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The coronavirus lockdown gave me a second chance at paternity leave

Out of darkness comes light.

It feels almost criminal to even think of this awful situation as a positive in anyone’s life. Yet the coronavirus pandemic and its trail of destruction somehow left the cards stacked in my favour. It gave me the unique opportunity to relive my paternity leave. Or to put it more accurately, live the paternity leave I never had.

At this juncture, it perhaps makes sense to recap where all of this started.

The lost paternity leave

When my twin sons were born prematurely, they had a long stay in NICU. That meant that instead of spending my paternity leave welcoming them to our home, I was losing my mind in a neonatal unit miles away.

A quick disclaimer: my employer showed the most incredible compassion during this time, extending my leave by a further two weeks (on top of the mandatory two), and then allowing greater flexibility when I did eventually return to work.

Still, considering this was supposed to be a time to build a relationship with my children and help us settle into family life, the time was lost to neverending days of worry, stress and anxiety.

Though there was some chance to bond with my sons, it was sandwiched between doses of bad news, torturous procedures and intense periods of angst.

Even when the boys were discharged (I took some annual leave at this point), my mental health was now suffering and the NICU experience had taken its toll. The time off was welcome, but also plunged me into a new and uncertain world.

The darkness

In December 2019, when the first murmurings of a new coronavirus were heard, I had no idea how it’d affect our lives here in the UK.

Just weeks later, though, I watched with dumbfounded shock as the virus spread. I felt the deepest sadness as news of the UK and global death toll increased day by day, and I was astonished as the world around us ground to a halt.

I looked at my sons, wondering what we’d brought them into. A world of hate, anger, danger.

I quickly became aware that they were living through an historic event. They were at a similar age to me when my parents would have witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the horror of the Hillsborough disaster. Events they watched knowing they were historic and would be talked about for years to come.

Working from home: a new challenge

As the COVID-19 virus swept through the UK, my place of employment closed its offices and urged us to work from home. Personally, this was no real issue – it was something I’d done before and for the most part, it went well.

Until my wife’s maternity leave ended… and her return to work brought a crushing new reality to bear.

Suddenly, I was responsible for two one-year-olds, whilst attempting to work an eight hour day. It took approximately two minutes to realise this was not possible.

I was soon placed on furlough as part of the government’s Job Retention Scheme, having met the company’s criteria. This was the decision that turned the tide in my favour – and one I’m truly thankful for.

Before we get into the positives, I should point out that this hasn’t been easy.

Firstly, looking after young twins on your own is harder than any working day I’ve ever had. It’s exhausting, taxing, stressful and emotionally-draining.

An activity that makes them laugh one day can make them cry the next. The food they loved yesterday will be thrown to the floor in disgust today. There are tantrums, literal teething problems and sibling squabbles. And that’s just in one morning.

Missed celebrations and developmental appointments

One of the concerns I have is how the lockdown may have hampered my sons’ important early development and general happiness.

The muted birthday celebrations

During the pandemic – when the lockdown was at its most severe – the boys turned one. Back when they were born, this milestone seemed a distant dream, and as the date loomed, we looked forward to a celebration worthy of the miracle babies they are.

Social distancing and shielding put paid to those plans.

Instead, we had to settle for celebrating the day as a family of four and having some family dial into a Zoom call to sing happy birthday and watch the presentation of a cake.

The missed appointments

More pressing matters were at hand though, and again the COVID-19 pandemic swept them away. During these months, the boys have missed medical appointments which are important for the continued measurement of the developmental progress.

They’ve also had to wait for their one-year injections, the appointment initially scheduled for June postponed until August.

Though the health visitor stayed in touch via phone and mail, I feel that the boys have missed out to some degree… and that we, as parents, have also missed out on key information.

The delayed start to nursery

Sure, they’ve got each other – but my wife and I are keen for the boys to mix with other children and learn about making relationships and building friendships.

When my wife returned to work, our sons were set to take the next steps in their development and head to nursery. That became impossible when the nursery had to close due to the pandemic… hence my sudden thrusting into the role of chief care provider.

