RELATED RESOURCES FOR YOU Family How parental leave changed my life and why other dads should take it too

How parental leave changed my life and why other dads should take it too

Blake Woodward

Now, this is what we call a hands-on dad! Taking advantage of the gender-neutral parental leave offered by his employer, PwC, Blake Woodward took nine months off to care for his little boy. Not only did the experience have a profound impact on Blake’s life and priorities, it led him to launch the ground breaking SuitTieStroller.com in an effort to advocate for a more supportive workplace culture for working dads and their families.

Blake’s experience is proof that parenthood is a learned skill, and families only benefit from fathers taking a more active role in caring and home life. His story will have you nodding your head like ‘yes’! Share this one around people!

Can you tell us about your career journey so far?

I studied Commerce (Hons)/Law at the University of Wollongong, then entered the world of Management Consulting with Deloitte’s Human Capital Consulting team in Sydney. After six years, I joined PwC’s consulting practice, where my wife also worked. Over the past ten years, I have mainly worked with clients from government and the financial services industry, primarily relating to large scale transformations, change management, workforce planning and people analytics.

Congratulations on being the proud dad of a gorgeous son. Can you tell us about how becoming a dad has changed your perspective on life? 

Becoming a dad has been the most incredible and transformative experience of my life. To say that I was in total awe of my wife through the whole experience is a complete understatement. Nothing prepares you for holding your child for the first time. The birthing classes only prepare you for getting through the birth—then suddenly you’re holding your newborn and have no idea what to do next!

In the following months, I realised just how much of my life had revolved around me! This prompted a lot of self-reflection. My priorities subsequently changed. When I returned to work, I even found that I was both far more efficient through the day and more motivated to get home than ever before.

Now, you took two months’ leave when your son was born and another seven months when your wife went back to work. What were the reasons behind this decision?

PwC has fantastic parental leave benefits, offering 18 weeks of paid leave to both mums and dads. This meant we had a combined 36 weeks of paid leave that we could use to best support our family. My son was born in December, so I took advantage of the Christmas shutdown period, combining three weeks’ parental leave with annual leave, taking December and January off to learn how to be a dad.

Later in the year, I took another seven months of leave, accessing the remaining 15 weeks’ parental leave combined with leave without pay. I’ve always wanted to be an involved dad, so having equal parental leave gave me this opportunity. We also took concurrent unpaid leave and annual leave to travel together for three months to see family in the US and spend time living in Sardinia. We had always dreamed of taking time out to live in Europe and immerse ourselves in a different culture. This was an incredible experience to share as a newly formed family, but also challenged us on our values and what we wanted our family life to look like longer term. It played a huge role in us asking to transfer from Sydney to Canberra within six months of returning home.

The final reason for taking this time off was to support my wife in returning to work full-time within a year of giving birth, to minimise the impact of maternity leave to her career. She was nearing a milestone promotion to Partner when taking leave, so I wanted to give her the best chance to focus on this when she returned to work. She was successful, making Partner in July 2018!

Tell us about your experience on parental leave and what did you learn?

Taking parental leave was one of the best things I have ever done. It took some getting used to, but it is a period in my life that I will always cherish, and I have formed an incredible bond with my son as a result.

But I also quickly realised that the parental leave experience can be quite isolating for dads. Mothers seem to have lots of avenues for support, such as mothers’ groups, numerous online forums, etc. Even advertising for baby products almost exclusively targets mums.

As a dad, walking the baby aisle in the supermarket and only seeing images of mums and bubs makes you feel like you’re in the wrong aisle, or worse, that being a primary carer dad isn’t socially acceptable.

When I took my son out for the day, people would comment about how great it was that I was taking a day off to be with my son. Strangers even told me I was a ‘great dad’ for doing what I considered the bare minimum, like feeding my son a bottle of milk. I found comments like that somewhat degrading, as a mum would never be praised for that, and I was also doing this full-time!

Through this experience (and some additional research), I discovered that dads are not biologically inferior regarding caring for infants. I learned to do everything my wife did, other than the obvious breastfeeding. I even noticed physiological changes as I adapted into the role—my hearing became more acute to my son’s cries and I even found my reflexes sharpened incredibly, reacting and catching objects my son knocked over far more successfully than before. My son also started turning to me for comfort over my wife—a complete role reversal. Parenting is definitely a learned skill! Dads just need to invest the time to learn, exactly like mums have to do when the baby is born.

I also learned that you need to keep investing in yourself during this time. I developed a daily and weekly routine and stuck to it. My son was a great sleeper, so I kept his sleep schedule religiously, even if it meant sacrificing what I wanted to do. He has always been a super happy kid. I think giving him all the sleep he needed contributed to this. But I also found ways to build my own time around his routine. Mondays became NFL-day where I would do all the washing and ironing for the week while watching back to back football games as my son slept. Making sure that I had time to myself to do something I enjoyed (as well as plenty of outdoor exercise, going for walks with the stroller, etc) was key for looking after my own physical and mental health during such a period of change.

