Resting with my sleeping newborn, I felt completely at peace. The long wait was over. The pain was a distant memory. I heard the school bus picking up my son and daughter, and my three-year-old asking for juice with her cereal. Shifting position, I was sharply reminded that I still had some healing to do. I breathed a sigh of relief -- thankful that Daddy was home.
Beyond the birthing room
Though a father's involvement in the birthing process has been widely accepted as the norm, there is still debate over the need for his presence in the days and weeks following birth.
Men often feel resented by employers and co-workers if they choose to take paternity leave. They may need reassurance about the very real benefits of taking this time for their family.
Fathers do have an important role in the beginning of baby's life. Giving the new mother time to recuperate allows her to build up strength to face the challenges ahead. Taking part in the care of the baby helps the new father gain confidence in his parenting abilities. Spending time with the baby and older children helps form a precious bond that will last a lifetime. Paternity leave is not a vacation -- it's valuable time that the family needs to adjust to a major change.
Help for a healing mom
As much as you want to jump right back into your routines following birth, your body will likely have other plans. If you had a cesarean birth, episiotomy or otherwise difficult birth, it may take several days or weeks to completely recover. In these situations, Dad's help may be an absolute necessity.
"I couldn't get out of bed for two days after returning home," says Tina W., a mother of three, on the birth of her third child, "I had a class three episiotomy and it hurt! I was sick and couldn't eat for three days. I could not have been there alone."
Tina's mother was able to help after the births of her first two children, but before the third child was born her mother passed away. Her husband's time away from work was the only option for Tina and her family -- though it was not easily attained.
"To be honest, his employer was not pleased and no, he didn't get paid. I wish he would have had paid paternity leave. We needed the money."
Even if physically you feel great following birth, keep in mind that new moms also need emotional support in the days and weeks following childbirth.
The birth of a child is the beginning of a lifelong learning experience for both parents. During those first few days you'll realize the great responsibility of parenthood and start adjusting to your new role. There's no better time than now to support each other in that adjustment.
"Being first-time parents, neither Patrick nor myself were completely baby savvy," says Rebecca Rothman McCoy of Colorado Springs, Colorado. McCoy had a c-section birth and her husband was granted two weeks paternity leave from the US Army. "It was really nice to have Patrick around for a solid two weeks. Not only was he helpful in my daily routine post-op, but we both learned the basics of baby care through trial and error together, at the same time."
Siblings in the picture
If this is not your first child, paternity leave may be even more essential. Caring for a newborn is challenging enough, but keeping up with older children at the same time can be downright exhausting to a new mother. Sometimes it's with the birth of the second or third child that the father really feels the need for his presence.
"It was wonderful to have [my husband] around, especially when number two and three came along," says Sandy Fleming, a mother of three, "The older ones needed extra attention too and I just wasn't up to the whole job."
Having a new baby in the house is a big change for everyone. Older children can feel pushed aside by all of the attention being lavished on the baby. Having Daddy spend some extra time with them can help fend off jealousy and ease the adjustment to being part of a larger family.
Sealing the family bonds
Perhaps the most important aspect of paternity leave is that it allows time for the father to bond with his growing family.
Ken Swarner, father of two and syndicated family humor columnist in newspapers across the US and Canada, took paternity leave and vacation time after the births of both of his children.
"It was important to me to be home to not only help my wife, but also to bond with my child. When the second child arrived, it was also important to give our first child plenty of attention."
Another benefit that is often overlooked is the bonding that can occur between mother and father during this time. Sharing in the care of your newborn can result in a renewed closeness and appreciation for one another.
"Paternity leave was the best thing I could have done," says Swarner. "I felt like it helped set my mindset towards fathering. I was also able to share the experiences with my wife so we felt a bond that strengthened our relationship."
Looking into options
What is available to you in terms of paternity leave is largely dependent on where you live, the regulations and attitude of your employer and your own determination to have this time with your newborn child.
Attitudes about paternity leave vary widely among different individuals, employers and governments. "In Sweden paternity leave is mandatory," says Katie Gustafsson, of Eskilstuna, Sweden. "New dads get about five days immediately after the baby is born and then about three weeks to be taken during the first few years."
While the United States may be less progressive than some countries in this area, changes supporting families are gradually coming around. The passing of the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993 required all government employers and businesses employing 50 or more people to allow two weeks of unpaid paternity leave. Some large businesses are now offering more time and paid paternity leave.
Your best bet for finding out your options is to speak with your employer long before the birth and see what arrangements are available for you. If paternity leave is not an option, consider taking paid vacation time after your child's birth. Communicate openly with your employer and explore all of the possibilities. You may be the one to open the door for other fathers at your workplace.
In some cases men run up against problems when the subject of paternity leave is raised at work. "I was the first one in the office to take paternity leave, so a lot of the guys looked at me as if I was a slacker. I felt the pressure," says Swarner. "While it was hard at work -- and continued to be when the children were sick and I had to stay home or when I attended school happenings in the middle of the day -- it was worth it."
Though society in general acknowledges the importance of strong families, at times it can be challenging for a man to make his family first priority. But with determination to give your children the very best start in life, you will find ways to do what's best for them. In time it will prove to be well worth the effort.