Wednesday, January 7, 2015

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The Paternity Leave I Should’ve Taken



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My wife was 8 months pregnant, and my boss and I were discussing my paternity leave. “I wouldn’t take too much time off,” Jim said. “Your students could really suffer.” I was at my desk, and Jim was sitting across from me.

When Jim said the word, “Suffer,” I felt a heavy weight on chest. He crossed his legs, and looked me in the eyes, and suddenly I felt selfish for wanting to take paternity leave. I don’t think this was Jim’s intention, honestly. But at the same time, it gave me pause. Jim was in his mid-forties, tall, Latino, with a little grey in his beard. He had a mind for business because that’s what he studied. But he’d also worked in education for nearly 20 years, and was a single dad of two girls. He wasn’t the kind of boss to not take his employees families into consideration, but he also thought a lot about the program, and what it meant to make students excel.

At the time, I worked as an academic counselor in a program that served underrepresented students. I had about 80 students I met with every two weeks, and that term alone I could’ve named half a dozen students that would’ve had to leave college for one reason or another if I hadn’t intervened. My wife, Mel, was due right before the end of spring term, which is usually when students need the most attention. But at that same time, my wife and new baby were going to need attention, too. We are originally from Utah, but now live in Oregon. My mother-in-law was planning to come help, and we had a few supportive friends, but that was about it. Mel and I often talk about the fact that we are, really, all we have.

I had enough sick pay that I could take 7 weeks off. According to university policy, I could take up to three months, but I wouldn’t have been paid for all of it. This was my first professional job after college, but it was our third child. With our first two children, I was waiting tables while finishing my degree. I took what time we could afford (usually no more than a few days). Paternity leave wasn’t an option and at the time I hated this fact. With our first few children, I felt like I missed out on those important first moments with our new child, and the opportunity to be there for my wife when she really needed me. I often told myself that once I was done with college, I’d take as much time as I could.

However, suddenly I was faced with something unexpected: the weight of professional obligation. The feeling that if I took too much time away from work, my students would suffer because I wasn't around. The program I worked for was underfunded and understaffed. Although there would be an effort to pick up my slack while I was gone, I understood what Jim meant when he said my students might “suffer.”

That evening, Mel and I talked about how much time I was going to take off. The kids were in bed. We were on the living room sofa.

“Seven weeks would be awesome,” Mel said. “I could really use your help.”

But then I told her about what Jim said. “I’m not worried about losing my job, but I am worried about my students.”

Mel thought about it for a moment. We discussed a few things, and then she said, “Having you around would be nice, but my mother will be here. I want you at the hospital, but other than that I’ll be fine. We’ve managed it before.”

I like to tell people that I’m a father first, and an employee second, but when faced with the choice between spending time with our new baby and helping my wife recover, and my job, it really only took one simple comment from my boss for me to feel conflicted. I’m passionate about my work, and feel that by helping underrepresented students succeed in college, I’m making the world a better place. Taking 7 weeks off felt like I was putting my family, and myself before my work.

It felt selfish.

So much of working parenthood comes down to trying to decide when work and family should be the priority, and when it’s right to put one above the other. I struggled with how long to take, and in the end, I let my job take precedence over my family.

I took a total of two weeks off.

Once again, I missed out on the opportunity to connect with our new baby girl. To hold and care for her during those first few remarkable weeks of life. When I think back on how much time I took off, I know I made the wrong decision. 
  
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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress, and an angry baby girl. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His work has been featured in Good Morning America, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project, Fast Company, and elsewhere. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter


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