John Darling, Senior Consultant at Willis Towers Watson, talks to me about his Shared Parental Leave #planning

[Part of a series of interviews I’m conducting with other professionals taking Shared Parental Leave]

This week, I had a call with John Darling a Senior Consultant at Willis Towers Watson to discuss his experience of taking Shared Parental Leave.
John took Shared Parental Leave in the summer of 2015, meaning he was a real trailblazer by being one of the very first Dads to take advantage of the new law. John’s son, Arthur, has now started school. Arthur’s school intake will be the first to have pupils whose parents were able to split parental leave between them.
John has some great insights and tips and I absolutely loved this quote “I came back motivated to do better at the job I was doing.”
Enjoy folks!
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Basics
Brief description of family setup:
There’s me, my wife Becky and our son, Arthur, who was born in January 2015 and so he is now nearly 5 years old.
We live in Tooting, South London.
Brief description of your job role etc:
I'm a Senior Consultant working for Willis Towers Watson. I specialise in compensation and benefits and I’m located in the City of London. I’ve worked at Willis Towers Watson for around 9 years so when I took Shared Parental Leave in 2015, I’d been at the company for around 4 to 5 years.
Brief description of your partner’s job and role:
Becky is also a consultant, working in Global Mobility for ECA International. As we’re both consultants, it can feel like a bit of a busman’s holiday at times! Especially given that we work in broadly the same area dealing with pay and benefits.
How did you structure your Shared Parental Leave?
We decided that we would share our parental leave when Becky was off on maternity leave. We wanted to look after Arthur until he was a year old, so I thought I’m going to take advantage of Shared Parental Leave. 
We split the leave equally: Becky took the first six months and I took the second six months. We switched over in around July 2015. [The ability to take Shared Parental Leave only came into law on 1 December 2014].
So Arthur will be the first generation of school starters in which some parents may have taken Shared Parental Leave, that's interesting?
Yes... it's really interesting. I wonder how having six months with me affected his development and, for example, how he views his mum and dad. I’m not sure if anybody has done any studies on this area - but it would be very interesting to find out more.
Work
Did your employer provide enhanced pay for your Shared Parental Leave?
No, I received some statutory pay at the start of the leave but this ended during the leave. As a result, we were down to one salary and money was slightly scarce towards the end of my leave.
Did you feel that Shared Parental Leave was encouraged informally within your employer?
I found my colleagues and the company to be very supportive and positive: most people believed Shared Parental Leave was a really good and important idea.
It’s interesting; I work for people from Sweden who said “This is normal in Sweden - this is just what people do?!” and so it came as no surprise to them.
Lots of people offered me their congratulations and were very supportive. 
Had anyone else in your team/company taken SPL before you?
No, not that I’m aware of.
How was your return to work; was it daunting?
I was actually quite looking forward to returning to work.
The six months out of the office gave me a bit of time to reflect on and some of the things I had been involved in previously and some of the things I want to do when I got back.
I came back motivated to do better at the job I was doing.
Having six months off really put everything into perspective from a personal point of view too. It's not all roses when you're looking after a six month old child. It can be task-driven and sometimes slightly boring - you sometimes find yourself looking at the clock at 4:30 thinking “When’s my wife coming home…!”.
Have you inspired others to take SPL?
I don’t know anybody as yet. I don't think there's anybody who actually has a young family; there’s certainly no young fathers that I'm aware of.
Having said that, I've spoken to clients who have taken Shared Parental Leave, which is good as it shows the message is slowly getting out there.
I'm here to share my experience of SPL if anybody at Willis Towers Watson wanted to take it.
If moving job, would a prospective different employer’s parental leave policy affect your decision about moving company?
Oh... that’s a good question.
It would be one of a number of factors. If the employer had a very positive view on Shared Parental Leave, that would be attractive to me because it is something that I've experienced myself. 
I suppose, looking across all of the companies policies, if I thought the company had a real understanding of work-life balance that would be something that I would find attractive. On the other hand, if the company was quite dogmatic I would possibly want to look elsewhere.
When instructing professional service firms - does your company consider a provider’s values - and would an SPL policy play into this assessment? Or, in other words, does having a good SPL policy give you a better impression of a company?
Yes, definitely.
I’m quite lucky that I deal with people that work within rewards at businesses, so they're heavily into the detail of policies around this area.
