There is perhaps no stranger time in your life than maternity leave. You’re incredibly busy, yet somehow so bored. Completely overjoyed one minute, distraught the next. You’re most likely homebound, elated, exhausted, grateful, frantic, enamored—the list goes on (and on, and on…). Like I said, it’s a strange time; at least it was for me both times I went through it.
Before I go any further, I of course need to acknowledge that maternity leave is a great privilege. I’m fortunate that for each of my children, I had a 3.5-month long maternity leave, made possible the first time by the State of New York and the second by the generosity of my current employer. Unfortunately, far too many parents aren’t given this privilege. Leaves are often unpaid or much, much too short. But that’s a conversation for another time.
While leave is a blessing, it can also be really difficult. If you’re a first-time mom, you’re likely living each day hoping and praying you’re doing the right things while running on little to no sleep and continuously trying to figure out and get accustomed to your new identity. You may still find the experience challenging even if you’re a seasoned mom, especially considering the other children who are either running around the house alongside you or whose schedules keep you just as busy coordinating and chauffeuring.
Even though I always knew myself to be a career gal, I was still shocked by how persistently maternity leave chipped away at my mental health, especially the first time around. On my good days, I felt bored. On my not-so-good days, I felt alone, anxious, and overwhelmingly sad. Thankfully, I learned a lot during my first maternity leave, including how to keep my mental health in check.
Here are some of the tips that helped me stay sane during my second maternity leave:
Move Your Body
Whether it’s a home workout while the baby is napping or a walk down the street with the stroller, exercise (even when you’re exhausted) will help you feel better. The endorphins guarantee it! Exercise in some shape or form was my non-negotiable during both my maternity leaves. This is the ritual that helped me most of all.
Get Out and About Every Day
My first child was born during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. We didn’t leave the house for months on end, and I sincerely thought I was going to lose my mind. Even while on leave with my second child this year, I realized again just how easy it is to confine yourself to your home. Getting out of the house with a baby isn’t always an easy task (they tend to pick the most inopportune times to soil their diapers), but it’s worth the effort. Even something as simple as going to the post office or walking around the block can make a huge difference in your mental health.
Exercise Your Mind
If you’re not careful, all you’ll think about during your maternity leave is how much the baby ate and pooped. It’s easy to fall into the never-ending mental cycle of baby care. I personally know that keeping my mind active is really important for my mental health. To fend off what I like to refer to as “fuzzy brain,” I read books while the baby was sleeping and listened to audiobooks while she was awake. I also love to write, so I made a point to keep writing even when I was running on fumes. Other activities you might consider include crossword puzzles, Wordle or picking up an old hobby you miss.
Set Small Goals Every Day
I’m a list maker. A cute planner enthusiast. Checking things off lists is something that brings me joy. Whether or not you’re like me, I encourage you to set small goals every day of your maternity leave. For example, if you love to cook, your goal one day might be to cook dinner. Or perhaps you haven’t left the house in a few days: Make it a goal to get out, even if it’s just to the grocery store. My personal maternity to-do lists were often a balanced mix of things that needed to get done (“clean the bathrooms”) and things I would enjoy (“edit baby photos”).
Maternity leave can easily turn into an isolating experience. Stay social and make time to see your friends and family. If the thought of germs around your new baby makes you anxious (it did for me), then set aside some time to pick up the phone or have a video chat. Even engaging with your friends on social media can help you feel less alone and more connected to the world at large.
Sweatpants are great in theory. But in reality, who honestly feels great wearing sweatpants all day, every day? While it’s tempting to grab for your loosest items of clothing after the baby is born, adding some structure and style into your day can give you a mood boost. Don’t put off dressing in “real clothes.” If you’re not comfortable in your pre-baby wardrobe, buy some bigger clothes and enjoy getting dressed in the morning. If you’re looking for some inspiration, check out this comprehensive list of postpartum fashion essentials.
Make an “After-Leave” Plan
As wonderful as maternity leave is, it doesn’t last forever. Having a plan for “after” can help you stay sane on those days when it feels like the rest of your life is going to be spent in an endless cycle of feeding the baby, burping the baby, and changing the baby’s diaper. Having an after-leave plan can give you hope, knowing your life will one day feel more “normal.” It can also help you enjoy your leave even more while you’re on it. For me, solidifying my back-to-work plan (which also included planning my baby’s enrollment in daycare) helped me really enjoy the time I had with my newborn.