Before becoming a mom, I envisioned maternity leave as an extended break from work that involved a cute baby at my side. We’d go on long walks together with me pushing the stroller in my best athleisure and an iced coffee in hand, or I’d settle into the couch with a book while he or she napped on my chest. The reality? Wearing the same frumpy t-shirt and sweatpants literally six days in a row, calling a daily two-minute shower a victory, and feeling simultaneously bored out of my mind and obsessively in love with my son’s little face. I couldn’t wait to go back to work, and I wanted to cry at the thought of going back to work. I loved each and every snuggle, and also counted down the hours until my husband came home.
It’s not that I was wrong, per se—I just thought I’d have more time. Or energy. Or initiative. And I simply didn’t. Instead, I slept as much as possible, recovered from childbirth, got to know the newest addition to our family, and watched a whole lot of Netflix. Turns out that’s pretty typical of maternity leave as a whole, so why do many moms put unnecessary pressure on themselves to do it “right”?
Well, we’re giving you full permission to cut yourself a break. Here are six misconceptions about maternity leave, and in response, how to prepare yourself to ride the wave of your transition into parenthood.
1. It’ll be a time of magical connections and joyful adjustment.
A lot of people told me they cried upon meeting their baby for the first time, due to a rush of joy and love, and then adored spending every waking moment with their new child. I mostly remember staring at my son’s naked body, feeling overwhelmed, exhausted and a little bit afraid. A couple weeks later, the magic still hadn’t really kicked in—sure, I loved him and would do anything to protect and take care of him, but he also kinda seemed like . . . a random baby living in my house. I worried something was wrong with me—maybe I wasn’t a good mom.
However, this type of experience is actually pretty standard, says Nina Kaiser, a child and family psychologist and founder of PRACTICE San Francisco. As a mom of a young toddler, she has learned firsthand how complicated maternity leave can be, and regularly works with local moms to offer prenatal and postnatal support.
“Many new moms expect maternity leave to be a time of blissful bonding with their new baby,” Kaiser explains. “In reality, giving birth is exhausting and physically demanding, and new moms need time to heal, rest, and recover! Postpartum hormone changes—in combination with the disrupted/intermittent sleep that’s just part of having a newborn—also can contribute to mood swings and anxiety at varying levels of intensity. And if new moms are hung up on the idea that every moment should be blissful, they might also feel guilty about also having moments of feeling sad or worried. New parenthood is a steep learning curve, and babies are pretty needy. It is normal to have times when nothing feels like it works or when you have absolutely no idea what to do.”
The bottom line: it’s okay to have emotional ups and downs. Take time to get to know your baby, and remember this is a huge life adjustment all around that is bound to involve complex emotions.
2. You’ll get so much stuff done.
“A lot of new moms see maternity leave as an opportunity to be productive and get things done—for example, catch up on reading, take a class, or otherwise taking advantage of ‘free time’ off work,” says Kaiser. “Going into maternity leave with these kinds of expectations or goals can be a recipe for frustration when your newborn is colicky and the only thing you actually accomplish is watching the entire last season of This is Us while trapped on the couch under a sleeping baby.”
Pretty much. I was able to take twelve weeks of maternity leave through my employer (which, of course, is not the case for everyone), and I honestly thought it seemed like a lot of time. (HA.) I quickly had to adjust my understanding of what things would get done, such as learning how to breastfeed versus home organization projects. This type of mentality also assumes you’ll have a “regular” birth with zero complications, when the truth is that many moms end up getting a c-section or facing a NICU stay that completely alters the landscape of maternity leave priorities, let alone the healing process and timeline for both mom and baby.
Melissa Walker, an Iowa-based writer, yoga teacher and mom of two says, “I thought I’d continue to be just as active as I was before, but soon realized I needed to rest during the daytime to make up for the sleepless nights and post-delivery complications. I also thought I’d still get showered, put makeup on and keep the house spotless, but realized it was easier at first just to bum around the house. I learned there are no expectations that you do anything other than take care of your baby. All of the ‘expectations’ were ones I placed on myself thinking I needed to be a super mom.”
3. You won’t want visitors / you’ll want a lot of visitors.
My mom offered to come stay with us for a week after our son was born, and at first, I balked. A whole week? We might need help the first couple days, but that’s it, I thought. But the night we came home from the hospital, my milk hadn’t yet come in and the baby screamed from basically 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. My husband and I panicked; we didn’t know what to do, and having an extra set of hands and another adult to offer reassurance was actually clutch to our sanity.
“Let anyone who offers to help you, help,” says Walker, “whether it’s to bring meals, do the laundry, or hold or change your baby.” I couldn’t agree more; although I couldn’t necessarily tolerate long visits, out of pure exhaustion, having visitors off and on gave us a much-needed break.
