Canberra Dad - tales from the front line of new parenthood

It’s one of those loaded questions. Do you go back to work two hours after giving birth and be labelled heroic but irresponsible? Or wait till the last of the brood is a well-integrated and successful 35-year-old?

This was a question for both of us. We’d agreed way back when Jack was still a little zygote that we’d share child-minding once Emma went back to work. We’d both do four days, so we could both spend time with him. Emma, to instruct him in fine works of literature (starting with Wuthering Heights, the picture book), me to imprint him with 90’s indie rock classics.

We had a rough plan. I run a business, so my income is up and down. We’d drop back to interest-only on our mortgage for that year and live off the maternity leave. Then Em would go back to work at around the ten month mark.

Eight months in, and Em was going stir-crazy. Since Jack was born, she’d finished a Masters, and started an online toffee store. This was very much a joint achievement: Jack being an amiable wonder-child, Emma being a global phenomenon. But she still had energy to burn.

“I was busy, but bored,” Em recalls. “I missed the excitement of work and having that other aspect to my life. It was good in the early days, seeing him change so much. But my world had shrunk.”

Before Jack, Em was reading high-end policy documents. Now she was reading The Hungry Caterpillar.

We started to look at childcare options. Here’s where the first twinge of anxiety set-in.

When we had Jack, a whole lot of assumptions and expectations that I’d formed over the last 20 to 30 years came home to roost. Assumptions about how families should work. And one of those is that kids are better off if they have a parent at home looking after them. Note: I don’t believe that has to be the mum. I know of a few dads who’ve put their careers on hold. But I love what I do, and would miss it.

Then came anxiety twinge number two: would we even be able to get a spot? I heard stories of parents shopping around 30 or 40 places to get in.

Here is where the gods of childcare smiled upon us. Our first choice day-care centre had just opened up a new branch, so they had room. I know. I don’t think we deserve it either.

Right now Emma works 4 days. I work 4 days, and do the afternoon pickup. The first time I went to collect Jack, I imagined he’d be in a corner, crying. Not so. He was crouching, yelling at a larger baby who had displeased him in some way. Jack saw me across the room, gave a puff of excitement and shot off towards me.

We’re both glad we put Jack in childcare before separation anxiety kicked in. That usually happens around 10 to 12 months, so we found that avoiding that window meant that Jack settled in quickly. Trying to get him used to childcare when he’s in that phase of just wanting to be held all the time he’s with us would’ve been too wrenching.

As far as specific advice goes, that’s all I’ve got, so I asked Em for her thoughts.

“Don’t put pressure on yourself to do what you think you should do: to follow the most common arrangement. You and your partner have just got to work out what’s going to suit you both.”