My Maternity Leave Was A Matter Of Survival
I knew maternity leave wouldn’t be an R&R retreat. But I also hoped to have some downtime while the baby was napping to catch up on my favorite shows, enjoy a book or two, and tackle that sewing project I’d put off for so long. Now that I’m nine months postpartum I realize that my maternity leave expectations were slightly off.
After 41 hours of labor, our daughter reluctantly arrived into the world, stubborn like her old mom. Equally exhausted and elated, I reached down and grabbed her, placing her on my chest with the help of the nurse. My husband and I were silent and in awe, and then she let out a giant wail. Never have I been happier to see anyone in my whole life.
Needing time to bond with our baby girl and heal from birth, I planned to take 12 weeks away from my desk. And so that we could adjust to our new parenting roles together, my husband decided to take time off work, too.
With my husband at home, I felt overjoyed, secure and at peace during those first few weeks of our daughter’s life. Research shows that during the postpartum period, support from fathers can significantly help new moms with their overall health. I second this! During his month at home, my husband took care of the cooking, cleaning, and tending to our cats and dog, taking a lot of stress off my plate.
But when my husband’s month off was over and he went back to work, I panicked. Who was going to take care of us girls, the animals, and the house? For the first month, my responsibilities had been purely nursing and snuggling our sweet angel while my body healed from its birthing marathon.
During those first weeks, I tried to slow down and savor time with our baby girl, as books like The First Forty Days emphasize. But with my husband going back to work, our little oxytocin love-nest had run its course. How was I going to survive on my own?
Doing anything with the addition of a baby is hard, and it took me a while to get the hang of operating like a normal human again. Even the simple things like being hygienic were difficult to find time for.
Showers were few and far between. Everything was soiled with milk. Wearing the baby around the house in a wrap allowed me to get things done, like eat, only to find her later donning what I was digesting — barbecue smears in her fawn-colored hair, traces of scrambled egg hidden in her ear.
Too tired and too timid to take her shopping, I ordered off Amazon regularly. Our tiny laundry room suddenly was a tiny recycling center, overflowing with Prime boxes. Dirty dishes piled up in the sink. Don’t even get me started on the laundry situation. With countless interruptions — crying, diaper changes, nursing — one morning, it took me over an hour to make a simple breakfast sandwich.
Life while on maternity leave suddenly felt dirty and chaotic. Where did my organized house go? When was I going to have time for myself? And, why was I only wearing muumuus?
As women we are natural-born multitaskers, but somehow I felt like there were too many balls in the air. I couldn’t manage without letting something go, like the cleanliness of our house and my body. Lord, have mercy.
It took me a while, but I started to manage. I was back to cooking. The baby bouncing in her Bjorn, I could handle fairly elementary food preparation. Grilled cheese, anyone?
I upped my hygiene game, got a sweet mom-do to tame all that extra hair growth, and cured my postpartum keratosis pilaris, so I no longer felt like a scaly swamp creature. Thank you, pregnancy hormones.
All of a sudden, I was doing things again. I took a lot of walks. Pushing our daughter in the stroller, I basked in the sun. I had lunches with other moms, and their assurances made me feel like a confident, normal person. Turns out I didn’t need to have it all figured out.
I’m still healing from our daughter’s birth and feel like I’m always three steps behind.
Being left to my own devices while on maternity leave proved out to be a steeper learning curve than I expected, but the 12 weeks also were filled with tender, beautiful moments. Friends and family visited, bringing us sustenance, encouragement, and love. Every day, holding our daughter felt like a miracle. And watching my husband’s new role as “da-da” unfold made my heart pitter-patter, reaffirming my decision in choosing him as my mate.
I found myself marveling at a lot of things, like our daughter's tiny toes, fingers, nose, and ears. I also marveled at my body. Even though my labor was complicated and messy, I brought a healthy baby girl into the world.
Nine months postpartum, maternity leave has long been over. I’m still healing from our daughter’s birth and feel like I’m always three steps behind. But sometimes at night, after I put her down to bed (when I should be enjoying that book), I scroll through the photos and videos that I took of her during my maternity leave, and I’m in awe. Look how far we’ve come already.
Persson, P., Rossin-Slater, M. (2019) When Dad Can Stay Home: Fathers' Workplace Flexibility and Maternal Health. NBER Working Paper, https://www.nber.org/papers/w25902