My wife & I are expecting our first—a girl—in under 2 weeks!!! Figuring out how much paternity leave to take as a founder of a fast-growing startup has been challenging for me, and I wanted to share my thought process in case they’re helpful to you.
On the one hand, I’m really excited my wife & I are taking this next step as a family, and don’t want to short change that experience by jumping back into work too quickly.
On the other hand, I’m very invested in my company and really don’t like the idea of being away from it for long. That said, there are 3 other soon-to-be-dads at Salsify due within a month of me, and I’m worried that anything I do may, unfortunately, influence how they and other future parents at Salsify think about paternity/maternity leave (the old “there’s the official policy, but really this is what’s really expected” kind of thing).
This is a quick writeup of my thought process, concerns, and current plan regarding my paternity leave. New mothers—including founders—have done a great job writing about their thought processes and experiences of maternity leave, but there really hasn’t been enough discussion from the new father side of things in tech. I hope that this helps other founders as well as Salsify employees think through their own experiences.
One quick pre-note since anything relating to parenting tends to lead to heated righteous discussions: this article is about my family’s situation, needs, and desires and is not intended to be an opinion on how anyone else should operate. Your family’s situation, needs, and desires are very likely different than ours, and just as valid. I just hope my experience helps others think through their own situations, whatever they may be.
Any couple’s leave situation involves both new parents; what is possible for one partner naturally restricts what may be possible for the other. My wife is a doctor in residency and will be taking the rest of 2016 as maternity leave; we’re extremely fortunate to be in a position where that’s possible.
In addition, her parents are also Massachusetts residents, have flexibility, and are and willing to help out some at the beginning. My parents, retired, would also help out if asked.
Salsify, my company, is now over 100 employees and growing very quickly. We currently have an official 2-month paid maternity/paternity leave policy.
Finally, my commute is short; it’s about a 10-minute bike ride or so to get to the office (yay Boston!). This provides great potential flexibility since popping in for a few hours is totally reasonable.
This means that I have quite a bit of flexibility to determine my own leave! So the question is: how much should I take?
“In some ways paternity leave is more difficult for entrepreneurs than for employees. We have control issues. We think it’s our personal responsibility to solve every problem. We invest too much of our personal identity in the success of our companies…. While on leave, I learned to empower other people in my company rather than to try doing everything myself. I learned to trust my colleagues more.”
Before I get into my own needs & desires, I’d like to acknowledge worries that have been going through my mind about basically any choice that I make regarding both the startup-specific and non-startup-specific concerns/worries/fears.
- Precedence for employees. Although we have a 2-month paid maternity/paternity leave, I’m very worried that if I only take, say, 2 weeks off, people might think “yeah we have that policy but really no one takes it”. I’ve been regularly surprised by how seriously founder tone & actions are taken by employees, and I really, truly want people to be able to make the right decisions for their families. Zuckerberg’s example of taking 2 full months off was very powerful, and Tomer London of Gusto set the same strong example more recently. I’m afraid of being the anti-example to my own employees if I take less than the full policy provides.
- The value of my personal contributions as a founder. We’re still at a scale where my own personal contribution to the company—even for things like subject matter expertise—can have a significant positive impact. In particular the projects I’ve been focusing on are in many ways uniquely doable by founders. The vast majority of startups don’t get as far as we’ve come, and I feel like I’d be letting myself and my employees down if I’m away too long. I know this is exactly the type of self-important, guilt-ridden justification that is often used to rationalize not taking longer leave of any kind off (even just plain vacations!), but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s there for me right now, and any decision I make on paternity leave must take it into account.
- FOMO. Things are happening so quickly, and every few months Salsify feels like an entirely different company. Seeing the product team present new features is so awesome. Talking to prospects and customers is always an endorphin rush for me. It’s really exciting, and I don’t want to miss any of the ride! I’ve had friends that maybe like-not-love their job or who love their job but feel passionately about the first precious months of a newborn’s life who just weren’t in a rush to get back to work, and I get that, but I will absolutely be in a rush to get back.
- Wife boredom. I’m worried about my wife once I return to work. She has months off, and will literally go crazy if she’s at home all day every day with no other adults to interact with. I know if our situations were reversed and I was sitting around, sleep-deprived, with a new human that I love but that isn’t much of a conversational buddy, I’d be bored out of my skull. We haven’t spent much time investigating new parent groups and activities in our area so I don’t know what’s out there, but I am worried about her.
Needs & Desires
The above worries notwithstanding, my goals for paternity leave are:
- Start a family!!! Seriously pumped.
- Support my wife in any way possible. I’m about the last of my broader friend group to have a kid (most have 2!). My little brother has 2. So I’m fortunate to have tons of contemporary role models that have been through this before, and the consensus opinion is that the key value a new father provides to the family in the first few weeks is support of basically every kind. However, once a mother & baby get into a rhythm, the value of that support tapers off; most people I’ve talked to say that after about 2-3 weeks it’s not really necessary for the father to be around 24x7. I’m well aware this may be the most controversial paragraph in this whole article, but remember: I’m balancing “I really want to work” with “I’m really excited about being a father”, so am trying to be realistic about how valuable I am through what period based on friendly advice.
Really that’s it! I personally don’t feel any super desire or pressure to do 24x7 new family bonding (this is the most frequent desire of other new fathers I’ve heard expressed, written about beautifully by Blake Mycoskie of Toms Shoes). To be sure, I’m excited about the bonding process, but think that’s going to happen anyway whether I’m at home for 2 weeks or 8, and personally don’t put overly much importance on the first days or weeks over other times.
(To repeat the above disclaimer: I’m not judging anyone else’s needs or desires; these are mine, and yours are probably different and just as valid.)
“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy,”
Helmuth von Moltke.
And in this case, the enemy is infinite poopy diapers at all hours of the day.
Any new parent can be told what to expect (and probably get as many opinions as advisors), but I suspect no matter how much background research new parents do or how many people they talk to, their own plans, expectations, and reactions to becoming parents are impossible to predict. I have no doubt that I’ll read this article in 2 months and think what a fool I was in 100 ways.
But having a plan to break is better than no plan at all.
My current plan (assuming no medical complications that will obviously change this):
- Take 2-3 weeks leave. If you’re a Salsify employee reading this: please, please, please do what is right for you and do not read anything into this other than my own choice. I nor anyone else on the exec team will judge you poorly with bullshit like “I guess he’s not that dedicated”; we created a 2-month paid policy so that people can use it, so don’t talk yourself out of it based on what you think we think. If in doubt, I’ll give you a pep talk to take as much of the time as you need.
- Week 3 start coming into the office for a couple hours here and there for key meetings.
- Week 4 grandparents arrive here and there to help out and I’m basically back at work full time.
I have no travel plans or other critical meetings for the first month of baby’s life so there is flex in my schedule should things turn out differently, and I also have a great team that can support me being away longer if needed. I’ll probably hold off on making any overnight client/prospect/partner trips until my wife & I feel that we’re in a good spot for me to return to that.
There is so little writing from expecting fathers on what they’re thinking—about paternity leave or anything else—that I really just wanted to get my own thoughts and experience out there in case they’re helpful to others.
Wish us luck! I’ll update in a few months on how wrong my assumptions above were :)