For many first-time working moms, maternity leave is an adjustment. Our daily lives pre-baby often include long work days, lots of people counting on us, daily checklists, and finding ways to advance our careers. We are constantly checking our phones and logging on to do more work when we get home. We are always on.
I’m here to tell you right now that adding a baby to your life is going to rock your world. I say this on the heels of a three and a half month maternity leave having worked for 15 years in a career I love. Looking back on those months, there are many things I’m glad I did, and many things I wish I hadn’t. Caring for a newborn is by far the hardest thing I have ever done, and pales in comparison to my day job.
The first few weeks are the biggest adjustment. If you’re like me, you’ll probably work until the day the baby is born (which is a feat in and of itself, and I don’t recommend it). So when that precious little bundle of joy arrives, it takes a while to wind down from the daily grind of the job, and that doesn’t happen magically, despite sleep deprivation and attending to every need of a newborn. You have to force yourself to disconnect and focus 100% on taking care of your baby.
For me, as soon as the baby was fed and went to sleep, no matter how sleep-deprived I was, I felt like I needed to do something: clean the house, do laundry, check things off the list, etc. Sadly, it wasn’t until the third month of leave that I realized this precious time was flying by and I wasn’t going to get it back.
Now as I head back to work, I keep thinking about what I would tell a first-time career mom who is headed out on maternity leave. I should say that each mom and baby is different, and every situation is different. Some moms have paid maternity leave, some have protected jobs through the Family Medical Leave Act, others take short-term disability or use up all their sick and vacation time, and the majority of moms take an unpaid maternity leave, which is really hard when your expenses are only going up. With that in mind, here are some things I wish someone would have told me (or advice I wish I had taken) so that I would have no regrets when heading back to work.
Take at least one nap a day.
If I had it to do all over again, this is the one thing I would have done more of. You will never get enough sleep during the night because the baby will be waking two to three times. I repeat, you will never get enough sleep. Even if you can’t fall asleep, just lie down and rest. Listen to music, meditate, do whatever so that you feel rested when the baby wakes. After I reprioritized, I found that afternoon naps were best because I was exhausted by that time and the caffeine had worn off.
Leave the house with (and without) the baby.
Maternity leave can be isolating, especially if you are recovering from a C-section and unable to lift anything heavier than a baby for six weeks. Whether you go on a walk, take your baby to a new moms group, or wander around Target, just get out of the house.
The first few times I left the house were a disaster. I left everything from my phone to diapers to a change of clothes, all necessary when you have a newborn. But eventually you do it enough times and after that first diaper blowout or meltdown, you’ll never forget those things again. This might mean breastfeeding in the back of your car or changing a diaper in the store bathroom, but you can do it.
It’s also really nice to get out of the house without the baby for a few hours at a time. The first time I left the baby alone with my husband, I was a wreck. I called and texted and felt guilty for leaving him. But I needed a break and was rejuvenated and ready to go when I got home. Which leads me to my next must-do…
Get a postnatal massage.
Your body is so tight and sore from giving birth and picking up the baby. I wish I had done this sooner, and gotten more than one. That aroma therapy massage was the best treat I could have ever given myself.
Don’t check your work email.
My colleagues were amazing. They would actually get mad at me when I would check my email, but it was habit. It wasn’t until the last month of my leave that I (mostly) stopped doing it. Your work can wait. You are on leave. Your job is (hopefully) protected. You will never get this time back. Just don’t do it.
Listen to parenting podcasts.
While I was pregnant, I read books and articles about being pregnant, but had no clue how to take care of a newborn when he arrived, so I had to catch up quickly. Totally Mommy (which sadly just ended), Unruffled with Janet Lansbury, Coffee + Crumbs, and Marvelous Moms are a few of my favorites. They talk about basic things like calming your crying baby, playing with them, keeping your sanity, and helping your baby work on milestones. And when I was tired, they even helped me fall asleep.
Find your mom tribe.
