The “leave” in maternity leave can make it sound like you’re taking a holiday. Or at least are taking a few months off to recover from the pregnancy.
You will come back to work refreshed and rejuvenated, according to your non-parent colleagues. Perhaps just a little less likely to kick on after Friday night drinks.
But while there might be some opportunity for sunshine while walking around the neighbourhood for hours, desperately trying to get your newborn to sleep, it is not exactly a trip to Fiji that a new parent experiences while on parental leave.
As many a new parent has written and discussed countless times before, bringing a child into the world is a challenge that few can contemplate before it is experienced.
The ‘leave’ they take during the early months can be a period of utter chaos — involving a loss of control and purpose. For some, it is a daily battle with loneliness.
For many, it is a potent mix of all of the above. The problem is that you cannot predict just what kind of baby you are going to get, nor how you are personally going to manage when he or she arrives.
That’s why on Women’s Agenda we are advocating for the word “leave” in maternity or parental leave to be replaced with the word “transition” – to acknowledge what that time between leaving work to have a baby and returning is really about.
This transition is not only a period of learning and adjusting to a new way of life but of mourning the previous world you once knew.
No new parent will return to work the same person he or she was before. That doesn’t mean they will be any less ambitious, focused or able, but rather that their sense of control and self will have shifted.
It is a shift that could be eased if more new mothers were clued up on the fact that what is ahead is beyond your control.
That your best intentions and plans are unlikely to go according to plan, despite the repetitious “feed, play, sleep” cycle you find yourself in.
And it is a shift that will see parents adjust in different ways, especially when every individual baby who enters the world has its own ideas regarding what, if any, kind of routine it plans to stick to.
Meanwhile, this adjustment occurs while everyone else continues on with their regular lives. Friends without babies exist in that ‘other’ space, going to their jobs that fill most of their hours Monday to Friday, still able to go out on a week night without worrying if they’ll ever catch up on the precious hours of potential sleep that will be missed.
So how can you really prepare for the period between when you leave work to have a new baby and when you return?
Start by considering it as a transition, rather than a period of time that has to be “waited out” before getting on with what you were doing before.
Then, embrace everything that transition has to offer: the opportunity to decide how you plan to work in the future; to engage with your community; to meet new friends and actually engage in small-talk with those you encounter day-to-day.
It is a chance to set great expectations on what you can get done. But then to also know that it just does not matter whether you finish those non-baby related projects.
Or even get started on them at all.
Before I went off work to have my son I had great plans to do X, Y and Z — but found many of my ‘maternity leave projects’ never even got started. I did stay in regular contact with the office and intentionally took on some flexible tasks at home in order to keep me connected. While on transition for seven months I made the decision to return to work four days a week. I still grapple with guilt leaving my son in daycare or with his grandparents for those days but that is the lot of every working mum.
The point is whatever plans you make, be prepared to be flexible and to adapt to find the work/life balance you need. Just realise this – having a baby will change you and how you might work. But it doesn’t mean you won’t continue doing a great job.
This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the Daily Telegraph.