The involved dad
Here's how to ease the guilt of not being around all the time... and how to maxi­mise the time you actually do get to spend with your wife and child.
Special time with dad and family.

All guilt, no action?

I used to love going to work. Call me crazy, but I used to really enjoy sitting down at my desk, starting up my workstation and getting stuck into answering my emails. Now? Not so much.

Now I feel guilty for being at work and not at home. Now I find myself seeing how late I can arrive at work without anybody noticing. Now I find myself watching the clock from 4pm, before high-tailing it out of the door at five sharp. It's not that I love my job any less... it's just that I've found something I love a whole lot more. She's one, her name is Isabel, she's my baby daughter, and she's the reason I've been feeling so guilty about my 40-hour working week.

My situation is typical of many new dads. Wracked with the guilt of missing out on all the fun parts of our child's first months, we trudge to work - reluctantly - with pixelated pictures of our babies or toddlers splashed across our laptop wallpapers.

So what's stopping me - or you - from spending more time with the baby?

Conventional wisdom - and society's deep-seated stereotypes - still tells us that a Real Man's place is in the office (with a white collar and a briefcase); a woman's place is in the kitchen (barefoot and pregnant, please); and that any "work-versus-family" concerns are solely for women or sissies.

The only comfort us guilty dads have, is that it could be worse. Heck, we could be moms. Because once you're a mom, everybody has an opinion about what you should be doing, what you're doing wrong, why you shouldn't still be trying to hold down a career, and why First Foods (that anti-allergenic baby rice mixed with sweet potato, for example) are better for your baby than Second Foods (more acidic fruits and veggies, chicken).

Dads, for the most part, are left alone... left to wallow in their guilt about getting home from work when the baby's already been put to bed.

Alleviating the guilt

So how do we alleviate that guilt? How do we make things right with our baby? And how do we get them to say "Dada" instead of "Mama"?

Don't overcompensate

The easy answer is to over-compensate. But that's also the wrong answer.

While trying to make up for lost time, you may be tempted to cram in as much father-baby time as you can between you getting home from work and your baby going to bed. But while all that playing and bouncing around might make you feel better, it'll also end up overstimulating the child.

Overstimulation - that sleep-sapping cocktail of tiredness and excitement - will result in your baby having an even harder time settling down and falling asleep.

No sleep for the baby means no sleep for you, which just means more bad news. Scientists are finding more and more evidence that sleep deprivation can affect your IQ levels, your appetite, your immune system and your chances of developing depression. So instead of playing rough-and-tumble with your baby an hour before her bedtime, take care of her bath-time (it'll give your wife/partner a well-needed break), sit down quietly with her and read a bedtime story - it's sure to ease her into sleep mode.

Your baby will be naturally excited to see you anyway; and a day spent away from you is a long time for her, so you'll both feel much better if you spend some quiet time together reconnecting.

Separate work time and baby time

Remember also that while you can't recapture the time you spend away from your baby, you can make the most of your time together. Leave work at the office (how many times haven't you heard that?), and when you're with your child, be fully there.

During the week, switch off your phone, your computer and your TV. Leave your "homework" until after she's asleep.

Over weekends, take the time you would have spent working on the house, and spend it alone with baby instead. Take her grocery shopping; Mom will appreciate the break.

Your baby won't be a baby forever - so spend quality time with her now, before she grows up and turns into a teenager who wants nothing to do with you.

Make a plan to be there

South African labour law says you're allowed to take three days of paid leave to be present at the birth of your child (it's called "Family Responsibility Leave", and you don't get much of it - see sidebar). Use this time.

You have no legal excuse for missing the birth of your baby, and it's technically against the law for your boss to make you sit in the boardroom while your wife's lying in the delivery room.

Things get a bit trickier after the baby's born, though, and you'll have to work out a deal with your employer if you want to spend more time at home with your child.

Try flexi-time. Ask your employer about working out a new scheduling arrangement for your time in the office. Getting in to work two hours earlier, and leaving two hours earlier, will give you and your baby a few extra hours together in the late afternoon.

Working from home - if your job allows it - will let you take the hour you usually spend swearing in the traffic, and spend it playing with your baby instead. It'll also let you take "tea breaks" to change nappies, play "Where's Teddy?" and share Second Foods with her.

Make sure you're ready for this kind of change, though. If you don't have an area at home for an office with an Internet connection, don't even try working from home.

And also prepare yourself to be strict about not leaping to the rescue every time you hear your baby crying from the other end of the house.

Shift priorities

  • All guilt, no action?
  • Alleviating the guilt
  • Shift priorities
  • It all boils down to deciding what's more important: getting a promotion at work or spending more time with your kids.

See, men still measure their successes and failures in the workplace. Get a group of guys together for a braai, and chances are the first thing they'll ask each other is: "So, boet, how's work going?"

The trick is to turn that around. The trick is to balance bringing home the bacon with being home with baby.

And if you're worried that wanting to spend time with your laaitjie will make you look like a wuss, consider this: Springbok rugby captain John Smit - a man who scrums down with the meanest okes in international rugby - recently took time off from the Boks' post-season training camp to go on paternity leave.

Cricketers Shaun Pollock, Nasser Hussain, Adam Gilchrist and Michael Vaughan have all missed Test matches to be with their wives for the birth of their children. Guilt? Schmilt.

A well-worn piece of corporate mysticism teaches us that what matters most will be that thing you want most to have at the end of your life. No man on his deathbed ever said: "I wish I'd spent more time in the office."

He'll wish - like I'm wishing now - that he'd spent more time with his family. So what's stopping you?

Paternity leave - what the law says...

According to South African labour law, pregnant mothers are entitled to "six weeks maternity leave" or "at least four months consecutive unpaid maternity leave". Fathers? We're not legally entitled to paternity leave at all, so don't bother asking.

According to the law, dads get what's known as Family Responsibility Leave, which decrees that "an employee who has been in employment with an employer for at least four months, and who works at least four days a week for that employer, is entitled to three days paid Family Responsibility Leave during each cycle of 12 months of employment with the employer".

This allocation, however, does not roll over into the next 12-month cycle. In other words, if your wife gives birth, you're allowed to take three days off to be there with her. But if your wife gives birth, your granny dies and your child falls sick - all within one calendar year - you'd better hope those events don't take longer than a day each.

The situation is very different in countries overseas. In Britain, paid Paternity Leave lasts a reasonable two weeks and should be taken after the birth of your baby, either as a block of one or two weeks, says The Economist.

Scandinavian countries have long had generous Parental Leave (over three decades!) In Sweden , for example, a couple can take up to 15 months off work between them, while the state pays 80% of lost wages up to a particular ceiling.

Further, 90 more days can be taken for a smaller payout. The only stipulation is that the leave be taken in a block, or in batches before your child reaches the age of eight.

In 2000, Parental Leave in Canada was expanded from 10 weeks to a substantial 35 weeks, and can be divided between the two parents. Under special circumstances, the Canadian Employment Insurance system has granted up to a year of Parental Leave.

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