I’m writing this from my spit up speckled living room couch that has been my home base for almost three months. Buster is nestled beside me on his lounger, indulgently sucking his fists between coos and giggles. I’m tired. My shirt is damp after a particularly messy feeding; it smells musty and vaguely like vomit, though I am certain I pulled this one from a clean heap of laundry earlier. It feels good to be sitting here focused on these words. But a bath would be nice.
The glorious blur of maternity leave has sharpened and will come to its bitter end in just a few days. As I ready myself for a triumphant return to my full-time job, I have reflected on this bizarre but special time, what regrets I harbor, what I got right the second time, and what of all this could be helpful to soon-to-be-moms staring down the long uncertain road of parenthood. Because I always aim to be helpful but am rarely concise, I wanted to write something like “7 Mistakes To Avoid During Maternity Leave,” a simplified, bulleted and bloggy how-to guide for new moms preparing for leave. I’m afraid such organization of thoughts will prove difficult in my current state, not to mention my ability to count to seven right now is questionable at best.
Foolishly, I perceived maternity leave as respite from a job that took a toll on my wellness. Counting down to my due date, I couldn’t believe my good fortune that a) I would soon meet my daughter and b) my birthing efforts would be generously rewarded with a three-month sabbatical. I vividly recall the last day at work before my scheduled induction. Me with my chin lifted and gigantic belly jut forward, striding out of the hospital through the staff parking garage to my car. VACATION’S ALL I EVER NEEDED, was still playing in my mind an hour later while my husband poured me a celebratory half-glass of pinot noir, because I’ve always considered myself to be European Pregnant.
I’ll pause here to tell you, not that I need to, that it didn’t turn out quite like I anticipated. Either time. Here is what surprised me about maternity leave.
You Have All The Time In The World But Actually None At All
At the risk of hyperbole, maternity leave will be the shortest three months (three if you’re lucky) of your life. The sleepless nights string together 90 preciously monotonous days of newborn snuggles, warm soapy baby baths and literally hundreds of diaper changes. If you’re like me, you’ll have plans for your time away from work that don’t necessarily relate to keeping your baby alive. I wanted to become Someone Who Scrapbooks, start a clothing resale page and finally organize my cluttered home office. Maybe you want to take up hot yoga, Marie Kondo your entire house or, I don’t know, read a book that’s not about sleep training. And you might find time to do these things. But if you don’t (I didn’t), it is OK. You’ll be surprised how much time you’ll dedicate solely to caring for your baby and tackling essential chores like washing bottles and managing the insane amount of laundry babies produce. The time that remains can absolutely be dedicated toward nothing else but naps, Netflix, long stroller walks, and eating all the things. I had to remind myself every single day that this time—this short, precious time—is for healing my body and caring for my sweet, tender newborn.
The most overwhelming part of all this was anticipating caring for my baby and accomplishing all these tasks—the endless laundry, the pumping, the washing of parts, the diaper changes, etc.—while also clocking 40-hour work weeks and sleeping maybe four hours a night. My fear of the unknown, this uncertainty in my own capacity to adult and parent simultaneously led me to a dark lonely place as I approached the end of my first maternity leave. I’ve since learned that in parenting there is one eternal truth: Things have a way of sorting themselves out. Your capacity to #momboss will naturally expand and you’ll phase out non-essential tasks and obligations. Time is all about perception, and yours will change as you grow into your new role of working mom.
Mom Guilt Happens Immediately
Guilt will steal your maternal joy if you allow it to do so. Before becoming a mom, I observed my baby-having friends and colleagues become mired in guilt and indecision when it came to balancing career, time for self, and relationships with parenthood. Smugly, I vowed to circumnavigate the mom guilt trap. I am a mental health professional, I told myself. If I am an expert at anything, it is distinguishing maladaptive thought patterns, I said. And then I had a baby of my own and it became very clear that I was a fool and knew nothing about managing my mental state in the context of mothering. Guilt made its first appearance as I tried to shower one day several weeks into maternity leave when parenting a baby is still so new and messy. At this point, fewer hands are around to ensure your baby is properly snuggled while you wash the grime and spit up from your ratted hair. My newborn daughter wriggled in her rocker, red-faced and screaming, parked safely just inches from glass shower door. My hair was lathered with shampoo, my facemask still applied as I weighed my options: rinse my hair and apply conditioner as planned while the baby screams helplessly, or halt this selfish activity immediately to tend to baby’s needs. I chose the former (you have no idea how badly I smelled) and couldn’t shake the guilt of it for days.