That being said, some new parents find they don’t actually want people stopping by, and they’d rather have some quiet time at home as a new unit before playing any role of host—even to friends and family members. Though it may be hard to tell someone you love to refrain from visiting, it’s fine if you need a little more space than you anticipated. Be honest about what’s best for you, your baby, and your family.
4. Once you recover, exercising will become a top priority.
My doctor cleared me for exercise around the standard six weeks, after which I assumed I would dive back into hot yoga classes and running. My preference, though, was to rest and relax; I didn’t necessarily like the extra pounds and soft folds of my body lingering around, but once my baby arrived, I also didn’t care as much as I thought I would.
When I asked one of my best friends, a mom of twins, if she had any assumptions prior to maternity leave, this was the first topic to come up. She had pictured doing Jillian Michaels videos, she said, but between being tired and c-section recovery and adjusting to breastfeeding/pumping, stairs and long walks served as her main source of physical activity.
“New mothers can benefit from prioritizing their own rest and physical recovery,” advises Kaiser. “The old cliche, “sleep when the baby sleeps,” is a cliche for a reason!” Naturally, this varies for every mom, and some women may indeed want to focus on getting back in shape for energy, strength, endurance or weight loss purposes (with the approval of a doctor). Endorphins from exercise can support self-care, too—I know by week eight, I was beyond ready to move my body and sweat a little, but also to carve out some time for myself and relieve stress. Whatever you decide, give yourself plenty of postpartum grace in thinking about your fitness levels.
5. You’ll be dying to get back to work / you won’t want to go back to work.
During maternity leave, many women reevaluate their careers: some have no choice but to return to a waiting job for financial or practical reasons, some decide to stay home, some explore new jobs or self-employment options and some go back to full- or part-time work. (I’m painting these choices in broad strokes, but you get what I mean.) Whatever you assume you’ll want to do, my best advice is to wait and see.
A quick survey of friends showcases how varied these experiences can be:
- “I thought I’d stay up-to-date with the news happenings of the world—I was a daily newspaper reporter at the time—but I found no desire to do so and instead relished the time away from my job and completely checked out.”
- “I didn’t count on the boredom setting in towards the end of my leave. I didn’t know a lot of other people off work all day, and although it was super special to spend time with my little guy, I needed more adult interaction.”
- “I thought I would be less involved with work. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really escape the emails and questions.”
- “None of my leaves have been quiet or uneventful. I interviewed for a new job and got it during my first maternity leave, took the two-month-old to my face-to-face interview and breastfed during interview questions. And [during the] second leave, we moved with a one-month-old.”
I personally felt ready to return to my day job, thanks to a flexible schedule, an amazing boss and a supportive work environment. But I fully respect the many women I know who spent maternity leave stressing about what to do, and then made a different choice. Again, you have to do what’s best for your family, so keep the door open regarding what you think you will or won’t want related to work.
6. You’ll form close friendships with other new mamas.
When I had my son, most of my close friends either didn’t have children or lived across the country. I figured I’d easily make new mama buddies during maternity leave: a meet-cute during a music class or joint strolls in the sunshine or mini-playdates. It wasn’t that easy. For one thing, leaving the house became a lengthy ordeal requiring hours of preparation, and coordinating sleep or feeding schedules with other moms of newborns led to endless texts but few actual plans IRL.
MaryBeth Kordik, a teacher in Chicago and mom of two, compares it to dating:” I thought it would be easy to make new friends with other maternity leave moms. Nope. Turns out that it’s like trying to pick up someone at a bar, only more awkward because no one is drinking and more disconnected because the baby had a blowout or you have to pop out a boob or something.”
Still, the moms who went out on a limb to connect with me have now become some of my closest friends, even if we don’t see each other that often. I especially appreciate the mothers of slightly older children, who recognized the crazy whirlwind that is newborn-land, and came over to drink a glass of wine or always responded to my (many) random questions about weird baby things.
While building this type of community takes time, and might be challenging, it can also be utterly transformative for new moms, says Kaiser. “It’s always helpful to have friends to text in the middle of the night to commiserate about the number of times your baby has woken up, or to go for walks in your sweats covered in spit-up while your newborns wail in their carriers! Friendship and support from other new moms can normalize the things that are hardest about new parenthood and make daily challenges of caring for a newborn feel less personal or overwhelming and more just babies being babies.”
Finally, Kaiser tells moms to accept the natural highs and lows of maternity leave, and use this time to primarily connect with your baby. “A lot of parenting involves trial and error as you get to know your own specific baby,” she says. “New moms are most likely to enjoy their maternity leave if they are able to accept that new parenthood can be an emotional roller coaster of successes and challenges.”