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Paternity leave will unsex your life
And I mean that in the best way possible 😉
Last week, I came across a poem that a new mother wrote at 4 a.m. in the morning, as a message for her baby to read once she grows up.
The poem is titled “Daddy’s Asleep”. From that alone, every mother reading this already knows what it will say.
Non-mothers, read on:
I love your daddy, I really do,
After all, without daddy, I wouldn’t have you.
But from midnight till sunrise, it’s just you and I.
And as each hour passes, I’m not gonna lie:
Mommy’s love slowly fades, becomes angry and weak,
Because no matter what, your dad is f*cking asleep!
It all starts out lovely. We kiss each other goodnight.
We look lovingly down at you dear, such a beautiful sight.
An hour later, mommy wakes with a start.
You’re twisting and turning, you’re starting to fart.
You’re gesturing for food. Mommy is there
with a bottle or breast
Daddy is snoring away, the way he knows best.
Mommy burps you, and holds you and rocks you with care.
You spew foul smelling yogurt on mommy’s freshly washed hair.
As mommy changes her shirt, and mops vomit off the floor.
Your daddy farts, rolls over, and continues to snore.
Mommy’s maternal alarm goes off, it’s not even three!
You’re stirring again, you’re hungry and staring at me!
“I think she is hungry” your daddy offers, pulls duvet over his head,
Mommy sends him a death stare and rolls out of bed.
Mommy comes back, tired and drained and what is this I see?
Your daddy has taken over my side, doesn’t give a f*ck about me!
Mommy kicks him and pushes him angrily away.
“What’s up love?” He moans in a lovingly way.
Your daddy has no clue he is under attack.
He wraps his arms around me and kisses my back.
And just as my love for daddy is back on the rise,
You start to coo in your crib and open your eyes.
And daddy gently nudges me to attend to your need.
I give him the finger as I prepare for a feed.
But as the sun starts rising, the slate is wiped clear.
I’m back to full love for your daddy and for you my dear.
I forget that daddy sleeps while you cry and you poo.
It’s back to kissing and hugging and doting on you.
Soon you’ll grow up and be daddy’s little girl.
You’ll not remember me cleaning up sh*t and vomit hurl.
Whilst you sit on his lap and he sings you a song,
You’ll love him and think daddy could do nothing wrong.
But my sweet love, here is a poem for you to keep,
So you know that all those long nights, dad was f*cking asleep.
The post has gone viral because the visual of the dad snoring away through the night shift is so universally relatable for mothers.
To be fair, at least one of the reasons why Daddy is asleep is because he probably has to go to work the next morning. Mommy has to stand the midnight vigil because she probably got a longer maternity leave from work, or had to take unpaid leave / quit her job to take care of the baby.
In most cases, this translates into the mother's career taking a hit which she might or might not recover from, ever.
This also means that the father's role in raising the child gets limited early on - a trend that most parents end up consciously or subconsciously maintaining for the kid's entire childhood. It is why most people connect more with Mom than Dad well into adulthood.
It all begins with that all-important question from the first few days of the child's life:
Did Daddy take time off from work?
In the case of most Indian dads, the answer is a resounding NO. Sample this:
But why is it that Indian Dads are unable or unwilling to take time off from work even to spend this crucial period with their wife and new baby?
And why is it important to do it at all?
“When is this guy coming back? Is his kid 11 already?”
Damini says that though her company has a policy of four months of paternity leave, people have an "incredibly myopic and disrespectful" attitude towards fathers who availed the full leave.
"Behind their backs, I have heard colleagues talk about how certain male colleagues were on 'holiday' and they were sure that their wives were still doing the heavy lifting. People completely fail to acknowledge that a father’s role in the initial years is as important as the mother’s."
Damini recalls many male colleagues who came back from their leaves feeling apologetic about their absence, rather than proud of the time that they took for caregiving. The toxic atmosphere in the company perpetuates this guilt.
"In a large team meeting, someone mentioned this person who was on paternity leave came up and the manager said, 'When is this guy coming back? Is his kid 11 already?' None of us in the meeting were amused."
