Shared Parental Leave – Part 3

We’re nearing the end of our shared parental leave. I have a million thoughts I want to share about the whole thing – here are maybe just a few of them.

This third section of our SPL arrangement has been, for me, the most challenging by far. Returning to work has been hard. Returning to work after six months out of the game, at the busiest time of the year, into a more senior role, with a brand new programme to deliver – with new processes to boot, a team one person down and boobs which need emptying every couple of hours, on varying amounts of sleep each night: Man alive – it has been hard. That’s not even to begin to mention the sheer difficulty of being away from my beautiful baby – after spending more or less 24 hours a day with her, every day, every week, every month of her life until now – being away, at times, felt like losing a limb. Luckily I’ve been far, far too busy to ruminate too much on this, and the hours and days have sped by.

I’d read about mothers losing their confidence when returning to work after maternity leave – but I didn’t think that would be me. Well, it has been. All of the above circumstances made this even more acutely felt – and there hasn’t been a week that has passed when I haven’t doubted my ability to do my new job and questioned whether I might not be better off jacking it in and just being with my daughter. Who knows – maybe that will still prove to be the case? But I have made it through to now – when I have some annual leave to take a break, spend some time with my family and hopefully recover and reflect a little.

It has been a challenging time. Having enjoyed every second since becoming a parent, I felt confident that my emotions had survived the transition. I have experienced anxiety and depression on and off throughout my life, and was always a bit worried about that vulnerable time post-natally when so many women experience similar symptoms. I felt that I had dodged that bullet – although tired, I’d never felt happier than the 6 months I took off to be with Luna. Since returning to work however, I began to notice many of my familiar warning signs raising their head – and it’s been scary. Sometimes I feel like there are two Naomis: positive, happy, thriving Naomi – the can-doer, full of affirmations and determined on behalf of everyone that everything will be ok; and the anxiety-ridden, weepy, fed-up Naomi – who snaps at people, whinges about little things and can’t see past the fog of the present. I’ve noticed that in the extreme busyness of work, and under the pressure of stepping up into a management position after six months away, the second Naomi has been more present than, my preferred Naomi, the first.

Several times I have questioned whether I’ve been suffering with PND , whether is it just my own, well-worn and well-known anxious and depressive mind being given the perfect conditions for it to thrive, or whether it is just how anyone would feel in the circumstances? It’s impossible to know really. I know the medicines which help me best – meditation, yoga, healthy foods, nature – but I have felt hard pushed to squeeze them into my life with the volume of work that has needed to be done, and the overwhelming tiredness. Of course, when I’ve not been working I’ve wanted to spend every second I can with Luna – so these things, and rest, get easily pushed out.

Additionally, the looming knowledge of Alex’s return to work and Luna’s inevitable transition to time spent more with others than with us – nursery, grandparents –  has always been at  the back of my mind.

The light of my every day however has been Luna and Alex. Alex, in his parental-leave role of primary caregiver and ‘housewife’ has been phenomenal – as I knew he would be. He has not only flourished as Luna’s carer and best bud, he has taken up all the additional slack of the housework; cooking, cleaning – and everything else which typically has fallen to the woman in a relationship of this kind. He’s been an object of some fascination at the baby groups he’s taken Luna too and has relayed the comments made by some of the mums he has met – who say their husbands would never do what he’s doing; or the shopkeepers who assume “daddy’s giving mummy a day off”. He has loved every second of his time with Luna – and I have watched and seen how, during this time, it has been he – and not I, who has become intuitive as to what her every expression means. As hard as it has been for me to be away from her, I am so grateful for the opportunity this has given them both and wonder what it would be like if he hadn’t had this time.

For me, this time has also been an interesting insight into the role more traditionally fulfilled by the male in heteronormative families. The ‘bringing home the bacon’ role (although not in our house, more like bringing home the quorn or something). The leaving early, returning late, always on the laptop/mobile, stressed out picture of a working parent. Is this how all those dads thrown back into work after just two weeks of paternity leave feel? While I’m not generally one to lament the deal which men get in life when compared to women, this sucks!

