For three weeks, we were under siege. We slept in our clothes. We showered rarely. We opened the door only to retrieve the food that friends deposited on our porch. It was the best three weeks of my life.
That time is now history, sepia-toned. It can never be recreated or approximated, like so many other moments of our lives. Those first few weeks of Pepin's life at home are a length of tape cut from a cassette, never to be played again.
I'd taken three weeks of parental leave, paid for with sick time. Most Americans are entitled to 12 weeks, without endangering their employment, but few can afford it. Paid parental leave is still a rarity in America, if almost nowhere else—the United States is the only wealthy nation where it's not legally guaranteed and is unusual in this regard even among poor nations. Brazil guarantees 120 days of maternity leave at 100 percent of salary. Gabon guarantees 98. Only Papua New Guinea, Suriname, and Liberia—countries with almost no economy to speak of—stand in solidarity with the U.S. in a laissez-faire experiment for which the outcome is already known.
With time ticking away, I could only dream of Sweden, where even fathers—investment bankers and house painters alike—are assured 16 months of paid leave. Such guaranteed equality has always been too boring for Americans; as a recent comparison of Swedish and American success concluded, we have spent our 239 years together "gambling on something better, and yet settling for something worse." But whatever, even rich Americans don't spend as much time with their babies as they could, and they've presumably all seen The Sound of Music just as often as the rest of us.
I went back to work last week expecting things to feel different, because that's what everyone assumes. But they didn't. The office was the same, the work was the same, and I felt the same way about it—if your work was interesting to begin with, you don't suddenly find it lacking because it doesn't coo or poop or fall asleep on your chest.
What had changed was at home. I had this strange feeling, returning from work and walking upstairs to Pepin's room, that she wouldn't be the same. Having spent every moment with her for three straight weeks, noticing subtle changes from day to day, I imagined that in eight hours—well, I'd never know what I'd missed. There was even a bit of fear, that she would turn to me with eyes much more mature than I'd remembered and recoil in unrecognition.
But on that first day, and every day since, I've found her resting on Lucy's lap, like many times before. And when she sits up, she seems about the same height that she's more or less been since her birth. She gurgles and startles awake and clears her throat like an old man at Thanksgiving, and everything seems just like it was when I left. This may be because I no longer notice the subtle changes, or it may be because I know her now, on a much deeper level, and I'm not likely to forget.
(Photo: Pepin still happy to see her dad, even if he spent the day pushing paper instead of the stroller.)