Parental leave

I’m not sure I’m going to be able to write this much when I return to work

Today is my mum’s 70th birthday. Seventy years seems almost impossible to me. I can still remember her in her late 30s, the age I am now, walking me to school across a sports field on one of my first days at Terrace Primary. After she had said goodbye, just outside the gate, I turned back multiple times, as five-year-olds must, watching her recede into the distance, excited for school but wondering if I’d be okay without her. She turned back, too, to wave goodbye one last time, multiple times, as parents must. 

Seven years later, on that same part of the sports field, one of my two older brothers was electrocuted and killed in a freak accident. It involved an irrigator that had been anchored into some long-forgotten live wires. He was fourteen years old. 

It was terrible for me, a life-shaping event. I lost my brother, my role model, forever. But now, as a father, I know that my parents’ grief must have been on another level. I’m two years older than Mum was when she walked me to school for those first days at the Terrace, and I have two sons: one almost three; one four weeks. The thought of losing either of them, at any time, in any circumstance, is unbearable. When I was a young teenager, I found a journal Mum had kept during her time in a resilience-building adventure program a few months before my brother’s death. In an exercise where the participants were asked to report their biggest fears, she had written, with the worst-possible prescience: “Losing one of my kids.” It’s a fear to which I can now relate. 

I’ve been on paternity leave for the last four weeks. Our beautiful crisis-baby is growing plump and gurgley. He is intensely dependent on his mother, and she has been doing a wonderful job in challenging circumstances. The baby doesn’t notice there’s a lockdown. He’s not aware that a mother can usually rely on a little more support during a time like this. His demands of his mother never cease; his needs pay no attention to the clock. 

The first few weeks of a baby’s life can be gruelling for the parents, and that has been true for us, and Steph especially. But these are the weeks that fuse the bond tight. You fight through it, sleeplessly, together, and come out the other side as a family.

The lockdown has meant that our older boy’s daycare has been closed. In a way, the timing has worked out. I’ve been able to use my paternity leave to focus full-time on him while Steph takes care of the baby. There have been many frustrating moments: tantrums, interrupted sleep, the missing of friends. Steph and I have both at times been desperate for a break, for daycare to restart just for a day, or to sneak onto a playground for a furtive swing and slide. I have sometimes found myself agitated by the urge to return to work. Even now, I can hear through my older son’s closed bedroom door the refuse-to-go-to-sleep cries of the baby boy, who protests loudly if there’s no boob at his immediate disposal. Meanwhile, the older boy has trained me into remaining by his bedside until he drifts off, a process that usually takes more than an hour, which is why I presently have time to punch these words into my phone. 

In our weak moments, it has been tempting to feel sorry for ourselves. But we have it so, so good. Our boys are healthy and full of spirit. The baby boy is going to break into his first smile soon. The almost-three-year-old is a genuine joy to be around and has handled the family expansion with grace. We have a roof over our heads, and a back yard, and so far we have been spared the worst ravages of Coronavirus and its associated crises. 

What I’m most grateful for, though, is this unexpected period of togetherness, where for these locked-down weeks we have been given no task other than to deluge each other with attention so that in its absorption it can be translated into a love that binds a family. The flip side of parental leave is parental attendance. This has been a good way to spend it.

We did a group video call with my family in New Zealand to celebrate Mum’s birthday. My oldest brother, his wife, and their three kids, were calling from Dunedin. My mother and father were at home in Alexandra. Some of the lighting was off, sometimes the audio was wonky, and thousands of miles separated us. But the social distance was obliterated by the warmth and love on the call, three generations in the making. Separate but together.

Near the end of the call, my brother’s seven-year-old son, the oldest child, read a message he had written to his grandmother in a homemade card. He had been waiting patiently for the opportunity. “Thank you for being kind to me,” he said “... and buying me lots of nice things.”  

It was a moment fitting of 70 years of hard work forging families. Now that I’m a parent, I can think of no honor higher than a love like that. I imagine I will look back on that moment as often as I recall that first trip through the school gates on my own.