How much time off should new dads take?

You've told your family and your mates all know… now it's time to talk to your boss.

Dad Newborn paternity leave

The first year of fatherhood is a bit like being invited to take part in a tennis tournament — one that everyone’s very excited about — and discovering that you’re going to be a ball boy. Sure, you get an excellent view of all the action, but your job is mainly to stand in the corner and be unobtrusive.

Occasionally you’ll be allowed to hold a dirty towel. If you’re unlucky, someone might spit on you, or shout at you, suggesting that everything currently going wrong is your fault. Your mother-in-law, meanwhile, is effectively the chair umpire, lording it over you with rules and wisdom — get used to it.

I’ll give you that ball boys rarely get urinated on, although vomit isn’t out of the question, and given Nick Kyrgios’s continued presence on the circuit, anything’s possible.

In short, considering what a thankless and largely anonymous task those early days of dad-hood can be, it’s hardly surprising that previous generations of men were quite happy to just keep working right through the first year, with the goal being to get home late enough that bub’s already asleep and the dirty toweling all washed.

I had such an old-gen boss that when I asked him about paternity leave he had to ask me what it was!

When I explained, he laughed long and loud, and then kindly enquired whether I had sand in my vagina or a twist in my knickers?

ASking your employer for paternity leave

I should explain that I worked at a tabloid newspaper at the time, an environment so frozen in aspic and boomingly blokey that “bloody sheilas” were generally frowned upon, unless they were on page three with their tops off.

My benevolent boss, who had two — or was it three? he couldn’t remember — “rug rats” of his own advised me that taking time off in your child’s first year of life was a waste of time, “cause, you don’t have tits so you don’t matter” and baby-rearing was sheila’s work anyway.

“Wait until he’s two or three, then they’re actually fun to play with, take some time then,” he advised, perhaps suspecting that I would have run a mile from his workplace by then.

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We eventually agreed on one week, which had to come out of my holidays because paternity leave wasn’t a legal requirement back then. It is now, of course, with the Government providing two weeks of Dad and Partner Pay for blokes with a newborn (you can read all about it here).

But is two weeks enough for dads to bond with their newborns? Or is it just some arbitrary figure policy makers plucked out of their backsides?

I’m leaning toward the latter… and here’s why.

Those first few weeks matter a lot

Those first few weeks after bub arrives are not only integral to establishing the dad-baby bond, but they also give you a chance to hone your new dad skills and build up your confidence.

The research shows that dads who take a decent chunk of leave immediately after the birth are more ‘hands on’ in the months and years that follow, as well as more satisfied with their relationship with their children as they grow.

Studies also show that the more time dads spend with their mewling balls of joy, the better it is for the baby’s development.

According to Dr Lin Day, the founder of Baby Sensory development classes, babies who’ve had beneficial paternal interactions get on better with their peers in later life.

“They’re academically more successful, stay in school longer, use drugs and alcohol less frequently and are less likely to get involved with crime,” Dr Day adds. “They may also be better equipped socially and psychologically than infants who receive very little attention from their fathers.”

You won’t want to miss a thing

There’s something incredibly fascinating about those first few weeks, gazing upon this perfectly formed, implausibly small and impossibly pink little human that you have just created. I found I could just stare at my son for hours, particularly if he was asleep and not screaming.

There’s also something so very satisfying, in a cave-man way, about holding them on your chest and letting them fall asleep on you while they subconsciously take in your scent as one that represents safe haven.

Dad bonding with baby sleeping on his chest

Most dads I know took one or two weeks off after the birth, and then when it came time to go back, wished they’d taken more. So, my advice to any first time dads-to-be out there is this: take as much time as you can hustle from your boss, factoring in what you can financially afford.

Trust me, you’ll miss plenty of wonderful moments in your kids’ lives by being at work, so don’t miss those first ones if you can avoid it.

She may need you more than you realise

The other reason you might need more time is that you may need to do the heavy lifting around the house, literally.

I was fortunate enough that my wife had a natural birth (“fortunate” might not be the word she’d use), but in the one in three cases in Australia where a Caesarean is called for, your beloved and frankly very brave better half might be left largely immobilised for some time.

Although it’s now so common we’ve given it a snappy nickname that sounds like a jazz band, a C-section is serious surgery and the stomach muscles that have been cut through need time to heal. This can leave new mums unable to lift things or do much bending over for several weeks, in which case you’ll be doing all the ball-boy work, and more.

Many dad mates of mine failed to plan for this eventuality, and found themselves suddenly scrambling to extend their leave and cover their bases at work. If you’ve got close family around, they can be a huge help, but if not you really need to plan for what you would do in this scenario.

Back to your boss

Having a baby is always, always more work than you anticipated. Try to imagine being told you’ll have to dig a trench and then being handed a teaspoon, and then discovering that the ground you’re trying to dig through is all granite and you’re not allowed to sleep until it’s finished.

An understanding employer will hopefully be flexible if you need more time. And while most still have a long way to go, an increasing number of Australian employers are offering semi-decent paid paternity packages, above and beyond the measly two weeks at minimum wage provided by the government.

My employer on the other hand, was — not surprisingly — not so understanding. He actually shouted at me over the phone when I rang to tell him that my wife had gone into labour three weeks early and, after 11 hours of huffing, puffing and attempting to shatter all the bones in my hands, had finally given birth.

He asked why I hadn’t filled a form in requesting the day off and when I pointed out that we hadn’t planned for the baby to arrive a few weeks before his due date, he suggested I should go far away and procreate, so I hung up on him.

I would have been upset, but luckily I was floating a few feet above the ground at the time, in a bubble of new-born-baby-bonding, and just the slightest cloud of nitrous oxide.

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