I first became aware of the concept of paid family leave while serving in the Army in the early 2000s in Germany. I was about 19, and a guy in my tank platoon had married a German girl and was just starting his family. While the Army was among the priorities in my fellow soldier’s life, he was grateful that his wife had access to Germany’s generous paid family leave program, which allowed her to focus on the newest addition to their family.
At the time, it seemed like a no-brainer to me that a society would take care of its families, and, because I didn’t know any better as a 19-year-old guy, I assumed this was true of every developed nation. I didn’t find out until years later that my country was one of the few developed countries that didn’t have a federal paid family leave program.
My daughter was born in August 2017, before Washington state’s new Paid Family and Medical Leave program existed. I used two weeks of vacation to stay home after her birth, went back for a week to ensure I didn’t fall too far behind at work, and then took another two weeks of unpaid leave to spend time with our newborn. The whole experience was stressful, seemed rushed, and because I was a manager, it left me feeling like I’d let down my family and my employer.
We started thinking about a second child last year and followed developments around Washington’s law that enacted its Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML) program. When we learned it would go into effect in 2020, my wife and I tried for a summer baby so we could take advantage of the best time of the year in Western Washington. Because most of our family support lives in the Midwest, we planned out a strategy of “divide and conquer” with our little ones so I could keep our daughter, who was about to turn 3, active with outdoor activities like camping and hiking and my wife could focus on our newborn. This plan became crucial as the pandemic exploded, and we were left with no support when our son was born in June.
I spent the first part of the summer with my daughter, camping at places like Potlatch and Jarrell Cove state parks. We spent hours on sunny days flipping rocks and catching shore crabs, spotting harbor porpoises and poking lion’s mane jellyfish washed up on the shore. My daughter’s imagination and wonder grew with the natural world around her. In late summer, when it was easier to travel with our infant son, my wife and I used Airbnb to rent a few places on Hood Canal and did the same activities as a family. This summer strengthened our family’s bonds first in two-person teams, and later, all together, as a growing family.
The experience on family leave with my son was entirely different than it was when we brought our daughter home. Time together without the stress of juggling work and two little kids allowed my wife and me to give our children what they needed to adjust to the transition and also reflect on mistakes we’d made along the way. It made us better partners to each other, and when I recently returned to work, I came back refreshed and ready to plug back in.
As the family leave program nears its first full year in effect, I want to say thank you. Thank you to my fellow Washingtonians for enacting it, funding it and administering it. The time and security you gave my family when we really needed it was priceless. I’ll be a better father because of it. Strong families make stronger communities, and my family has never been stronger because of your gift to us.