As part of a small-talk instant-messaging chat with an American colleague this summer, I mentioned that I was taking the family to Italy for what would be my wife’s final vacation before the end of her maternity leave.
The response was strange: “Congratulations on your baby!”
It threw me off for a moment. My children, at the time, were almost 3 and 5. They are worth congratulations, clearly, but they were anything but babies.
Then it dawned on me. To the American mind, maternity leave equals three months. Rodičovská dovolená in the Czech Republic is generally two to three years per kid.
* * *
As a man, I cannot completely comprehend maternity leave. In a superficial way, it sounds like a great break from the rat race: sleep in, relax and, every once in a while, breastfeed.
However, having had a close up view of maternity leave for five years, I know that it is none of these things. It is a constant on-call existence, with late-night wake-ups, constant laundry and always having at the ready a snack or a drink or a tissue or a diaper or a rain jacket or a coloring book. It is a grind much worse than commuting to an office, typing a bit and organizing some stuff.
The reality is that having mom home for our kids’ early formative years established a strong and healthy family. We are lucky to have Rodičovská dovolená here in the Czech Republic.
And now, it is over.
I half thought that my wife would want to relax (read: continue to take care of the kids and always be on call). Instead, she was ready to get back to her career.
This is her story, but I was able to watch it in real time. As it did, I slowly began to realize that my life would also change.
Phase 1 — The Job Search
Around nine months before our youngest was to start preschool and the government money would run out, my wife began to talk about going back to work. As far as I was concerned, it was optional. We didn’t need the money and she could have been a stay-at-home mom. She could have had a part-time job. Yet, being around adults was a big pull.
The pre-maternity leave job was not exciting, so a job search began. There are a lot of new companies and an emerging class of young professionals in Brno. There were a lot of interesting jobs to be had.
Phase 2 — The CV
After so many years of focus on the inside of the family home, there was suddenly a re-orientation toward the world outside. Searching job listings. Talking to friends. Contacting former colleagues. Touching up the CV.
The CV, of course, is a key piece of the process. It takes time to make it perfect. And, when you have a young family, the only free time is when the kids are in bed. That led to several all-nighters to select the interesting jobs, fill out the applications and repeatedly customize the cover letter.
It was fun to hear about all of the possibilities. It was especially nice that she was finally thinking about herself.
Phase 3 — Interviewing
After sending out several inquiries . . . nothing. Two weeks later, still nothing. Finally, on the third week, a deluge of responses.
Interviews were scheduled and, given that the kids needed to be supervised, dad suddenly had to take home office or days off for child care.
That was a sign of things to come.
The interviews were fun to hear about. One required group participation with several other candidates while the staff observed. (I love the fact that one woman, upon hearing of the scheme, picked up and left immediately.)
All of the interviewers had methods to appraise English-speaking ability. Apparently, as a sort of a trap, some would start a sentence in Czech and complete it in English. Given that I mix languages, my children mix languages and my wife mixes languages all the time, this gotcha attempt made her laugh out loud during the interview. Most of the time, however, the interviewees are carefully warned that “we will now change to English”, as though the language switch represented an uncomfortable phase of the interview.
Phase 4 — More Interviewing
No interesting opportunities came through in the first batch. The second wave of responses coincided with a family trip to Kraków. The mobile phone rang off the hook: several calls on the train ride; one as we walked underneath Wawel Royal Castle; another when we walked past the Cloth Hall in Main Market Square.
It seemed that she was the most sought-after woman in central Europe.
Phase 5 — Decision time
After months of applications and interviews and considering and worrying, the final field began to take shape just in time to coincide with the Sept. 1 start of preschool for both kids.
The pre-maternity-leave company had many positives, but, like many large international companies in Brno, it had a younger demographic and a rigid schedule that was not conducive to the schedules of parenthood.
The other potential jobs needed to be weighed: First impression; Location; Atmosphere; Salary; Flexibility; Benefits; Colleagues; Commute.
Phase 6 — The Final Decision
The end result has turned out well. From what I have been told, the position is interesting, the colleagues are fun, the company is supportive, the commute is bearable, the pay is acceptable and the perks are useful. Everything worked out well.
* * *
The real result of the end of maternity leave is: Dad gets screwed!
Mom is no longer the dedicated, full-time, always-available caretaker. Dad has to take up the slack.
Now, after four months of scheduling drop offs and pick ups, dealing with the illnesses of one or both kids, dressing, undressing, brushing teeth, taking the kids to exercise on Monday and ballet on Thursday, preparing snacks, cooking dinners and so much more, I am exhausted!
At one point, while the wife was away on a business trip, I found myself at home with the two toddlers and a “What just happened!?“ shock.
A friend stopped by to return a power drill he had borrowed. He was surprised to see me with a shot of whiskey.
Don’t be surprised, my friend. It’s the life of the dad in a household with two full-time working adults.