Baby Astrid, Chris Dean and Ailsa Leslie's first child, was born last August and the couple decided to split maternity leave evenly

He was standing knee-deep in the leisure centre pool: a 30-something, unshaven man holding a chubby baby boy.

My spirit soared in joyous recognition when I spotted him — here was my first fellow solo dad in the wild.

I had been taking my baby daughter Astrid to swimming lessons for several weeks, always surrounded by a sea of mums.

They hadn’t excluded me — many had gone out of their way to be friendly — but amid chatter about episiotomies, maternity wear and breastfeeding, I had felt a little left out.

Astrid, our first child, was born last August, and after six months of maternity leave, my partner Ailsa had returned to work, leaving me to take over for a further six months.

Baby Astrid, Chris Dean and Ailsa Leslie's first child, was born last August and the couple decided to split maternity leave evenly

Baby Astrid, Chris Dean and Ailsa Leslie’s first child, was born last August and the couple decided to split maternity leave evenly

Mothers on maternity leave tend to have built up some friendships from National Childbirth Trust (NCT) classes and the like. But dads rarely have a similar network and I often felt like I was ploughing a very lonely furrow.

Still, after a month as the odd one out, here was another dad at last. Did I cling on to him like a life raft? Did I unburden myself? Did I confess how worried I’d been about Astrid’s solids-to-bottle ratio that week, or the guilt of occasionally feeling a bit bored by it all?

I did not. Even as I battled one gender stereotype, I played my part in another: we made general small talk about how the timing of these lessons was inconvenient for our little ones’ naps and parted with a cheery, ‘See you next week!’

Being a man on extended paternity leave (it’s more common for fathers to take just a couple of weeks after the birth) triggers conflicting emotions. Firstly, surprise at how few of us do it. The opportunity to share a year of parental leave was introduced nearly ten years ago, but analysis by the campaign group Maternity Action suggests only two per cent of couples take it up.

That’s especially odd given the joys of having time off work (sorry boss!) and the thrill of being the first to witness developmental milestones. Then again, there’s also the unending domestic drudgery — and many men feel paranoid about the toll that time off might take on their careers (something working mothers are well aware of).

My own childhood was fairly traditional. In our early years, my father went out to work and my mother stayed at home to look after me and my two younger brothers, supported by grandparents who lived locally. Later, Mum ran her own business from home, so was still able to do the school run and sort dinner.

The agreement was that once Ailsa returned to the office changing nappies, doing feeds, cleaning, cooking and any family bureaucracy was Chris's responsibility

The agreement was that once Ailsa returned to the office changing nappies, doing feeds, cleaning, cooking and any family bureaucracy was Chris’s responsibility

I certainly didn’t imagine that I’d become something of a paternity-leave pioneer.

Like many couples these days, Ailsa and I had our baby relatively late (I’m 38; Ailsa 36) as in our 20s and early 30s we were focused on our careers as journalists at this newspaper. We decided that if we were going to have a baby, parental leave should be a shared endeavour.

As Ailsa repeatedly told me: ‘If women are going to be equal, men have to pick up their half, too.’ I agreed with her wholeheartedly.

When she was four months pregnant, we told our bosses of our shared parental leave plan — employers are legally obliged to accept. Reactions were mixed; older women told Ailsa she’d regret cutting her leave short, younger men said they’d never risk their careers like that, while older men bragged about returning to work 24 hours after their children were born.

But holding my daughter for the first time made me feel like I’d won at life — there was an instant bond. For the first two weeks, Ailsa and I were both at home, getting to know Astrid together.

It was challenging, exhausting but wonderful.

Back at work, however, I seemed to lose my baby skills. Astrid changed so quickly — I’d come home and not know how to soothe her when she was crying. I felt like a second-rate parent.

In February, with Astrid six months old, I began to feel daunted by my new role. Would she cry all day for Mummy? Would I ever be able to feed her? Astrid had been exclusively breastfed up to that point — and was determinedly refusing a bottle.

That’s when anxiety set in. Over the preceding two weeks, I’d make up a bottle, she’d move her head away ever more forcefully . . . and I’d end up delivering her, pleadingly, to Ailsa to be fed. It was only a couple of days before her mother went back to work that Astrid finally relented.

The father-and-daughter duo enjoy peaceful quiet time together in bed

The father-and-daughter duo enjoy peaceful quiet time together in bed

Our agreement was that once Ailsa returned to the office, every facet of keeping our baby alive during the week would be my responsibility. Every night, and the vast majority of the nappies and feeds. On top of that, the cleaning, cooking and any family bureaucracy would be down to me, too.

