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Lessons from paternity leave

Bonding with his son helped him understand his wife, parenting, Judaism, and the bigotry of low fatherly expectations

*Note: This post is about my personal experiences and is a separate discussion from the political question of mandatory Paternity Leave countrywide. That discussion has wide implications, separate from individuals who are already granted leave.

For the past four weeks, I was privileged to take time off to spend time with my son Leon. My wife and I staggered our leave so that I would take care of him as she went back to work. Having this time alone with my son during his fourth month of life taught me some truths I thought I would share. It’s easy to take care of a baby. The hard part is taking care of yourself at the same time.

Going into the month, I had big plans. I would take care of the baby, of course, but he naps, needs alone time and goes to sleep pretty early. I would study for my upcoming actuary exam. I would write up classes and sermons in advance. I would get back into reading. None of that really happened. Taking care of my son was absolutely fantastic, and I have no regrets about how I spent my time with him, but it was hard to accomplish other things. What I realized is that paternity leave was a lot like bringing a pile of books on a long plane ride.

It’s hard to understand why women on maternity leave sometimes struggle, until you try your hand at taking care of a baby. Compounded with the physical and emotional recovery that follows birth for most women, I gained a glimmer of understanding about why those first few months are so difficult.  I could deal with not eating lunch until 2 p.m. and prioritizing the needs of a fussy baby, but I didn’t have to worry about healing myself. I could forgo a nap, or some study time in a way my wife could not. We should appreciate and support new moms who not only have to take care of a baby, but have to tend to their personal healing as well.

Even in 2017, there’s a soft bigotry of low fatherly expectations.
So as not to get cabin fever, I made a distinct effort to go out with my son every day. What I noticed is subtle ways in which our society assumes fathers will be doing less than mothers. Not once did I have access to a changing table. While it isn’t the biggest deal (you can use a pad on the floor), it displays an attitude prevalent in our society. I got comments that wearing my son was a great way to keep warm, and the bunch of people told me it was so nice I was able to babysit. No, stranger, I am not babysitting, I am parenting. They didn’t like that. (Also, a baby sitting is supremely awkward and wobbly. I’d like to think I seemed more natural. #dadpuns)

Having time alone with your child changes your relationship with him/her, and with your spouse.

As a father, especially if your wife is breastfeeding, it is easy to feel like a secondary parent. Since the mother spends much more time with the baby, they are given chances to learn both how to be a parent and how to parent this specific child. Fathers are largely not given that chance. As such, it is easy to have a cycle where the mother is the more competent parent, leading her to take care of the child more frequently, which making her the increasingly competent parent. The father never learns and the mother starts to not trust the father’s decisions. The month of paternity leave gave me the chance to break that cycle. Sure, I made some mistakes during the month, but I learned from them and saw myself as someone who can care for my son independently. Perhaps more importantly, my wife did too.

Getting a chunk of time with a baby when he’s young basically ensures you will get to see milestones.

Children really grow up so fast. I know that sounds silly as the father of a 4-month-old, but it’s true. During the month I saw him roll over for the first time. That was particularly hilarious, because at the time I dressed him in a turtle outfit and he was in pizza box to take pictures. (The turtle rolling to his back was particularly hilarious.) He went from barely being able to recognize people to smiling at me every time he saw me. By the end of the month, he started giggling. My most memorable moment was when he grabbed something for the first time. That something happened to be my finger. I saw it blow his mind, as if he couldn’t believe that he could do that. If he ever reads this later on in life, I hope he knows that he always can grab the first thing he ever did.

Not being obligated in time-bound commandments in Judaism made real sense to me for the first time.

While on leave, it was sometimes really hard or even impossible to fulfill my religious responsibilities. There were the times I forgot to pray or even lay my tefillin. The times didn’t say Shema on time because I was with my child. Re #1, taking care of children is time consuming, and sometimes time bound responsibilities are not feasible. I see this in my community in Brooklyn; where fathers are far more involved in their children’s lives, there is also a decrease in regular attendance at various obligatory functions, most specifically Friday night prayers. I understand the cognitive dissonance between this one and the others, and I don’t really have an answer for that. However, if, as religious Jews, we want to create a community based on obligations, it makes sense that one parent is obligated while the other is not.

If you have the opportunity to spend time with your children and you think work is more important, it’s not. The month was probably the best of my life and I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. I don’t know if it will affect my career (I don’t think it will), but I honestly don’t even care.

About the Author
Sam and his wife, Hannah, recently moved to Crown Heights when he became the Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Kol Israel (CKI) in Prospect Heights. Sam received his ordination from Yeshiva University where he also received his MA in Philosophy, and BA in Mathematics. During the week, Sam works for Prudential as an actuary, and makes too many puns for his wife's well being.
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