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True life: When I went back to work after my son was born, it felt like my soul was still at home

Two years ago, my initial experiences as a new father were, I believe, quite normal. The anxiety of the delivery. The remarkable, disorienting first few moments of my son's life. The pride from introducing my son to the people I love.

Our homecoming was even more amazing. Where three days ago a couple had pulled out of the driveway, a family now returned. Carrying our son through the door, introducing him to his doggy brother, his first at-home nap as we watched with still-stunned smiles.

I was, more than anything, relieved. Relieved that mom and baby were both healthy. Relieved that, despite my doubts and hesitations concerning parenthood, I felt crystal-clear affection for this ticking time-bomb turned blessing. Relieved that the hospital was behind us, and our entire lives ahead of us.

And then, five days later... I was back at work.

Like far too many American men, I was not entitled to paid paternity leave. In fact, my company didn't offer any type of leave for new fathers—paid or unpaid—whatsoever. To the HR department, my whirlwind tour of the maternity ward officially constituted a vacation.

In fairness, the circumstances were extenuating. My company is small, and no employee at my firm had actually become a new father for nearly two decades. The policy wasn't poor… it simply didn't exist.

Still, this atypical scenario masks a systemic dearth: Paternity leave is still largely a nonstarter in this country, a norm that carries myriad consequences. For one, lack of paternity leave creates—or at least exacerbates—parental imbalance. When I left my wife and 8-day-old son to return to work, I implicitly accepted starting fatherhood in a parenting deficit compared to my spouse—a hole from which, two years later, I'm still trying to climb.

And let's be honest: I share some blame, too. I have sick days and vacation time in the bank. More importantly, I have agency and privilege—I have choices. I ultimately chose to go back to work as quickly as I did. It was an unequivocally poor decision, and I deeply regret it.

Of course, hindsight is 20/20. Back in that moment—the morning of my first day back to work—my feelings were a mucky mélange of guilt, worry, resentment… and I-didn't-really-know-what. Unsettled. Weirded out. Unmotivated. Just… off. My foot didn't want to release the parking brake and step on the gas pedal.

Obviously, the last week had been highly disorienting; on that early date, in that early hour, I'd have been hard-pressed to eloquently express my feelings at being a new dad, let alone my emotional confusion at going back to the office barely a week afterward.

But I have a conscious, and a subconscious. The former felt guilty because the latter knew that, on some level, what I was doing simply wasn't right. I tried to shrug it off, to convince myself that these feelings reflected a healthy acknowledgment of my newfound responsibilities as a father rather than any shirking of those duties.

I tried to trick myself. But my pleas for self-leniency were sugar-coated lies. For weeks afterward, my soul was at home while my body sat behind a desk.

Two years later, I still haven't fully forgiven myself for not being firmer with my job and more supportive of my wife and newborn son. Some things you simply don't get to do over. I went back to work a week after my first child was born and—this is the real offense—I had the means to prevent it.

I wasn't going to get severely reprimanded or fired for taking some extra time. My financial security or standing at work wouldn't have suffered significantly. The most haunting thing about my nonexistent paternity leave is that I had the clout to do something about it and didn't.

Instead, I played into an outdated notion of fatherhood that still permeates workplaces. My premature absence from home reinforced the stereotype of the mother as primary caretaker from the earliest stages of child-rearing and the father as a second-class parent.

It was negligence via antiquation—a legacy sin that ran countercurrent to societal progress. When I got into my car that morning, I was driving away from 2016 and toward 1956. I might as well have walked out the door wearing a top hat, smoking a pipe and wondering whether the Dodgers—the Brooklyn Dodgers—won last night.

I cannot change the past. I am left with the only tool I've ever wielded effectively: my pen. The best way for me to make amends for my mistakes is to dissuade fellow fathers from repeating them.

Real change on this issue will come from the middle—from regular guys like me, who aren't rich but comfortable, and who have a certain level of job security. It's up to us to bend the arc of history toward progress on paternity leave.

Let it be said that the goal here isn't equality in all things. It's reasonable to think that new moms should get more time off than new dads; that's simply a matter of anatomy. But we can't let perfection be the enemy of progress. The paternity leave status quo exhibits a Stone Aged stinginess in urgent need of reform.

We normalize paternity leave the same way all social progress is normalized: by pushing boundaries until they lay adjacent to our times, our new realities. My returning to work a week after my son was born was a cowardly act of sheepish surrender.

So please, dads, do as I say and not as I did. Take those extra days, weeks, even months. Trade emails for embraces for just a little longer and, in doing so pave a smoother path for new dads to come.

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