There’s never a good time to go on parental leave, especially if you’re one of the founders of the company. But taking nine months off to spend time with my newborn son was one of the best things I did—for our relationship, and for my business.
Going on paternity leave was never a question. In Sweden men used about 24% of the total amount of parental leave available in 2012, and both companies that I co-founded have encouraged paternal leave. The system is built so that typically one parent goes on leave when the child is born, then their spouse does, and then when the child is about 18-months-old, they go to kindergarten. My son Arvid was born in May 2008, and I began my leave that January.
Before I went on leave, I was working 60 to 80 hours a week. I had trouble letting go of control, and I was manic about projects. But when I left to be with my son, I felt that there was nothing that could have pulled me away from him. If someone had come and said there was a crisis at the company, I would have had a hard time.
Paternity leave gave me the opportunity to meet people I would never have met otherwise. I would talk with other parents at the playground, and we would ask each other questions like, “What do you do at 3 a.m. to cope with night screams?” It felt like the men tended to focus on solutions and tools: They always had tips to share. The women had grit: They knew you just had to cope with it.
It also let me learn new things. I taught myself how to bake sourdough bread, and I challenged myself to invite people over and cook lunches a few days a week. My son, now 7, will eat anything, and I feel that we have a stronger connection now because I was able to spend so much time with him at a young age.
I look back at my time on parental leave as not only as building an amazing relationship with my son, but also actually learning things that have helped me in my business. Focusing on a fragile being who makes you laugh and cry and whom you love intrinsically makes you think, “So what am I really doing at work?” People often come back and want to do something different, something with meaning, something that is part of something bigger.
I learned that I should have empowered employees more, not just told them what I thought. When I came back to work, I arrived with fresh eyes. I sat down with people and worked with them to help improve their jobs and make everyone more efficient.
One of the things companies should realize is that parental leave benefits both the employee and employer. Parents on leave will grown and learn and come back with the potential to make the business better. It’s the employee’s responsibility to make sure they hand over all key responsibilities so that they aren’t needed during their leave. And it’s the employer’s responsibility to make sure that employees can take the time and still feel included in the company.
Companies should also let go of ingrained ideas that leave is predominately for mothers. As a society, we’re talking a lot about feminism now, especially in tech. I think it’s great that we’re working to make the workplace a gender-equal place. But it can’t just be a discussion of salary—we must also address roles and responsibilities. Netflix’s recent move to give maternity and paternity leave for up to a year after a child is born or adopted is a step in this direction.
I’m shocked by that there aren’t better parental leave policies in the U.S. and around the world. More companies need to accept that maternity and paternity leave policies are important part of building a strong business.