Philip Potter

  • Dadding, s2e5: Returning to work

    Posted on 18 July 2020

    I’m coming to the end of my first period of Shared Parental Leave and I’m slowly returning to work. I thought I’d write about what I’ve been doing and how it’s been.

    The nurseries reopened

    First, the nurseries reopened. I don’t think I would have returned to work if they hadn’t. In principle I could book the whole year off via Shared Parental Leave, at a financial cost to myself, but looking after two young children is a full time job and I didn’t see any way of making it work. Now that our 3-year-old is back at nursery for 3 days a week (soon to be 4), it felt viable to try to return to work.

    Easing back in

    I’ve been using Shared Parental Leave in Touch (SPLIT) days to slowly return to work. You get 20 of these, and I have been using them to gradually return to work more and more. I started by working just 2 days a week, so that we still had one day of respite where Luke was at nursery and both parents were around to look after baby Robin. This was also a way we could see what it was like working with our newly-expanded family, before fully committing to return to work – I wouldn’t formally return to work until I’d filled in a SPL variation form.

    Currently I’m up to 3 days a week and I will probably settle at a 4 day week. Luke only has 4 days childcare for the foreseeable future and I don’t think I’ll be ready to go back to full time for some time.

    Structuring the day

    Of course, one big change since I went on leave is that everyone is home working now. This has been a big benefit that allows me to more easily balance returning to work and being there for my family.

    My wife Sonia and I have had a lot of conversations about having some structure in the day to be able to manage expectations about the division of labour in the household. As an example, one early sticking point was that normally when I work, I take my lunch break at a convenient time when I’ve finished a piece of work, any time between 12 and 1. This did not suit Sonia at all: as a breastfeeding mother, she was usually ravenous by 12 and could not wait until 1 for lunch; furthermore, it made it difficult to plan who would prepare lunch and often it would fall to her by default. As a result I now down tools at 12 every day like clockwork, and we have lunch together. Sometimes I prepare lunch, and sometimes she does.

    I take a morning and afternoon break of around 15 minutes to spend time with the baby. Sometimes I put him in the sling and walk him around the local park. This is excellent time because it gives Sonia a break and it gives me all-important bonding time with my baby boy.

    As always, the important factor has been that Sonia and I regularly discuss what is working and what isn’t, and work towards finding a solution. At work, my line manager and my team have also been very flexible and accommodating, which has made returning to work much easier and more productive.

    Structuring my work

    Before I went on Shared Parental Leave, I was tech lead of a team. Obviously, the team needed a replacement tech lead when I went away. I am returning to work in the same team, but now as an individual contributor. I have been a tech lead for most of the last 5 years so it’s a refreshing change to be a regular engineer again, writing code and solving problems. Of course, I still apply my so-called “soft skills” that were so key to technical leadership, and I can still lead people as an IC in localised contexts, but I have much fewer meetings and the focus of my role is different. I have more time to catch up on the depths of the technology that has changed in the last 5 years.

    Working only 2 days made it hard to have much continuity in my work: I’d pick up a piece of work, someone else would finish it while I was away, and I’d have to get context on a new thing when I returned to work. I resolved some of this by being quite self-directed in what I worked on, rather than waiting for someone to be available to explain a task to me. This was good in that I could be productive, although it meant I didn’t necessarily feel too aligned to the team’s priorities as I was kind of ignoring the prioritised backlog for a while.

    Some of the work I did was definitely valuable: for example, identifying quick cost savings in our infrastructure. Some was perhaps less so: I upgraded a bunch of systems from Ubuntu Bionic to Focal, which is (probably) a thing that needs doing at some point, but certainly isn’t urgent.

    Now that I’m up to 3 days, this has been less of a problem: 3 days is enough time to finish most tasks; and the two days away is less time to lose context on things.

    Footnote: on home working

    I have always thought that I would hate full-time home working. I really enjoy the face-to-face social contact of an office, and the serendipitous unintentional interactions with people. Spontaneously grabbing lunch or coffee with someone you don’t normally work with, for example. I also find it easier to have difficult conversations face-to-face. Finally, I enjoy having a commute (by bike) to bookend the day, to mark the transition from “work mode” to “home mode”, and to build exercise into my daily routine.

    However, I have really enjoyed this recent period of home working. I get to be close to my family – and spend my breaks with them. My work has been effective. Naturally, it is easier to work from home when everyone is working from home, rather than when only some people are.

    I know that this isn’t the same as joining a remote-first or remote-only organisation from the ground up. The people on my work slack are people I have spent months or years building up face-to-face social interactions with, which makes it easier to assume good faith in text-based interactions and to avoid misunderstandings. I haven’t had to do an annual review remotely (either my own, or for someone else).

