Maternity leave is a whirlwind of emotions, and new parents often find themselves stuck in strange paradoxes they never knew existed. They’re exhausted from long days of tirelessly caring for a child, yet bored at the tedium of that task. They’re full of joy watching their baby grow, yet often grief-stricken at the loss of freedom, career, and identity. They feel lucky to be able to stay home in comfy clothes, yet jealous of spouses who get to put on nice clothes and have adult conversations at work.
Perhaps most difficult of all: Maternity leave doesn’t come with a handbook. First-time parents are thrust into a new life without really knowing how they’re supposed to live that life in a way that’s truly fulfilling.
Well, I’ve been through it. And I’m here to say I made some mistakes during my 12 months of full-time child-rearing. I let myself get bogged down in expectations I put on myself, and didn’t give myself permission to take a break or carve out time for myself. But I also learned some hacks along the way, too.
Here are 15 things I wish I’d done differently during maternity leave, and five things I’m so glad I did.
20 took advantage of the moments I could sleep
"Sleep when the baby sleeps," they told me. At the time, I thought this was laughably ridiculous. Naps were the only time I had to make dinner, tidy, do laundry or just stare blankly at a wall during a day otherwise spent nursing, burping, changing, consoling, pleading with, and cleaning up after a baby.
In retrospect, the advice was sound. Because while the laundry did get folded, and the dinner did get made, and the wall did get stared at, I was exhausted as a result. Plus, when else during your adult life can you take a nap every day? The moment is now! So close your eyes and take that blessed snooze.
19 Got out of the house without the baby
Getting out sans baby doesn't mean leaving your wee one at home with your spouse so you can stroll the aisles of the grocery store child-free. It means getting out and do something that makes you feel like your old self. Like going to yoga or a movie, meandering through the art gallery, or grabbing drinks with friends.
Having a new baby can leave any new parent feeling bewildered and lost. There's nothing quite as grounding as getting out of the house and rediscovering yourself, your friendships, and your community, as a way of hitting the refresh button. So get out of the house - without the diaper bag.
18 Treated myself to self-care
What is it about becoming a parent that compels so many of us to stop caring for ourselves? We often stop getting our hair done, reading our beloved books, or even hitting the gym. It’s as if we feel guilty spending the time and money on ourselves.
I wish I’d made the effort to practice more self-care during maternity leave. I should have gone for massages and facials or carved out time to read in the bath. I felt as if I didn’t have the right to do anything that made me feel pampered and refreshed, and instead suffered through exhaustion and bad hair days. I’d do it all differently if I could.
17 Watched less mindless TV
Despite how hectic it can be to stay home with a baby, there are still somehow long hours where you just zone out. Maybe you’re nursing for hours, or rocking a baby in a bassinet, or watching her roll around on the carpet. Whatever it is you’re idly doing, you're bound to pick up your phone or the remote.
My way of wasting time was watching crappy TV: Reality shows, brainless sitcoms, and over-the-top crime dramas. I wish I’d tried harder to find thought-provoking programs or documentaries, or maybe even left the TV off and picked up a book instead. All those wasted hours rotting my brain.
16 Stopped fretting about work
Most people would jump for joy at the chance to leave their jobs for a year. No emails, no meetings, no conference calls, no projects. I was thrilled to leave the stress of my work behind for 12 months, and yet, once I was on maternity leave, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
I required almost-daily updates from colleague friends. I occasionally logged in to my email to see what I was missing worried about the projects I’d left for co-workers to take over. Sure, my career was important to me, but I wish I’d just let go during my year off, and enjoyed the freedom of not being at the office.
15 Used a meal delivery service
Meal delivery services have become more common in the years since I was on maternity leave, but they existed all the same, and I wish I’d invested in them. Being responsible for planning and making dinner five nights a week, while looking after the baby and the house, became old real quick. Oh, how nice it would have been to have dinner taken off my plate.
Meal services take the hassle out of planning and shopping for groceries, and can be customized to suit your family’s tastes, dietary restrictions, and budget. Plus, they make a great gift idea for anyone you know who may be expecting. Hint, hint!
14 Kept a journal for my kid to read later
At the time, it felt like all I had the energy to do was keep my baby alive, myself fed, and the house from burning down. Now, though, I’m starting to forget little details of her first year of life. And while some of her big milestones were jotted down, so many of the subtle little moments are lost to memory.
I wish I’d kept a baby journal: How I felt bringing her home from the hospital, what her coos and babbles sounded like, how it felt to hold her in my arms when I was nursing, and when she first smiled. It would be sweet to look back on those moments and all these years later.
13 Asked for more help
Many moms these days feel like they need to be superwomen during their year on maternity leave. The expectation is that they will breastfeed, clean the house, walk the dog, make a healthy home-cooked meal, and manage the groceries. And when new moms are feeling overworked or exhausted, they're reticent to ask for help.
I wish I’d reached out to my village more, asked for breaks, meals, help with housekeeping and even company when I felt like I was in over my head. I know my village would have come to my rescue in a heartbeat if only I’d asked. Instead, I plowed through, and it was harder than it needed to be.
12 Took a day off of housework once a week
Clutter and mess can be too much for a new parent who's home all day with a baby. The Catch-22, of course, is that clutter and mess are inevitable when you're a new parent home all day with a baby.
I spent so much time fretting over the state of the house, and constantly picking up after my little mess-machine, that it exacerbated any feelings I already had of being totally in over my head.
If I were to do it all over again, I’d pick one day a week where I gave myself permission to leave the mess, and enjoy the day and my time with my baby. Come to think of it, I should do that now!