Having company that is flexible is always going to be favoured over a company that doesn’t understand what its people are trying to achieve by doing something like Shared Parental Leave.
Your SPL / Fun stuff
What was a typical day on Shared Parental Leave like for you?
If you remember the summer of 2015, about the time I took over, it rained for about two months and so I was stuck inside quite a bit… but other than that...
I had to had to really plan ahead to get some activities in.
On Mondays, I’d take Arthur up to Clapham to go to “Baby Beeps” music class. It was really nice; the mothers were quite receptive to me because I was the only bloke there. It was a bit unusual and shock to the system to turn up to these classes and be the only feller!
I’d also take him for breakfast at a place called the Breakfast Club in Battersea/Clapham - it was a nice walk there and back during which he might fall asleep. And, if I was lucky, he might stay asleep for a bit when I got back home!
It was all about just planning a good routine: having a nap at 10 o'clock, having some food and then trying to do some bits and pieces before lunch, and then having another sleep after lunch… 
Of course, during that time I was trying to prepare for going out... or making lunch... or trying to do some clothes washing... or trying to do the washing up… and you've got a seven / eight month year old demanding your attention. Sometimes you’re thinking to yourself “Just give me 5 seconds!” Sometimes you’re even trying to grab a moment to go to the toilet and you hear wailing from the next room and you’re thinking “Oh my goodness!”
The time that could really drag was 3:00pm to 5:30pm, when you began to think “Right, I'm not really sure what I should be doing here?!” 
But yeah... it was about structure and about getting things in the diary to look forward to.
What would your top tip be for new Dads? 
Get your calendar sorted to make sure that you've got lots and lots of activities planned to break up the week. You can get quite bored sometimes, so make sure you always have things in the diary for the coming week. Also, planning things to do for your own sanity; being able to speak to other adults is really important. There's nothing worse than days on end of just speaking to a 7 month old - it would get very lonely if you didn’t meet other adults.
After your SPL, did you feel more confident about your own childcare abilities?
Yes. One of the reasons I took the six months was I didn't want to be one of those crap Dads who is there on a Saturday thinking “Why is my son doing this” or “Why is he doing that?”.
I actually understood my own son and the reasons why he was doing the things that he was doing. I had a real insight into my son as an individual and his little quirks.
In terms of parenting, was there anything that you felt, as a Dad, you couldn't do? Or vice versa?
I didn’t find any particular childcare task that I couldn't do. There were times when I found some things difficult, but that was more to do with my energy levels than anything else. I think sometimes your energy levels go down a bit I found that I was quite tired a lot of the time.
There was no part of raising my son when I thought, “I can't do this, somebody help me”. Instead, I was very much of the mindset that I’d just roll my sleeves up and get on with it.
Can you see any reason, other than financial impact, why a dad shouldn't take Shared Parental Leave?
I can't see any blockers at all. I'd recommend it to all blokes. It's important, it's great fun, you will understand your child a lot more than if you hadn’t done it.
I'm really fortunate I took that six months off: I feel like I know my son very well now - I understand him as a little boy.
Why do you think take-up of Shared Parental Leave is so small?
There is probably anxiety around finances. I think the other thing that may play a part is some of the social stigmas that we still have. Hopefully over time that will start to break down; it certainly still feels like some tasks are often seen as a “woman’s job” or others as a “man’s job”... Quite frankly, I think that that attitude just needs to be knocked on the head. 
Quickfire qs:
What is the longest you've looked after Arthur on your own? 
4 to 5 days.
Worst childcare task/job? 
Entertaining my son from 3:00pm to 5:00pm when you've exhausted all your activities and you’re still doing the same game that you’ve been doing since 8 o'clock that morning. The repetition used to drive me mad!
Best childcare task/job? 
Oh, that's difficult...
I think getting him to explore new foods; he likes to eat all kinds of weird and wonderful things. Just seeing his reaction when he ate, for example, a shrimp or a bit of squid for the first time - he would have this huge smile on his face and you could tell he was thinking “What is THIS?!”
In your view, who would make the better Dad:
Jeremy Corbyn or Boris Johnson?
  • Jeremy Corbyn I would imagine.

Prince Harry or Prince William? 
  • Probably Prince Harry… he seems a bit more fun...but that could just be their different personalities?

Bill Clinton or Donald Trump?
  • Bill Clinton, without a doubt!

Finally, would you recommend SPL to other dads?
Yes. Yes. Yes please. Let's get the message out there. If anybody wants to get in touch with me, I'd be happy to speak to anybody about SPL - it’s a great thing. 
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© Joe Young / www.dadonspl.co.uk
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