Aaron Del Rizzo is used to people taking notice when he enters a room. Six-foot-five and solidly built with a shaved head and goatee, the Toronto Crown attorney jokes that he's often mistaken for the defendant when he steps into the courtroom. Just imagine, then, the reaction he got at the Rainbow Songs program with his seven-month-old son, Marcus.
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"I'm walking around in a circle, singing silly children's songs and thinking my buddies would laugh at me," Del Rizzo says with a smile. "But at the same time, I'm thinking this is the greatest thing in the world, to be with my son who's obviously having a good time."
Do men mother?
Del Rizzo, who stayed home with Marcus for four months in the summer of 2009, is one of a growing number of men taking paid parental leave. As a previous study has shown, more than 33 per cent of eligible Canadian fathers took a paid leave, says Andrea Doucet, a sociology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa and author of Do Men Mother? (University of Toronto Press, 2006). "Women's lives are utterly transformed when they have children; men who take some parental leave get to share in some of this transformation," she says.
Canada's paid parental leave benefits average about 35 weeks, allowing more room for Dad to take a leave without cutting in on Mom's time at home, says Doucet. And with studies showing that women earn more than their husbands in more than 40 per cent of households, it often makes financial sense for Dad to be at home.
"Gender roles are switching at work, with women taking on traditional male responsibilities such as primary breadwinning. Men are also increasingly taking on traditional female responsibilities, such as caregiving and domestic work," says Doucet. She explains that by having more hands-on involvement, dads will be more emotionally and practically invested in their children's care.
Page 1 of 5 – Discover what it's like to be a stay-at-home dad on page 2.
My own children certainly changed my life; I left my job as an editor at a national medical newspaper for two months in the summer of 2003 to be with my sons, Owen, then five months old, and Drew, five years. I took the easy way out – my wife, Judy, was home at the same time – but I knew immediately that walks to the park and Lego-building on a rainy day were better than working nine-to-five. I quit my job when my leave ended and spent the next five years as a stay-at-home dad.
Being a stay-at-home dad is hard work – one dad joked that returning to the office was like a vacation – but it's also a chance to bond with our children that our fathers didn't have. Let these heartwarming, humorous tales from three dads who've been there – plus words of wisdom from a pair of parenting pros – be your guide.
Caring for a baby is no walk in the park, of course, even when it's literally a walk in the park. Just filling the day with a little one who doesn't actually do anything can be a struggle, and always being "on" can be mentally exhausting.
Simply be with your baby, says Brian Russell, who runs parent education and fathering programs with Lamp Ontario Early Years Services in Toronto and is provincial coordinator of the Father Involvement Initiative – Ontario Network. Talk about what you see and what you're doing. Babies love to hear adult voices, and narrating is a good way to bond.
When it comes to parental leaves, Jason Landry, a designer with IBM Interactive in Vancouver, is a pro. He took six months after his son, Evan, was born in 2007, and again after his daughter, Anna, was born in 2009. His wife, Jayne, took the first six months each time. His tip for staying sane?
"If you're thinking, 'What can I do?' just get the stroller and go for a walk," he says. "Your child might cry for 10 minutes or for half an hour, but eventually [he or she] is going to be quiet."
Landry filled days with visits to libraries, drop-in centres and Stanley Park; he also bought memberships at the Vancouver Aquarium and the Vancouver Art Gallery. Del Rizzo and Marcus's outings included trips to the park, swimming classes and playdates with a friend. (I would hang out at the fantastic – and free! – Ontario Early Years Centres.)
Balancing housework and playtime
Of course, being at home means more than playtime; there's also housework. "Very early on, when Pendelin would nap, I would take a nap. I thought, 'This is great,'" says Quentin Summers, a systems analyst in Toronto who took a four-month leave at the beginning of 2010 to be with his daughter. "That lasted about a month, then I realized if I kept doing that I was going to fall behind. I didn't want the house to be a mess when my wife got home, and I wanted to at least get dinner started or tidy up a bit."
Page 2 of 5 – Find out how dads learn to balance work and play on page 3.
Russell suggests taking advantage of nap time to do chores – unless dad needs a nap himself – or using a sling to keep baby with you while you work. Putting the baby in a high chair or even a playpen with toys can give you a few minutes here and there, and narrating ("And now we're doing laundry") keeps the baby involved.
Landry found tackling the chores in small pieces was best. "The biggest tip is to not freak out when the chores don't get done," he says. "There are going to be many days when you just won't have the time."
Russell agrees. "It's important for Mom not to have a to-do list. As a dad, I've gotten home and the house has been a disaster, and I haven't said anything. Moms have to do the same thing."
Dealing with the problem of isolation
Dad-focused programs, such as those offered by Ontario Early Years Centres, tend to run evenings and weekends to attract working dads, but Russell says they're a great way for those at home to connect with local dads and cut down on the isolation they may feel. Check online to see what's available in your community.
