Lessons from a Maternity Leave
As I was gathering together my things for work: checking that the bottles and baby food were all set for tomorrow and that my breast pump parts were packed in my bag, I was reflecting a bit on before, during, and after my maternity leave…and I thought I’d share:
Holy Four Months—Come to Mama!
I was blessed with a four-month maternity leave. After working eight years at the same place, I had saved up enough paid time off to do that. It was the longest time I had ever been off from work. Looking back, I realize my summer vacations from college and even grade school never even lasted four entire months. It was the most time I would be off since I was about four years old, and I was really, really looking forward to it!
“Blessed” is the word I choose to describe how I felt about my leave because I recognize that most working women don’t get that much time. In planning for my leave, I thought about baby on the horizon. I thought about all the joy he would bring into my life, and how much I would dread going back to work when my leave was over. I also thought about the four, whole, glorious months I would have to catch up on me! I made lists of all the major tasks around my house that I hadn’t yet tackled; I would: clean out the attic, get rid of clothes I hadn’t worn in years, put together albums of all my loose pictures. I thought about all the jewelry I would make (one of my favorite hobbies)…and maybe I would sew another quilt?
In retrospect, I’m not sure why taking care of baby didn’t factor into my leave plans. I had heard they sleep quite a bit during the day…so I guess I just figured that would be my all-about-mommy time. When I envisioned my leave, there was this tiny, smiling, bundle there, but he was sleeping in the background…and I was on vacation!
Reality Check: Baby = Work
Little did I know, those four months were not going to be so easy. The first two weeks of my leave, which started on my due date, were spent waiting for baby to arrive. We all have heard that most babies don’t arrive on their due dates. Still, most of us, especially we, first timers, have some ungrounded expectation that childbirth will occur on or at least near the date the doctor quotes. Well, I was two…whole…weeks late. Yes, that’s right: fourteen days and nights of trying suggestion after suggestion for how to bring baby into the light and mama-to-be back to her sanity. From long walks to black licorice to wine to sex (not fun when your body is so large and disproportioned that you can hardly waddle around the house, let alone lie down comfortably and pretend to feel attractive), I tried it all…and still, no sign of baby. On top of that, one eighth of my maternity leave was already gone!
Finally, after those two weeks of waiting for baby plus forty hours of labor, it all ended in a c-section I begged them not to do. (“Please give me just a little more time; I WILL push this child out of me!” was my desperate plea between contractions.) When I got home after 8 days in the hospital, my recovery took much longer than the doctors expected or than a person like me—who has trouble sitting still—can handle. I found it difficult to walk or do much of anything for the whole first month.
Because it hurt to pick baby up or hold him against my sore abdomen, everything that involved baby was challenging. And in general, he was so much more work than I had imagined! Without family around and with my husband back to work after the first week home, I felt overwhelmed. Baby napped often enough (a few times a day), but the naps were so short (usually less than an hour) that it was hard to get anything done. And with all the questions I had about nursing and caring for baby, I found myself leafing frantically through the indexes of baby books and racing through baby websites and research articles as soon as he fell asleep.
As the laundry and dishes piled up and I couldn’t even find time to shower or brush my teeth, my how-I-will-spend-my-four-months-off list became a forgotten memory. Between diaper changes, cleaning up spit up (baby threw up loads after every meal), nursing every two hours, and trying to get baby to nap and stay asleep, if I had the time in a day to wash my face, change my clothes, and dab some concealor under my eyes to hide the lack of sleep, I felt like a success. Who knew that was how it would all go down?
Now, I don’t want to sound too negative here. In spite of my trials, having a baby was (and is!) a very joyous event for me. I relished those moments of closeness with my tiny one with his teensy weensy everything those first few months. And, still, with every pound Jacob gained and every inch he grew, I felt like the hard times were worth it. The smiles, giggles, even the crying—the joyful moments overrode the challenges, by far. Between the struggles, I was constantly reminded that it was no minor miracle that baby was alive and perfect in every way. And, I knew that very miracle originated in my body and was still going strong because of my milk that nourished him. That alone kept my spirits high! Still, it was so different than I had planned.
Back to Work, Back to Me!
Although I feel a tinge of guilt when I say it, the truth about my maternity leave is that having four months off from work made me realize that I never, ever want to do that again. I could attribute it to my long and painful recovery, Jacob’s poor napping habits, or any number of things related to being a mommy. But, plain and simple, I just don’t like not working. And, that’s a good thing, because I don’t really have a say in the matter! To afford our somewhat modest lifestyle (a house just big enough for us that is over a hundred years old, two functional but un-extravagant cars that enable my husband and I to commute to work, and enough money to pay the utility and grocery bills), I simply have no choice but to work full time.
Now, don’t get me wrong—I love spending time with my son, and I love having free time to work out, write, make jewelry, and do other things…but truth be told, I also love to work! I like interacting with adults on a regular basis and having meetings, deadlines, and goals. I like the structure and intellectual stimulation that a job provides, and above all, I like feeling productive. When I was at home with baby all day, I couldn’t be productive in ways that were important to me. I have to say I REALLY hand it to stay-at-home moms out there. I truly don’t understand fully how it’s done. By the end of four months of being at home with baby, I longed to be back at work.
And, so here I am, my leave almost 8 months behind me, and happily so. I’m not just back to work; I’m back to the gym, writing almost daily, making a piece of jewelry at least a few times a month, and on top of all that spending time with my precious Jacob, my stepson, and my husband. I thrive on the structure of it all. Unlike my son’s napping and changing schedule, it’s predictable. I know what each day holds, and I know that it holds a variety of tasks and responsibilities that I will accomplish. And, doing that puts me in a better place mentally and physically for spending time with baby when I get home. And, that’s what it’s all about, right? Whether you work or stay at home or do some combination of both, feeling good about yourself and having energy and motivation to make the most of your time is what’s important, right? Working is what works for me!