Now, while you were on parental leave you developed an amazing website suittiestroller.com. Can you tell us a bit more about it and what you are wanting to achieve?

The aim of suittiestroller.com is to support corporate dads in taking parental leave, and to advocate for gender-equal parental leave policies.

In my view, parental leave policies that do not offer equal leave for mums and dads reinforce outdated social ideologies from the 1950s. Society has long changed, but many policies haven’t.

Dads can contribute to reducing the gender pay gap by taking parental leave and helping mums return to work sooner. So my motivation is as much about advocating for gender equality and the welfare of the family as it is for the rights of dads.

I want my experience and voice to challenge the social norm and normalise the concept of dads being active in their kids’ lives—starting with taking parental leave. The focus on corporate dads is to reflect my own experience, noting that smaller organisations may find it more difficult to offer equal parental leave to their employees. There are many benefits for equal parental leave for dads, their children and families, and also employers and society in general. I use modern research and insights from across the globe to explore and address all these issues.

The website is essentially broken into three parts. The first part aims to help corporate dads understand their rights and options for taking parental leave, including understanding the various corporate and government options (where applicable) for accessing leave. It also sets out tips for making the most of the time off, with the general aim of encouraging more dads to take parental leave. The second part focuses on helping corporate dads create and maintain work-life balance upon returning to work, with tips on setting up flexible working options and agreeing them with your boss. The final part focuses on advocating for equal parental leave policies to employers and government. This includes the commercial rationale for including dads in parental leave policies, and how equal parental leave is currently a big incentive for recruiting and retaining millennial talent.

When you returned to work, you went back four days a week. What are the benefits that you see of working like this? What do you think the barriers are preventing more working dads taking advantage of flexible working?

My wife and I decided that she would return full-time to help her focus on her next promotion to Partner, while I returned part-time. We didn’t want our son in daycare full-time as a one year old, so this arrangement made the most sense for our situation. Working four days struck a good balance between keeping my own career and professional development on track while continuing to care for my son. We both adopted flexible working options into how we work, from working at home to setting working hours that accommodate daycare pickups, which has also helped us make it work.

I think many men are confronted by the prospect of their career or salary stalling as a consequence of being a more involved dad, even though this has always been the experience for women. The biggest challenge though is the lack of normalisation and acceptance of dads working part-time or taking up flexible working options. In building my website, I came across many stories where organisations have great parental leave and flexible working policies for dads, but it was career suicide for dads to take up these options.

Having good policies isn’t enough—if organisations are serious about realising the benefits of equal parental leave, they also need to embed these policies into their corporate culture and way of working. This means leaders publicly demonstrating their support and even celebrating and role modelling men taking up these options.

Many men are worried about the impact that taking parental leave will have on their career. What is your advice to other men who are considering parental leave?

My advice to dads (and future dads) is to accept that if someone takes parental leave, there is likely to be a career impact. But if we change the narrative from, ‘How will parental leave impact me?’ to, ‘How will parental leave impact my family?’, it makes for a very different conversation. This career impact can be planned for and potentially minimised. If only one parent takes an extended period of leave, it might take years to get their career back on track, significantly impacting their earning potential. But if both partners share the impact by each taking a shorter period of parental leave, the individual and combined impact may be less than one parent baring the full impact. So start having the conversation with your partner early to plan out what is best for your family unit.

Secondly, treat parental leave like an investment, rather than a cost. As with any investment, do your research on what you are investing in before deciding whether or not it is for you. Start by connecting with other dads that have taken parental leave to understand the benefits for you, your child and your family. Also speak to older dads who didn’t have the opportunity to take parental leave and hear their story—many I have spoken with regret not having had this opportunity themselves!

Finally, try to look beyond the now and see the bigger scheme of things. This generation is living longer and retiring later in life than previous generations, so ask yourself, ‘How important is it to reach my next promotion now versus one to two years’ time?’ Particularly in light of the fact that your career will likely span several more decades before retirement anyway. You may reach the same answer, but I would advise dads to make decisions on what most reflects their personal and family’s values rather than being driven by fear of what may or may not happen in their career.

How do you practically manage the juggle of family and work with your wife?

The juggling of work and family is a constant challenge. We both work long hours and interstate travel comes about frequently. Having recently moved cities, we also don’t have a support network of family or friends to call on. The biggest factors for us to make it work are communication, coordination and respect for each other professionally and personally.

At the start of each week, we sit down and discuss how to share the load for the week. Having an up-to-date calendar is critical! Neither of us automatically accepts invites to after-hours events—we add it to the weekly list of events and decide together which ones we can attend. If we have a clash, we consider if one person needs the time out more than the other, or if we both actually need to say no and prioritise family time. In the end, it’s all about knowing what the right balance looks like, setting our priorities as a family and making sacrifices together in order to stick to them.

 

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