    I’m certainly more open to the idea of home working more in future, but I’m also cautious that the current situation is not necessarily how it would always be.

  • A funeral in the time of COVID

    Posted on 07 July 2020

    I was supposed to go to a funeral today. I wasn’t able to go. But I found my own ways of remembering and marking the occasion, and writing about them is part of that.

    A couple of weeks ago, my dad’s partner passed away. It was very sudden and unexpected. I didn’t

    Endless practicalities

    My initial feeling was simultaneously: I have to go, and I can’t go. I have to go to remember Tracy, and to support my dad. I can’t go because the rules are too onerous, and the distance too great.

    I did a lot of looking into what specifically the rules said: both here in England and back in Scotland, because the rules are different. In England there was a notable easing of restrictions over the 4th July weekend; in Scotland it has been somewhat more muted.

    Aberdeen is a long way away. We’re used to thinking of the UK as a small country, but Aberdeen is still 7 hours’ train ride away from London, or 1.5 hours flight. There is only one flight a day, which means it’s impossible to do a day trip by air; a day trip by train is possible but incredibly impractical. There is normally an overnight sleeper service but that is not currently running.

    Then, once I’ve got to Aberdeen, I have to get around. I don’t want to use public transport if I can avoid it. If I took the train, I could bring my bike with me; if I flew I couldn’t.

    It’s not permitted in the rules to stay overnight at someone else’s house in Scotland. In principle you can form a bubble with another household to mitigate this; but only if at least one of the two households has only one adult, and as my younger brother lives with my dad this does not apply. Perhaps it would be permitted to stay in Tracy’s flat, but she lived on the other side of Aberdeen from my dad which would make things impractical.

    I also had to consider my family’s needs. Bedtime with a baby and a 3-year-old is still not an easy time with two of us; my wife was very supportive of me going but we were both concerned about how difficult it might be for her in my absence.

    Finally, it would very much be against the rules to give my dad a hug. It’s not possible to give someone a hug and maintain 2 metres of distance. I decided that this is one rule that I was willing to ignore, on this occasion, if he was similarly willing.

    This is it, I’m going

    Having trawled through all the possibilities – transport connections, accomodation options, time away from family – we decided we could make it work; I’d fly up north on the day of the funeral, go

    The day itself

    On the day of the funeral, I decided that at 12 o’clock, the time of the funeral, I would sit in silence for a while. I come from a Quaker background, and so silence is my natural tool for these occasions. I didn’t make much more plans than this; but at 11:30 I surprised myself by what I felt I needed to do.

    I changed into more funereal clothes: sombre, dark colours and more formal than usual for a weekday. I rearranged the furniture in the lounge into a circle, using whatever seating we had to hand: a sofa, a pilates ball, a wooden folding chair, a footstool. Somehow, even though I was on my own, there still needed to be this resemblance to a Quaker meeting for worship. Again, I did not plan any of this; I just found myself on autopilot doing all of these things, because this is how my mourning needed to be in this particular moment.

    At 12 o’clock, I sat on the wooden chair, in the impromptu circle, and started centring down into my silence. I couldn’t help notice that, completely unintended by me, there was an extra seat in the circle: Luke’s potty. It seemed ridiculous, farcical even, and yet entirely right than he should somehow be represented. He knew Tracy as well as any of us.

  • Dadding, s2e4: An update on the baby

    Posted on 13 May 2020

    I haven’t written these every week but I’m going to try to get back into the habit. There’s lots happening that I could talk about: the ongoing coronavirus crisis, coping with Luke (our 3-year-old), making hard decisions about whether and when to go back to work; but for this post I thought I’d focus on baby Robin.

    Robin is, by and large, a good-natured baby who doesn’t cry very much. As a result, he often gets left on his own in the corner of the room to lie there and watch the world go by, while we struggle with domestic chores, or getting Luke to sit on the potty. During the first month or so, he also wasn’t very interactive: he would wake for feeds and nappy changes and sleep most of the rest of the time, and his immature eyes weren’t capable of seeing very much.

    That has started changing recently. He’s started smiling, which is was a real milestone for us. The feeling when a baby smiles at you with a huge, gummy grin is something close to euphoria: maybe much of the rest of our life is pretty substandard right now but those smiles go a long way towards making up for it.

    Robin is also spending quite a bit more time awake and just watching and listening. He’ll sit in his bouncy chair and watch you eat your lunch or dinner with a wide-eyed look of wonder. Or you’ll put him in the pram, where previously he would fall asleep as soon as you started pushing him along, and instead find he’s looking you straight in the eye with the slightly uncanny stare of a baby as you’re walking along (babies blink about 5–10 times less often than adults).

