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May 27, 2021

I took 6 months of parental leave. And friends asked if that’s wise

January seems like a long time ago now. As I sat on the stiff, pullout hospital bed, sleep-deprived, Lekha, my daughter, just a day old, in a glass bassinet, and Jayeeta, my wife, recovering from her C-sec, I was still replying to work emails. Until my manager texted me to stop, and cut off.

We’re creatures of habit. And few modern habits are as compulsive as checking notifications and email. And after having worked non-stop for a decade and a half—as a journalist and an editor for the most part of it, which anyway trains you to always be in work mode—it is hard to turn that switch off.

In the four months since, gradually, I have got into full-time parent mode, uneasily at first and still baited by the ping of notifications, and then gradually unfazed by the number in brackets on the Gmail tab counting unread emails, letting them sit there, their bold, unread fonts no longer making me scroll from 7am. My days still start early, but with Lekha’s cries for attention, and a morning stroller walk. The rest of the day is pretty much according to her 3-hour cycles of eat, activity, sleep, repeat. And when I pick up the phone, it is mostly to take photos and videos of her now smiling, now learning to recognise the direction of our voices, now trying to turn, now making a new sound.
Sarit Ray during morning walk with stroller
I happen to be taking longer time off from work than my wife because Netflix gives gender-agnostic parental leave. Of course, I’m aware of my privilege: of not only this time off, but having leaders who led by example, took time off themselves, and broke unsaid boundaries during the Covid work-from-home by normalising having an occasional child on a work call.

But when I tell my friends and former colleagues I’m taking six months off, the reaction is a mix of surprise and concern. Will my job still be waiting? Will it slow down my career? My wife isn’t asked any of these questions. If anything, she’s asked if she’s getting enough leave, and if she can negotiate more.

Caring for a newborn is a full-time gig for two. Yet, more often than not—even amid the rhetoric of gender-equal pay—women are expected to play the primary parent. Sure, gender depictions today are far from the cliches of 90s advertisements: The breadwinning father, the homemaking mother. Or the 70s American suburbia of Betty Draper raising children while Don swigs whiskey in the hospital lounge. But parental leave in most organisations, and countries (barring parts of the Nordic), is still synonymous with “maternity”, with the man getting a few token days or weeks.

I went to school with, and happened to stay friends with, women who were smarter than me, whose class notes helped me scamper through my last-minute exam prep. And who, now, have dropped out of the workforce. The Explained episode on pay gap is recommended viewing to see that it isn't just about companies paying equally. Pay gaps often start when couples have kids in their mid 30s. And society and workplace norms typically enable the man to continue working. And the woman to take a break.

Jayeeta and I went to college together. We both worked as journalists before switching to corporate roles. We remain equally driven about our careers, and still with the idealism of equality of all sorts that liberal arts educations instill. So it was imperative for us that having a child not be at the cost of her career.

In the four months since Lekha was born, our lives have changed. As it will have for anyone who’s had kids. But we’ve found a way to share the load, in as much as parenting can be gender-agnostic. We take turns to sleep on the side of the bed closer to Lekha, to wake up when she does, instead of having to nudge the other person awake at 3am before trying to go back to sleep because there’s a call at 7am.

The rewards have been many: watching Lekha grow up, being there for every doctor visit, learning how to console her after a vaccine, and being rewarded with smiles of recognition and earnest first conversations in gibberish.

In a week, as Jayeeta goes back to work, she will have her own challenges and Gmail’s unread count to play catch up with. But at least she will be able to focus on work, while I’m able to, at least briefly, be the parent who can be nudged awake at 3am.
Sarit Ray holding daughter

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