A few years ago, I was talking with a friend who had just had her first child and we were having the "How come nobody told us it would be this hard?" rundown. (Reason why nobody tells you exactly how hard it will be: It's mean.) One of the things we commiserated over was how much more difficult maternity leave was than we expected. "I guess I just thought it would be this nice, cozy time home with the baby," I confessed. Instead, it kind of drove me crazy.
They describe life in the military with the phrase "Hurry up and wait." That's how maternity leave felt to me—long stretches of interminable exhausted boredom punctuated by panic and feelings of being overwhelmed. The baby would sleep and I would start doing something like empty the dishwasher and then sit down for a break, intending to get back to it, and then he would cry and I'd walk away from an open dishwasher for a few hours. My husband would get back from work and ask me how my day was and I'd try to remember. It was fine? Uneventful? Exhausting? Nothing happened? I'm supposed to be happy right now but I'm not? Help?
My friend commiserated. She had also assumed that maternity leave would be some sort of vacation, confessing that she had even made big plans on what to do with her time off, including learn French, knit and take tennis lessons.
The truth is, maternity leave is not easy—I certainly found it harder than being at the office, because being at the office often involved long blissful stretches of sitting quietly by myself or maybe having adult conversations. But the first time around, I unwittingly also made it harder on myself. I know that this second time around it will still be hard (especially with a toddler in the house) but I think that I can do a few things to make it easier on myself:
Because even with the best-laid plans, it will still be hard, and never just be a vacation that involves snuggling a little baby.
● I will not let everybody and their mother come over right away. Because I was excited about the new baby and wanted to show him off, any time a friend or family asked to come over and see him, I basically let them do it (it also helped that they frequently offered to bring food). While I loved seeing my friends, it was exhausting to entertain them. I didn't think at the time that I was making a big deal of it, but now I realize I was putting in some effort to keep the house together, to get myself together, and to give them a nice little visit (i.e., a clean wine glass).
Now, I look back and I can't believe my husband and I were so excited about our tiny little newborn. He was just a dried-up peanut of a creature who didn't do anything. Our son is way more fun now. He talks and engages and is entertaining and sweet and funny. Plus, I still have some friends who have never met him, which is a little sad but it's not the end of the world—those friends are still my friends and I know my kid doesn't care. So anyway, long story short, I will be more judicious about spacing out the visits.
● When people do come over, I won't try and prove that I have it all together. Most of the time, I blow-dried my hair and put on makeup when my friends came over, aside from one of my oldest friends, who laughed and said "Damn!" when she came over a few days after the baby was born. You know what? Maybe more people need to see that, because I must have gotten the idea somewhere that new moms can and should look like they did before they had the baby. In truth, sometimes it did make me feel better to pull myself together and try to feel normal around but also, that was precious time I could have spent sitting down. So this time around people will just have to deal with seeing me in all my bedraggled glory. Even my mom.
● When my mom suggests that I replace my out-of-season fake flowers, I will invite her to do it herself if it bothers her so much. I mean, seriously.
● I will stop there because I have learned better than to make too many big plans for my maternity leave. Because even with the best-laid plans, it will still be hard, and never just be a vacation that involves snuggling a little baby. But, I hope, if it is hard, it won't be because of me.