. A marathoner has to plan his milestones carefully to properly attribute the scarce resources of his endurance. He has to take account of up hills, downhills, hairpin turns where runners tend to crowd, etc. Any support is always a bonus, no matter how small, but retraction of expected support is a terrible tax on mental endurance. The worst thing for a struggling tightrope walker is to find a handhold suddenly no longer there. If that handhold was critical to the walker’s plans, the results could be disastrous.
(Note: Negative support is different than a simple lack of support, which is worth zero points, but increases in negative value incrementally over time.)
My advice to spouses of stay-at-home parents: Never back out of something at the last minute. Keep your spouse constantly informed as to your plans so they can plan their daily milestones accordingly, adjusting their allocation of endurance if need be. Say what you are going to do, and do what you say. Good communication should already be one of the foundations of your marriage. This should go doubly if a baby is involved.
Other lessons learned
Paternity leave has been an amazing experience, and I recommend it highly. Traditionally, fathers are expected to support their child by financial means: going to work and bringing home cash. The truth is, newborns are not expensive. Taking care of your baby is an experience worthy of a short-term cut in salary. For me it was inspiring, lonely, invigorating, frustrating, wonderful and stressful all at the same time. I hope to share more lessons learned from my experience over the next few months. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to ask.