Recently over lunch, my dear friend lamented the creeping guilt she experienced in the early days with her own daughter when she’d catch a brief late morning nap after a sleepless night feeding and soothing the baby. She chastised herself for this, not realizing until hindsight that caring for herself is not selfish, it’s good mothering.
From my experience, working moms feel the deepest, most painful guilt around returning to work and handing the baby to a daycare provider or nanny or your mother-in-law or honestly whomever because you’ll probably feel guilty about it no matter who it is. More on this in a minute. I don’t know of a cure for mom guilt but I know of an antidote. Understand that meeting your own needs provides the foundation to being an amazing mom. Constantly remind yourself that you are worth it, you deserve to enjoy activities outside of mothering, and that you are mother enough. Write it in your journal, put up post-its. I don’t care. Just say it.
You Might Rethink Your Career
During my first pregnancy, I worked as a social worker in an urban safety net hospital, guiding underserved patients through unthinkable circumstances. I took pride in my work, but my heart was weary. On leave, I counted down every single day until that fateful morning I woke up at before dawn, pulled on pair of cropped trousers and a semi-wrinkled blouse, tearfully dropped off my precious 12-week-old baby at the daycare center for the first of many times, and shuffled back to my office inside the hospital. I vividly recall sitting in the lactation suite about one month into my return, I was scrolling though photographs of my baby to the drone of my pump when I made the decision to quit my job. This idea was brought forth by two things. First, I experienced a new sense of purpose in my work. Suddenly, going to work meant providing for my family and setting a positive example for my daughter. She became my why. Practically, I was motivated to increase my salary but I also rode a new tide of ambition to challenge my professional expectations of myself, take a career risk, and do more things that felt meaningful.
The second thing that happened was that it became abundantly clear that my job at the hospital was incompatible with motherhood. Upholding productivity became impossible when frequently absent when my baby was sick or had appointments, oh yeah and also stealing away three times each day to pump didn’t help. Furthermore, the emotional content of my work left me empty by the time I pulled into the daycare lot for pick up.
I was led to leave the hospital and return to the eating disorder treatment field, where my personal and clinical experience was valued and felt meaningful. My outreach position allows me to work from home and affords a flexibility I could never have in a traditional office setting.
As you near that first day back in the office you might wonder how you’ll handle inevitable late nights at work thanks to last-minute fires needing to be extinguished (by you). You might wonder about the logistics involved in arranging work travel when you’re a nursing mom or when your partner also travels for work. These concerns, among countless others, might lead you to a career change like they did me. They might even lead you to step back from your career for a time, or permanently. That is okay too.
You Can Do Whatever You Want
That’s right. Whatever. Whenever. You. Want. As long as the baby isn’t napping or hungry, of course. I’m in my mid-thirties and have lived within the confines of PTO, mandatory meetings and patient needs for a long time. Maternity leave is a sharp and sudden, albeit temporary, departure from these demands and restrictions on your time. I took two family vacations on my maternity leave, each for a full week. If you can swing this, I highly recommend. Getting away was a special celebration of our new family, gave me something to look forward to during those long lonely nights, and time away is unconstrained by your vacation day balance or emails from your boss.
I have firm footing in the middle ground when it comes to personal boundaries from work during maternity leave. I was glad to check email, but not respond to it. I liked an occasional office update from my best work friend (BWF). Some of you might do best if you pretend work doesn’t exist until the day you return to the office. Or you might find yourself unabashedly taking work calls and answering email because it makes you feel like yourself again. Like I said, you can do whatever you want.
The theme here (or perhaps the theme of my life) is that like all things pertaining to motherhood, maternity leave did not go quite like I expected. No matter how diverse our experiences, how different our children, and how varied our mothering styles may be there are universal challenges to this new mom thing, especially when there is an end date to your time at home with you baby and a job looms around the corner. If you can let go of your own expectations, push aside society’s impossible standards of new moms and embrace your imperfect but incredible new job of balanced mothering, returning to the job that pays will be that much less difficult. And you might even live to write about it.