Family programs, however, are often geared to women; mom-and-tot this and baby-and-mom that are the norm. Dads are welcome, though. In fact, dads who are successful at joining family programs don't worry about whether they fit in, says Russell; they break the ice themselves. Sharing a skill, such as playing guitar, is a great way to fit in.
When Del Rizzo didn't feel like he entirely belonged, he reminded himself why he was walking around in circles, singing silly songs. "I was there for my son's enjoyment, and if no one had talked to me I still would have gone," he says.
The difference between play and bonding
It's more than just playtime, says Russell. Bonding is important. And while dads tend to bond with babies through play and activity rather than through moms' way of communication and care, both methods are important. Landry says an afternoon snack with Evan in a coffee shop was his magic moment. "He couldn't talk or walk, but it was like I was hanging out with a friend," recalls Landry. "I started to imagine what was to come – and that's when it's magic."
"Early attachment is connected to emotional regulation, self-control, physical ability, academic achievement and problem solving," says Russell. "When that attachment is happening, the foundation is being laid for the child to function well as a child and, ultimately, as an adult."
Page 3 of 5 – Could your partner be a stay-at-home dad? Find out how to make paternity leave work for your family on page 4.
Making a smooth transition
"What does it mean that Dad's home? Who's going to do the laundry and make dinner?" asks Russell. "Make sure you have those conversations before the transition actually happens."
Shifting responsibilities also means Mom has to let go of a few things. Accept that Dad has his own way of doing things, says Russell, and resist giving advice until it's requested. "Let Dad be the primary caregiver for those months," he says.
Summers jokes that his wife, Sze-Linn Choong, had to accept that their daughter, Pendelin, would wear some interesting outfits. "I'm not dressing her in a potato sack, but maybe there are going to be some mismatched patterns or something," Summers says, laughing. And Choong didn't change Pendelin's outfit when she got home from work, "which was nice, because it made me feel like I wasn't screwing up."
That's not to say men shouldn't take advantage of the knowledge of experts who have likely just come off a leave of their own. Landry's wife, Jayne, would give him a break when she got home from work, while Del Rizzo says his wife, Marni Halter, eased his time by signing Marcus up for a number of programs ahead of time. Choong gave Summers a full spreadsheet of activities and schedules.
Is it for all dads? Of course not, but none of these dads regretted it. Del Rizzo is in the midst of a leave with his second son, Jonah, and Summers says he plans to take a leave when he and Choong adopt their second child in a few years.
"It's not that it's a breeze; it's hard and not hard in the ways you expect," says Landry. "But the good days come along, and they are just awesome. A good day is epic – you'll remember it forever."
How to make paternity leave happen
Men taking parental leave is now routine. None of the dads I spoke with noted any negative reaction from coworkers, management or their human resources department. (Of course, legally a dad has as much right to a leave as a mom does.) "The good news is that it really doesn't affect your career; I'm doing the most serious work I could be right now," says Del Rizzo. Dads, here are a few tips for a smooth transition into your parental leave.
Tell the boss
"The sooner, the better," says Jenny Pruegger, a human resources consultant. "There might be some planning the manager needs to do for your absence, such as replacing you or shifting responsibilities to other members of the team."
Page 4 of 5 – Discover 5 ways to save money during a parental leave on page 5.
Do the math
You and Mom have 25 weeks of paid leave to share (at 55 per cent of your income) within a year of each birth or adoption, in addition to Mom's 10 sickness and 15 maternity weeks. (The rules are different in Quebec: Dad gets up to five weeks of exclusive leave – also known as Daddy Days – at 70 per cent of his income, on top of mom's 18 weeks of exclusive leave and 32 shareable weeks.) How you divide it and when you take it – including having both of you home at the same time – is up to you.
Landry suggests spending lots of time alone with your little one in the weeks leading up to your leave to get used to the routine and learn your baby's signs, such as when he's hungry.
Make it official
You can submit your application for employee insurance benefits in person at a Service Canada Centre or online at servicecanada.gc.ca – click on Apply for Employment Insurance Benefits. Apply as soon as you stop working to avoid delays.
5 ways to save money during a parental leave
Raising a new baby can bring about lots of expenses, so Mom and Dad may have to cut some corners when it comes to spending. Alyson Schafer, a psychotherapist and author of Ain't Misbehavin' (John Wiley and Sons, 2011), shares five ways to save while on parental leave.
1. Keep your food budget in check. Groceries can be one of your biggest expenses, so save money by cooking meals from scratch instead of regularly buying prepackaged foods.
2. Accept hand-me-down clothes and furniture from family and friends. While it's nice to have new items for your newborn, he'll grow so quickly in the first few months that it isn't always economical.
3. Have date night in. Enjoy your partner's company by the warmth of the fireplace with grown-up food – such as a glass of wine and some Brie cheese.
4. Be the hub of activity. Host a potluck dinner for friends – this lets you skip out of the large grocery bill but keeps you connected with friends.
5. Get creative with transportation. Getting a transit pass, taking the occasional cab or asking a family member for a lift all cost less than owning a second vehicle. – Paula Cilia
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