My baby started daycare this morning. My husband and I went to drop him off together, and it was not as hard as I had expected. When we left the room he was happily playing with blocks, and he didn’t even notice us leave. I’m sure he did notice at some point, but it wouldn’t have been me he looked around for. My baby would have looked for his primary caregiver, Daddy. Really, I left him some time ago.
I’ve been back at work full-time since August, teaching, pumping, going to meetings, pumping, trying to find bits of time for research, pumping, and pretending my heart wasn’t across town with a little boy that was learning to crawl and clap. My husband (also an academic) has been home with our son, playing on the floor, exploring the outdoors, changing hundreds of diapers, feeding pumped milk and an increasing number of solid foods, and wishing our baby would nap on a regular basis. Now his time away from work is ending too, so its time for the baby to go to daycare and begin a new chapter of his life.
So it seems like a good time to reflect on what I, the mother, learned when my husband took over the primary caregiver role. Here’s a listicle.
- There’s no such thing as paternity leave. Nope, nothing like that exists in the books at our university. As a father, my husband qualified for up to 12 weeks of unpaid FMLA time off in our baby’s first year. Because his role was “merely bonding”, he couldn’t tap into any of his stored sick leave. Only because we had been saving and because my salary is healthy were we able to go this long without the second income. That’s a luxury that most families don’t have.
- There’s no such thing as paternity leave. Just like when I was on maternity leave (excuse me, FMLA, there’s no maternity leave here either), my husband found that it was impossible to leave his job behind entirely for the last few months. We hired a babysitter to cover two mornings per week so that he could meet with graduate students and get tiny bits of lab work done, and my husband often worked late into the night to squeeze in some research or write a review.
- Don’t count on nap time. Our baby boy is just too darn interested in the world to take reliable naps of any length, much less the sort of duration that would allow my husband to get work done. If the baby had been a “typical” napper, it might have been a fairly productive period for my husband, but as it played out, it wasn’t productive at all.
- Don’t tell your partner that the baby will nap. Yeah, I might have talked that up too much in the months leading up to the handover.
- Things will shift. It will feel awkward. As I filled out the daycare paperwork, I was struck by how much more my husband knew about my son’s habits than I did. What time does he take his bottles? I knew when I pumped, but I didn’t know when he ate the product. How often do you need to check his diapers? Answer: He’s not a subtle pooper. As someone who is used to knowing as much or more about our children as anyone, it was a strange and somewhat discomfiting feeling to need to ask for help with a questionnaire about my baby.
- Things won’t shift that much. The routines and division of labor we had established in the months and years ahead of my husband’s paternity leave more or less held true for the last few months. I did more of the logistics of appointment scheduling, bill paying, etc. and my husband did more of the cooking and laundry. I still had the primary night-time caregiving job, at least once the next day’s lecture was written.
- I don’t do well at working part time. I meant to come home early or work at home a few mornings per week in order to be a backup or provide my husband some reprieve. After all, he did that for me in the months immediately after birth. But then my schedule filled with classes, student meetings, lab work, more meetings, and pumping, endless pumping, and I was feeling hard pressed to get everything in. I do come to work a bit later and leave a bit earlier than I did before the baby, but (especially with the disruption of pumping), I’ve found it hard to do much more than that.
- Your colleagues and chair expect you are back 100%. After a semester and then some away from the department myself, and with my tenure case pending, face time has seemed important this semester. Plus, my colleagues and students are anxious for me to re-engage with collaborative research, teaching, and service. Saying that I can’t meet after 2 or that I can’t meet two mornings per week felt dangerous to me, like I was telling them that I wasn’t really back. I didn’t feel like I could say no, and that made it harder for me to backup my husband at home.
- Don’t count on seeing the baby at lunch. Before the semester, we talked about my husband bringing the baby over for lunch, a feed, and a snuggle a few days per week. That quickly went by the wayside, because we discovered that (a) the baby would fall asleep in the stroller on the way to the office; (b) the baby wouldn’t be hungry at our pre-scheduled lunch times; and (c) the baby would be so distracted by the novel environment he wouldn’t nurse in any case. So 100% workday pumping it was.
- When the primary caregiver is sick, the other parent is on baby duty. I was caught by surprise last month when I ended up home for a few days, healthy, and with a healthy baby, but with a very sick partner. I hadn’t ever thought before about what happens when the stay-at-home parent is too sick to do childcare.
- If it’s been a long day on the home front (and it’s almost always a long day on the home front), don’t talk about how great work is. I’m not good at following my own advice here, because I have a hard time switching my mind off work as soon as I get home. But I have learned to read some of my husband’s nonverbal signs of when he’s actually jealous that I got to sit in a faculty meeting, because it means I got to sit and have adult conversation rather than carry around a baby all day and wipe applesauce off my shirt.
- Your partner will worry about how this will impact his career. His productivity is taking a hit and he is doing something too often seen as unmasculine. What will the consequences be for his career advancement? Will people see him as unserious about his research?
- You will worry about how this will impact his career. Did my desire to keep my baby out of daycare a few more months derail my husband’s chance at tenure? How will he explain it on his CV? Did I just reinforce his status as a trailing spouse, even though I also took the same length of time off? How awful are gender stereotypes?
- Trust is key. My husband is a great dad and I feel absolutely confident that our children are in great hands when they are with him. If I were looking over his shoulder or second-guessing his decisions, I think things would have come off their wheels almost immediately.
- Communication is key. As always, as with everything. Our communications are often mundane (when was the last time he had a bottle? when did he poop?), but I think when we step into new roles, like stay-at-home parent, we need to remember to communicate our love and respect too. (Husband, I love and respect you more than ever for the wonderful job you are doing raising our child. I know it hasn’t been easy, but you are doing fantastically.)
- People won’t get it. From HR, to our colleagues, our families, our neighbors and beyond, the initial reactions have been a mixture of confusion and disbelief. When we explain that dad is staying home for a few months, the next reaction is that our employer must provide this as a great benefit. When we explain that it is unpaid, many seem to default back to disbelief.
- People will rave over how great a dad your partner is for staying home with the baby. Because he is. But what he is doing shouldn’t be so exceptional that people rave over it any more than they do for a mother who stays home for 12 weeks with her newborn. We should shift our perspective (and our public policy) to enable more fathers to take a role as primary caregiver in their children’s lives, and we should expect them to be actively involved partners in parenting. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet, so instead you’ll have people tell you how great your partner is and how they could never expect their husband to do the same.
- Your baby will love his daddy in a way that will warm your hearts every day and make everything else totally worth it.
- You still won’t be ready to put your baby in daycare. Your husband will be ready to go back to work, just as you were when you returned, but no matter the baby’s age, it is still a little heart-breaking to leave your baby behind in the care of strangers for the first time. Excuse me now, while I go pump and look at baby pictures on my phone and miss my little one and hope he’s doing well.