About a month after I had the baby, I had so many questions. I had a lot of mom friends whom I could ask, but many of them lived in other cities or countries. So I started trying to make mom friends nearby by going to a new moms group and playgroups at the library. I also wanted to tap into my mom friends across the country, so I started a Facebook group, and it has been so helpful. Instead of flooding my personal Facebook page with silly questions like how to travel with an infant, I could take it to my online mom tribe. We now have more than 240 members, and the discussions are so helpful.
Take a trip with the baby.
When my baby was 8 weeks old, I traveled to Washington, DC, with him and my husband. I’m not going to sugarcoat it: Getting out of the house the morning of our flight was so stressful. But thanks to the great advice from my online mom tribe, the flight itself was seamless. When I got to DC, I was able to walk around the city with the baby, sometimes with the stroller, sometimes in the carrier, and I even took some cab rides, and got a babysitter for a few nights. I also got to hang out with some of my best mom friends who had babies, which helped build my confidence that I was actually doing an OK job of being a mom. There is one caveat to this: Do not do what I did and take your baby on a four-plus-hour road trip by yourself. Just don’t do it. You will regret it.
Side note: Staying in a hotel with a baby is awesome. You don’t have distractions like cleaning the house, and they usually have blackout curtains which (hopefully) means better sleep. Downside is no laundry machine, which is dangerous for those inevitable blowouts.
Write thank-you notes.
This is a tough one. I see you rolling your eyes, but people love babies and love giving baby gifts even more. Because we have absolutely amazing friends and family, we had a lot of people to thank. And the gifts we received weren’t just clothes – they were beautiful handmade quilts, knitted sweaters, and sentimental treasures that will be passed down to future generations. I’ll tell you that it’s not fun, but this is the one time in your life that you will be truly grateful for the generosity of others. And to anyone reading this who didn’t get a thank-you note from me, I promise you it was an oversight!
Do a test run at daycare.
Because spots at daycare are in high demand, we had to secure a spot that began two weeks before I was set to return to work. It was annoying to have to pay for it, but I am actually glad it worked out. I took my baby in for a couple of hours a day, and it helped me ease-in to the daily drop-off and pickup routine, and prepared me for how hard it would be to leave him. Even if it’s just one day, do it.
Start your maternity leave a week or so before your due date.
I have never been so tired or swollen than the last few weeks of my pregnancy. I could barely sit at my desk, and I was so uncomfortable and tired. It was pure torture. If your work allows you to and you can afford it, do it. You won’t regret that last week of a full night’s sleep.
Organize a meal train.
This was a lifesaver the first couple of weeks we had the baby. One of my friends was kind enough to organize one for us and so we didn’t have to worry much about cooking for the first month or so. It was also a great chance for people to meet the baby, catch up on life, and have adult conversations. There are several websites out there that you can use to organize it like Meal Baby and Meal Train.
Ease your way back into work, if you can.
Here in Oregon, we have the Oregon Family Leave Act which gives you an additional 12 weeks of (unpaid) “bonding” time, so you can take more time with your baby, if you can afford it of course. I’m working four days a week, and work from home one of those days for the first month, so it seems slightly less hard to stomach leaving my baby at daycare for 10 hours a day. Still, I have my emotional moments thinking about him being in daycare for so long.
Eat lots of ice cream and drink wine.
Because you are feeding an infant. Enough said.
One last note is that it’s really important to be vigilant about postpartum depression. It can sneak up on you, and before you know it, you’re not able to function. Taking care of a newborn is damn hard. My doctor recommended increasing my anxiety/antidepressant medications for the last two months of my maternity leave because he knew how stressful it was going to be. I credit that, along with all of the other things I did (including leaving the house!), to not having any postpartum depression.
If you find yourself feeling sad, overwhelmed, or depressed, talk to your doctor, a therapist, or a friend. These are the days that should bring you fond memories of the brief time you were able to completely dedicate to your little one, so make the most of it, take care of yourself, and enjoy your time bonding with your baby.