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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

Paternity leave is still largely a nonstarter in this country, a norm that carries myriad consequences.

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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A very important letter for new mamas

Listen, mom-guilt is a dirty liar. Yes, it's your job to fill your little human's needs, but you matter too. Don't forget to take care of yourself. Hang out with friends, take a drive blaring 90's hip hop or shower without interruptions—trust me, you'll be a better person (and mom) because of it.

Dear new mom,

You will shave again someday. Today is not that day.

Set expectations low, my friend, and set your partner's lower—at least where body hair and overall hygiene are concerned.

That conversation could go something like this: “From now on let's not consider shaving a “standard," but more like a gift that happens on birthdays and the first day of summer."

Voila, you are a gift-giving genius. You know what else is a gift? Shaving the inch and a half of skin that is between your skinny jeans and your boots. You're welcome world.

You will not be perfect at parenting.

Boom.

I have yet to meet a perfect mother, but when I do, she's going to be a tiger who is insanely good at making up songs. (Daniel Tiger's mom, we salute you.)

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There is rightfully a lot of emphasis on preparing for the arrival of a new baby. The clothes! The nursery furniture! The gear! But, the thing about a baby registry is, well, your kids will keep on growing. Before you know it, they'll have new needs—and you'll probably have to foot the bill for the products yourself.

Thankfully, you don't have to break the bank when shopping for toddler products. Here are our favorite high-quality, budget-friendly finds to help with everything from meal time to bath time for the toddler set.

Comforts Fruit Crisps Variety Pack

Comforts fruit snacks

If there is one thing to know about toddlers, it is this: They love snacks. Keeping a variety on hand is easy when the pack already comes that way! Plus, we sure do appreciate that freeze-dried fruit is a healthier alternative to fruit snacks.

Comforts Electrolyte Drink

Comforts electrolyte drink

Between running (or toddling!) around all day and potentially developing a pickier palate, many toddlers can use a bit of extra help with replenishing their electrolytes—especially after they've experienced a tummy bug. We suggest keeping an electrolyte drink on hand.

Comforts Training Pants

Comforts training pants

When the time comes to start potty training, it sure helps to have some training pants on hand. If they didn't make it to the potty in time, these can help them learn their body's cues.

Comforts Nite Pants

comforts nite pants

Even when your toddler gets the hang of using the toilet during the day, nighttime training typically takes several months longer than day-time training. In the meantime, nite pants will still help them feel like the growing, big kid they are.

Comforts Baby Lotion

comforts baby lotion

Running, jumping, playing in sand, splashing in water—the daily life of a toddler can definitely irritate their skin! Help put a protective barrier between their delicate skin and the things they come into contact with every day with nourishing lotion.

Another great tip? Shopping the Comforts line on Comfortsforbaby.com to find premium baby products for a fraction of competitors' prices—and follow along on social media to see product releases and news at @comfortsforbaby.

This article was sponsored by The Kroger Co. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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A few years ago, while my wife's baby bump got bigger and my daddy reading list grew longer, I felt cautiously optimistic that this parenthood thing would, somehow, suddenly click one day. The baby would come, instincts would kick in, and the transition from established couple to a new family would be tiring but not baffling.

Boy was I wrong.

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