    He’s started making more noises than just crying, too: the little coos, burbles and even prototypical giggles are a joy to hear. Sonia sometimes describes them as “practising his vowel sounds”.

    His muscles are getting stronger: we can see him getting better able to hold up his head, and we give him semi-regular “tummy time” where he lies on his front and exercises muscles in his arms, legs and neck trying to have a look around.

    Most recently, we took him for his 8-week injections and checkup. This was the first time he was measured since birth, and we had it confirmed that he is enormous! We knew this already, of course, but we looked his measurements up on the charts afterward and he’s above 98th centile for both weight and length.

    He’s still much less interactive than Luke, and he can’t get up to nearly so much mischief, so it’s easy to find our focus so frequently drawn away from Robin. I’m writing this post while sitting at the top of the stairs just outside Luke’s door, trying to bring him some comfort because although it’s past his bedtime, he’s not very sleepy. This is just one of the many ways Luke steals our attention away.

    But it’s been nice to make some time to reflect on our youngest family member and to think about all the progress he’s making.

  • Dadding, s2e3: It's been hard work

    Posted on 21 April 2020

    It’s been nearly a month since the last update, which was not my intention. It’s been hard work, and I haven’t really found time to write anything, because we’ve been so busy just getting through each day. Bringing up children in a lockdown is not easy and we’ve been finding it tough.

    Some perspective

    I want to prefix all of this with: we are by no means the only people suffering in this pandemic, and we are in many ways very fortunate. Although this post will go into some detail about our difficulties, I don’t for a minute think we are under great hardship in absolute terms.

    I’m on shared parental leave, so I have a stable income and I don’t currently have any work obligations. My wife isn’t working. So we have two parents to look after two children. We have a garden, so we have access to outside space whenever we want.

    We have good neighbours who we can call on for things – for example, when we were self-isolating we got a neighbour to drop off some paracetamol for us.

    Our baby, Robin, was born before the lockdown was announced, so we could have the birth at home and we got all the antenatal checks and things done in time (see previous post).

    Juggling two kids with no support

    The last few weeks have been really difficult. We’ve mostly been getting through each day as it comes, then going to bed early because we’re both so exhausted, only for it all to start again the next day.

    We are suddenly having to look after two children full time without any of the usual support. For our 3-year-old, Luke, we previously had nursery 3 days a week, and a nanny one day; we now have him full time. He’s at an age where he’s very inquisitive and curious, learning a lot about the world, and starting to assert his own identity as well. This makes for some challenging behaviour at times – when he doesn’t get his way, he’s taken to throwing things at us. Overall it’s a fairly high-maintenance life stage: he can’t really be left to play on his own for that much time each day. He really craves interaction with us and needs practical help from us with all sorts of things: playing with his train set, having a bath, getting dressed or undressed, sitting on the potty, etc. That said, we can plug him into CBeebies for half an hour or so at a time when we really need some time to ourselves (say, to go to the toilet or have a shower!)

    Luke needs a lot of exercise. We take him out each day, but of course all the playgrounds are sensibly closed, so we’ve had to think about where we go when we go out. Where is responsible (limiting risk of spreading coronavirus), will keep Luke engaged, doesn’t require public transport? The parks are still open, so we do take Luke to parks occasionally, but if he sees another child he knows from nursery or from our neighbourhood he just wants to run over and play with them. He’s just getting to the age where he’s starting to interact meaningfully with other children, and it’s heartbreaking to keep telling him “don’t get too close!” “no touching!” “we can’t share other people’s toys!”

    One thing we’ve been doing is taking him out on his balance bike to see the railway line at the top of our road. There’s a gate in the railway fence, set back from the pavement, where we can stand and watch trains, which he loves. However, because it’s still next to the road, you can’t fully switch off as parent.

    We’ve also found a park which is in the direct opposite direction to nursery, where we rarely bump into children Luke knows, and where the density of people is generally low enough that Luke can run around without getting within 6 feet of anyone.

    For our baby, Robin, the first few weeks of a baby’s life you kind of stay at home most of the time anyway, but we’re now getting to the point where, outside a lockdown, we’d be starting to take him to local groups. Postnatal mum-and-baby yoga was something Sonia really enjoyed from Luke’s baby months (and I even found a dad-and-baby yoga group). The Salvation Army hosted a twice-weekly stay-and-play even where we could have taken both Luke and Robin, Luke can run around in a safe environment without requiring too much supervision, and you can meet other parents and chat and support each other. It’s been hard to let go of what might have been – those support groups would have been invaluable but they’re just not available to us.

    On a practical note, we’ve told our cleaner not to come any more (and we offered to keep paying her regardless). Luke generates a lot of mess and we’ve had to take on more of the cleaning ourselves.

