The day remains one of the most vibrant memories of my life. After months of preparation and a day at the hospital, our first child was born. Floating on cloud 9, and focused on taking care of what needed to be done in anticipation of her coming home, I quickly turned my attention back to work. It was spring break at my university so those in those first few days I wasn’t pulled in different directions. That would end before she even turned 10 days old.
I never thought about taking a break from work. That would be unfair to my students, my colleagues, and to all the deadlines in front of me. That is at least what I was told. But really I had no idea I could take time off to spend. Yes, I knew about Family and Medical Leave Act, but I didn’t know I was eligible. I was the father, not the mother.
While my absence in those initial weeks didn’t cause difficulties in terms of what needed to get done –my mother-in-law was staying with us – it led me to feel isolated. I wasn’t part of every “firsts;” I was stuck at the borderlands of parenthood, wanting to be present for every moment yet I stuck at my workplace.
By the time my daughter was 6 months, my partner was back working, leaving me as the primary caregiver. As a university professor, I had the flexibility to care for her whenever I was not in class. When not taking walks, reading or playing, we spent many days together with her by my side as I wrote my first book or prepared lectures. My feelings of isolation were a thing of the past.
The experience wasn’t idyllic as I found myself increasingly criticized for spending so much time with my daughter and not focusing exclusively on my work responsibilities. Good father, bad professor; good father, bad man? My decision to her into the workplace was met with opposition. In one instance, after telling a colleague that I would not be able to attend a meeting the following day because of childcare responsibilities, I was encouraged to consider switching to halftime since I wasn’t able to do my job properly. Angered and frustrated, I remained focused on both my responsibilities as a parent and a professor. As with her birth, the institution didn’t make either of these jobs any easier. Family values in rhetoric only!
In 2006, our second child was born. I hadn’t planned to take any time off for her arrival. No one had suggested that or even noted its availability. Our plans, however, changed quickly as the unimaginable happened. She died after a short and courageous life. Our life was turned upside down. The plans; the preparation; the future had all been changed leaving me with a constant feeling of unease. What else might happen around every corner?
Because of the courage of my partner, we quickly got pregnant again. This time I was determined to spend as much time at home as possible. I was determined to be there for the first bath, the first coo, and any other first. And because of Family and Medical Leave Act I was able to be there each and every day; I was able to share each and every moment with my partner, being there for and with her.
Why did it take so many years for me to use FMLA? Why did it take feelings of alienation or isolation; why did it take frustration about lack of support for my parenting responsibilities and tragedy of lost child? Was it because I didn’t know about FMLA and its availability to fathers? Was it because despite my feminist up bringing, I still thought my primary job was in the workplace? Surely all of this mattered, but ultimately my relationship with my kids, my partner, and my entire family was enhanced because I was able to share this time with them.
While it took many years to get to the point where I was able to utilize FMLA, it is a sobering reminder of how class privilege operates in this context. I had enough leave time to use FMLA without having to forgo a paycheck. Yes, in 2013, America remains a nation that talks about “family values” but does not create the conditions to allow this to happen. The United States lags behind the rest of the world. It is 1 of 3 nations (Papua New Guinea and Swaziland), out of an astonishing 181, that doesn’t provide paid maternity leave. American Exceptionalism? My experiences, and the lack of availability in every instance, where mothers and fathers have to choose between job and family, between economic security and family wellness, demonstrates a need for change. With FMLA turning 20, lets hope we can join the rest of the world to be unexceptional in this regard.
This post is part of the Fathers on Family Leave Blog Carnival.