I put off trying to have a baby until I felt my career was in just the right place for me to take a step back for a year [Editor’s note: Canada’s parental leave benefits provides most parents, like Carley, up to 63 weeks of paid time off; many moms will take one year off. Federal laws in the U.S. only guarantee 12 weeks of unpaid parental leave, though individual employers may provide better benefits.] My work was everything to me — my main source of pride and my creative outlet — it gave me an identity as well as some of my most valued relationships. I didn’t want to let go of that to have a kid, and I didn’t want to be passed over for bigger and better (and better-paying) opportunities when I was on leave. I also felt like I needed to be in a job for at least two years before I took maternity leave (this is faulty thinking; learn from my mistake), and because I changed jobs every few years to climb higher and higher, I never felt like I could step away. Until, eventually, I did.
I was excited to take a mat leave and spend a year at home with a baby. I knew motherhood wouldn’t change how much I cared about my career. But I was looking forward to “focusing on family” for a year, as I told people at the time. It was a rare moment. It was a privilege. It was also really hard.
The transition from work life to mom life can be drastic one. A colleague of mine, a self-described workaholic who is expecting her first baby, reached out to me recently to ask for some “tips, tricks, and advice” for preparing for that transition. She was struggling with being someone who’s spent her entire adult life thinking about what’s best for her company and her career, and suddenly, she needed to think about what’s right for her family, too. She was panicked about leaving her job for a year and wanted to know what I did — or wished I had done — to prepare for my leave. Here’s what I told her.
Drop the expectations.
Of how you think you should feel now. Of how you think you’ll feel when the baby arrives. Of how you’ll feel about work. Or how the birth will go, if you are carrying the baby yourself. Or what the first days, weeks, and months will be like. You don’t know any of these things. You just don’t know. There is no right way to feel or to be. And there are so many variables, from how delivery goes to what your baby is like. For moms who experience pregnancy, the rush of postpartum hormones is EPIC and a real mind-bender. How you’ll feel over the course of your maternity leave will change. The amount of sleep you’re getting (or not getting) is always changing. How your mind and body treats you changes. You may feel totally uninterested in work or you may crave going back.
What’s best for your family is the same thing as what’s best for you. Put yourself first.
I was looking forward to my mat leave so I could “focus on family” for once — but I didn’t know what I was talking about or what that even meant. Besides, your total focus doesn’t have to be on your family. Hell, it shouldn’t be. You need to care for yourself and the things that are important to you as an individual in whatever shape that takes, from going back to work earlier than you anticipated to checking out of your career for the entire time you’re off. What’s best for your family is the same thing as what’s best for you. Put yourself first.
Try to taper off your workload.
Even without the baby-factor, going from working at full-tilt to not working at all is a dramatic shift. Two ideas for easing this transition: 1. Try organizing your tasks and projects so that you aren’t slammed up until the last minute. If you can take your foot off the gas, even slow down a tiny bit, starting mat leave will feel less like jumping into a bucket of ice water. (I can go on and on and about why the transition to motherhood is tougher for some of us than others, but you can just read the article I wrote on that subject here.) 2. See if your manager will agree to letting you work a two- or three-day week for the last couple of weeks before your leave. To me, this would be an ideal arrangement and make the adjustment less abrupt.
Maybe, just maybe, consider NOT working up until the due date.
You may be tempted to do just that out of a sense of obligation or because you like your job (lucky you!). I’d consider starting mat leave two weeks before the baby’s ETA instead of working right till the last minute because you don’t know when the last minute will be. Your baby could arrive on the due date, or two weeks after, or seven weeks before. Your baby may be like those over-enthusiastic dinner guests who show up 30 minutes ahead of schedule while you’re burning the sauce and wearing only your undies and come four weeks ahead of time. If this happens and you’re not exactly the que sera type, you will feel like the hottest mess because you haven’t yet finished those 17 to-do lists you have for work and home. If you give yourself two weeks between your last day of work and the due date, you will be slightly more organized if you have an early-bird baby. You can’t plan when labor will begin or what new challenges come up at work, but this might give you some peace of mind as you, or the person who’s carrying the baby, moves into the latter stage of pregnancy.
