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Before a baby came out of me last month, I’d never been alone with one before. I was the youngest in my family; I avoided high-school babysitting gigs like the Hanta virus; my only close friend who has a baby lives 3,000 miles away.
When it came to maternity leave, therefore, I had only the vaguest notions of what to expect, forged in the fire of "Sex and the City" reruns and various articles on the Internet. I understood that caring for my newborn baby would be difficult -- unimaginably so. I was aware that sleep deprivation would be involved, as would a rotation of spit up-stained sweatshirts. And I knew I shouldn’t plan to catch up on my reading, because I wouldn’t have any free hands.
I was also confident I’d have a nervous breakdown. It seemed like every article I read on the topic included at least one postpartum depression horror story, either in the comments or the piece itself. The eggnog of my brain is spiked with the rum of anxiety at even the best of times, so I put my therapist on speed dial and braced for the worst.
Surprise! Like pregnancy and childbirth, maternity leave turned out to be one of those things that defied my expectations and pop-cultural cliché. Sure, it’s been tough, but not in the ways I was anticipating. And some of the things I thought would be hideous have turned out to be easy.
Every mother’s experience is different, but here’s mine.
Maternity leave is a lot like the show “Lost” -- or at least the three seasons of that show I watched before I got bored. Remember the Hatch -- the mysterious bunker where people lived in isolation, entering a series of numbers into a computer every 108 minutes because they had a vague sense that the world would end if they didn’t? Maternity leave is totally the Hatch. There are a series of brainless tasks you have to do roughly every 108-180 minutes, 24 hours a day -- feed, diaper, burp; new onesie if any of the above were explosive -- and if you don’t do them, the baby will scream and you’re a bad mother.
None of this stuff is hard. I always secretly believed that the whole “motherhood is the hardest job in the world” line was condescending bullshit, and I was right -- sort of. What I didn’t realize, however, was that easy stuff becomes hard when you have to do it over and over and over 24/7. Motherhood requires a radical restructuring of the way you experience and use time, and that’s the real rub.
Changing your sleep patterns is the hardest of all. You know that cliché, “Sleep when the baby sleeps?” I always thought it only applied if you had one of those colicky babies who stayed up crying all night. Some people lucked out and got sleepy babies and didn’t need to drop everything when the baby went down, right?!
Yeah, no. I’m one of the lucky ones: My baby came out of the womb wanting to sleep from 1:00-11:00 every morning. But what I didn’t realize was that when they’re less than three months old, even good sleepers need to wake up 3-5 times a night -- for around 45 minutes at a stretch. Meaning I’m not getting a “night’s sleep” these days so much as an unsatisfying series of naps.
I used to be the sort of person who’d rather not sleep at all if I had to get up again in 2 hours. Not anymore. If I don’t fall asleep right away after the baby’s nighttime feedings, I lose precious minutes before it’s time for my next round in the Hatch. There’s no time to noodle on my phone or finish the episode of "Breaking Bad" I was watching. (I’ve watched so many of those, by the way, that I’m terrified my baby’s first word is going to be “Heisenberg.”)
When my baby naps during the day, I don’t need to go to sleep at the same time. But the thing is, my days are still extremely compressed. By the time I get out of bed with the baby in the morning, feed him, change him, wheel him into my bathroom in his bassinet, shower while singing Arcade Fire at top volume because for some reason he’s only comforted by the musical stylings of Regine Chassagne, and then put on clothes, it’s 12:30 p.m. Everything I do outside of my bedroom must take place in the eight hours between then and 8:30, when my exhausted husband and I start our bedtime ritual.
Which brings me to another way my maternity leave is like “Lost:” I have become a woman out of time. Days bleed together, one into the other. I routinely forget what day of the week it is. I cram work emails, xoJane posts, and everything computer-related into the fistful of 15- and 20-minute slivers I get between daytime feedings, changes, and tummy time. It’s taken me four days to write this much.
I consider every day a success if I meet four simple goals:
Just walking to the coffee shop five blocks away requires 20 minutes of preparation and the meticulous packing of a diaper bag, so this is harder than it sounds.
This new routine has put me on an emotional roller coaster. For the first three or four days, I was crying every night because of the constant waking up. Then I spent about a week absolutely thrilled with my life: sleeping in every day! No pressure to do anything all day but hold my baby and watch Netflix topless!
Then the tears came back for another few days, because I’m an extrovert and all my energy drains away if I don’t get out of the house and talk to people. So I did that, and now I’m cool.
One thing that hasn’t materialized for me, however, is full-on postpartum depression. I think one would have to be one’s own special kind of insane not to feel ANY stress, panic, boredom, isolation, or apprehension on maternity leave, but to my surprise and delight, those emotions have all stayed on the subclinical side of the fence for me.
This, I think, is due to a number of factors: an awesome, pain-free birth experience; a supportive partner; a good sense of what my emotional needs are and how to fulfill them. But most important (seriously): my iPhone.
I’m not sure how mothers stayed sane before smartphones were invented. My phone has been my lifeline to the outside world, keeping me connected to friends and family and books and media even when I’m alone in the house and all I have to spare is one thumb.
If you’re about to go on maternity leave yourself, know that it’s not necessarily going to be horrific…or a breeze. Most of the women I know, myself included, think it’s going to be one of the two, and I for one was surprised.
What it’s most likely to be is a combination of horrific and breezy -- I mean, both of those things at the same time. It’s a six- to fourteen-week fiesta of paradoxes.
How is it possible to be so in love with my baby, so desperate not to leave him, and yet simultaneously so bored? Why am I miserable at the prospect of returning to work if I know this diminished routine of sleeping, sitting, babbling, and sitting some more won’t be psychologically sustainable for me in the long run?
It makes no sense. That, I would say, is maternity leave in a nutshell: it makes no sense.