I approached the birth of my fourth child differently from the rest. For the first three I probably took a combined one month off of school or work to spend time with my family. With my fourth I decided to utilize FMLA and take 2.5 months off. This was planned so we were able to save up for this time since FMLA is job protection, not a form of income. I received full support from my management and team, and started preparing to offload my responsibilities.
As the time approached to start my time away from work, I did what I always do before taking on an endeavor and sought out guidance and mentorship. I actually didn't know any men I could talk to in my company about taking extended baby leave. I'm sure they exist, but I didn't know any that had done it. So, I reached out to a couple moms I knew at work to talk about their approach to wrapping up work, going "all in" on family, then trying to reemerge as a useful member of the company a few months later. They were very helpful and echoed some of the same fears that I had going into it:
I might be pretty bad at this "full time family" gig. I find a lot of fulfillment at work, I love the adult interaction, and I'm not the most patient person in the world. Going to a house full of kids and a newborn seemed a little overwhelming and I questioned if I would be any good at it.
My company would catch on that they don't really need me at work. I'm more of a "nice to have" than a "need to have". It's hard to not question your "need" at work when you're turning over all of your duties to your well trained #2's.
I would come back to "I guess you could help with this, but I think we have it, thanks". Then once you do return to the office after 2-3 months and your #2's are crushing it, is there still a place for you?
Missing out on career opportunities and growth. A good old case of corporate FOMO. They'll forget about me, or a job will open that I will miss out on, and I'll miss my once in a lifetime shot at the next level (overkill…I know, but real).
This reminded me of my mindset before U.S. Navy boot camp. In 2002 when I was being shipped off to boot camp I was nervous. It was one thing to sign the dotted line, it was another to actually and voluntarily go. What was it going to be like? Would it be like the movies? Am I going to break? Will I make it through? My recruiter at the time, who had a vested interest in me making it through boot camp, gave me some wise words. He told me : "Boot camp is only 2 months long. You've enlisted for 6 years. Boot camp is going to be less than 3% of your entire enlistment. You're spending an awful lot of time thinking about 3% of your time and not the other 97% of your time in military". He was right. When I think back, boot camp barely hits my radar of military memories.
Translating that into my current work perspective/situation: taking the fully allotted 12 weeks of FMLA in a 30 year career is less than 1% of your entire career. 1!! That's nothing. Is the success of your career going to hinge on that 1%? I highly doubt it! Especially if you weigh that against the benefit of being there for those first 12 weeks of your child's life to:
bond with your baby
assist your significant other
develop as a parent
binge watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (that's what we did)
show your team where your values lie
So, I went all in. Completely disconnected. Eliminated Microsoft Teams and Outlook from my phone and refused to log into my computer. It was awesome. The first few weeks were rough as my family adjusted to me being "full time dad", but we got through that. I was fortunate to have a great team of #2's back in the office that made it a priority to not contact me about work related items, even when one of those "work related items" was the transition from Work From Office to Work From Home due to COVID (great job team!). And after my 2.5 months, I came back to work. What was my reality?
I did struggle adapting to being a full time dad. I made my wife crazy with my drive to be productive and trying to continually justify ordering pizza. Eventually I did become quite useful and absolutely loved it!
My company did realize I'm more of a "nice to have" and agreed they're cool with keeping me around.
I did have plenty of work when I returned. Mostly consisting of the "fun stuff" they didn't want to do while I was gone.
I did not miss out on any career advancement opportunities. Honestly though, if my company would have limited my career growth based on my family priorities then it would not be a company I would care to continue to work for.
I ask two things of you today:
If you're fortunate enough to welcome a new baby into your world, take the maximum amount of time you can financially afford to take to be home with your family! It'll make you a better person if you let it!
If a team member or friend is fortunate to welcome a new baby in the their world, be as supportive as you can! Encourage them to take the time. They will have months to prepare and get everything in order. Your project, your team, your group will not crumble in their absence. Remember it's less than 1% of their career!
Of course all of this is just my opinion. It's based on lived experience and my "family first" bias. The only things I can tell you for absolute certain are:
Work will go on without you there.
Your kids will grow without you there.
It's your choice which you would rather have happen in your absence.
Note: All of the opinions expressed in this article are my own, and are not a reflection of the viewpoint of my employer.