Damini has also noticed a significant difference among the reception that moms and dads get after returning from parental leave.
"With dads, the conversation about the baby is often a small footnote below all the other questions about what they did during the break. Whereas moms are asked so many questions about the baby - probably not enough about how the Mom herself is doing!"
What being a Dad entails
Amit's employer gives two weeks off to new dads. When he decided to take time off for his new baby, he found himself at the receiving end of comments and jibes.
"Both friends and family would comment that I am doing a 'woman’s' job. That I am ‘too involved’. My response to them was: 'I want to be involved. Being with my baby is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me to experience.' This is when they backed off."
Amit thinks that the very fact that he is expected to explain his involvement in raising his own child, reflects a lack of involvement from the men who make such comments.
"Changing a nappy, for example. They think a man shouldn't do it. Bathing the child. Dressing the child. Feeding. These are all tasks 'for the woman to do'."
Amit's wife is often made the target of such pearls of wisdom too.
"Someone made a jibe at my wife for needing her 'husband's help' to do 'her job' i.e. caring for our baby. For me, the concept is simple. It is my child. I want to be a part of every aspect of raising my child that I can."
Amit thinks that his conception of 'what being a dad entails' began in the labour room itself.
"My experience in the birth room taught me that women have to go through a lot. A lot. Men have it easy. So this is my way of stepping up to do whatever little I can."
“You will understand at the time of appraisal”
Gayatri's first child was born in 2014 when paternity leave as a concept was non-existent in her husband's company.
"New dads were given just a one-week paid leave at the time. My husband, Hiren, was among the first people in the company to take it. After the birth, I had severe postpartum depression and needed Hiren by my side. But he had to go back to work, which left me at the mercy of my very judgemental and unsupportive mother-in-law.”
“I missed having him around. My mood would light up and I would be a changed person in the few hours he was home. But, he mentioned that he was being mocked by his colleagues for taking the paternity leave. They said thing like, 'Kaun leta hai yaar, company ko toh check box karna hai.' (Who actually takes Paternity Leave - the policy is only a box-ticking farce for the company!) They would also say, 'You will understand at the time of appraisal that you shouldn't have taken it.' Hearing such comments made my depression worse. I felt guilty for wanting him to take more time off when it would have a negative consequence on his job."
Unfortunately, the situation at home was no better.
"He was mocked by his own mother and sister for wanting to help with childcare. They would make jibes questioning his masculinity. They even went as far as suggesting that I was doing some witchcraft on him because it is not normal for a man to want to change nappies, and manage his baby."
By the time their second child was born in 2019, Hiren’s organization offered a one-month paid paternity leave, which could only be taken in one shot.
"Hiren was very clear that he wanted to take the whole first month off. He was leading a critical project and had started preparing his team 3-4 months in advance of the due date. He assigned who would do what in his absence. He told all stakeholders that he would not be checking work emails during this leave."
Five days after Gayatri's delivery, Hiren got a call from his office.
"They said he had to come in to make an important presentation to the client. He went and did it, but made clear that he was on leave and not to be disturbed again. When he joined back after a month, his boss lashed out at him, saying, 'How could you do this?! You knew how critical this project is for the company!' His stakeholders had more or less similar comments too, saying, 'Humein laga nahi tha ki tum pura month off loge' (We never thought you would actually take the whole month off). He quit the company after few months."
Incidentally, Gayatri worked for the same organization as Hiren during the birth of both their children.
"The same company gave me promotions both times I was on maternity leave taking into account my good performance in the remaining months of the year. The stark difference between how the same firm treated a man and a woman on parental leave was appalling."
“They didn’t know how to use the Paternity Leave”
Twelve years back, when Nitin's daughter was born, he worked at a startup that gave five days of paternity leave to new fathers.
"As an unwritten rule, nobody was expected to take even all of those five days off. On the day of my daughter’s birth, I remember receiving multiple work calls at the hospital all day. My work was not allocated to anyone else while I was on leave. I was just expected to manage it somehow. I returned to office on the fourth day to tackle the piling work at my desk."
