Lessons learned from taking Shared Parental Leave

For Chris Colyer, who works for learning firm Pearson, taking time out to look after his daughter was an education



Appropriately enough for a man who works at a company concerned with education and learning Chris Colyer is a textbook example of a dad that took Shared Parental Leave.

And he learned plenty of lessons from his time looking after his daughter.

He ticks all the boxes talking about the issues that arose from his SPL. For example, talking to his partner about it beforehand, the mental challenge and surprising mundanity of childcare, having to find his confidence again when he returned to work. Best of all he’s sure his relationship with his partner and his daughters has been strengthened by the experience.

Chris is Director of Qualifications & Global Schools at Pearson. He’s worked for the firm for 10 years. He started out in marketing and then moved into a more international role, supporting sales teams, developing new tools and doing financial forecasting for Europe and Africa.

It’s a year since he returned to work. Chris took Shared Parental Leave for three months from February 2018 with his second daughter. His first is about to turn five and he was only able to take two weeks’ paternity leave with her.

Special time

When SPL came in Chris was supportive, but it was only when his wife became pregnant again that they discussed the finer details. Their relationship had always been fairly equal, they both earned similar amounts and shared household tasks so it made sense to share parental leave, says Chris. He was keen to spend more time with his daughter and his wife supported that.  “She had enjoyed her first maternity leave and said it was a very special time and she wanted me to be able to experience that,” he says.

As both he and his wife had the same employer, the process was straightforward. Chris was clear that he wanted to take the leave in one continuous block so he could have quality time with his daughter and that he would take it later in the year. He says the biggest practical challenge at the time was breastfeeding. His first daughter had breast fed for over a year, but in fact his second was happy to be weaned earlier.

His daughter was seven months old when he took SPL. Because of Pearson’s policy of gradual return after maternity leave, his wife was able to go back three days a week on full pay and gradually increase her hours. So in his first two months off Chris’ wife was around for some of the week. In his last month he was in solo charge for the full five days.

Unrealistic expectations

Chris admits he may have had some “unrealistic expectations” about how his leave would play out. “I greatly enjoyed it, but I hadn’t quite realised how little you can do with a child that age,” he says. “With an older child you can be a kind of mentor figure, but with a younger one there is a lot of sitting around.”

And, appropriately in Mental Health Awareness Week, he talks about how tricky he found the gear change from office to nursery.  “The biggest challenge for me was the mental side. I did struggle with not having the kind of longer term goal I was used to at work and with the switch to looking after a baby, doing much more short term things like nappy changing,” he says. “There is a relentlessness to looking after a child 24/7 and I wasn’t totally prepared for it. It is certainly an eye-opening experience.”

Chris didn’t join any parenting groups, preferring to have one to one time with his daughter. The family had decided that their older daughter would stay in nursery.

Perhaps inevitably, when he returned to work on full-time hours he says it took him a while to switch back mentally. “I had consciously taken the decision to switch off entirely for the three months. I wanted a proper break, for work to disappear from my train of thought. You rarely get that opportunity and it was really nice to be able to dedicate that time entirely to my daughter,” he says.

Return to work

For Chris returning to work was less mentally draining than taking SPL. “It is easier being at work mentally than doing 24/7 childcare,” he says. “I was able to think.” However, he admits that he found his confidence levels had dropped a little when he returned and it took him a while to rebuild them.

Although he was surprised that nothing much had changed dramatically since he went on leave, he says he gradually realised that there had been all sorts of subtle changes – meetings held, discussions had, debates resolved – that he had missed. His responsibilities had been shared among colleagues while he was away and he felt the need to reassert himself, to prove himself again to his boss, but also to himself. That feeling soon passed, but he describes it as “a big insight” into how many women who have been on parental leave for much longer must feel. “You need time to catch up,” he says.

He adds that other colleagues were generally “surprisingly positive” about him taking SPL. “Women felt it was progressive; older men tended to say they wished they had had the chance to do it,” he says. His manager was very keen to make it happen, he says, and Pearson was very supportive. Indeed a post about his experience on the internal network got 700 views. Chris feels this shows the importance of role models. “Having kids is something that first-time parents have not done before and they are looking for examples. To choose to take your leave in a way that is not the norm is adding something new to what is already quite daunting so I think you do need a bit of self confidence. Over time, though, I think attitudes to Shared Parental Leave will shift along with social expectations.”

Bonding time

Chris says he thinks doing SPL means he is now more hands on at home. Beforehand he felt that he shared tasks with his wife, but having done the SPL he realised there were a lot of things that weren’t routine for him to think about, like what to put in the baby’s bag when going out. He believes that the experience and the greater equity in his relationship has brought him and his wife closer and has certainly increased his bond with his daughter.

Chris would strongly recommend other dads taking SPL. He says: “If you have any kind of doubts, think about what you will think when you look back. Will you wish you had worked or had that time bonding with your child, getting to know them? That opportunity with that child only comes around once.”

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