When was the last time you had an extended break from work? Most of us take a week here, a long weekend there, but we max out at around the one-week mark because we either don't have the extra PTO lying around, or we're afraid of what we might come back to if we're away any longer.
I had my first job at age 16 shelving books at the public library and have worked in some capacity ever since. I've changed jobs 4 times in my professional career and the longest gap between ending one job and starting the next was 1 week so that I could complete a cross-country move.
So as you start to talk to HR and plan the logistics of your upcoming maternity leave (for me that was 12 weeks), it's hard not to daydream a bit about all the things you could do in that extended amount of time away from the routines and the grind of work. For me, I fantasized about reading a book, sorting and organizing my closet, tackling a long overdue house project and creating great content for my blog. Sure I would have an infant to care for, but they just sleep all the time...right?
Spoiler Alert: I was in for a rude awakening. From experiencing a difficult and slow physical recovery and managing the early signs of postpartum depression to having a baby who cried more than he didn't and refused to sleep for thebetter part of a year, those 12 weeks were anything but a break. I shed as many, if not more tears than my newborn son during maternity leave (and beyond!).
Sure, eventually I got out of the house for some errands and walks around the neighborhood, received friends and family visitors, and spent hours looking at my phone while sitting and nursing. But was I reading about home décor or talking with my friends about the latest news? No, I was researching all the questions I had about babies and caring for a baby. I was talking about how hard breastfeeding was and how tired I was. I was consumed with all the things that take up your every waking thought when your world shifts and suddenly you are responsible to figure it all out!
Why did I go into maternity leave thinking of it like a 12 week vacation from work?
I take most of that blame, for creating my own expectations that weren't seated in any sort of experience or fact. But what about the moms who chose not to share the realities of those early weeks and months? All I heard was,
"When else in your life do you get to take that much time off from work?"
"Are you going to travel at all during your leave?"
"You're going to love maternity leave. I did."
Maybe some of you are super moms who traveled to the beach for a mini-vacation or decorated your house or read 3 books, but I was most certainly not one of those moms. As I learn time and time again, my disappointments and frustrations come from the fact that I sometimes have unrealistic expectations.
If I could be honest, yet encouraging, to any new moms heading out on their first maternity leave, I might tell them this instead:
Don't make plans. Don't set expectations.
You cannot plan for how your birth will go, what your recovery will look like, what personality your baby will have, or how you will react to all the changes. Without expectations, you can react to your circumstances and do what makes sense for you.
Do not expect it to be easy.
If it turns out to be easy for you, AWESOME. Taking care of a newborn is hard work. Infants don't sleep through the night, they cry, and they require many diaper changes and constant feeding. If you know that going into it, none of it will be a surprise.
Plan to do some serious R & R.
When you're not taking care of baby, you should plan to rest yourself. Don't think that you should be tackling any of those projects you fantasized about. You will be better able to tackle the year ahead (including a return to work) if you pay serious attention to your recovery now.
Lean on others.
Whatever is most meaningful and helpful to you, allow others to help you. Whether that is having meals delivered, allowing your mother-in-law to clean for you, accepting the offer of a friend to hold the baby while you shower or nap, do it. You don't have to do it alone, so accept any offers or make the request.
Find your tribe.
If you don't have a lot of friends who are also moms, try to find some. Go to local meet-ups, chat it up at baby classes (hello tummy time!), or reach out through online forums. One of my closest mom friends to date is a woman I met online in our local "nextdooor" community when I reached out to respond to a post and asked her if she wanted to go on a walk. Having someone in your same stage of life is invaluable and critical to fighting off the isolation that many new moms feel.
What About You?
For those of you who have taken a maternity leave, did your expectations match with reality? What would you do differently if you could do it again or if you will do it again?
New moms who are about to take a maternity leave, is it helpful to hear honest perspectives about those first few weeks of being a new mom?
Send me a note or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to tell me your thoughts. I read every one.