Opinion: Why I made the privileged choice to take parental leave during a pandemic

'I am trained for a specific role... but there are others that can do my job. I, however, am the only person who is my son’s mother.'

Dr. Winnie Siu 5 minute read December 26, 2021

Dr. Winnie Siu with her husband Allan Reesor-McDowell and three kids Emerson (6), Owen (3) and Wesley (1) outside their Ottawa home. Winnie is a public health doctor who chose to take parental leave in the midst of the COVID crisis. Tony Caldwell / Postmedia

This morning I took a long walk with my son Wesley, over an arched footbridge and onto a path that runs alongside the pond where, in the spring, I showed him a family of freshly hatched goslings. Today, the trees were ablaze in fiery reds and oranges and golds, like they were around this time last year, when he was born. We have taken this same walk almost every day since.

I found out I was pregnant with Wesley the same week I was reassigned to the COVID-19 response at work. The early uncertainty of the pandemic made me nervous — for my father, recently diagnosed with an aggressive cancer; for my young children; and for me, newly pregnant.

But, being a public-health physician, I was also ready. I had spent over a decade training to manage outbreaks of infectious diseases, and this was going to be my opportunity to put my skills to use. Wesley grew inside me as I launched into the most intense, exhilarating and rewarding period of my professional career to date.

He was born just as we were heading up the second wave of the pandemic, and the friends I had trained with were quickly being shuffled into their dream jobs. But as I cradled him in the hospital, cocooned in our room together against COVID, I knew with certainty I was going to stop working for 18 months to be at home with him.

An explanation of why I would step back from my career at such a crucial moment has to start with a recognition of privilege. One of the best measures of privilege, after all, is the ability to choose. What a privilege I had to choose my profession and to do what I love. I also had many choices for going back to work after I gave birth to Wesley: I could have hired a nanny; I could have sent Wesley to daycare; I could have taken my husband up on his offer to be the one who cared for Wesley at home full time.

But I didn’t. And the fact that I had the specific choice I did was a privilege, too. My employment was protected by parental leave legislation and I had the financial means to take a break from work. I also had supportive colleagues who genuinely wished me well and assured me I would be missed, but that they would continue to take up the work.

It was an awareness of this last point that allowed me to move ahead in my decision to take time off with confidence. I am trained for a specific role, and I think I do it well. But there are others that can do my job. During this pandemic, I am grateful they did. I, however, am the only person who is my son’s mother.

Certainly, my father’s passing when Wesley was eight months old affirmed my decision. I know now it is true what they say: no one on their deathbed wishes they had worked more. It also crystallized the previously abstract notion of finitude — of life itself, but also of its seasons that slip, one into another, only recognized in retrospect. With any luck, I will have a few decades yet to work as a doctor. But my son, like the leaves on our walk this morning, is changing at every moment, transforming imperceptibly, but constantly. He will never again be just as he is right now.

I do not mean to glamourize the work — and it is indeed work — of a stay-at-home parent. Some days the drudgery can be relentless. Deferring to an infant’s schedule (or lack thereof) was slightly unnerving for someone like myself who finds safety in planning and control. None of my previous metrics of productivity could be applied to child-rearing; when I tried, I ended up feeling discouraged, then guilty, then frustrated. As a full-time parent I finished many more days feeling wholly inadequate about myself than I did as a physician.

But maybe that is the point. I spent so many years studying for the future goal of being a doctor. In a way, my time with Wesley is a deliberate reorientation to the present, and to the tangible, with no agenda and no objectives other than to be wholly devoted to what — who — is in front of me.

Will it make a difference, this time I have spent with him? I don’t know. I don’t know if he will be more healthy or intelligent or secure in his attachment (though I suspect our attachment would have been just fine).

And I don’t know what effect this break will have on my career. I don’t know if this time off will set me back. I don’t know if I have missed some pivotal opportunity that would have launched my professional life to new heights.

Here is what I do know.

I know the exact smell of my son’s head, warm after a long walk together in the sun.

I know what it is to lift his soft, sleepy form to mine to feed him, milk flowing from my body to his, thousands of times.

I know the secure grasp of his arms around my neck and the feel of his plump cheek on my shoulder.

I know I tried my hardest, and even though I didn’t enjoy every moment, I paid attention.

These things, today, are enough.

Winnie Siu is a public health physician living in Ottawa with her husband and three boys. Email: drwinniesiu@gmail.com