On the first day, Ailsa did her hair and make-up for the first time in months and walked briskly out of the door. She’d given me plenty of pep talks, but nothing can prepare you for those first moments alone with the baby.

Astrid looked at me. I looked at her. We played with her toys on her playmat. I fed her. I looked at the clock. It was still only 8.10am.

I won’t deny those early days were tough. You can only play peekaboo, bounce a baby in the bouncer, or try to teach her how to play her multi-coloured xylophone for so long.

Often, I’d put her in the pram and take her for a stroll around the park, but I was doing it more for my own wellbeing than hers. As weaning on to solid food coincided with the start of my leave, it fell to me to give Astrid her first proper meals. In those first few weeks, I’d lovingly prepare the mushes from the Joe Wicks recipe book, only for her to shove her hands in the bowl, smear the food around her high chair (and her face), then chuck the whole thing on the floor.

Later, when I gave her small pieces of veg, she’d carefully pick them up between thumb and forefinger, give them a full examination, then drop them daintily on the floor. Normally, Ailsa would be my touchstone and expert adviser but she was busy at work.

On the sleep front, however, I got the better deal. Mercifully, Astrid started sleeping through just as Ailsa returned to work. Getting up to soothe a crying baby has been rare — for which I am very grateful, given the never-ending washing, cleaning and tidying each day.

Chris said that being at work for those first six months of Astrid's life he seemed to lose his baby skills

Chris said that being at work for those first six months of Astrid’s life he seemed to lose his baby skills

When it came to going out and about, I was self-conscious at first. If a woman stared at me on the bus as I cradled Astrid in her sling, I would wonder: ‘Is she judging me? Am I doing this wrong?’

And when last month I took Astrid to a check-up with a health visitor, she greeted us with, ‘Oh, you’re out with Daddy today? Where’s Mummy?’ as if I had kidnapped her. Has a mother ever been questioned as to where the father is in a similar situation? I doubt it.

She then looked down the list of questions she was supposed to ask the mother (there clearly isn’t one for fathers) and hastily ‘adapted’ them for me, including ‘Do you ever do any cleaning in the house?’ and, hugely offensively, ‘Do you domestically abuse your wife?’ I left shaken and shocked.

This seems to be a pattern with health professionals, so keen to be inclusive — except when it comes to fathers.

Another dad told me that he had been extravagantly praised for being able to dress his six-month-old daughter after a weigh-in, with the health visitor astonished a man could do it. It’s not clear to me whether this says more about men and society in general, or the healthcare professionals themselves.

But, over time, something wonderful happened. Astrid and I fell into a happy rhythm, our weeks anchored by the regular swimming and baby sensory sessions, our days a whirlwind of nappies and cleaning up after her but, most of all, fun.

Chris says that by splitting the responsibility they can both relate to what it's like being at home with the baby, as well as at work and missing her

Chris says that by splitting the responsibility they can both relate to what it’s like being at home with the baby, as well as at work and missing her

I felt able to connect with my daughter in a way few fathers can — and a surge of pride when I had to explain to Ailsa that, actually, she was holding her the wrong way; Astrid wanted to be bounced up and down a bit. Ailsa took this incredibly graciously. Although enjoying the cut-and-thrust of a busy newsroom, I knew she was missing Astrid greatly.

Meanwhile, I’ve been able to witness Astrid start crawling at eight months, standing for the first time at nine, and (belatedly) learning the pleasures of the dining table (she now devours banana and egg, but she’s not a fan of broccoli). All things I might have missed had I been in the office.

It has also made my relationship with Ailsa stronger.

We can both properly relate to what it’s like being at home with the baby, as well as at work and missing her.

The family of three enjoy a scenic evening walk together

The family of three enjoy a scenic evening walk together 

Over the past few months, I have slowly started to make dad friends, too, organising excursions to soft play and coffee.

Once those initial barriers are broken down, most dads are keen to chat and meet up. Though, admittedly, few are in it for the long haul, returning to work after a couple of months.

In August, I myself will return to the office and Astrid will start nursery as a one-year-old.

I’m looking forward to going back, but I know I’ll miss giving her a cuddle in the comfy chair before putting her down for her midday nap.

Chris says the past few months have been magical - made more so by the fact that by the time a dad takes over, the mother has done most of the hard work

Chris says the past few months have been magical – made more so by the fact that by the time a dad takes over, the mother has done most of the hard work

I’m sure I would feel differently about this whole experience if I didn’t have a defined end point.

Nothing compares to having watched Astrid pull herself up to standing using her cot bars for the first time with a yelp of triumph.

