I remember the first morning I was left alone with my 3-week-old daughter. My husband took off for work, and after weeks of support from my parents and sister, I was completely on my own.
My first question was: Will I eat today? Followed closely by: Will I ever get to put the baby down? Will I ever shower? Do the laundry? Shop for groceries? Leave the house? What will I do with all the hours? And, of course: Will I ever sleep? It all just seemed…insurmountable.
Maternity leave can be a beautiful and daunting time. For most American moms it is alarmingly short, if you even get to take it. After all, the U.S. is one of the only countries in the world that doesn’t have a national paid leave law.
But assuming you do get to take maternity leave, by the time you’ve finally started to get the hang of it—and are maybe sleeping for more than an hour at a time—you’re headed back to work, often with very conflicting feelings.
So how can you make the most of it?
Why take maternity leave?
There is a myth that mothering and breastfeeding are “natural.” For some women this is true; they slide into it with total ease. But for a lot of new moms, it’s a struggle. It takes practice and time—just like any new job!—but we feel like we should know what we’re doing from Day One.
Maternity leave gives you the time to bond with your baby and to learn how to mother. (This is, of course, a lifelong job, but you get a crash course those first few months.) It’s an opportunity to get to know your particular munchkin—what helps her sleep, what helps him burp, what she likes and dislikes. It also gives you a chance to focus your entire mental and emotional energy on this baby—not to be pulled in multiple directions. (There will be plenty of that in the future.)
First-time moms often have all sorts of other ambitions for that time: I’ll cook! And bake! And finish my book! And redecorate our living room! The truth is that a new baby is all-consuming, even though it often feels like you’re doing…nothing.
“Maternity leave is not a vacation,” says Sonya Rasminsky, MD, a psychiatrist in Orange County, California, who specializes in women’s mental health. It can be grueling, exhausting, and disorienting.
“I never thought it would be a vacation—but my husband did!” says Eve Udesky, a social worker in New York City and mother to 9-week-old Nathan. “However hard you imagine it’s going to be—it’s harder. As much as people talk about things much more because of online forums and social media, there were things I was shocked to learn that my mom friends hadn’t talked about.”
There’s primarily the issue of your own physical recovery to contend with. “Usually after such a traumatic physical event you’d be lying around and people would be taking care of you!” Udesky says. “But you’re taking care of someone else!”
Udesky lives in a New York City walkup, so she couldn’t even think about getting the stroller up and down the stairs in the first 6 weeks. “It was winter and I had all these fantasies about us going outside. I’ll just bundle him up and get going! It was a miracle if we made it out of the house!”
Maternity leave can feel like time out of time—not just because you’re just as likely to be up at 3 a.m. as you are at 3 p.m.—but because whatever schedule you were on gets blown out of the water. Your job? To roll with it.
What does a “successful” maternity leave look like?
Like all things motherhood related, what your maternity leave looks like will vary and will depend largely on your circumstances.
Kathy, an American living in Vienna, Austria (who asked that we not use her full name), has taken three two-year maternity leaves in the last decade. (Perks of living in Europe!) This meant that she would have the luxury of time to figure things out before returning to work, but she emphasizes that the key to a positive experience is the same regardless of how much time you have at home: “Get support or childcare in place to take breaks away from the baby; establish a routine that includes exercise and connection to other moms in a similar situation.”
First and foremost, however, is the most important component of a successful maternity leave: establishing a good feeding routine. This will make everything else easier, as you can start planning your days around when your baby is (likely) to eat. If you are nursing, make sure you hire a lactation consultant if you’re finding it challenging; there is no shame in asking for help.
For everything else maternity leave–related, we spoke to moms who have been and are currently in that postpartum period.
How to Do Maternity Leave: Tips From Moms Who’ve Been There
This, too, shall pass.
Both the bad and the good—really. Ever heard the expression “the days are long but the years are short”? Nothing quite sums up motherhood as well as that. The days can feel endless—boring and lonely and challenging all at once—but they won’t always. And those wonderful moments when the baby first laughs or smiles? You’ll probably long for them when she’s off at preschool.
Sleep when the baby sleeps.
Okay, some mothers find this to be the most annoying piece of advice: “Sure,” they say, “I’ll just lie down in the middle of the grocery store when the baby falls asleep in the stroller.” Fair enough! But if your baby does sleep in his/her crib or on you—sleep! You never know when you will have another chance. Everything else can wait.
Lower your standards so you can accomplish (and celebrate) small goals.
