According to a 2012 National Compensation Survey, just 12 percent of U.S. employees have access to paid leave to care for a newborn. That is shameful and infuriating and indicative of how much power workers have ceded to their employers over the last three decades. Parental leave, even among Working Mother’s top 100 family-friendly companies, remains a rarity. Just 14 percent of employers on their list offer up to eight weeks paid maternity. Far fewer — 2 percent — extend the same opportunity to fathers.
I am the 2 percent. I’m extraordinarily fortunate to work for a company that treats work-life balance as more than a platitude, so for the last six weeks I’ve spent every morning, afternoon and early evening alone with my six-month-old daughter. Like watching Fifty Shades of Grey with your significant other, the experience has been equal parts joyful and exasperating. Over the last month and a half I’ve measured fun and frustration in equal quantities, worked as hard and acted as lazy as I ever have in my life, and spent more time at Babies R’ Us than an aspiring pedophile.
Here’s my advice for any of you lucky/cursed enough to travel a similar path:
1. Draft a list of everything you want to accomplish during your leave: binge-watch Breaking Bad, powerwash the deck, shower once a week, whatever. Print that list on big thick posterboard paper. Roll the printout into a tight tube, securing both ends with industrial strength duct tape. Then, pay a sullen teenager fifty bucks to beat you senseless with it. Paternity leave is the least productive eight hours you’ll ever spend at your house outside the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Every free moment is dedicated to maintaining the status quo. “I think I’ll start a new book today.” Get fucked. You’ll do dishes and run errands and fold laundry and put away toys so that at 7 pm your home doesn’t look like Carcosa. Accomplishing anything beyond chores is fantasy.
2. Being home all day creates the illusion of relaxation. You’ve traded a suit for sweatpants. Your warm, inviting bed is always a few yards away. But you’ll almost never have a chance to sleep there while the sun is still up, because the small human eating her feet on the activity mat requires endless attention. That’s one reason I function better at work. Naps and television aren’t options at most (non-union) offices. Once you accept that rest isn’t forthcoming, your brain compensates to let you focus on the tasks at hand. At home, it sees a couch and blanket and immediately shuts down cognitive function.
3. Whether or not to drink coffee in the morning becomes a “Do we drop the bomb on Hiroshima?”-level decision each day. On the one hand, coffee is delicious brown crack that napalms the cobwebs clogging your cerebellum and injects precious energy into a body running on dangerously minimal rest. Give in to Juan Valdez, though, and can’t catch a nap when the kiddo falls asleep for the first time. It’s a real Folgers choice.
4. I almost always opt for java, because as I mentioned earlier, it’s frustratingly difficult to nap, anyway. My wife is a master napper. She can reach REM sleep within seconds of putting our daughter down. People have won America’s Got Talent with lesser skills. I take much longer to decompress. During the first couple weeks I’d sit on the couch and read after getting the kiddo to sleep because it helped leaden my eyes. Unfortunately, this is a lengthy process. I’d near unconsciousness only to hear cries coming from the nursery. She’s like a malevolent Santa Claus — she knows when you are sleeping, and she SCREAMS LIKE A COKED-UP BANSHEE TO MAKE SURE YOU’RE AWAKE! It’s easier to just stay sentient.
5. More practical, too, since those aforementioned chores wait for no man. My initial and least favorite task is to clean the previous day’s dirty bottles. This is the worst. Baby bottles contain more parts than a Transformer. Each tiny piece needs scrubbed with these miniature brushes designed for Lilliputian chimney sweeps and rinsed under water hot enough to melt a T-1000. I am six and a half feet tall. I have large hands, hands designed by Jesus Leto to disembowel woolly mammoths and pound brick into ash. Asking those same hands to scrub crusty formula from the inside of a silicone nipple is tantamount to spitting in evolution’s face. The entire bottle-cleaning endeavor has scarred me enough that I now drink beer exclusively from cans.
6. Maintaining a semi-consistent workout regimen during your sabbatical is important. I knew I couldn’t go to the gym during the day, but my basement contains weights and a treadmill and I assumed her nap schedule would afford me enough time to at least break a sweat. Two problems with this: one, motivation is hard to come by when you’re perpetually exhausted.
