Dad On Parental Leave – I would not trade this time for a yearly salary

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Marceli Nowakowski, Employer Branding Cluster Manager at Schneider Electric took a year off of work for parental leave to spend time with his 3-year-old daughter Lily. Now after coming back from parental leave, he reflects in an interview on his 365 days of caring for his daughter- the fun and the challenges.

Marceli, you are a father of a 3-year-old, her name is Lily. You started your yearly parental leave in November 2019 and it will shortly end. You have been taking care of Lily for almost a year now. Now she is going to kindergarten and you are preparing to come back to work. How do you remember your first days at home with Lily?

The first days were wonderful! I took time to rest from work, my spine was grateful for not sitting long hours at the desk and my daughter was thrilled with the fact that she could spend more time with me. We went together to buy groceries, visited the library, cooked together, read books, made trips across the city, and met with Lily’s grandmas and granddads. Of course, with time I realised that not every day is a walk in the park and that each stick has two ends.

It is not really a leave in the traditional sense of the word and not every day will be a walk in the park, but it will allow you to discover a lot about your child, but most importantly about yourself as well.

Did you have any expectations for this leave? Did you have a reality check?

My goal was simple: to get some “rest” from work and to spend more time with my daughter to get to know her even better and to strengthen our relationship. A relationship, which in my view, was already strong, because from the day that Lily was born my wife Izabela and I took equal turns to take care of her. A reality check for me was my daughter’s temper and her emotional development stage at the age of two. All the books by Jesper Juul that I have read and all of the parental competency workshops that I’ve attended, failed in confrontation with my daughter’s anger fits. Sometimes she needed a full hour to calm down. And I needed a lot longer to master the art of calming her down patiently.

The second reality check was of course the pandemic and lockdown. Here the Montessori books came in handy (games and chores) and additionally with the help of our balcony and an indoor swing, that I bought online, we managed to pull through.

What was the reason that you have decided to take parental leave?

The initial plan was that after a year of maternity leave my wife would go back to work and Lily would attend a nursery. However, our adventure with the nursery ended after just a few weeks and was rather traumatising for all of us. My daughter was not emotionally ready to be separated from us, she cried a lot and also got ill. We made a decision that Izabela would prolong her leave for one more year and afterward I will take one extra year of leave, so as to avoid the nursery completely and wait until Lily is going to be ready to attend kindergarten. In retrospect, that was the right choice to make. My wife was hesitant at first to go on the “extra” parental leave, as she did not want to be provided for by myself, but we agreed that I am going to be the breadwinner for a year and then we will switch, when I go on a yearly parental leave and in turn, we are going to depend financially on her.

So the first two years Lily spent at home with her mother and then a year with you? What did you like the most about that time?

The feeling of freedom. Every day we both decided, what we are going to do. Together, mutually, that is the keyword. Maybe Lily will remember only a fraction of this time, but it has shaped our relationship and irreversibly changed both of us. In my view only for the better. Lily has learned to name her feelings and is slowly mastering the not-so-easy art of self-control and anger-management. And I have learned from her that being assertive is not a bad thing and you should always fight for your needs and to protect your boundaries.

I was also reminded that small things in life can make you happy and everything around you can still amaze you, so long as you take the child’s perspective. That’s why this relationship may not be easy at times, but it is definitely valuable because it forces you to grow and develop as a person.

Did you have any worries about taking care of a child before you took the leave?

No, because changing diapers, feeding, putting to bed, and playing with Lily was already a part of my daily schedule, just the time frame of those activities was more limited. My approach was rather carefree. Of course, confronted with reality, I quickly found out that taking care of a child “full time” has its dark sides as well.

As I already mentioned, my daughter has a fiery temper and she takes no prisoners during her rage fits. I had to learn how to calm her down while staying patient and calm myself (in order to do that I had to educate myself, and books on self-reg [self-regulation] proved to be useful). I also discovered that after a whole day of cleaning, cooking, shopping, playing with Lily, and replying to hundreds (if not thousands) of her questions, I was exhausted and craved only for peace and silence. It is really hard work and only such a “role swap” allows you to realise this fully.

How did people react, when they heard about your leave? Was it acceptance, understanding or quite the opposite? How did your male friends react, did women react any different?