And yet I have also lived with that identity in parallel to continuing to be Luna’s main source of nourishment; pumping while away so that she can have a sweet, thirst-quenching reminder of me, albeit out of a bottle – and gratefully welcoming her back to my breast when I return home – reconnecting in a way I can’t describe, and for a few minutes becoming one with her again, like we were for all those months. Night times too have become a precious opportunity for me to bond with my girl – we still co-sleep, and I am so grateful for it. She nurses through the night, we cuddle, we snuggle, she twiddles and kicks and murmurs; I breathe her in and get my fill of her, where I’ve missed out during the day. I know that she will most likely move to her own space soon, but for now, and during this difficult time, our nights together have been an anchor.

This third and final stage of our shared parental leave has left me with a few prominent thoughts and conclusions:

  1. The perfect parenting solution is somewhere in the middle: where the roles of parenting and working aren’t split so finitely down the centre – one does this, one does that – but instead are blended. My ideal? That we would both work part time, and both care for Luna part time. In real life, I realise that’s not always easily achieved; and more – with the pay gap between men and women still unfairly wide – not always the most economic choice for many (most?) families.
  2. It’s great that the government introduced shared parental leave in the UK – but it’s not perfect yet, and I believe the law needs to grow significantly. It’s not lost on me that we have only really been able to take advantage of this because it was economically viable for us. We both earn enough to have made doing this feasible. Many families are not in that position and so wouldn’t really be able to take full advantage of the opportunity.
    Additionally, while it’s great that we get to share our 52 weeks – the 52 previously afforded only to the mother – and the 39 weeks of pay which comes with it, I really would have loved more time off, and I now see why that time has been ‘reserved’ for mothers in the past. The breastfeeding relationship can be difficult to maintain once you go back to work, and I’ve had to work hard to do so; your body (and perhaps your mind) is still recovering from pregnancy, labour and birth – for at least a year – some say more, and your baby still wants to be with you, close by, such are it’s instincts (and possibly yours). That’s not to say women shouldn’t have the opportunity to return to work whenever they so wish, they should, but I have a new appreciation of why for many, staying with their baby is a primal pull (which I have fought against within myself.) BUT – I still fiercely believe and maintain that the other parent (male or female) should also be afforded more time off to spend with their child, to bond, to support, to share in. I know the economics of parental leave are difficult, and people will argue about the effect it would have on the economy – but I really believe that our shared parental leave allowances should go further somehow. It shouldn’t have to be either, or. We must move towards equal parenting for the good of everyone. (Sweden is leading the way in this)
  3. My partner is a genuine miracle; my rock, my world and I am grateful every single day for him. While many look on and see something exceptional in what he’s doing, he doesn’t. He is just doing what he believes he signed up for when he became a parent. As many a stay-at-home-mum will attest to, he is working every bit as hard as I have been, just in different ways. People tell me I’m lucky, and yes – I am, but do people ever tell men that they are ‘lucky’ when their wives stay at home and care for the children, clean the house, cook the dinner, wash the clothes etc, etc. – or is it just a given? Is the extra praise Alex gets just because he is a man doing it?

So, we creep towards September, when we will both be back at work. I have been able to agree a new flexible working arrangement, so I will be looking after Luna two days a week and doing some extra work in the evenings to make up the time. Alex will be going back full time, at least for now. Luna will go off out into the world, to explore new things and make new relationships (we hope). I won’t lie, it’s scary; I’m petrified. I worry about whether she will be ok, about whether she will feel like we have abandoned her – and all the other worries which I’m sure all working parents encounter. And no doubt, I will still have those moments when I question whether I should be working. I get it now, the working parent’s (mother’s) dilemma. But, she is gregarious; she is such a social bean and a brave little lion. I’m pretty sure she will not only be fine, but will thrive.

Finding a work/family/home balance has been the most challenging part of being a parent so far. I wait and watch to see how the next year will unfold and how our lives will resettle. I look back with extreme gratitude for the time we’ve had, both of us, individually and together, to spend with Luna, and I’m already pondering what we might do should we be lucky enough to have a ‘next time’.

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