I can easily recall how I felt during my first day of being primary carer for my daughter, Aila. My wife, Julia, had finished nine months of maternity leave and was heading back to a job she loved. I was at home feeling nervous, overwhelmed, and second guessing every decision: what to dress Aila in, what to feed her, how to entertain her and when to let her sleep. By late afternoon I was shattered more than I could have thought biologically possible. Those feelings are still so palpable three years later.
I can’t really tell you what Aila and I actually did during that first day. She was nine months old and could sit up gripping a few things in her tiny hands, but that’s it. She couldn’t walk and didn’t have any words. I do clearly recall letting her sit on my shoulders in the late afternoon and pull my curly, unwashed hair while I constantly watched the clock waiting for Julia to come home.
I can’t really tell you what Aila and I actually did during that first day.
Such is the way with parental leave. You break up your day into increments of three to four hours, and what you set out to achieve at 8am is frequently not what has happened by 5pm. Staying personally motivated to eat well and exercise gets harder and harder. You can also feel more removed from your community, and more detached from the big movements of the wider world. Mind you, I only did three months leave. Julia did three times that, when our daughter was certainly cute, but less entertaining.
During my time as her main carer, Aila and I whiled away the time with strolls, trips to the local pool, rides on the ferry, picnics in the park and goofing around at home. As with my first day, I only have hazy memories of all the specific things we did. But I will never forget how that special time made me feel. I felt my love for her explode to a new level. We created a special bond filled with quirky rituals unique to just us. Our relationship as dad and daughter deepened. I felt enriched as a person for having uninterrupted time to learn how to meet all her needs. Perhaps for the very first time, I actually felt like a man too, responsible for more than just my dopey self.
During my time as her main carer, Aila and I whiled away the time with strolls, trips to the local pool, rides on the ferry, picnics in the park and goofing around at home.
I really believe caring for kids is a manly thing to do, yet only five percent of men take primary parental leave in this country. It’s a shame more men aren’t comfortable being a stay-at-home dad. There are some great private sector parental leave packages out there now, but our public leave scheme for dads is still pretty crappy. Men are missing out on an incredible experience that is equal parts rewarding and transforming. The average working father will have 30 or 40 years more in the workforce after he has kids. In the grand scheme, why not take at least a handful of months to focus solely on being a father and not a worker, making lifelong memories with your children?
Which brings me to what I learnt on parental leave - that dads can be as amazing carers just like mums, if they only had the time to focus on caring. Before I became a father, I had zero knowledge about kids. I didn’t have young siblings or cousins in my life and I never babysat. In fact, for most of my adult life, the thought of having kids was terrifying. On parental leave, I discovered fatherhood requires on-the-job training. As a community we still tend to think parenting is a natural talent you either do or don’t have, and that you’ll be the same type of parent as your mum or dad. It’s not true. Parenting is a skill set and there’s no better place to serve a trainee-ship than on parental leave.
During that time I had a lot of trial and error, but I built skills and became more confident that as a dad, I could handle anything parenting could throw at me – meltdowns, nappy blowouts at a shopping centre, settling an overtired baby, or finding an after hours doctor for a sick baby, you name it. There’s a big, long-term pay off for dads and kids too that we don’t talk about enough. Emerging research shows a dad’s brain develops to become more attuned to caring when he’s involved with his kids early in their life, and that a fathers hands-on involvement in raising children helps them be more social better adjusted for the wider world.
During that time I had a lot of trial and error, but I built skills and became more confident that as a dad, I could handle anything parenting could throw at me – meltdowns, nappy blowouts at a shopping centre, settling an overtired baby, or finding an after hours doctor for a sick baby, you name it.
During the lockdown, fathers everywhere have gotten up close and personal with child caring and, I hope, have a deeper appreciation for what’s involved, and how joyful it can be. I loved my time at home with Aila so much that when we had our baby boy, Luke, I took three months again, and relished every second of the happy and hard times that came with it. If I could hop in a DeLorean and take that time again, I would in a heartbeat.
Rob Sturrock is a working father of two, advocate and author of Man Raises Boy: A revolutionary approach for fathers who want to raise kind, confident and happy sons out now with Allen & Unwin.