The light

Early into fatherhood I made a huge call: I sacrificed 20% of my salary to drop a day at work. It made financial sense when balancing nursery fees and commuting costs, but still, trepidation was the main feeling.

The overwhelming and overriding emotion, though, was that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I consider myself unlikely to have more children… but at the same time (considering their difficult beginnings) I consider myself supremely lucky to have two healthy children.

There was one goal: to make memories with my boys. I have no doubt this was the right call for my sanity and for my family… but the additional time I got to spend with them gave me opportunities I’d never normally have had.

Firsts, firsts and firsts

My mind ran wild (in a bad way) when I had to go back to work after my boys were born. Why was it fair that I’d miss their early milestones? Let’s be honest: I’d probably be absent when they said their first words, and when they first crawled.

Certainly, that’d have been the case in normal circumstances. But the coronavirus pandemic meant I was present when these significant events occurred.

Dada! Mama! Ball…

What a privilege to witness!

Though one of our boys was shuffling around commando-style, he’s perfected his crawl to become the household’s resident bundle of energy. Eyes in the back of the head required.

And while his brother was more relaxed and content in situ playing with his toys, I’ve witnessed a transformation into someone who’s risen to the sibling rivalry a twin brotherhood brings. Now, he’ll slope around on his back, propelled by his leg power, or drag himself across the floor on his front to see what’s going on around the house.

A mind rested is a mind repaired

I’m veering into cliché territory here, but I feel rested – mentally.

My job is a sedentary one; I sit at a desk and I write. The thing is, it’s tiring, in a mental sense. This impromptu three-month career break has given me a chance to rest my mind, recharge the batteries and calibrate my mind.

My work is important; not just for my clients and colleagues, but for my family. It keeps a roof over our heads, at least. But thanks to this unforeseen leave brought about by a global pandemic, I’ve had a chance to recuperate.

Any day with a dry forecast has been ripe for walking. Lads and dad have walked for miles – often too far, if I’m honest. Sometimes I’ve taken us so far into the Lincolnshire nature spots that I’ve become knackered well before hometime.

While the boys have napped in their pushchair, I’ve had the chance to catch up on an ever-growing backlog of podcasts (which I’d usually listen to during my work commute).

These forays into the local environs have also soothed my mind. I’ve spoken already about how my sons’ traumatic births affected my mental health (and will no doubt do so again), but it must be said: there’s no better salve than a walk in the fresh air away from the hustle and bustle of the daily rush.

The most valuable thing is the relationship I’ve built with my sons.

The most valuable thing about all of this, though, is the relationship I’ve built with my sons. To hear them shout “dada!” in the morning, to see their faces beam as I enter a room, to see them rush towards me as I walk through the door, to hear their laughter at my daft expressions gives me the most complete feeling.

Bonding with a baby is hard when they’re in hospital is hard, and I feared I’d missed out on this opportunity. Yet we now have a kinship to see us through for decades to come.

A heartfelt thank you

Let me recap: I’m so torn that I feel happy for this time. Tens of thousands of people have lost their lives to a virus that spread across the world like wildfire. Millions have lost loved ones without a chance to say goodbye.

I’m hugely fortunate to have not been directly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, it’s given me a unique opportunity to build lifelong memories.

This, of course, wouldn’t have happened without key participants, to whom heartfelt thanks are owed.

Firstly, to my employer – Summit – thank you. This company has shown the most incredible compassion and understanding at every juncture of my headlong dive into the madness of fatherhood.

Secondly – and most importantly – thank you to my sons. They’re too young to understand what’s going on, too innocent to share any of my worries about their future. But I owe them a debt of gratitude for these last few months.

They’ve made me laugh and made me cry. I’ve had the time of my life with them. It’s a frightening place, but for now, I can shield them from the world to some degree. They still have their innocence. And in later life, I’ll have plenty to tell them about their first year or so on planet Earth.

As the world begins to get back on its feet, people are starting to get back into the streets, restaurants and bars. And I’ll go back to work… but I’ll always remember this time not just for the way it changed the way we live, but for the way it let me relive.

Precious memories with my sons that I never thought I’d get. In the darkness, they gave me light.

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