Two: naps aren’t really a routine as much as they are loose suggestions. Sometimes she’ll sleep for three hours at a time. The next day, 40 minutes. Celebrities keep tighter schedules. Stop midway through a run to fetch a child crying in a nursery two floors away enough times and you eventually just throw in the towel. Try breaking your workouts into small chunks that you can complete throughout the day. Or just eat ice cream, instead.
7. You can at least watch TV, right? Sure, as long as it’s a series with no plot or dialogue or jokes or characters, because the inevitable interruptions for diaper changes and feedings and hooker payments make those types of shows impossible to follow. That leaves two options — educational children’s programming that enriches a developing mind, or daytime television, which I believe someone I used to masturbate to insists causes autism (I have a thing for the Making Copies guy, get over it). I selfishly chose the latter because Sesame Street is straight BORING, yo! Family Feud is your mid-afternoon huckleberry. Hyper-excited families delivering moronic answers to a mustached walrus in a three-piece suit will never fail to entertain.
Steve Harvey: “All right, Dumbass family, we need a word that begins with ‘cow.’”
Lunatic: “GONNA GO WITH A COWCULUS, STEEEEEEVVE!!”
/third X appears; Dumbass family is baffled their answer isn’t on the board
8. Don’t know if any of you future paternity leavers can sling words. If so, don’t trick yourself into thinking you can use your time away from the office to crank out the next mediocre American novel. I had grand dreams of becoming a prolific pop-culture writer. Turns out I’m actually less productive because I can’t work on posts during my lunch break or on down time like I do at the office. Also, I can’t just conjure words from thin air like I’m The Last Postbender. This stuff takes brainpower. And concentration. I can’t tell you how many times I thought up a perfect line or found a previously undiscovered angle to a popular story only to have it erased by a brain-scrambling shriek that disabled my synapses for 45 seconds and left me drooling like an invalid all over the dining room table.
9. Earlier, I presented a way for non-breeders to simulate paternity leave. There’s an alternative method: rent Cast Away. Raising an infant alone for 10 hours a day feels like being marooned on a desert island. You’re stuck in one place. You talk to inanimate objects. Your only companions are toys and a carbon-based lifeform that’s more animal than human. Mature, intellectually stimulating dialogue becomes as valuable as enriched uranium. My wife could walk in the door with two homeless crack addicts, announce she was late because the guy on her left took forever to finish the threesome, and I’d beg them all to stick around for dinner provided they promise to include me in an adult conversation.
10. You’ll start fantasizing about returning to work about halfway through your leave. My career is demanding and can involve long hours, but it’s rewarding in many ways. But it’s still a job with job-related stresses. That said, lengthy meetings and irrelevant conference calls become awfully appealing after three weeks of listening to a 12-cent speaker blare the same six nursery rhymes.
We’ve reached the point in a piece like this where the writer is obligated to admit that despite his numerous grievances, paternity leave is a transformative, richly rewarding experience he wouldn’t trade for 20 minutes alone with Kim Kardashian’s ass and a vat of Nutella. Absent this disclaimer, he just sounds like a selfish ungrateful penis.
You know what, though? I don’t need to peddle that bullshit. Paternity leave is extraordinary. Work keeps me two states away from my family for three weeks each month. It’s likely I won’t be present for my daughter’s first steps, or her first words, or the numerous other developmental milestones a child reaches in their first year. Come April, I’ll wave to her through a computer screen, try to make her giggle through a cell phone, and say goodnight from a hotel room 300 miles away. The time I enjoyed with her will help make this trying situation marginally bearable.
Yes, spending all day with a young human is challenging. You’ll develop love handles and trip over stuffed animals and drink before noon and use your baby voice infinitely more than your adult one. But it’s temporary, just like your child’s time as an infant. You can work off the excess weight later, catch up with pop culture later, focus on writing later. Nature lacks a pause button and only travels in one direction. Moments evaporate once they’ve slipped through the hourglass. The bonds formed and memories created during these six weeks will stay with me forever. Nothing I’ve “endured” during this time outweighs that.
Except maybe the bottles.
Fuck those bottles in their stupid bottle faces.