This post originally appeared on TheBump
Going into my six weeks of paternity leave, I expected to be busy, but thought I would have ample time to work on the projects around the house and side projects I had been thinking about for years. I believed I would have time during naps and while my twins played peacefully to finally clean up rooms and build the projects I’d been designing for some time. This turned out to be a grand dream.
While there was time during naps, it was largely consumed by either recovering from the time the boys were awake or preparing for them to wake up again. Sometimes I would need a nap due to sleep deprivation while they were still figuring out how to sleep through the night. Other times, I would need to wash bottles or clean up messes that I didn’t have a chance to do while they were awake. I’d also spend time getting the stroller ready for our next walk, one of the only things that seemed to calm them.
I never found the time to actually work on those projects, perhaps because even when there were a few moments of downtime, I couldn’t get motivated to begin a new endeavor, especially one that required more energy. I did actually binge watch all of Stranger Things—if you can consider watching eight episodes over six weeks binge watching—but I never got to cleaning up that room. Instead, I found the time to get in a ton of walks up and down our street, to the point where I finally met neighbors I had never seen previously during six years of living in the same neighborhood. I also got to discover nearly all of the parks within 20 minutes of driving from our house. One day, I probably tested our stroller more vigorously than the manufacturer ever did by pushing 30 pounds of children up and down a gravel-strewn mountain at our local state park. The boys loved it.
I had high hopes of meeting other parents during my leave, forming friendships with like-minded people with common interests and scheduling playdates. These expectations probably came from TV shows and I thought that was how parents operated. I’m sure some do, but in reality, I ended up spending the majority of the leave alone with the boys, even when we did venture out to public places. Perhaps we’ll make better friends when the boys actually talk and are running around playgrounds, but I have a suspicion we’ll be a bit more solitary. It doesn’t look like we’ll ever have a moment sipping coffee at a playground discussing the day’s events with other parents. Instead, I’ve built up massive calves from pushing a stroller up and down the street.
When my leave began, six weeks sounded like an endless amount of time. I thought I could take it slow, enjoy the break from the challenges of workweek, and refresh myself. Those 42 days absolutely flew by. During the weekdays, my day was a rush of feedings, diaper changes, books, toys and short naps. Before I knew it, my wife would be back home from work. Our weekends were filled with a mix of getting out of the house while the boys were still easily occupied and immobile, and days at home recovering from whirlwind weeks. We quickly fell into a routine and the days began to fly. Soon I was back in my regular routine and wishing I had done more and had more time to spend with my boys.
I like to think that the time I spent with them during this early and critical period of their development helped us build a stronger bond than we’d otherwise have. On typical work days now, I only see them for about 20 minutes in the morning while I get them dressed and ready, and about the same at night while they get ready for bed. We only have two days, or 29 percent of the week to actually spend the day together. Having six weeks of time fully dedicated to them brought us so much closer. Sure, it was incredibly challenging and we had a fair share of bad days, but the good ones more than made up for it.
Many non-parents and even new parents believe that parental leave is almost a vacation with a large amount of time to finally check things off the to-do list. In reality, it’s an extremely busy time that goes by so fast. It’s also a privilege. In the United States, the majority of new parents don’t get paid leave—the law only provides for 12 weeks of unpaid leave. It’s up to individual states and companies to step up, and luckily, more are beginning to. Still, too many parents are faced with the difficult choice of deciding between time with young children and their jobs.
I am fortunate to work for a company that offers fathers six weeks of paid parental leave, and actually encourages using it. My wife also had eight weeks paid, and decided to extend the time with our state’s leave. While this didn’t fully cover our normal income, it gave us enough to make it work. I took two weeks of vacation when our twin boys were born, then returned to work while my wife stayed home with the newborns for 14 weeks. After this, I began my six weeks of leave.
Parents who don’t have the opportunity to take leave are in no way worse parents, but I believe everyone should at least have the chance. This time is valuable for new parents to not only bond with their children, but to really figure out what kind of parent they are going to be—and get in some intensive practice. It may not be exactly what they expect. But they mind find it actually exceeds their expectations.