In 2020, Nitin's new employer, an MNC recognized the gap in gender roles and the reality of same-sex parenthood. The firm proposed 20 weeks of paid leave (or higher if local laws required it) for fathers or mothers throughout all offices across the globe.
"Local leaders from all the regions were consulted for this. The rest of the world implemented 20 weeks of childcare leave for fathers. But, based on inputs from the India leadership, it was decided to offer only 10 weeks paid leave for Indian dads. The reasons that India gave were:
(1) there are rarely any same-sex parents in India;
(2) there is a large proportion of expectant fathers in 'Team India', so productivity will dip and costs will rise; and
(3) all the 20 weeks of paternity leave will be wasted as fathers don’t help in raising the children in India anyway."
To be clear, 20 weeks (or more) was on the table, and the Indian management chose to give Indian men only 10 weeks. Nitin expected a severe backlash from his male colleagues when the news broke in the office.
"I was scared of reactions from fellow Indian employees when the news was announced. I thought it will cause an uproar.
But, I was shocked to discover, that the men were more than happy to get 10 weeks. In fact, many commented that they didn’t know how to utilize even those 10 weeks."
“Unsexing” our lives
Did you know that moms working for the Government of India get six months of paid maternity leave right after the child is born or adopted, and two years of paid childcare leave at any time until the child turns 18? In contrast, sarkaari dads get a solid afterthought of 15 days of paternity leave.
So, Govt of India gives 6000% more paid parental leave to mothers than to fathers.
No surprise then, that when it comes to raising children, “Daddy's f*cking asleep” on the job.
And then there is our work culture. A recent global survey found that 57% men feel that exercising their parental leave right would be perceived as a lack of commitment to their jobs. Pretty sure this number would be much much higher for India. A friend recently told me she has a male colleague who took one year of unpaid leave to spend time with his baby daughter. She said that people at work still gossip about him as an example of what not to do with your career.
We work in a culture that celebrates absolute submission and devotion to the employer, and treats the essential task of caregiving as a weakness.
Even as a woman, I have been in jobs where - if I were seen leaving office at 6pm - I would be 'jokingly' asked by seniors if I was taking a half-day off.
What chance do men stand, then, especially in a culture that teaches them that their paycheck defines their masculinity?
And yet, paternity leave is a battle more than worth fighting for.
According to the US Department of Labor, ‘When fathers take paternity leave – especially when they take longer leaves – it can lead to better outcomes for their children and the whole family… increased father engagement and bonding… improved health and development outcomes for children… and reduced work-family conflict for fathers’.
And it is not just the dads and kids who stand to benefit.
In the words of Obama's Secretary of Labor, Tom Perez, “Fathers taking parental leave helps not just children but moms, too, by changing who changes the diapers and the whole culture around work and family.”
In fact, the positive effects go even beyond parents. They benefit literally everyone.
Forbes.com makes a strong case for compulsory paternity leave. The piece says that all women - even non-mothers - face ‘the motherhood penalty’ because their hiring and promotions are affected by the imagined possibility of them choosing motherhood at some point. And it even goes beyond cismen and ciswomen.
“If heterosexual cisgender women and men take parental leave in equal numbers, it will diminish the meaning of sex, because their roles, in family and then in work, will prove more similar. If cisgender women and men share both care and work responsibilities, the binary – the difference between the sexes – will come to mean less. In this sense, mandatory parental leave - for all sexes - will unsex our lives.”
"Unsexing" our lives - i.e. creating a world where all genders, sexes, and sexualities are treated equally and fairly - might or might not be achievable in our lifetimes. But it is certainly worth aspiring for.
And so, Founders - revisit your company's parental leave policy with this question - are you promoting equality between men and women at the workplace and at home? Or making things worse?
And dads - until your employers get their houses in order, only you can watch out for your own homes. Redefine what you think it means to be a dad.
Hint: It is not just breadwinning. It is also loving, building, and nurturing your family. You have a responsibility to take leaves from work in order to be true partners and parents in this exhausting, exhilarating, essential privilege that is raising children.
Time to wake up, Daddy.
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