Baby Steps in Paradise: One Pandemic Dad Takes Paternity Leave in Anguilla

Paternity Leave in Paradise
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The turquoise water of Maundays Bay, the exact color of the Barbicide-blue cocktail I sipped over lunch, glistened through the sliding glass door of our beachfront suite at Cap Juluca, a Belmond Hotel on Anguilla's southeastern coast. My wife, Tiffan, and I, watched with breathless attention as our daughter, Odella (aka La La), toddled five paces in paradise. My prevailing thought, as the palm fronds swayed in the breeze over the sugar-sand beach, was something like: "Give me a break! This is too perfect."

As I held up my iPhone, I relished the opportunity to see that ungainly gait, to hear the hissed exhalation of her excited laughter—a portal to a state of joy I didn't know possible. Yet in a total doofus #dadfail moment, I hadn't started recording the video. Of course, the fact that experiencing this priceless family moment in this ideal place was even possible hinged on my decision to delay my paternity leave until the end of La La's first year to enjoy something I'm dubbing the "paterni-cation."

Fathers Day Belmond Cap Juluca View
The ocean view as seen from Belmond Cap Juluca.

La La was born in April 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 spread in New York City, and though most fathers, if they have access to leave, take off during those first bleary-eyed weeks, the WFH reality of this new-fangled world allowed me to hold my daughter on conference calls, change diapers in the middle of the day, and generally bail my wife out while working.

Babies sleep some 18 hours a day in the beginning, albeit in short segments, so tapping into my Family Paid Leave while already at home would have meant squandering my precious time off with our daughter lying on a Boppy pillow. Instead, pushing my leave back to when La La was older and sleep-trained allowed us to reward ourselves more fully for a year of help-free childcare.

So fully vaxxed, we escaped our pandemic confines and set off for the Caribbean to find our family travel sea-legs just as La La found her own (and as I remained committed to capturing footage of my daughter walking).

Fathers Day Paternity Leave Anguilla
Father and daughter cool off from the heat in the infinity pool. Odella, ever mischievous, makes a swipe for her father's cap. Tiffan Borelli

We chose Anguilla, in part, because of its excellent track record during the pandemic with low COVID-19 infection rates, wide vaccination administration, and strict testing and entry protocols for visitors. Cap Juluca is the jewel of the island that fit the bill for what we most needed—a luxury beach vacation that allowed us to decompress without trying or thinking too hard.

The resort also attracted us as a family-friendly getaway that operates as a well-oiled machine when it comes to providing a crib, a baby amenity kit, a resort sun hat, and an array of stuffed animals. Kids four to 12, for example, can enjoy the on-property Explorers' Club, and though the presence of other families meant we didn't feel out of place, the resort's identity as a couples-oriented sanctuary, too, ensured its vibe never got too hokey.

And in our elaborate paradise, we forged precious memories. I will always cherish the thrill of seeing my daughter feel sand for the first time. We dipped her feet in that perfect Curaçao-blue water. She cried; for now, at least, she prefers the infinity pool. She napped on the beach, and I happily became her umbrella attendant to shield her from the sun.

We fed her some of mahi-mahi tacos from the Cap Shack food truck on property. La La drank water directly from a coconut freshly chopped down from a tree and macheted open especially for her. She threw some side-eyed skepticism at first. But eventually, we had to take away the straw, as she slurped up the goodness as if through a sippy cup. She wore a baby robe that said "Mini Diva" for post-bath reading time and lavished in the quintessential British-Caribbean elegance.

Dad and La La on the Beach
Odella, exhausted from her first trip to the beach, catches some Z's ocean-side. Though off-duty from his day job, Daddy remains on umbrella duty to shield Odella from the Caribbean sun. Tiffan Borelli

Given that our daughter took a regular two-hour nap and slept 12 hours straight at night, we could truly maximize a trip—my wife took to the beach while I closed the jalousies and read next to our snoozing daughter, and we sipped in-room drinks at night while Odella enjoyed an early bedtime. Leave typically is about essential care: food, rest, changing, helping the mother recover from birth. But in addition to texturing our daughter's life with new experiences, we as parents wanted to expand our pleasure and pamper ourselves.