“Things have to slow way down with kids, and that means lower standards, tardiness, and expecting and welcoming the chaos,” Kathy says. “Otherwise that goal of getting everyone out becomes untenable.”
Get out every day.
Even if it’s just a short walk to get yourself a coffee. This might not seem feasible in the first few weeks of maternity leave, but once you’ve started to heal, it’s really important to get some air, move your body, and reconnect with the world around you. “I just had to change my mindset and say, ‘Just do it,’” says Udesky. “I couldn’t wait for the moment to be right. You just have to go. If he’s crying, you can go home. If he needs to feed, you can go home.” Strap that baby in or push her in the stroller. The more often you do it, the easier it will get.
It can be hard—the baby isn’t always on your schedule, but that doesn’t mean you should be a prisoner in your own home for your entire maternity leave. Make a date to have a cup of tea. Go to the park and sit on a bench. “I treated myself to mommy–baby yoga classes,” says Udesky. “It gave me someplace I had to be—and be with other moms.”
Join a moms group.
We know, we know—not all moms groups are great. But! They can help you meet that one friend who makes everything a little easier.
Don’t sweat the small stuff.
When I was on maternity leave and bemoaning the state of my apartment (in short, it was a wreck), my sister said, “If there isn’t underwear on the floor, you’re doing fine.” There often was underwear on the floor, actually, but you get the idea. One day it’ll be really easy to pick up the underwear (and everything else) again. Right now is not that time, and that’s okay.
Set up a meal train ahead of time.
Are you part of any community—a synagogue or church, a preschool, a club—that can help you in the early weeks of maternity leave? Those groups often have meal trains ready to go. If not, ask some friends if they’d be so kind as to make or buy some dinners for you. Alternately—if you’re up for it—before you go into labor, make loads of soup you can freeze.
Seek out support.
We’ve all heard the proverb “It takes a village to raise a child.” Women used to have loads more support: sisters, aunts, mothers, grandmothers. We aren’t meant to be so isolated, but many of us are. Do all you can to avoid being alone during maternity leave.
Can a family member come over a few times a week? Can you afford to hire a postpartum doula or a babysitter? Can your partner amend his/her schedule for the first few weeks/months? Can you get help with nursing from a lactation consultant?
“I have a hard time asking for help, even from my husband,” says Udesky. “But finally he said to me, ‘You have to feel okay waking me up at night!’ I thought that I’d just power through.” She found that having him take the baby out of the house occasionally so she could nap was very helpful. “Accepting help from people can be really hard, but you have to do it.”
Seek out help.
Baby blues are normal—in fact, most women experience them to some degree or another. But if you’re feeling so sad or anxious that you’re unable to function, seek out professional help. Postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety are real, and you don’t deserve to suffer with them. Your first line of defense should be your OB-GYN or primary care doc who can help you find a psychiatrist.
How can I take care of myself while also taking care of a newborn?
“Put your phone down,” says Kathy. “Connect with your baby during caregiving routines instead of rushing them. Get away from the baby at least once every few days, even if it’s to the grocery store. For me, the act of cooking was really relaxing because it was a task that had a definitive outcome, whereas baby caretaking felt endless. If my husband was home I insisted he take over so I could cook.”
How can I transition back to work?
The most important thing is to go easy on yourself. This will be complex, and emotions will run high. For most American women, the transition comes too soon. “I’m so sad about transitioning back to work,” says Udesky, who will return to work when her baby is 12 weeks old. “I’m happy I do something I care about, but I feel like we’re just getting to the point where we’re enjoying each other, and I’m not panicked.”
“When I went back to work the first time and confided in my sister that I was stressed, she said, ‘Sometimes you’re just there to get your ticket punched.’ Some days that’s all the office will get from me,” says Kathy. “On others, I’m a warp-speed machine who can’t afford to waste time because I have to pick up the kids in the afternoon. Know that there will be side-eyes from some colleagues, but just move along.”
Final Thoughts on Maternity Leave
This may seem crazy, but the thing that helped me most in those early weeks of maternity leave—when I was crazy with sleep deprivation and feeling really incompetent—was one simple line uttered by my midwife: You can put the baby down.
I was telling her I didn’t know how I would ever eat again—let alone shower, brush my teeth, or (God forbid!) put on makeup—and she just looked at me ever so kindly and said, “It’s okay if she cries. You have to take care of yourself, too.”
Udesky concurs: “Give yourself a break. Whatever you’re doing is good enough—in fact, it’s much better than you think.”