Tom Ebbens reckons his experience of taking Shared Parental Leave in a pandemic was ‘brutal but priceless’.
Tom Ebbens is preparing himself for a busy summer. He’s a senior coastal operations officer with the HM Coastguard, part of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.
He oversees the volunteer search and rescue teams in his patch centred around Falmouth in Cornwall. Ongoing lockdown restrictions are likely to lead to a bumper summer of tourists in the area and unfortunately that’ll keep Tom and his team busy.
But it’ll be as nothing compared to the last six months he spent on Shared Parental Leave. “It was brutal,” he laughs, “but priceless.”
Tom first took Shared Parental Leave when eldest daughter Margot was born in 2018. “I could dive into the experience of being a father full time,” he smiles. “That was different to how it would’ve been if I hadn’t had Shared Parental Leave. Then it would’ve been an hour in the morning with a piece of toast then off to work and an hour in the evening at bath time.”
So he was keen to repeat the experience when second daughter Connie arrived last September. “I thought it was tiring the first time round, but it was nothing when compared to second time around.” Connie’s not much of a sleeper. But by being on Shared Parental Leave Tom and wife Demi could take it in turns to stay up in the night and cope with the fatigue more equally. Of course Margot needed looking after as well. Tom bonded with Margot during his first stint of SPL and he felt he was able to deepen that bond again with another six months at home.
And to add to the stress Connie was born in the middle of a pandemic. “Neither of us has family in the area,” explained Tom. “So we did the whole thing without any support. Being on SPL and being able to do it together was really important.”
One upside of the pandemic experience has been that Tom has remained working from home a lot after his SPL ended in March. That’s made a difference to his relationship with his daughters. “When I went back to work the first time round I had a really good bond with my eldest, her eyes lit up when she saw me. But after a few weeks back at work you could tell she was less sure about me because she was spending less time with me. That hasn’t happened this time round. I might go to work for three hours in the morning but I’ll come back downstairs for lunch so Connie sees much more of me.”
On both occasions Tom clocked up 26 weeks of paternity leave. As well as his fortnight of statutory leave he added on 22 weeks of SPL and two weeks of annual leave to have a full six months at home.
Demi works six hours a week at a job based near the family home. So she does enough hours to qualify for SPL. But also few enough hours that she’d no qualms about returning to work after just a few weeks of maternity leave and transferring the rest to Tom under the SPL scheme. He was able to be at home on full pay. “It really wasn’t a difficult decision,” says Tom. “No-one wants to look back at these precious moments of their children growing up and wished they’d spent more time at work. Why not be at home watching your kids grow up and bonding them if you can be? It’s not just being knee deep in nappies, it’s going out as a family and having those precious experiences.”
Tom’s job and his office is dominated by men. And while there was some banter directed his way his colleagues were overwhelmingly supportive. “I’m the youngest in the office so SPL hadn’t been an option for the others in my office but they encouraged me to go for it.”
Line managers too were helpful. “There was no sucking of teeth,” explains Tom. “I was only the second person to go on a period of SPL in the organisation so it was a trailblazing exercise and there were plenty of questions back and forth but my line management and our HQ were very supportive. When I said I wanted to take SPL they said ‘OK, let’s help you do that’.”
On Twitter Tom’s known as Coastguard Chaplain Tom. As well as his everyday duties he’s training to become a vicar and set up the coastguard’s first chaplaincy service offering spiritual support to colleagues. “It’s new ground but it’s proving useful,” he says. “People call me every week.” And a number of them are working dads in the organisation feeling the pressure of work and home life and feeling dad guilt. “You’ve got to walk with them,” says Tom, unwittingly alighting on the current important fad for more empathy in the workplace and beyond.
And, for Tom, that idea of walking together is key to the importance of Shared Parental Leave too. “If you start the journey together, you’ve shared experiences. If you walk those first months together it’s the bedrock for the rest of your relationship and the rest of your fatherhood.”