Long before our little girl was anything more than a beautiful notion, my husband and I agreed that he would take the lead on childcare in the first year. At the time, this would have meant him leaving his job but for a whole host of reasons, this was the right thing for us.
And then, something magical happened: the law changed and Shared Parental Leave was introduced. The timing couldn’t have been better, and not only would my husband be able to remain in his job he would be able to receive statutory maternity pay for the period he was taking care of the baby.
Excitedly, we made plans. And we shared our plans, to varying responses. Some people thought what we were doing was great, others were incredulous. ‘Really? You’re going back that soon?’ I was asked. And: ‘You’ll change your mind,’ others prophesised.
We didn’t. Our beautiful daughter was born and we were engulfed in a tidal wave of all consuming adoration. And, of course, anxiety; here was the most precious person in the world and we were responsible for her. It was the biggest task we had ever been given.
We learnt together how to look after her. There were tears – mine, mostly – and fears but each day got a little bit easier than the one before. The worries were still there, and I would often feel teary and overwhelmed.
Including on the day I went back to work. As, I’m sure any new parent does. Thank goodness then for the unstinting support of my husband, my little girl’s adoring and brilliant father who was at home taking care of her. With him in our corner, taking care of baby, I could return to work with confidence if not without that ache in my heart at the start.
But, even if we thought we had things sussed, even if our plan was panning out as we had hoped, what made me wobble were the frequent, shocked, ‘you’re-doing-what?’ comments. Unlike pre-baby, when I was far more together and far less vulnerable, these really bothered me. Like, for example, the lady attending the first aid for babies class who was appalled when my husband told her that his daughter’s mummy was ‘at work.’ Or a baby group member of staff who told me ‘don’t worry, we’ll help daddy out.’ He doesn’t need help, I thought frustrated, and angry, he’s her father. There’s no-one better to look after our baby than him. And so often we would meet someone who would raise their eyebrows or make an ill thought-out comment when we told them that mummy was back at work and daddy was staying at home for a bit.
I know that I shouldn’t have let the views of a stranger bother me (and now, I would probably tell them to get stuffed!) but at the time I was fragile and fearful of letting my daughter down and privately I used to worry that maybe I was letting her down by not staying at home. Maybe I should be the one staying at home and my poor, knackered, frazzled husband be the one going out to work.
But of course, I carried on. Because ultimately I knew that we were doing the right thing for my amazing little family. And in my head, all the time I heard this phrase: ‘Why do we judge others for exercising the choices available to them?’
Now, a year on, I wouldn’t change a thing. Both my husband and I were fortunate enough to spend some special one-to-one time with our wonderful daughter. Both of us also got to experience the different worlds – the missing-baby-at-work life and the exhausting and bewildering childcare planet. And, we both have our own, special, lovely bonds with our girl.
Reflecting now though, I do have some thoughts. The law might have changed but mindsets still need to catch up. We are fortunate in this country to have choice around maternity/paternity leave and we should support and not judge anyone for the options they take. It is not my business if mothers and fathers stay at home, go to work, work part time, work full time, return to work after a fortnight or go back after a year. It’s their choice and more power to them.
And, fathers deserve respect and equality. They are just as capable of being a stay at home dad and looking after their offspring. Indeed, my husband is better than me at some parenting tasks; he is the one who always clips our daughter’s fingernails with a steady, tender hand which I just don’t have.
My daughter, of course, will never remember who looked after her in her first year. But I will tell her that we shared our care of her. And I will also tell her that she can do what on earth she wants with her life – she has choices and it is down to her to exercise those, regardless of what anyone says or thinks.