Paternity leave: a mother’s perspective

Having our children’s father at home for six months following the birth of our third child has been a transformative experience for the whole family.

When I had our first two children Ben was working 12+ hours in London. So I was working all day and most of the night looking after a baby and a three year old. I’ve only just recovered (mostly). I loved our children. Their babyhoods were all the oxymorons. Delighted horror. Terrifying loveliness. Wakeful oblivion. Companied loneliness.

This time I’ve been able to enjoy our baby and our older children in a way that was not possible without my husband at home, and it has been possible for our older children to enjoy it too, without the same feelings of jealousy and conflict. I’m sure the age gap helps with that (the older two are 9 and 6) but mostly it’s because they haven’t had to give up the care of a parent because there’s always a parent who can be available.

Something that has been interesting from my perspective has been the comments other mothers have made to me about having Ben at home all the time. One or two get it, realise how much it helps the family balance, the extent to which it protects my health and mental wellbeing . Most wonder what Ben will be doing, despite having been trying to do all the things motherhood involves on their own once their husbands are back at work (typically after a couple of weeks) and knowing how heavy that burden is. A few suppose it will be rather annoying, as though he will be getting under my feet while I continue to do everything. I’ve never managed to do everything and I’m not convinced they have either.

But here is the biggest problem that I perceive with this way of thinking: the implication is that I could and maybe should be doing everything as far as our home is concerned. But it isn’t my home. It’s our home and we are in this together. The implication is that this isn’t Ben’s home as much as it is mine, that he is some kind of interloper and I’m the one at the centre of this family. That’s not the best way for any family to function. It’s resulted in some (not very) amusing comedy about dads not knowing how to care for children which is nonsense. But it’s also resulted in a society where men are pushed out while we decry the sad lack of male role models and where mothers feel constantly guilty for not managing an unmanageable burden.

Certainly in our family my husband doesn’t want me to bear that burden and I don’t want him to be pushed to the side of our family. Here we walk together. Except when he carries me over the deepest puddles.

Back Story

 

16.02.18
There is a back story. Five years ago we moved from Kent to a village near Solihull. There were lots of good reasons for our move and we committed ourselves to this new place. We are very grateful for the good things here, especially an extraordinary amount of help during my pregnancy. In many ways it doesn’t suit us but we thought it would be a good place for our children. It has been.

Jonny Duddle describes a place that always makes me think of this village in his book The Pirates Nextdoor: “The cars were washed, the lawns were mowed, the hedges trimmed and neat”. We are not neat, and we don’t ever wash the car. They don’t like our wood pile here. We don’t fit. We had thought we would stick with it until the children finish school, then move nearer to our church in Walsall, and into the countryside (these aims are in direct opposition but we feel like we’ve found the right compromise).

Then on the 8th February 2017 the mystery of the missing period was solved and a blue line appeared on the testing stick. This was a very Great Shock. This baby seemed almost immaculately conceived. Almost. It seemed impossible, not least because for so many it is such a long struggle. Here I will be honest but first I will say, I am sorry.

I didn’t want a baby. At all. Not in any way. Throughout my sick and painful pregnancy people told me it would be worth it. I didn’t believe them. The hardest thing was knowing of all the people who desperately wanted this blessing. Who had waited years and been through terrible ordeals and who would make wonderful parents. And we were given a blessing that at that time we didn’t want.

I was wrong. Utterly, completely, absolutely wrong. Birch is beautiful and precious and I had forgotten the amazing feeling that it is to find you love a new person completely and wholly. And he doesn’t mind how much I kiss him. In fact he thinks that’s pretty funny. He brings the big children together and distracts them from arguing with each other. He is marvelous.

His birth changed everything. We live in a three bed semi which has never been something we dreamed of. It is fine and we are grateful. It is not a good fit for our family of five and staying in a place that we do not fit into for an extra six years seemed like a daunting prospect. We could buy a bigger house here but we both quailed at the thought of a bigger mortgage on a house that makes us feel like square pegs in round holes.

So it is to Birch that we owe this adventure. Ben works for Automattic, makers of WordPress and was given six months paternity leave. It is an amazing and extraordinary company. I’ll write a bit about paternity leave next, but this time has given us an opportunity to make plans.

We made the decision to move over Christmas, partly because we saw a house we really liked which was subsequently sold. We were three days too slow selling our house. I am glad of that now. We thought the plot of land we have bought had sold but it came back on the market.

Instead of trimmed and neat we will have mud on our hands and wind in our hair. And no holes to squeeze ourselves into in order to fit.

Don’t drop your phone down the toilet

13.02.18
Staffordshire County Council have a pre-application service which involves submitting your plans and ideas, letting them glimpse the dream. They respond with information about what in your plans would result in a failed planning application. It’s a chance for them to stomp on the dream, or to understand what it is you want to do and help you through the planning application. The latter is what they intend, the former will not be our experience I hope.
Ben submitted our pre-planning application yesterday so they now have 21 days to respond. We were hoping it wouldn’t be 21 days until we heard about the offer we had made on the land.

Around 9.30am Ben dropped his phone in the toilet. He retrieved it without weeing on it but spent the next twenty minutes trying to charge up an old phone to receive any incoming calls. It worked only well enough for him to know he was receiving a call from the estate agent. Fortunately my phone has not spent time in the toilet yet. The answer was yes, offer accepted. I knew from the thundering feet running down the stairs (our phone signal is only reliable upstairs. And this isn’t a self build), and then I really knew from the smile, the kiss and dancing light in his eyes and the words. Yes, this is really happening.

In the calm of the evening in front of the fire Ben and I had an important conversation. He opened with “thank you for letting me do this”. I’m not letting him do this. This is an adventure we are going on together because we both want to and we think it will be good for us and our children. Ben has been the one to drive and nurture the dream and to see the opportunity when it arose. I’m more one to float downstream. I’m not strong enough to swim against the current except in his wake. Being with Ben means I can go to places I couldn’t get to on my own. Many of those places have been beautiful. The place we are heading to is going to be beautiful. I expect that the water will almost all be turbulent on the way but the journey will be together and the destination is going to be our own.

I wonder what would happen if you dropped a phone down a compost toilet.

A beginning

There had always been the dream of buying land I think. At 16 our young selves may have only seen the romance. Now we are looking at it with mud on our hands. Either this will be the story of a dream come true or a salutary tale of dreams left in tatters and a family starting all over again having lost more than the vision. At this point our feelings are mixed given the extent of the opposition of the potential outcomes.

We saw the land today. It is right where we want to be and it is big. It would be just the place for a little log cabin and some children, wild and free. It was cold and windy too. This is not all going to be idyllic.

Already there are lots of phone calls to have. Excited log cabin companies hoping for some big business. A much more pessimistic conveyor casting doubt on whether we will be able to get a mortgage for the land. We don’t need a huge amount so a personal loan is another option but we had been told a mortgage would be fine. Someone saying otherwise seems like the first example of the doubt and cold water that I’m sure will be coming our way. It seems like books and fairy tales say to hold on to the dream, suffer courageously and then enjoy the rewards of the hardship endured. My head wonders if another possibility is that you keep going at your peril. That would make a more entertaining story except for those writing it.