    Our days are packed. The only time which kind of belongs to ourselves is when the kids are asleep. Luke has an afternoon nap, which means we have an hour or two then (although much of this time we spend clearing up after lunch, tidying his toys away, etc). And Luke’s bedtime has been creeping later and later, so that he might not be settled in bed until 9pm. We ourselves are so tired that we’re usually in bed before 10pm. This means that, on a good day, we might have an hour to ourselves in the afternoon and another hour in the evening, when we’re too tired to do anything.

    Too much perspective?

    My wife and I do remind each other how lucky we are a lot. I think it is useful to maintain perspective, but I wonder if it’s also been having a negative effect: it’s easy to think “if other people are coping under worse conditions, why are we finding it hard?” This thought is pernicious. It makes our struggles feel like a personal failing, which makes us feel even worse about ourselves.

    I’ve been thinking about a section in Robert Webb’s autobiographical How Not To Be a Boy (which is an excellent book and I highly recommend). While he was at university, Webb was suffering mental health issues, and he went to the university counselling service. He made various comments about how his problems were nothing, really, and he probably was wasting the counsellor’s time and other people probably had much bigger problems.

    Robert, I get this from students all the time, especially the male students. Yes of course there is always someone worse off than you. But imagine you’re in a doctor’s surgery with a broken arm. The person next to you has two broken arms, the person next to him has two broken arms and a broken leg. This is all very well, but the point is that you have a broken arm and it hurts.

    Sonia also found this blog post by Dr Suzanne Zeedyk which we both found helpful. It describes the importance of not trying to be perfect parents; it’s ok to just be good enough parents.

  • Dadding, season 2 minisode: what dads can do at night

    Posted on 25 March 2020

    This is a short entry to capture something I wanted to write down now rather than waiting for the next full update.

    Newborn babies need to feed a lot – at least 8 to 12 times, or more, every 24 hours during the first few weeks. We are breastfeeding, which means that all of this feeding has to be done by mum. It’s too early to start pumping milk and introducing a bottle. So what can I, as a dad, do?

    Nappy changes

    A newborn baby has three basic needs: feeding, nappy changes, and sleep. As a dad, I’ve taken on a lot of the nappy changes: in particular, all nappy changes at night. During the night, mum feeds, and I change the nappy afterwards. This means that mum is awake longer than me (nappy changes are quicker than feeds), but mum doesn’t have to actually get out of bed. (As an aside, I’m not sure how possible this would be if I was back at work, as I would already be if I had just taken Paternity Leave and not Shared Parental Leave as well.)

    This has required some active communication between Sonia and me. Sometimes she has to wake me up to get me to change a nappy, which can’t be a nice thing to have to do to someone. I have to reinforce that this is okay and expected: both by affirming during the day (“yes, please wake me up for nappy changes, this is fine”) and by being mindful of my body language at night. Waking up in a standard grumpy way does not help Sonia feel good about calling on my help. So I’ve been consciously trying to smile at her when she wakes me up. This takes some effort but it really helps us feel we’re doing nights together as a team!


    Although a baby only has 3 basic needs, that doesn’t mean every time the baby cries you need to do one of those things. Sometimes, the baby is crying, and we try a feed, change nappy, and put him back in his Moses basket, and he is still crying. His basic needs are clearly met but he’s still upset.

    It’s tempting to just keep feeding – breastfeeding is a great comfort to babies, even if mum’s milk supply is completely depleted. There have been a couple of episodes where Robin has spend multiple hours on the breast, when he could have got the same amount of milk in separate feeds spaced 2-3 hours apart.

    But another option is just to try comforting him. It’s not easy, and it doesn’t have a high success rate, but when you get a crying baby to sleep just through some cooing and rocking, it feels like a huge accomplishment. One thing I do that has a decent track record of getting him comforted is to pick him up and walk up and down the stairs with him. This is also great exercise for me. Somehow the stairs are key: I don’t get the same results walking around on the flat, somehow.

    Another thing I’ve had moderate success with is using my pinkie as a dummy for him to suck on. If we’re confident that he’s already well-fed (because he just had a feed 5 minutes ago and because Sonia has no milk left), sometimes I give him my pinkie and he gives it a good suck. This can be enough for him to slowly get off to sleep, with my finger still in his mouth, which I then have to carefully extract without waking him. Other times, he seems to recognise that this isn’t the real deal and tries to push me away with his little hands.

    There has been a couple of times when he was being particularly demanding for food, and Sonia was absolutely exhausted but couldn’t see any way out. I find it important not to give up and to assume that this is her job to deal with, and to at least try to comfort Robin for a bit. The worst case scenario is that I try comforting for 10 minutes and he’s still crying, but at least Sonia’s had a 10 minute break; the best case is that I get him off to sleep completely.