How To Survive Maternity Leave Like An Absolute Boss

Tuesday 5 March 2019

There's a word I learned recently that I love. I had never heard it until a couple of months ago, but instantly, instinctively, it made sense to me.

That word is ‘matrescence’, and what it refers to is the process of becoming a mother - like the birth equivalent of ‘adolescence’. There are a lot of parallels, really - both emotionally stormy times when your life (and your body) is transforming beyond recognition.

I believe this word should be more widely known, because it acknowledges the journey that you have to go through to earn your motherhood crown.

Being a mama is more than just the biological accident of reproduction. It's a hard earned process of growth, a story of sacrifice, ingenuity and learning to love harder than you ever thought possible.

Getting into the swing of that mama thing. 
One of the things I discovered when I had my son was how many unspoken topics there seem to be connected to matresence.

From navigating your changed relationship with your partner to the identity crisis that many new mothers go through, there's a lot that just isn't spoken about. There is also the adjustment to an utter revolution in your lifestyle, not least of which is your maternity leave.

Not much is really said about maternity leave. We are supposed to be so wrapped up in a bubble of bliss with our little ones that we don't have any other feelings about it.

But that simply isn't the case for many.

Often our identities are closely bound up with the careers we've worked so hard for. I personally found the transition from a very structured day to complete freeform chaos very difficult the first time around. Going from making, quite literally, million pound decisions in my busy role in marketing to the biggest choice of each day being what to make for dinner was absolutely terrifying.

I'd been studying or had a job since I was 16. I didn't know who I was without one. I was utterly lost.

I made a decision. I didn't just want to survive my maternity leave - I wanted to thrive. I wanted to appreciate this precious time out with my babies but also maintain my sanity. And, somehow, not feel like I'd just landed from Mars when I did go back to work.

Now I'm roughly two thirds of the way through my second maternity leave, I like to think I've learnt a thing or two, and I'm going to share it here…

Acknowledge Your Purpose

Isn't it awkward when you show up dressed as your three month old? 

Feeling a little lost leaving a career you've worked so hard for - even if you know it's temporary - is entirely natural.

There is all sorts of guilt attached to every single choice in motherhood, but know this - there is no right choice.

Whether you take five years off, go back part time or full time, or return to work after a couple of months, the only correct answer is the one that works for you and your family.

The choice you've made to stay at home is hugely significant. You are not without purpose, mama - you are the axis around which your baby’s life turns.

Of course there will be ups and downs - some sunny days sat in the park playing with your baby while everyone else is at work versus being woken up during the night at 20 minute intervals with an inconsolable ill child - so if it all gets too much take a step back and acknowledge your purpose. Which, right now, is to be there for your child.

Know That It's Temporary

When you're making arrangements to go off, a year or so seems like a scarily long time. But, trust me, it will thunder by quicker than you ever thought possible.

Sometimes, the existence of a mother to young children can literally feel never ending (is that the fifteenth episode of Mr Tumble you've just had to sit through?) but it passes by in the blink of an eye. Really, our kids need us for such a short time.

I've tried to hold on to that thought when I'm chronically sleep deprived and the laundry pile never seems to go down no matter how many washes I put on. Just cherish the time you do get to be there for your baby and the rest will wait.

Equally, I think it's good to keep in touch with what's happening at work.

During my first maternity leave, I went full ostrich. I didn't want to think about going back and having to leave my baby. I didn't contact work at all or try to speak to anyone until a few weeks before I was due to go back.

Then I discovered that my line manager was off on long-term sick leave, I'd been completely deleted from the IT system as no one had informed them I was on mat leave, and the entire department was having a restructure, which involved deleting all the posts at my grade and having us all re-interview for our jobs - in my case on the same week I started back.

Now admittedly that is rather an extreme situation, but the point is I would have been so much better off if I'd have realised what was going on.

This time around (in a much better workplace)  I've made the effort to keep in touch by email, go in to see people and meet my new director for the odd coffee, as well as doing some KIT days.

There's still a part of me that feels a little in denial about going back, but I know I'll be much better prepared when I do.

Learn To Let Go

Meet the boss and the newest board member
If you have the type of personality where you like to be in control, while it can make you very good at your job, it doesn't necessarily make you great at motherhood.

Uncertainty and a healthy dose of chaos are something that go hand in hand with babies and small children and if you don't learn how to welcome that into your life, you're in for some serious struggle.

As one of life’s planners, not being able to operate like that on maternity leave has been hard to learn.

