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Robert Neubecker

As an early-career researcher, taking paternity leave felt risky

“Don’t worry,” my boss said. “No one will even notice you were gone.” I knew he was trying to calm my worries that I would inconvenience others by taking parental leave after the birth of my second child. But in some ways, deciding to take time off turned out to be more complicated the second time around. I had just started to take on leadership roles at work, and I did not want to let down my colleagues and collaborators. I feared that if I took a leave, everything would fall apart and they’d realize I never should have been trusted in the driver’s seat in the first place. Now, I had the opposite worry: “If they don’t even notice I’m gone, will they realize everything works fine without me?”

When our first child was born 4 years earlier, my wife and I lived in Japan, where paternity leave is a somewhat unusual ask. We had a long conversation about what would work best for us as professionals and as a family. My wife’s contract as a university program manager allowed 2 months of maternity leave; my contract didn’t offer any parental leave. But I knew I would regret not taking time off to be with our son. Plus, none of my work colleagues would be affected by any delays to finishing my thesis, preparing for my defense, or submitting my grant application. The decision was clear: My wife and I would both take leave before returning to work and starting our son in child care.

I was lucky to have a supportive boss who helped me adjust my contract; for 9 months, I worked 2 days a week before returning to full time. At home, life revolved around the baby, full of joy and exhaustion. Work provided a space for adult interactions and surely helped my mental health. I also quickly became more realistic and pragmatic with my time management at work—a skill that seems more important with every passing year.

Over the next few years, I grew as a parent and an academic, navigating diapers and day care and moving to a postdoc position in Sweden. My new supervisors nudged me out of my comfort zone and encouraged me to step up into leadership roles, including co-leading a project with 11 colleagues scattered across six time zones and another with eight colleagues in eight different countries.

So, when my wife and I were expecting our second child in 2019, our considerations about taking leave were quite different. Sweden offers generous support for new parents, which in some ways made things easier—but at the same time, I was now responsible for collaborations that involved people I didn’t want to let down. Somewhere not-so-deep inside, I had a feeling I was about to blow my big chance. I had entered academia in my 30s and was a decade behind my peers in terms of experience. Could I afford to take more time away from work?

After much discussion with my wife and colleagues, I realized that—as much as I love science—my family comes first. My wife decided she was comfortable taking a year off from her job, and I ended up taking 8 months off over the course of a year and a half—the first 3 months after our son was born, some time over the summer when day care was closed and both kids were at home, and then 4 months after my wife went back to work.

My contract didn’t offer any parental leave. But I knew I would regret not taking time off.

I found that my fears about taking leave were mostly unfounded. Collaborators immediately stepped up to keep projects on track or bring them over the finish line. No one ever blamed me for taking time off. I missed a couple of funding calls and was left off a few papers I think maybe I should have been on, but I’m already forgetting the specifics. I don’t have any regrets—and if I’m another step behind my peers as a result, so be it.

For me, accepting that my career is secondary to my family made every other decision easier. And when I articulated that to my colleagues, they all understood and accepted my priorities. Sometimes academia is described as a hypercompetitive space in which people are pushed to the extremes to succeed. But the support and generosity of my colleagues and collaborators has taught me it can also be a kind space, and this is something to foster and treasure.

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