11 Splurged on clothes that actually fit
Lots of moms bounce back after giving birth, sliding easily back into their pre-pregnancy jeans. Full disclosure: I was not one of those moms.
I was so determined not to “admit defeat” by buying clothes for my strange new body, that I kept wearing my pregnancy apparel far into maternity leave. Every once in a while I’d try to cram myself into too-small jeans and sob with frustration.
I wish I’d taken a different approach: Accepting and loving my body for what it was (because of the incredible thing it had just done) and proudly marched to the mall to buy some nice clothes that not only fit but made me feel good.
10 Bought less newborn stuff
The urge to shop is powerful in those first few months. You've got boredom to kill, and a perfect little shopping date who mostly sleeps while you cruise the stores looking for cute new outfits and cutting-edge baby gear.
I spent hours wandering Target with a Starbucks, my baby asleep in her bucket seat, filling my cart with newborn necessities that become obsolete months later. That's because you need way less newborn stuff than you think.
So if you are really compelled to shop for your new bundle of joy, hit up stores that sell kid stuff your little one will grow into. You, and your wallet will thank me in three years.
9 Gave the dog more love
Our fur babies are our first babies. Many of us get them in those lazy, pre-kid days when we have the time and energy to take them for walks, buy them seasonal collars, and snuggle them during evening-long Netflix binges.
As soon as my human baby came along, my fur baby became second fiddle. Walks were less frequent, the seasonal collars forgotten, and I was so touched out that the last thing I wanted at the end of the day were doggy cuddles.
I wish I’d given her more love and attention during my time off from work with my baby. After all, we only get such a short time with our pets. Sorry, my sweet girl.
8 Ate healthier
While I was obsessive about the food I ate when I was pregnant, my maternity leave diet was, well, less ideal. Meals happened when I had the time or free hands to feed myself, and often that meant cramming crackers into my mouth while baby-wearing, or hitting up the drive-thru during a drive-her-to-sleep napping session.
It’s so hard to look after yourself when you’re looking after a newborn, but I wish I’d put more time and effort into sourcing out easy-to-prepare, healthy snack and meal options when I was on maternity leave. Maybe I would have gotten out of my maternity jeans faster! (Or maybe not).
7 Stopped comparing myself to other moms
Word to the wise: If you’re a new mom, ease off on the social media. This is hard since new moms often spend even more time than usual surfing the web. But while social media allows you to connect with other parents, gain advice, and bide your time while nursing, it can also mess with your head. That’s because it invites us to start the dangerous comparison game. Whose hair looks effortlessly tousled, whose kid is always in adorable and expensive clothes?
Social media doesn’t represent those people’s lives, so don’t let comparisons rob you of your own sense of self-worth. Live your messy, top-knot, yoga pants life! Because that’s what we’re all doing behind the scenes.
6 Took the chance to travel
Sure, money is tight when you’re on maternity leave, but when else do you have up to 18 months – depending on the length of your leave – without the constraints of work? I wish I’d taken more time to travel. From little day trips with my baby to the long weekends with my husband, and a couple trips that included air travel. It sounded expensive and daunting at the time, but nobody is more portable (and free!) to travel with than a baby!
I won’t get that sense of freedom back again now that my kids have started school and I'm back to a being busy, working parent. But I can live vicariously through you!
But I'm Glad I Did These 5 Things:
5 Found my mom tribe
Of all the advice people give new moms, this is often left off the list, but it may be one of the most important of all.
Maternity leave can be isolating and exhausting. You've put your career, social life and sleep on hold. Your world has turned topsy-turvy, and who better to offer you support and much-needed laughter than fellow moms going through the same thing?
I couldn’t have made it through that tumultuous year without the group of women from prenatal yoga, whose baby play dates turned into mom-night-out dates, and who still help me keep it together, five years later
4 Made an effort to get out of the house everyday
If one of the recurring themes of this post is “maternity leave isolation”, that’s because it’s true. It’s easy to find yourself cooped up at home – especially over the winter – with a baby. That's because, honestly, it’s a pain in the butt to get out of the house.
But getting out is what helped me keep my sanity. Whether it was a walk to Starbucks through four feet of snow, a lazy stroll through the park or a trip to the grocery store just to peruse the magazine rack, I made it a habit to get out of the house every day, and it helped me stay connected with the outside world – and stay sane!
3 Took some milestone photos
I used to think these were hoaky, and a part of me still does, but milestone photos aren’t without their charm. Babies grow fast. Really fast. And finding a unique way to chronologically capture that lightning-quick evolution can be a really lovely keepsake down the road.
From month-to-month photos, or first smile/crawl/walk photos, milestone shots – much like journaling – it's a fun and creative way to capture the fleeting first year and remind parents how amazing it is to watch your child change right before your eyes.
2 Got a personal trainer
Let it be known that exercising isn’t exactly my jam. I’m not the person who’s standing at the entrance to the gym on a Saturday morning waiting for it to be open. Running isn’t fun. That being said, I went way outside of my comfort zone and hired a personal trainer for the second half of my pregnancy, and the first six months of maternity leave.
I felt invigorated working out after having a baby. It helped speed my recovery, give me strength for long days spent lifting and carrying my daughter, and boosted my energy at a time when I was already zapped. Plus, it was a great excuse to get out of the house every morning. Now if only I could start that up again!
1 Hired a cleaning service
The credit for this great mat leave idea goes to my husband and mother, who got together and hired a cleaning service to come to our house twice a month to take some of the pressure of housework off my already exhausted shoulders.
So while I still felt bogged down by the daily chores of dishes, laundry, dinner and general child care, the big stuff – cleaning the shower, washing the floors, scrubbing the grout – went to our wonderful cleaners. And what a load off that was!
Reference: This mom's experience.