In the days before my baby was born, a friend put it bluntly: ‘You will cry,’ she said. ‘Many times.’
She was breaking the secret code of motherhood. The one where mothers avoid telling soon-to-be parents exactly what they’ve got coming. It starts with not sharing too many stories about what childbirth’s really like and continues with glossing over the challenges they faced in the months and years that followed.
Meanwhile soon-to-be parents can get selective about what they take in. With my baby overdue at the time of that conversation, I thought anything had to be better than the frustrating period of waiting I felt I was languishing in, wondering just when I could get stuck into the actual ‘maternity’ part of my ‘maternity leave’.
Little did I know not being able to manage how and when my baby would arrive, nor the health he’d arrive in, would be my first encounter with what it really means to lose control: where the timing and completion of even the most basic of tasks are no longer yours to decide.
Last week a piece by UK journalist Esther Walker urging mothers to tell the truth about motherhood without sugar-coating the real challenges, or being pointed at as being depressed, received an overwhelming response on Women’s Agenda. Esther’s obviously not the first to publicly concede that parenting can be extremely hard, nor to admit she’s not enjoying every moment. But the reaction this particular article received as well as my own experience of recent months, got me questioning whether we’re thinking about ‘maternity leave’ all wrong.
The ‘leave’ in maternity leave implies that you’ll be returning to something or some place as the person you once were, just a little more refreshed and with a dependant who’ll somehow slot in amongst everything else you’ve got going on.
But really it’s a period of adjustment. A necessary time to not only care for your new baby but to also accept and embrace the fact your life will never be the same again. It’s not ‘maternity leave’ or ‘parental leave’ we should be taking, but rather a maternity or parental ‘transition’.
This break from work isn’t a period to ‘wait out’ before returning to your old life. It’s a time of transition to lay the foundations for the new one in front of you. Indeed, as Wendy McCarthy recently told me, it can be a brilliant opportunity to learn about your local community, meet new friends and reconsider how you really want to live your life.
Almost six months into my own experience with ‘maternity leave’ I’m finally starting to appreciate and embrace the opportunity for transition it offers. But it’s taken plenty of difficult days, a bunch of new friends and a whole lot of letting go.
The first week my partner retuned to work after we had our baby was a particularly lonely time. I had not yet attended a mother’s group session, nor met a single mum with a similar aged bub to my own. I was still getting to know my by-then three-week old baby who seemed to do little else but feed and cry, all the while dealing with a bout of the post-birth baby blues that I’m grateful didn’t develop into something more serious.
Meanwhile, all my friends were in that ‘other’ space: a world of office jobs that could account for the majority of their hours Monday to Friday. They could still take a week night out for a few drinks without having to worry about the little one at home, expressing, or how they’d catch up on those precious few hours of sleep that can only really be guaranteed in the early stages of the evening. I was still mourning my job, the one I loved but had to hand over to somebody else (someone who has since become a supportive friend). I was still adjusting to a world of no deadlines, aside from the repetitive cycle of feed, play, sleep. Settle, resettle, and resettle again.
And so I bunkered down, alone and in a 24 hour haze of sleep deprivation, believing I had to spend my weekdays hour by hour, and that I’d simply have to accept the next six months would happen in a bubble in which daytime adult conversation would occur only with the check-out guy at my local supermarket. While my baby was obviously the priority, I still believed I’d be waiting-out my maternity leave, as if I’d somehow figure out how my new family would slot into my previous life once the scheduled period of ‘leave’ was all over.
That first week alone became a quick lesson on how raising a child takes a village, and why you need to be willing to let the village in. I joined a mothers group, started connecting with other mums on social media and made an effort to strike up conversations with the strangers I encountered while walking or going for coffee in my local area. I accepted offers of help from family. I started going on ‘mum dates’ and getting to know women who were simply after some company and reassurance they’re doing the right thing.
I’ve met 15 wonderful women in my mothers group, all of whom live within five or so kilometres of where I live and who’ll be up for a drink in the local pub or walk in the park within a couple of hours notice. They’re a diverse lot who share nothing in common other than the area they call home, the fact they’ve had a baby within the same five weeks, and that they’re seeking out the mutual support that only mothers of similar aged babies can truly understand, at the time. Some of these women, like me, will return to work in the coming weeks and months by deploying a mishmash of caring arrangements with no idea how they’ll manage the daily juggle of working life with a new baby. They’ll all return as different people to the ones that left, coping in different ways.
I’m now enjoying maternity leave, and finding every day brings something new — especially from the little man who’s captured my attention. But I’ve worked at ensuring this period of ‘leave’ works for my baby and I and truly helps us transition into the new life we have ahead. I now schedule a new activity every day, anything that will have me interacting with other adults. I seek out ways for the two of us to get involved in local, community activities, no matter how mundane the previous version of myself may have found them. I take lovely, long walks with my little guy, feeling no guilt about what I should be doing while wondering aimlessly, nor ever hesitating to take a detour to the park for a cuddle.
I’ve gotten used to random questions from strangers that may have once seemed deeply intrusive (‘Is he sleeping through the night?’ ‘How are you coping?’), as well as the fact few people now ask what I do for work. I no longer clench my teeth when told to “cherish every moment”.
I’ve come to accept there’s no motherhood guidebook, nor ‘normal’ when it comes to how a baby should be and behave. Obsessively Googling every ailment or problem the little man could have won’t do much to prevent it, nor is there a miracle method to turn my catnapping baby into a convenient daytime sleeper — the one I thought would provide me with hours of free time to tick off my maternity leave projects. I’m coming to terms with the fact it could be years before I ever enjoy a proper night’s sleep again, and that the paranoia and fear of ‘what if X happened to my son’ is unlikely to ever go away. I’m learning to accept that more things than not in my new life are now well beyond my control.
The ‘leave’ in ‘maternity leave’ is misleading. It’s a period of transition, not a break from work or from pursuing your career ambitions. It’s an opportunity to get to know your baby, to think through what you really want, to engage with your community, meet new friends and have some breathing space to determine how you plan to live and work now that the priorities you once had have been turned upside down.
It’s a time to mourn the life you once knew, and prepare for the one that’s ahead. It’s a time to let go.
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