You are not a lesser woman or mother if you don’t breastfeed.
Buy some liquid formula before your baby is born.
Breastfeeding, if that’s an option available to you and one you want to take, can be really fucking hard. And for some of us, it never works out the way we had hoped. In those first couple of days, if you’re struggling to feed the baby, just give her some formula in a bottle. Guess what? The world will not end! And you’ll save yourself from making a frantic emergency trip to the store for formula if your doctor tells you the baby is underweight and needs nutrition STAT. To that end, if you are struggling with breastfeeding and someone tells you to try cup-feeding rather than give your child a bottle, spit in their face and run in the other direction. And if you can afford it, one visit from a good lactation consultant is worth every damn cent. Remember: Not all of us breastfeed. For some of us, it’s a choice, and it may not be the right choice for you. You are not a lesser woman or mother if you don’t breastfeed.
If you’re planning to breastfeed, get yourself some nipple cream ahead of time.
Don’t screw around: This is the best one. It was developed by Dr. Jack Newman, a Canadian pediatrician and breastfeeding guru. Have your doctor write you a prescription for the ointment before you give birth and get a pharmacy to make it for you so you have it on hand. It is a godsend. The first latch hurts like a mother-fucker and, believe me, you want this stuff on hand.
Remember other people? Go see some.
Leaving the house was incredibly difficult for me — I was so afraid that my son, Max, would poop or cry or that I’d fuck up his already-shitty nap routine that, aside from my daily morning walk, I stayed home most of the time. I wish I would have taken him (and therefore myself) out more. I think I would have been happier. You need to move and you need to talk to other adults, especially if you’re an extrovert. Put on your mask for socially distanced stuff and get out there. I know it’s harder because of COVID, but I always felt re-energized and more like a human person on the days when I went to the library baby circle or to baby swim class or to my mom group. Throw on a clean shirt and get the eff out of your home.
If you can nip the competitive-parenting streak in the bud early in the game, you will be a happier woman for the rest of your life.
On that note, make friends with other moms who have newborns.
You can go through it all together. I was lucky that someone in my industry formed a mom group made up of women in lifestyle media who happened to be having babies at the same time. Some of us knew each other only a little, some of us not at all — and I’m so grateful she brought us together. At the time, I didn’t have any mom friends in my social circles, so having a team of women to gossip with and to see who also had their crotch ripped open like a zipper was such silly fun.
When you’re catching up with other parents, actively try to discuss things other than your babies, because you will inevitably end up talking about your kids plenty. One very important caveat: If you are someone who’s ambitious in your career, you probably have a healthy competitive streak. PUT THIS ASIDE! You will be comparing notes on your mommy gear and sleep cycles, and inevitably you will meet a mom who’s making her own baby food from organic apples grown on trees that were watered with the joyous tears of a magical stork. None of it matters. You will most definitely be talking about how each of your babies is developing and what milestones they’re hitting. And you will get freaked out. You will worry that your child is behind. But here’s the thing: How your baby is progressing compared to other infants DOES NOT MATTER. They all have their own timelines. Your baby is fine, and your diaper bag is fine, too. If you can nip this competitive-parenting streak in the bud this early in the game, you will be a happier woman for the rest of your life.
You are cut out for this whole parenting thing.
Truly. You’ve got this. You won’t always think so, but you do. I promise. But if you ever feel like, Nope, I really don’t got this, if your mind keeps turning to dark places, if your thoughts are on an endless loop of scary thoughts, please, please, please tell someone — whether that’s your doctor, your partner, or your friend. It might feel impossible to do. You might be spinning out, worrying about what will happen when you speak up. But, trust me on this one: When you can’t cope on your own, bring in reinforcements. It’ll be the one of the best gifts you ever give yourself.
If you are experiencing postpartum depression, please call the Postpartum Support Helpline at 1-800-944-4773.
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