A physician goes on paternity leave. Here are 6 things he learned.

It is important that I make two disclaimers:

  • Disclaimer 1: I am a human being. I feel we run the risk of idolizing people through social media and I want to come out and say that I am really no different than any other person — flaws and all.
  • Disclaimer 2: I am well aware that your amazing blog aims to promote the stories, journeys and challenges of women in EM … so I would like to honor and acknowledge your stories — both “on and off the field” — I am truly humbled that you have invited me to share my journey alongside yours.

My boy Hudson was born June 11, 2015, in Saskatoon, Canada. As a Canadian, my opportunities and exposures are already different than those in the States. I chose to take an extended paternity leave because I have recently come to the conclusion that who we are as human beings is way bigger than what we do (as ER physicians). Reflecting on what I value in life has led me to try and rearrange my life to align with those values. Being fully engaged and present in the newborn phase of Hudson’s life was part of that. I have made many new “learnings,” which I hope you might find useful.

1. We bring ourselves into our parenting. Throughout this journey I have been constantly amazed at how my wife has brought her tenacity and spirit to bear during the pregnancy, labor and first few weeks of recovering from what ended up being an emergency C-section. I admire the amount of ‘get up’ she has and the amazing way she cares for our little one. I, on the other hand, bring a more messy-somewhat-effective style that is an extension of me as the ER doc-dad. The learning here is that we are completely different individuals, and so it should be the expectation that there is disagreement rather than the common claim of a ‘solid front’. A common purpose for me has evolved from strong communication and a willingness to bring less ER doc and more new dad into the mix. I invite you to consider bending to each other and bending to your child.

2. Our organization can either support or impede our efforts. As a Canadian EM doctor, my group is contracted to provide service to the health region. We, as a group, have an understanding that we internally cover maternity & paternity leave and things like urgent family care issues (i.e., parents’ declining health) and sabbaticals. We try to do this across the board.  Therefore, I am not the first doctor in my group to take paternity leave.

I owe a debt of gratitude to the Saskatoon Emergency Physicians for agreeing to cover my shifts and in particular to the scheduler who made sure that this happened seamlessly. One of the mistakes we can make is failing to acknowledge the intangible environment of our work and focus solely on remuneration. If you’re in a position to create or join a group, try to create or join one that values the life side as much as the med side of the employees.

3. Part time parent-clinicians contribute equally on both sides of the fence. Paternity leave has really helped me understand what happens when the new parents are away from work.  By staying home, I have really come to appreciate how much work it is to parent this healthy kid to date (colic and reflux his only issues). I have been able to take the night shift without worrying about having to get to work the next day.  Together my wife and I hand off the screaming kid (giving he other a chance to sleep or take a walk) and, since I am the parent with the baseline pediatrics training, I can keep my sick vs. not sick radar up- just in case.

My non-parenting struggles during leave have centered on my inability to completely step away from work. I have given lectures, planned educational content, supervised a research project and been administratively active all while on “pat leave.” Credit really goes to my wife for enabling me to do this, but I feel I could have been better at setting boundaries. Although straddling part-time duties on both sides of the parenting-work fence, I feel I have been able to provide valuable service to both. Being wholly present as a parent has enabled me to be more present at work. Maybe this was just a chance for me to get some perspective on the entire “work-life balance” thing, but I feel that this kind of “whole self” integration should actually be the norm. ER groups should staff more physicians (maybe each would make a bit less) and reduce each person’s clinical load.  My paternity perspective has shown me that although the money may be less the life gains will be much more.

4. It really does take a village. This summer we took our son to Calgary to visit our families — it was a tumultuous but fun trip. Seeing how much my family and friends adore this kid helped solidify that one cannot parent without the help of others. I would encourage all who can to try and surround their little one with their “village.”

5. There is no correct way to parent.  We need to actively buck the “jonesy,” “judgy” Pinterest-parenting-cult. Especially as physicians — allow yourselves to be messy and contradictive human beings. It’s okay to buy into granny’s folklore — your kid will turn out fine in the end.

6. Taking a paternity leave is good for you. Helping to raise this child has so far been more work than I have ever imagined, and it’s the early days yet. I have changed diapers, learned my babies cues and coos and realized when a mother’s touch is really what he needs. I have also been able to take stock of the things are that truly important in my life — which includes both a loving family and robust career. I feel that this leave has helped me to have more understanding and empathy for what new parents go through it will definitely help me empathize with my patients in the ED.

Most importantly to me, I feel as though I have developed a really strong bond with my child. I have even found myself unexcited to go back to work! It has really stretched me as a human being at a time when I thought I had life pretty much figured out. Work is comparatively way easier — even in the ED! Nevertheless — I would strongly encourage other dads to be there for the first month or two to really be present with their newborn — it’s a frustratingly rewarding experience you won’t regret.

Nadim Lalani is an emergency physician. This article originally appeared in FemInEM.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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