But I don’t think I could be a full-time stay-at-home dad. I need that particular sense of purpose that going to work provides, alongside my responsibilities as a father.

What would I say to fellow dads? That the past few months have been magical. Made more so by the fact that by the time a dad takes over, the mother has done most of the hard work.

Sleeping through the night and napping are often well established, and long bouts of crying have largely given way to smiles and the joys of food and play.

As for progress, at our most recent swimming session, there were three dads — and only one mum.

So maybe things are changing, albeit at a glacial pace.

And how it felt to leave him holding the baby… 

Every night for nearly six months, I would wake in the darkness to feed my baby. And every night, as I looked at sleeping Chris in the bed beside me, I’d have the same thought. ‘That’ll be me soon . . . asleep. And you’ll be me. Awake.’

At 1am, 3am and 5am, that thought was something to hold on to. And often, too, when Astrid was sick, or screaming, or I was cooking dinner with eyes stinging from sleeplessness, feeling like a pile of used laundry.

Ailsa said Astrid became a living time-capsule to her — 'I couldn’t stop trying to say things or show her things'

Ailsa said Astrid became a living time-capsule to her — ‘I couldn’t stop trying to say things or show her things’

But of course there was the other side, too. The fact that I fiercely loved hanging out with my daughter, her hairy ears and her inexplicable scent of croissants; strapping her on to me and wandering around London, or just sitting and staring at her.

Her easy grin, her dog-toy-squeaky laugh. After frenetic, grinding years of work, everything slowed down and became very simple: feed and sleep. She became a living time-capsule to me — I couldn’t stop trying to say things or show her things in the hope of a future I couldn’t quite comprehend.

And that provoked a second, wistful thought when I looked across at Chris: ‘Soon, I’ll be back at work. And you’ll have all of this . . .’

When Chris and I decided to split maternity leave, it seemed the obvious thing to do. I was raised by my father for much of my childhood while my mother worked abroad, and the sexist bore arguments that women are somehow more attuned to the menial work that can come with childcare seemed as old-fashioned as the idea that women shouldn’t worry their pretty little heads with the vote.

I’m also a feminist who believes in equality — which works both ways: we have to give up some good bits in the expectation that men pick up some of the bad bits.

It was also a way to protect my career. In my 20s I’d noticed there seemed to be a cliff edge at 30-ish where women simply vanished. When I told people of our plan, a colleague, in jest, said, ‘Not content with ruining your career with a baby, you’re ruining his, too!’ I took it in the spirit of equality it was perhaps meant.

Among childless people my age, it was applauded: every millennial feels they’ve got the short end of the stick somehow, so the idea of doling out hardship is perhaps natural to my generation.

When Chris asked how to do something, Ailsa says she bit back the urge to say: 'I didn't give birth to a manual as well'

When Chris asked how to do something, Ailsa says she bit back the urge to say: ‘I didn’t give birth to a manual as well’

I was clear, though, that this would be a straight split. For six months I would do everything during the working week — every night, every nappy, all the cooking, shopping, clothes ordering and research into how to keep our baby alive.

Meanwhile, Chris could concentrate on his demanding work.

But then, at the end of that, no matter how hard I found it not to meddle, we would swap — entirely.

At the start it was hard. ‘How do I do this?’ Chris would ask forlornly, and I’d bite back the urge to say: ‘I didn’t give birth to a manual as well.’

And I had to resist jumping in with, ‘Actually, you do it like this . . .’

Ailsa said she slept blissfully for the first time in six months when Chris took over the role

Ailsa said she slept blissfully for the first time in six months when Chris took over the role

But I handed over the Ocado password, the sleep app log-on, and bucketloads of Milton steriliser — and put my earplugs in and slept blissfully for the first time in six months.

It turns out that if you stop doing it, it is actually fine no matter what you fear — and Chris quickly became a brilliant cook. When I went back to work, I struggled at first. Not with missing my baby, who I knew was in the best of hands, but from feeling like I’d landed in a foreign country where I could hardly remember the language.

Hourly, my phone would ping with a picture: Astrid on a swing, crawling, cuddling her father, trying to stand. Bittersweet things I was missing out on. But I wouldn’t want Chris to miss them just so I didn’t.

If you split parental leave as we’ve done, you get the bad bits, and you get the great bits. And at the end you can both sit on the sofa with a glass of wine, and agree that it’s all pretty hard actually . . . and it turns out that no one has a better lot after all, and isn’t it funny that the baby only eats the butter off the toast?

Astrid has two parents who love her. And that love is equal.

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