My wife, Jenna, likes to joke that paternity leave saved our marriage. After coming home one day, she found me wild-haired, unshowered, covered in spit-up, bouncing our 2-month-old on my knee, as I said, “I don’t know how you ever got anything done on maternity leave. He never lets me put him down!” I’m not sure, but it’s possible Jenna has never loved me more than that moment.
Two months earlier, on a late Sunday night, Jenna and I got the phone call we had been waiting for — a call to come to Brooklyn for a possible adoption. We drove through the night, got a couple hours of anxious sleep at a hotel, and arrived at the hospital early in the morning, where we met a baby boy born in the early hour of June 11. That boy’s brave mother chose us for an open adoption and gifted us with a love we can never repay.
Our love for him has been so sudden, so total, so absolute that sometimes we forget to breathe.
Prior to his birth, Jenna and I had decided to stagger our family leave so that we could spread it out as long as possible. So after Emerson was born, Jenna went immediately into maternity leave, and I went back to work. A month and a half later, Jenna returned to work.
I had a dream once, a dream of what paternity leave would be. I would take Emerson for long walks through the woods, or read to him as Mozart played in the background. I knew there would be diapers and feedings, of course. But I figured that in between, there would be naps, and cuddles, and giggles, and father imparting all the finer things of life to his son.
Instead, I got poop. And, oh yes, more poop. And there were no naps! Because the moment I lied down with him in bed, or dared — God forbid — to put him down in the crib, he screamed like bloody murder. No, we wanted to walk in maddening circles around the living room until daddy lost all sense of time and purpose.
I’ll be honest: It was hard. There was a lot of crying, mostly mine.
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I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to call Jenna and say, “Please come home!”
I’m glad that I never did. Because that meant I had to figure out for myself what it means to be a father. And I’m a better dad for it, a better husband, too. I didn’t know it was possible, but I love Emerson even more now. I know him better. I know the difference between his cry when he’s hungry and his cry when he’s tired. I know how to make him smile or laugh. And yeah, I know his diapers, and his spit-up, and his sleepless nights. I know him, and he knows me. I found in me a love that passes understanding, a love that’s stronger than even the breaking point of patience.
It wasn’t what I expected, but it was what I needed.
It was what Jenna needed, too. Now, we are truly equal parents.
The gift of those six weeks — the bonding, the learning, the love, all without the distractions of work — is something many fathers never get to experience. Thanks to New York state’s paid family leave, now they can.
Westminster Presbyterian Church, where I pastor, is considering a policy to pay full salary up to eight weeks for all our employees on family leave or disability. In place of a culture that emphasizes work and wealth at the expense of everything else, we would see a life that integrates family, play, service, values and labor. We would see a world with better fathers, and happier children. We would see a shift in gender roles and a restoration of equality.
During my six weeks of paternity leave, I learned how to manage my stress better, how to understand Emerson’s needs better, and in the process, I developed this little mantra that I say to Emerson any time he’s crying or having a hard time falling asleep. Patting him on the back, or cradling him in my arms, I whisper to him: “Daddy’s here. I love you. And I’m sorry it’s so hard.”
And, really, isn’t that all that matters? Daddy’s here. Not somewhere else. Here.
The Rev. Patrick David Heery is the pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Auburn, and the former editor of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s denominational magazine, Presbyterians Today. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, Heery lives in Auburn with his wife, Jenna, and their two dogs, spending much of their free time hiking the countryside.