To that end, because after a year like this past one everyone needs a good scrub and smudging, we took a salt energy class using Phia Concepts to learn our energy profiles and create our own bath scrubs with local botanicals (like calendula, popular in Arawak bush medicine), Anguillian salt, and essential oils matched to us personally to bring balance. We mashed all together with a mortar and pestle. Then we took smoking sage sprigs rubber-banded together from iridescent abalone shells in front of us and smudged ourselves ritualistically. La La conveniently napped all class.

The same can't be said for her when we took a shrimp and crayfish tiradito cooking class with Peruvian Master Chef César Landeo Soto. In an extended game of hot potato, the off-duty partner took pains to slice the blanched crustaceans and add Peruvian rocoto chili paste to "tiger milk," a fish-stock fumet with celery and cilantro. Usually at home I'm relegated to dish duty, but wielding the Le Creuset knife and getting some hands-on instruction, I felt more confident to tackle more than just some omelets and salmon at home. Dad-game level up.

Fathers Day Paternity Leave Anguilla 2
Though Urken's sartorial selection here may have been a #dadfail that resulted in a fashion faux pas, Odella remained enthusiastic after her morning consumption of blueberries and croissants. Her Lilly Pulitzer outfit helped even the score, style-wise. Tiffan Borelli

I will admit I spent much of the time nervous, trying to make sure the trip went smoothly. Was my daughter safe? Was my wife having fun? I was just glad I brought a strong antiperspirant. Of course, I contributed my fair share of paternal doofery. The men at breakfast wore resort-ready white linen chemises. I showed up in my floral Patrick Ewing basketball jersey mismatched with seersucker shorts, Sperrys, and a Grateful Dead headband. But sartorial peccadillos and video-recording mishaps aside, I managed to orchestrate some family magic.

To that end, the trip also allowed me to reconnect with my wife, as we enjoyed a magical private dinner on the beach (La La fell asleep after the first course), during which the waves crashed, the sun set, and the stars emerged. During Tiffan's first Mother's Day, we were so exhausted as new parents that the day largely passed without much celebration or ceremony. I used this cinematic, fairy tale occasion as a "Mother's Day redo," as I had spelled out in chocolate sauce on her dessert.

In general, the time away allowed for time to slow down, have us take stock of what we'd accomplished during our first year with La La, appraise how it was all going, and recognize our many blessings. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it's that we have to cherish our time with our family.

Family Magic on Paternity Leave
A paternity leave in paradise also allowed Urken to reconnect with his wife. They enjoyed a romantic private dinner on the beach (with baby La La asleep next to them). Courtesy of Ross Kenneth Urken

But in addition to traveling as a father and husband, I wanted some me time—to feel untethered and cover more ground. Do you feel me? So leaving Tiffan and La La to their devices at the beach and pool, I chartered a boat to take me to Prickly Pear Cays, a pair of uninhabited islands that are nature preserves some seven miles north of Anguilla's main island.

In a true measure of pandemic parenting, the six hours I was gone mark the longest period I've ever been away from La La. I enjoyed some snorkeling and a crazy-good lunch of buttery lobster and rice and pigeon peas. I cowabunga-jumped off a small cliff into the turquoise water.

Belmond Cap Juluca
Belmond Cap Juluca on Anguilla’s southeastern coast. Courtesy of Belmond Cap Juluca

I enjoyed this mini-adventure, but the truth is: I missed La La and Tiffan desperately. I was back by 4 p.m. to bail my wife out and let her get some time in the ocean. That evening, we enjoyed a seafood dinner at Cip's, the resort's Cipriani restaurant, as a Negroni sunset ignited the sky and tinged the resort's white Greco-Moorish villas dotting the beach.

One morning toward the end of the trip after we fished as a family, the foamy surf lapping at La La's bare feet, my daughter squawked at the turtle doves, the national bird, tottering on the nearby rocks. We returned to our suite to see if we could capture La La doing some tottering of her own. I made triple-sure I properly hit the record button. It may not have been a catching day for angling, but damned if I wasn't going to capture this moment once and for all. Sure enough, La La set off from my wife's arms out over the living room carpet and just kept walking the length of the room.

I know those feet will carry her to many corners of the world. And as she discovers more beautiful places with full strides, she will always know she took her first steps in Anguilla.