Paternity in practice, beyond the policy

Joseph Gacioch, a nextERA Advisory Group member share five insights from putting paternity into practice.

ARTICLE | Dec 14, 2017

nextERA Series

by Joseph Gacioch, Assistant City Manager, City of Ferndale, MI
Joseph Gacioch

My daughter Maya was born on April 5, 2017. Her birth came one year after my employer, the City of Ferndale, became the first municipality in the State of Michigan to offer a paid parental leave policy, including paternity leave.

In our professional arena, conversation around this topic is frequently narrowed to the mechanics behind the policy debate. However, since my return from paternity leave, few have asked me about the policy mechanics—most ask about my experiences and the rewards of being a temporary full-time parent. For me, it comes down to five key ways that paid paternity leave has shaped me as a new father, a partner, and an employee.

1. My daughter and I bonded as we worked to forge our unique relationship

Maya and I bonded over many things during our six weeks together: the outdoors, dancing, impressions (she doesn't judge), laughing, and a shared love of music. Maya and I walked at least a mile every morning, and we tried to hike at nearby parks twice a week. In between walks, she and I listened to music and built her Maya playlists, which we incorporated into her nightly bath time. Through these routines, we developed a relationship and bond with one another that continues to blossom today. I was able to understand her development beyond the books—Maya started to recognize me and I started to recognize myself in her—and as far as routines, we actually created a dance routine to the Disney song "Under the Sea." We're quite good.

2. I gained confidence in myself as a new father

Going into paternity leave, I lacked confidence in my ability to parent. Most of my time spent with Maya was after work in the evening and on weekends. My first night of paternity began on a Wednesday evening. Maya had a particularly restless night, and I slept in the nursery and struggled to find the right answers for her. We were both frustrated. I was hesitant with bottle feeding, my swaddle skills stunk, I forgot about burping her, and I wasn't the best with nighttime cloth diaper changes.

Drawing on my limited experience during these first few nights, my instinct was to walk her around the neighborhood until she grew weary. Thankfully I learned pretty quickly; I discovered that Maya has different cries for different reasons, I learned to be more aggressive with the bottle, and I developed a routine for dealing with gas and diapers. I can enthusiastically open her up to new experiences because I'm not afraid to leave the house, just the two of us and a diaper bag. I still stink at swaddling, but she's now six months-old and leaving the newborn stage—so bon voyage!

3. My wife and I gained confidence in ourselves as co-parents

My wife, Dani, and I are fortunate to work for organizations that offer maternity and paternity leave. As we prepared for Maya's birth, we knew we wanted to maximize our time with her and delay daycare costs as long as possible. The City of Ferndale's paternity policy allowed me to take my six weeks at any point during the first year. My wife took twelve weeks of maternity leave immediately following Maya's birth, while I staggered and took my six weeks after she went back to work. Handing off full-time parenting responsibilities gave my wife a unique perspective on how paid parental leave impacted our family.

From Dani: I am the only person I know whose husband had six weeks off alone with their child shortly after birth. It was fantastic. I had six weeks of uninterrupted sleep while Joey took on the daunting task of night feedings. But it was also incredibly hard for me to relinquish control of my daily routine and care for Maya, especially since I had perfected the swaddle and my husband had not. It was hard to be hands-off, but I needed to be. The learning curve was tough, but oh so worth it. I know many woman claim family CEO status, but I can’t manage that mental and physical load alone. Or rather, I don’t want to. I want a co-CEO. I need help washing cloth diapers. Paternity leave has given our family a foundation as a cohesive and equitable unit. I am grateful that Ferndale has this policy—it’s unfortunate that it’s not yet common practice.

Because my wife and I each had opportunities to share the parenting load during the first eighteen weeks, we established confidence and trust in each others' abilities. These are foundational constructs for equitable parenting, and—for good or bad—are what enable us to split the workload.
It was important for me to learn through experience rather than through instruction, and those early experiences serve me and my spouse well today. They enable us to function as independent parents when necessary; I am completely confident and comfortable with being on solo dad duty with Maya. Dani has enough confidence to leave Maya and me alone while she takes an upcoming business trip. I cannot say that would be true had I not had experienced my paternity leave.

4. My organization didn't crumble in my absence

Working in a high-speed environment, like most of us do, major projects, work functions, and deadlines are often thought of as immovable or irreplaceable. It can make offering, or taking, an opportunity like paid paternity seem daunting, or even impossible. But my experience taught me something crucial: our organizations are more elastic than we give them credit for, and they will survive. Deadlines can shift, your colleagues will step up to support you, and—in the grand picture—a handful of weeks away from the office is nothing.
In my six-weeks-absent experience, the schedule for a major city-controlled downtown development project took a brief hiatus, while several technology and communications initiatives were soft-implemented under the management of other departments. (Thanks for picking me up, Ferndale team!)

Dani, who works for the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, is part of a team where all five female colleagues had babies within seven months of each other. She says that, through cross-training and continued support during the womens' leaves, her team actually grew stronger.
In taking this time for my family, I also learned an important lesson in patience and perspective. Not every project and meeting require the hastened deadline or frenetic response that I may have once have assigned it. Maya's principles teach value in pausing for perspective, taking stock of the situation, and reconsidering the magnitude of haste previously assigned. Do I find myself victim to the backslide? Sure—old hush puppies are comfortable and kept for good reason. But my experience with her centers me when I’m falling down a frenzy of haste.

5. It's a lot bigger than our individual organizations, jobs, and families

Beyond the policy debate, in practice, my paternity leave completely shaped my perspective, experience, and approach toward fatherhood. Ferndale's community, City Council, city administration and staff, and their families have bought into the idea behind the civic supply chain. Collectively, we believed we were capable and elastic enough to pick one another up. And so we did.

I believe our paid paternity leave policy enabled my family to create a strong foundation—an essential building block for contributing positively toward a healthy civic supply chain. A strong family invigorates community, and a strong community supports the vitality of society.

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