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“Clean your plate.”
“Because there are starving kids in Africa.”
This was routine dialogue in my house growing up. My mom, in classic Catholic guilt fashion, thought that my brothers and I needed to finish our meals because other people in the world weren’t as fortunate. It wasn’t like the food I didn’t eat could get put in a Fed Ex box and ship it half-way across the world. It took till I reach adulthood to recognize the flawed nature in her attempt at persuasion. Funny enough, I cannot help but think of this as I begin my return back from a company approved month long paternity leave.
I struggled with accepting a full month off. It is a new policy and I am the first in my office to take advantage of it. It didn’t help that my daughter’s due date coincided with a large event we were producing. I couldn’t stop feeling like I was leaving my colleagues in the lurch. My team was unconditionally supportive however; kicking me off of email chains, redirecting client attention their way and letting me have a truly focused window of time with my family.
As it happened, Verona (Rona for short) was breech, and starting to drop behind on her growth around week 35. On our doctor’s advice, we made the decision to give her an early eviction notice. So on July 5, my wife and I went to the hospital to have our second child 3 weeks earlier than planned. Oh, yeah, did I forget to mention that we have a 2-year-old, and moved into a new house at the end of May to make room for our impatient little girl? Might was well make everything as hectic as can be.
When my wife, April, gave birth to our first child, Fox, there were some minor complications that caused her to not fully deliver the placenta. It took several weeks for the doctors to notice this problem and when they finally resolved the issue with a minor surgery (DNC), the procedure also caused a full blown uterine infection. Life was hard in our house for the first month of Fox’s life. Not only we were first time parents, disinfecting door knobs and finding the most organic sunscreen money can buy, but due to the delivery issues, my wife, who was determined to breastfeed, struggled with milk supply — a problem that had ripple effects, physically and emotionally, that lasted through his entire first year.
After our families left and it was just the 4 of us, I was still there.
For Fox’s birth, I worked off of the paternity leave that most men have – vacation days. I used up the 2 weeks of vacation given. While I was grateful for that time, it feels like, in retrospect, a grain of sand in the hourglass. After 2-3 days in the hospital, a week with visiting parents and other family, we had a couple days to ourselves to find out what our new normal might look like. And just when we might have had a routine down, off I went, back to work, leaving my ailing wife and a newborn to find themselves a new pattern.
This time was different. Rona was no less difficult at first. Though we avoided any major post-delivery issues, Rona had to be delivered via c-section, and my wife again struggled with milk production – luckily this time only for the first few weeks. Haunted by her past issues, she was hyper concerned, but I was there. After our families left and it was just the 4 of us, I was still there. I was there to take our son to daycare, I was there to run errands, I was there to clean the house, and I was there make dinner while she fed our newborn. I was able to do everything that a doting dad wants to do for his family in such a transitional period in our life. Sure, it felt like there was a somewhat low ceiling for what I could do for Rona (“I have nipples Greg, can you milk me?”), but as my wife would jovially say to friends and family, “I take care of Rona, and Christian takes care of Fox and me.”
Having a soft runway back to work made me welcome the return to the office. Before the leave, I was dealing with a serious bout of professional fatigue, juggling all the needs of my soon-to be growing family and a demanding gig. But by the last week of my time off, I looked at my work with a renewed set of eyes. I was able to make sure my family was set – Rona was on a good schedule, Fox was adjusting nicely to his baby sister and April was feeling confident in her maternity leave. Compare that to 2 years earlier, when the end of leave was more like ripping off of a band-aid, where I was being pulled from my family to go back to work. All because of just a few more weeks.
So back to the starving kids in Africa. The initial reluctance to accept the full time off wasn’t eroded by the “You’ll never get this time back” argument, which I did think about. The truth is, I want my company’s leave policy to not be the exception to the rule. It should be the norm — the minimum, even. And just like my dad’s generation, who demanded to be in the delivery room, I want America to take steps forward in giving fathers permission to truly be there for their family. It is not career versus family, but career for family. And just like that dinner when I was a kid, I couldn’t give that time to the millions of dads who need it but by me using it, it meant that hopefully in some way, I made sure that time didn’t go to waste.
Christian Henderson is a husband and father of 2.