Babies are not machines and no matter how much you battle to establish that nap schedule they may well have other ideas. You have a new CEO now - a tiny, sticky, screaming one (this may not be so very different from your situation at the office anyway).

Embrace the opportunity maternity leave gives you to be a little spontaneous, from a random drive to the seaside with the baby ‘just because’ to the quiet calm of being the only ones awake at 3am.

Prioritise During Nap Time

Nap time is frequently the only opportunity you really have during the day to get shit done without a small person being attached to you.

Use it wisely by setting a handful of priorities for your day ahead of time (otherwise you may panic at your unexpected freedom and end up wasting it on Cash In The Attic repeats. Don't do that to yourself).

A lot of people will tell you to ‘nap when the baby naps’, but that never really worked for me. Not only was nap time my only real chance to do some housework or life admin or heaven forbid actually have a few precious minutes of me time, but I'm just not wired to instantly fall asleep like that. Quite often I'd get so wound up about when the baby would wake back up that I couldn't relax enough for anything approaching shut eye.

So my advice for this one is to definitely have a plan for nap time, but allow that plan to change according to what you most need.

I try to attack an area of the house that desperately needs cleaning or fit in a short at home workout or sometimes I will want to write for this blog. Other days I really need to just allow myself to read a chapter of my book and chill out.

And if it's been a night of horror with the toddler and the baby both waking I may prioritise a nap myself. It all depends on what is most needed.

Know What Your Job Is

Much of the work of a ‘housewife’” is invisible and quite thankless. You spend the day endlessly picking up pieces of lego, changing nappies, loading and unloading the washing machine and dishwasher, wiping down the kitchen counters… Only to have it undone approximately three seconds later.

Everything you do only becomes visible when you don't do it. Having a young baby is not the time to stress about Mrs Hinch-ing your whole house on a daily basis or Marie Kondo-ing the baby’s sock drawer.

Your job is to look after your baby. That is literally what maternity leave is. When you look at the salary and job description for a nanny, it's easy to see exactly how much work goes into raising a child and caring for them each day.

Housekeeper? Chauffeur? Cook? Those are separate job descriptions with a separate pay grade. I make it very clear that if the house is tidy and the dinner is made, that is a bonus and not a basic requirement of my role in the home.

Work As A Team

No sleep til Brooklyn
The relationship that you have with your partner goes through so many changes when you become parents together - some positive ones and some which are a little more tricky to navigate. 

There are all kinds of complicated emotions at play when it comes to your maternity leave. You are dealing with taking care of a demanding young human all day. You feel almost resentful of your partner for getting to swan off to work, enjoy adult company, drink hot coffee, and eat lunch without having to simultaneously breastfeed and fix the broken washing machine (true story from my glamorous life).

Literally. True story, bro. 

Conversely, your partner is dealing with having to function at work with broken sleep and feeling like they are missing out on the baby all day.

Both situations are challenging but they're too different to compare. Don't fall into the trap of getting competitively tired with each other. And learn to read when the other person really needs a break. If I can see Sebastian has had a full on day, I will step up and try to do the bath and bedtime which is the hardest part of our evening. If I'm crashing out on the sofa at the weekend he’ll take our three year old to the park.

Don't forget to be kind to each other. Those shoulder squeezes of encouragement and sympathetic cups of tea make all the difference. Make time for each other wherever possible - there won't be much of it, but it's hugely important, because one day those kids will be grown up and you'll just be left with each other.

Don't lose each other along the way, or become so wrapped up in the babies that you don't appreciate each other too.

Find Your Tribe 

Random sunny picnic in the park? In your face, office workers 

Out adulting

My mama friends have been the making of my maternity leave. No one else quite understands what it is to be dealing with your third poo-nami of the day or unwisely ordering random crap from Amazon Prime during the 3am feed.

The women I have met have been instrumental in keeping me sane and helping me eat all the cake and drink all the coffee I need! Even if it feels hard, you have to get out there. I didn't do NCT classes, so the mama friends I have were all made through pregnancy pilates classes, coffee mornings and baby groups.

Making new friends can seem daunting but if you both have a small baby I guarantee you have enough topics of conversation to get going.

Equally, don't feel that you have to be friends with someone just because you both have children. The ‘friends’ I made during my first maternity leave were sadly just that - we didn't have a lot in common other than babies and none of those friendships really lasted once we were back at work.

This time around, things are different. I've been lucky enough to connect with some great women that I get on with for who they are - the babies are just a bonus!

Above all, remember to enjoy your maternity leave. It's a few months out of your life and it really is precious. You got this, mama! 

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