independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Parental Leave: Oh, what a perfect day – wish I could (always) spend it with you

Other dads are to get more parental leave. John Meagher is very jealous

I read the words with thinly disguised envy. As a new father, the news that British legislators are to increase the amount of paternity leave there only served to highlight the pitiful scenario in Ireland.

The plan – announced by deputy prime minister Nick Clegg – is for mothers to divvy up annual parental leave which would, in practice, mean fathers could have much more time off work to spend with their children.

Like thousands of dads in Ireland, I would greatly welcome a similar change in the law here. It would give us the opportunity to share a greater portion of those early months when our sons and daughters develop so quickly.

It may be a cliché to say that those periods in our children's lives go by in a flash, but that doesn't mean it isn't true.

Just look at how quickly they outgrow those newborn clothes and how rapidly their feeding and sleeping patterns change.

My daughter Emani – our first child – was born on May 11 of this year. She arrived two months premature, weighing just under three pounds.

She spent the first 30 days of her life in the intensive care unit of Holles Street maternity hospital in Dublin but from the outset, when a piercing cry announced her birth, she has proved to be a fantastic little fighter.

Statutory paternity leave is paltry in this country. Time off is essentially at the discretion of each employer and I was lucky that mine is one of the more generous ones.

So, when Emani was born I arranged to take two weeks' paid paternity leave as soon as she was strong enough to leave hospital, plus a further week's holiday which I used straight away to spend as much time as I could on the fourth floor of Holles Street, our new home from home.

Initially, my wife Lynn and I could only look on at Emani's wired-up, cannulated body through the thick, clear plastic of the incubator but then, in what felt like a real breakthrough, got to hold her, change her nappy and feed her.

It was an exhilarating, if exhausting time and I was so glad that I had a full 10 days in which I could spend as much time with her as I wished, and know that I had a fortnight of paternity leave to take when she could come home with us.

I soon realised that I was luckier than most. Several times while I was in that ICU, I spotted a waiter I recognised from a busy, nearby restaurant. His baby was also in intensive care and he would come in his work clothes, bleary-eyed and with a haunted expression on his face, having had to juggle hospital visits with the demands of his pressurised job.

This man would, no doubt, have relished paternity cover that would have allowed him to forget about work momentarily and to spend as many hours as he wanted with his tiny infant.

Initially, we had no idea how long she would have to stay in hospital, so at the end of that first week, I returned to work. I found it difficult to return to normality, despite the support and well-wishes of my colleagues. Emani was still in hospital, after all, and the time I could spend with her was rationed.

With the best will in the world, it's impossible to spend half the night in the unit – which is perfectly permissible in the ICUs of most maternity hospitals, by the way – and be able to function properly in the office the following day.

I booked my fortnight's paternity cover from work as soon as the doctors gave us an idea about when Emani could come home.

Looking back, those two weeks are among the happiest of my life.

Taking her out of a hospital environment that first day was exhilarating and for the following 14, I marvelled in the smallest things – like the position she invariably adopted while sleeping or the way she so enthusiastically consumed the expressed milk.

Even the bemused reaction of our cat to the new arrival gave me untold pleasure on those early summer days at home, as did the attention she drew whenever we took her out and about.

The two weeks went by much too quickly.

I envied Lynn her maternity leave and all those little moments she would have with Emani while I was at work.

I thought of those more enlightened countries – Sweden is one, naturally – where the father is given months of paid leave to spend with their newborn. Maybe one day Ireland will follow suit and offer more equitable benefits for both parents.

Emani is more than six months old now and there are no signs whatsoever about her difficult start to life. The doctors are very happy with her progress, as are Lynn and I.

She shares my appetite, but has her mother's sunny demeanour. She sleeps soundly at night and keeps her food down without difficulty – she's still on milk, but almost ready to start solids one of these days.

Before Emani was born I had only the vaguest sense about how my life would change.

But I hadn't a clue, really. Her very being brings me great joy – and every new week I can see her develop mentally and physically. Weekends are sacrosanct – a sustained period in which I can build my days around her.

But there's always that unmistakable pang on weekday mornings when I kiss her goodbye and know she will likely be tucked up in her cot, fast asleep, by the time I get home each evening.

Irish Independent

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