In February 2021, I gave birth to identical twin girls, Florence and Cecilia. While their arrival has, in so many ways, been the most wonderful gift of my life, it would be misleading to suggest that this was a joyful transition to parenthood for my family.
Rather, it was a blur of tears, anxiety and a needling sense of dread that felt louder and more urgent as the days passed by. This challenge was in no small way due to the inadequate parental leave afforded to my husband, a predicament that is unfortunately commonplace in Australia.
I can remember the conversation well; my husband and I sitting down to make a decision about how long he would be able to stay at home for, and how this would work logistically given the almost certainty that my daughters would be delivered prematurely (monochorionic diamniotic twins are often delivered at the 36-week gestation mark to prevent serious complications due to their shared placenta).
I took one year of parental leave (24 weeks at half pay as offered through my employment as a teacher and the 18 weeks of paid parental leave through the federal program).
At the time of submitting our requests for leave, we learned that he would be eligible for one week of paid leave through his permanent position as a secondary teacher, with the option of taking it at half pay across two weeks. This was in addition to the two weeks of Dad and Partner Pay (paid at minimum wage) offered by the Federal Government.
And so arrived the thematic tension that would continue to unfurl throughout our parenting journey: Can we afford this? Can we afford not to do this? Having twins is not inexpensive, and despite our professional positions earning us an income above the national average salary, it felt imprudent, risky, to spend four weeks on a heavily reduced wage, right at the moment that we were likely to be inundated with extra bills and expenses. With this in mind, we settled upon two weeks at half pay.
Of course, there were other niggly questions about exactly when this would be most usefully taken (our obstetrician suggested we wait until the girls and I had been discharged from hospital, lest my husband run out of leave before we had even made it home), though thankfully this was not the case for us when the time did come. After a week in hospital, we were discharged from the Mater in South Brisbane, and spent the remainder of a fortnight juggling nappies, breast pumps, and an unspoken sense of panic at the prospect of me carrying on solo once my husband returned to work.
Over the next few months my mental health suffered, and despite the enormous support of friends and family, it became clear to those around me that my struggle with parenthood was very much affected by what was later identified as postnatal anxiety and depression. Thankfully, once this had been identified I received swift and effective treatment through my kind and knowledgeable GP, in addition to the continued support by those around me.
Looking back, there were myriad contributing factors to my experience of PND/A, and it is impossible to know whether more substantial parental leave would have had any effect in preventing this condition. Yet, I strongly believe that had my husband been able to take more time to spend at home in those early, sleepless weeks, things would have looked and felt very different.
Potentially, my ailing mental health may have been identified sooner, with our time together as a family allowing more than a rushed bedtime routine upon my husband’s return from work, followed by the ritualistic setting of alarms for the overnight feeding schedule (and juggle of responding to two colicky newborns over those very long nights). Undoubtedly, we would have been afforded greater time to process the monumental shift that had just occurred in our lives, one that followed a very high-risk pregnancy that had felt like months of breath-holding between growth scans and doppler checks.
The practicality of parental leave had never been on my radar until I came to require it myself. Now, the inescapable truth that Australia’s scheme is simply not supporting families in the ways that they need it often plays on my mind. It is a feature of most conversations I have with other parents while I wait for my morning coffee (now with 18-month twins in tow and my work bag packed and ready to go), and it is part of a much broader conversation about gender equality and the systemic inequalities that prevent real change from being enacted in this country. For these reasons, I am grateful to organisations like The Parenthood, who are agitating for real political and social change that will better not only women, but all parents in Australia.