“It’s not a holiday!”
So goes my standard response when someone asks me about my shared parental leave.
To be fair, nobody has suggested out loud that I’m spending my time with my feet up, watching Cash in the Attic on catch-up, munching Doritos and reading the papers. But the language people use suggests their thoughts are along those lines. “Enjoy your break!” was a popular phrase when I checked out of the office in November. “Make sure you don’t spend it all in the playground: get out there and achieve something with your time” another colleague told me.
I don’t need to tell you parenting-savvy readers of daddy and mummy blogs that childcare is no easy ride. But even having experienced it first-hand myself when I took four months of paternity leave for our first child in 2014, I still found myself in the holiday mindset the second time around.
My first paternity leave experience was genuinely enjoyable. He was nine months old when I started, and by that stage was sleeping relatively well, could eat food straight from an Ella’s Kitchen pouch, and, crucially, was capable of sitting in a restaurant or pub highchair while I broadened my gastronomic horizons (Pulled pork? In a burger?). Having only one child meant that we could do groups and classes like baby swimming, sensory and music.
Enjoyable is not the word I’d use to describe my second attempt at full-time childcare though. This time I took over at four months old. He was still waking three or four times every night, couldn’t sit upright, and required me to serve him milk at precisely the right temperature every couple of hours. And of course, I now had two of them to look after, which ruled out many typical mum-and-baby activities such as special cinema screenings, swimming, and any other activities that involve sitting still for more than a minute.
On the whole it’s felt like a relentless battle to keep them both alive and entertained, whilst doing all the things necessary to keep the house running smoothly.
The real battle, however, is with myself. Like my colleague, I thought I could use the time off work to achieve something. I set up a blog and a Twitter account, and had hopes of changing the world. I made a list of home-improvement projects to do. Every time the kids look like they might want a nap my mind turns to how I might use the time. Every day I feel disappointed at how little I’ve managed to get done.
I’ve tried to remind myself that this leave isn’t about me: it’s for the children. But I can usually only endure a few minutes of playing with inanimate soft toys before my eyes flick to my phone for a quick squiz at Twitter, or to post a quick Instagram to keep my follower count increasing.
There is one surefire remedy to my frustration though, and that is to get out of the house. Whenever we’ve been somewhere new, and perhaps a bit brave, we’ve ended up having a fantastic experience. Earlier today I donned my wellies and Babybjorn and took the baby for a 2.5 mile walk through the forest and across the fields to a country pub I’d heard great things about. And then back again. Last week I put both kids in the car and took them to Margate, where we mixed modern art with sandcastles and fish ‘n’ chips.
Both are memories I hope I’ll keep for a long time. Who cares if it’s another day without a blog post? The laundry can wait.
Of course, my experience is probably no different to what many mums experience on maternity leave. A quick look through the Cityparents Experience Bank doesn’t yield many tales of joy and happiness. Lonely and frustrating are words I’ve seen used before. But perhaps the image that comes mind of a dad on paternity leave is slightly different: people expect maternity leave to be hard work (after all a great many people have experienced it themselves) whereas, with paternity leave: well they just don’t know.
So, with all of the above in mind, would I take shared parental leave again if we had another child? Of course I would! Whilst it might not be a riot, I’m privileged to have this time with my boys. And after all, it’s not about me.