Launching my new practice comes two years after I finished up at my previous full-time role, to initially take charge of my most important two clients as a stay-at-home dad. Over this time, I’ve been collecting my thoughts about the experience and adding them bit by bit into what has turned into something of an essay, perhaps a little rambling, and perhaps a little overtaken by forced changes affecting everyone during the pandemic, but which I thought would be worth sharing anyway on the launch of my new venture.
“Stratocumulus Legal” is the name of my new venture that I’m launching. It’s a one-person legal consultancy, aiming to let me pursue what I’ve always liked doing – intellectual property law and related stuff – but more on my own terms.
Looking back at how I got here, nearly two years ago, I posted on LinkedIn that I had left big law to become a full time stay-at-home dad for a while with my two boys, then aged 8 months & 3.5 years, but now aged 2.5 years & 5 years. That post received over 16,000 views, and compared to my usual level of social media activity, that was almost like going viral. I guess that it must have resonated. People left really nice comments – even someone I didn’t know – which I really appreciated.
Then it was never-ending busy! That’s hardly news for the millions of parents who have done it before me, but I thought I’d set out an update and some thoughts about my own stay-at-home dad experience, what I’ve been doing since, and how it led me to here.
Spending time with the kids when they’re so young is tremendously rewarding. It’s time that more dads did this. My experience has really reaffirmed some of the reasons I took this path in the first place.
At the beginning, we kept our older son in childcare three days per week, so it was the baby and me for those three days, and both kids on the other two. Neither my wife nor I have any family living within thousands of kilometres, and I’m a bit envious of those who (in non-pandemic times) can call on grandparents or other family to baby sit for a few hours here or there.
I initially thought I would have lots of time to catch up on all the things that had been building up around the house, which I could never previously get done. Household paperwork, handyman repairs, digital housekeeping, plotting out my career future. That was wildly overestimating what I would manage to get through each day. It turned out I would have 30 minutes here, 45 minutes there during daytime nap times.
When I started, our baby was happy to lie on his play mat, shake a rattle and giggle at me while I did some work on the computer. That didn’t last very long as he did what exactly he was supposed to do – he became increasingly mobile, his daily naps decreased, and he wanted more and more interaction.
I was turning up, week-in and week-out, to the two play groups to which my wife had being taking the kids before she went back to work. I was routinely the only dad. (And also the only non-Japanese parent, which was good for my own language practice! I’m not sure that the other parents knew what to make of me at first, wrangling my kids around in Japanese in front of them.)
I did some coffee catch ups with people in my network, and often took the little guy in the pram with me. He was a great conversation starter, and it was reaffirming to receive some more parenting encouragement from people in my professional network.
Through those chats, I heard plenty of stories about other dads who had stepped up to being the primary caregiver (to use HR speak that I don’t much care for), so I know that other dads were out were doing this too. But I seldom ran into them myself.
Then I discovered the reactions I would sometimes receive as I took the kids out and about as a pram-pushing dad on a weekday. One day fairly early on, I was pushing the baby around the shops doing a grocery run, and stopped in at another shop. Perhaps it looked like I was having a nice outing with the baby, but the lady in that shop cheerily told me “Enjoy the rest of your day off!” as if I’d only borrowed him for a few hours for a bit of fun.
I took the kids to their dental check up one weekday morning, and was heartily greeted by the clinic’s receptionist, “Good on you Dad for bringing the kids to the dentist!” I didn’t know that mums have a monopoly on taking the kids to medical appointments, but then I looked at the rest of the waiting room and it made more sense.
Another day I headed into the city to attend a lunchtime seminar (keeping up my professional awareness and getting some networking in) while my wife looked after the baby during her lunchtime. Afterwards, dressed up in semi-business clothes to try to blend in at the seminar, I was sitting in a park giving the baby his bottle and a snack. This attracted comments from passers by. “Good on you Dad!” said one older person, who conceded that mums wouldn’t get the same reaction when I politely pushed back on the comment. I learned that day that you can only get away with being a stay-at-home dad if you look a bit scruffy.
One of my kids’ playgroup leaders rather often referred to the parents as all the “mums” – even in front of me. It particularly disappointed me when she said this in front of my boys, who usually had the only dad in the room. What message did that send to the kids about my presence and role?
