Scandinavia is big on equality, and as a new father I was given the option of ten weeks fully paid paternity leave. Not only did this make financial sense, it was also a fantastic opportunity for me to bond with my daughter. So for the last two months, my wife has been back to work during the day while I took care of Lily, now almost one year old.
It has arguably been the best time of my life, and as the time draws to an end, I can now reflect on some lessons learned from the experience. I do hope others will follow in my footsteps and prioritize time spent with their families, however their setup may be.
1. Be prepared for lots of work
Caring for a toddler is essentially hard work. Every mother knows this. Between meals, diaper changes, attempted naps, and more, precious sleeping time is usually spent doing minor chores like showering or cleaning, which doesn’t leave much time for relaxing. Most of the time I’ve been more exhausted doing this than I was working full time. Hats off to every stay-at-home mother!
2. Get some more patience, quickly
Communication is difficult with someone who can’t talk. Sometimes she just doesn’t want the food you’ve prepared, but has no way of telling you what’s wrong. It’s easy to make a scene, much harder to take a deep breath and try again, with love. Or when she can’t sleep, again, frustration comes easy. At times I’ve felt tempted to quote former BP boss Tony Hayward’s famous last words: “I’d like my life back.” I do hope my patience has improved, but I have yet to master it fully.
3. Cherish the little things
Being there with your child all day puts you in the first row of her rapid development. There may not be deep conversations, but watching her grow, learn new things, explore the world, and express her awe at everyday experiences is a treasure, and something that doesn’t come again.
4. Expect the unexpected
Once you think you’ve gotten the hang of things, they change again. Eating habits finally mastered – and then she wants to do it herself. House secured of dangerous items – and then she reaches up a further 10 centimeters, and you have to start all over. Finally into a good sleeping pattern – and then she falls ill for a few days, with ripple-effects lasting for weeks. Thus is the experience of early childhood, I guess.
5. Take one day at a time
I knew in advance that this was not the time to get started on writing that book. You do have spare time, yes, but you never know how much. So big projects are difficult, but I did find the time for smaller projects such as baby-proofing the home, sorting photos, baking bread regularly, or garden-work. The point is to be in the moment, enjoy the time spent together, and purposely not worry too about missed deadlines.
6. Your priorities will change
I tend to adapt to whatever environment I’m in, be it work or home, and focus on the task at hand. After these weeks at home you might say I’ve become more ‘domesticated’, though. I will go back to work, and of course give it my best effort, but I will also do so with a deeper understanding that while a career can be a good thing, it is not everything. I will miss my little girl even more than I did before, and do whatever I can to master the work/life balance.
7. This is the most important investment you can make
There is no alternative to time, and the time spent with your child is a crucial part of the relationship between you. As such, I have been given the blessing of time these past weeks, and my bond with Lily is stronger for it. Being alone with her has given me a confidence in handling her which wouldn’t have come otherwise. So while it has been tough at times, her smiles and laughter, hugs and kisses, and witnessing her development first-hand, has more than made up for the challenges. Would I do it again, if given the chance? Yes! Wholeheartedly, yes.