All of the reactions were positive. Women were thrilled with my decision and laughed that they have to convince their husbands to do the same. Men also said that this a great idea, but were more skeptical. They said: “You’re brave, I wouldn’t be able to do it.” One of my male friends even suspected that I would quit after one month and then gladly come back to the office earlier than planned.

During our previous conversation, you mentioned that the leave made you feel free. Of course, children modify our plans, but all in all the parent decides about the daily plan. Did you like that aspect of the leave?

It’s an amazing feeling to be able to walk in the park in the middle of a day or jump on a train and visit your family in another city in the middle of the week. Or go to the library outside of rush hours, or visit the museum with granddad when they have a free entry day… or simply sit on the couch in the morning and watch a film together (of course as an exception 😉). And who said that the parental leave has to be spent at home? It is way easier to plan a family vacation when only one parent needs to take days off at work. And that is how we managed to visit: the United Arab Emirates, Polish mountains (Pieniny and Beskid Niski), and the Polish seaside (Jantar, Sopot, and Hel).

A part of your precious time together was unfortunately also the time of the pandemic. I am sure that, like all of us, you also had to change a lot regarding your plans.

Changes in long-term plans were easy to make, we simply refrained from any foreign travel and stayed in Poland for the summer holidays. It was harder to cope with everyday life and the new reality, which for some time did not include any outdoor activities or meetings. Luckily we have a balcony and after some time we started to make trips to the forest and once it got warmer also to our small cabin.

Let’s talk about work. Lily is now attending a kindergarten, so naturally, you are going back to work. Are you planning to come back to the same company? Are you looking for something new? How are you preparing yourself for coming back to the job market?

While leaving for my parental leave, I had full support from my manager, which made me feel safe and the plan was to go back to Schneider Electric. I knew that a lot can change within a year, but of course, the pandemic introduced additional complications. My old job is no longer available, but I was offered an alternative one. I already had the job interview for this new role and got positive feedback. I will take on this new role and stay with Schneider.

Congratulations! This is very good news!

I have committed September for Lily’s adaptation in the kindergarten and I have been picking her up earlier instead of leaving her “full-time”. Since the start of October Lily is staying in the kindergarten for longer and I have more time to self-educate. Employer branding is my line of work, it’s a mix of marketing, HR, and recruitment. I focus now on updating my knowledge in this respect: I read books on social media, follow the latest EB trends online and attend online courses on digital marketing.

When we talk with our female readers about going back to work, we ask them whether they have a plan B, because kids often get ill and usually it happens in the least expected moments (pandemic on top of this). Do you have a plan B in case Lily gets ill? Which one of you will take care of her? Will you share the sick leave?

We share all of the parental responsibilities equally, so I do not see why it should be any different in this case. We will split potential sick leave so that none of us will have a backlog of work. Luckily, both I and my wife can work from home and we can adapt a bit our working hours towards our family needs. Currently, the only thing that we fear is the complete closure of kindergartens. Such a scenario would force us to request help from one of Lily’s grandmothers (of course after a two-week-long, “post-kindergarten” quarantine at home).

In your opinion, what could convince more men to go on parental leave? How would you encourage other fathers to do so?

I have to admit that this is the hardest question to answer so far because the issue is complex and has multiple layers. One of the major problems that I see is the pay gap between women and men – sometimes it is a simple decision based on family budget and usually, the person taking the leave is the one that earns less. Luckily, our earnings were on a similar level, so we did not have this dilemma.

Once we cross out the pay gap, there are also cultural aspects to consider: both gender stereotypes and consumption. In my humble opinion the solution is a true partnership and equal split of responsibilities. No parent has inherently more parental competency, you build it over time with practice and by interacting with your child.

The issue stemming from consumption and the chase after material possessions is more difficult to solve, as it requires a change of attitude and self-reflection: if going on leave will not result in a drastic downgrade of living standards, then why not invest in family relations and at the same time rest a bit from chasing the dollar? In my view it is better to collect memories, than material goods.

An additional perk of such leave is something that psychology calls “modeling”, which is learning through observing how others behave. By observing you, your child will build his/her own definition of a good parent and will aim to replicate it in the future or seek a partner that resembles it in some ways. Parental leave is in a way an investment in the future happiness of your child, and can there be anything more valuable?

I hope that my honest story will be an encouragement for other fathers to #ChooseToChallenge and dare to take leave.

The original interview in Polish: by Ewa Moskalik – Pieper

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