I’d like these reactions to change, but they only will if it’s more normal for dads to be visible doing these things.
After she returned to work, my wife had several business trips with me looking after both kids for up to a week while she was away. Without outsourcing parenthood, this would have been unsustainable if I was still back in my full-time big law job. Of course I kept the children alive for the week, but getting through the evening meal times, bath times, bed times was hard work and tiring. (All the full-time solo parents out there deserve respect! I only did it solo for a week at a time.)
Having two full time career parents and trying to be a 50% parent (ie. 50% of the parenting, not necessarily 50% of my time) as an engaged, involved father of young children just wasn’t working for me, and I think my experience over the last two years has confirmed that. I was at risk of being spread too thinly, and as a result, perhaps wasn’t being terribly effective at anything. It has become belatedly obvious why many (most?) of the other full time lawyers who were parents of small children (whether mums or dads) at my former work seemed to have a spouse/partner who was working less than full time.
HR speak assumes that there must be a “primary” and a “secondary” caregiver – one parent doing more of the parenting work than the other. The notion that both parents evenly share the parenting seems to be a square peg in a round hole situation.
It became very clear that my next career steps required flexibility, to build in time with the kids. To that end, after 5 or 6 months of full-time stay-at-home dadness, I learned through my network about an opportunity that required my Japanese language skillset. For around 18 months, I was working at a law firm on that project, less than full time, while staying flexible for the kids, and it was great. In the office with grown ups on Mondays, then back to being the only dad at playgroup on Tuesdays.
I’ve been the dad version of the stereotypical back-to-work mum, and I found that many issues that are so often framed as issues facing career women are, in fact, issues that are equally faced by any working parent who is trying to juggle. (It’s just that it is mostly women, hence the frequent “working mums” tagline.)
To rhetorically ask some questions that many “working mums” have no doubt asked over many years: How do you have it all? How can you maintain a career, while also maintaining a family and household? Why can’t I have a full-time butler to take care of everything for me?
All of these things I intuitively already knew, but now having actually experienced them, I’m more of a firm believer that for mums to spend more time in the workplace and focus on their careers, dads need to get out of the workplace more and let them. I’m proud of my wife for achieving so much in her career, especially after moving to Australia after we got married and starting her career afresh in a new country and in a new language.
Employers focus on managing parental leave for parents of new babies (and making sure that dads take enough leave at this important time), but I think another challenge for businesses is how do families with two career-focused parents manage after that? Now that we don’t have a newborn or baby in the house any longer, and our eldest has started school this year, it’s the remaining 18 years of childhood that need to be addressed for working dads. One thing I have quickly noticed is that school expects someone to be able to attend daytime events (least of all having someone to pick up children as early as 3pm), while I remember full time employment assuming that I never needed to worry about any of that.
In my experience, big law is not very good at this. Personal budgets and targets actually require many more hours at work than just the face-value numbers suggest. This model implicitly assumes that everyone working full time has someone backing them up to take care of all the stuff at home, looking after the kids, keeping the household operating. But not so surprisingly, not very many people have butlers to achieve this.
Years ago, I remember a male colleague (probably a new dad at the time) telling stories at Friday night drinks, “When babies cry, there’s only four things that they might need. They want food, or a nappy change, or a sleep.” So far, that’s all true enough. “Or sometimes they just want their mum,” he finished. However, when my kids wake up in the middle of the night, they just as often call out for me. Dragging myself out of bed in the wee hours is no fun, but I’m pleased it shows I have an active role in their lives.
Now the kids are getting a bit bigger, and have (a little bit) less time-intensive requirements than when they were babies and toddlers, it’s time for me to take my next career step. That’s why I’m launching my own practice, focusing on an area of law that I’ve always enjoyed, but with the flexibility of self-employment aiming to work around family life a lot better than I could in the past. Maybe it’s the silver lining to come from all this, or maybe I have my head in the clouds – let’s see – but that thought partly explains one of the reasons for the name “Stratocumulus”. (How many bad puns and dad jokes can we think up about the clouds?)
And, I hear you ask, how is this going to go, starting up during a global pandemic? Let’s find out. Maybe I’ll have plenty more time with the kids, I say self-depreciatingly – is that such a bad thing? ☁︎