What is maternity leave really like?

I was having trouble thinking of something to write about. Then I saw this Facebook update being shared, and it prompted a whole train of my own thoughts. People joke about maternity leave being one long holiday, eating cake and wandering round National Trust gardens. And yes, I do a bit of that. But there’s much more to the realities of daily life as a new mother. The post made me sad with its comment on society and how isolated we are – and it’s not just new mums who are affected by this. But the post also reminded me to treat each day as a new one, and make an effort to ask for help or company.

Here are a few of my own observations.

Your baby is in charge!

The point of maternity leave is to look after your new baby. And new babies need a lot of feeding and nappy changes. As well as sleep (but they don’t always allow you to have any!) And a few months after being born they also need entertaining. Some mums have strict schedules, some take the baby along to whatever they have planned, some just go with the flow. But in the end, if a baby is hungry, ill or unhappy, they come first and plans have to change. Sometimes this means you have to stay at home when you’d planned to go out. It might mean you’re stuck on the sofa under a hungry or sleeping baby. You definitely can’t fit in everything you used to in a day. Sometimes not even a handful of small tasks.

Some days are good. Some aren’t.

Without the busy structured days that work brings, and with the tendency of babies to enjoy waking up the household by laughing to themselves at 5.30am. there are a lot of hours to fill. Days vary and tend to be one of the following.

Good sociable days. This is what Instagram would have you believe maternity leave is all about.  Lots of people to meet up with, drinking tea and eating cake. Sun-filled walks in picturesque locations with a smiling baby and good adult company. These things do happen, just not all the time and rarely all on the same day!

Bad sociable days. These are the ones when your baby cries through a class, isn’t enjoying whatever you’re out doing, or is unsettled the whole time you’re having a cup of tea with a friend. The days when you can’t concentrate on the socialising and you wish you’d stayed at home.

Days when you don’t see anyone but it’s nice. I’m an introvert, so I need time alone to recharge. Some days it’s lovely to not have much planned, to potter around while my daughter naps, to watch her play, to read, write or think while she feeds, and go for long walks with the pram and take photos. But in moderation along with days of socialising.

Days when there’s nothing on, or you can’t get out, and it’s lonely. Sometimes these are days that looked promising. A couple of things in the diary, an idea in your head. But things get cancelled, weather happens, and babies are in charge. These are the days we don’t talk about, the ones where we shed tears and don’t post on Facebook. When we need a friendly face, a cup of tea making, a hug maybe, but for whatever reason that day there’s nobody to pop round. These are the days that Constance’s post reminded me about.

Your friendships change

Friends with school age children come back into your life again as you reconnect. You now understand what they went through, they know what you’re going through. It’s nice for their children to see how a baby develops, and it’s nice for your baby to meet new people of all ages. Being one of the last in many of my friendship groups to have a baby, I have a few of these friends.

Friends without children may not be in touch as much, or your meetups just change from dinner with wine to walks and cups of tea. These friends are great for keeping you in touch with the outside world. I enjoy seeing these friends as they share their travel tales and work dramas with me.

New mum friends. There are babies born every day of the year. By the law of averages, some of them born around the same time as yours will have mums you get on with. The trick is finding them! Exploring different baby groups, joining online networks such as Mush, making the effort to meet up with your ante natal group, seeing existing friends with similar age babies, and meeting friends of friends. Do enough of these and eventually you’ll realise you’ve got mum friends. I’m getting there, slowly.

The “village”. This is the concept talked about in the Facebook post. It includes all the above, but also family, neighbours and groups or committees that you belong to. We’re fortunate to have local family, friendly neighbours and to be members of Rotary. So there are people we can and do call on for help or a bit of company. Sometimes I forget to ask though. And sometimes I don’t know what to ask.

And in conclusion 

Maternity leave is one of those situations that is different from the 9 to 5 of office work. Like redundancy and freelance life, for example, it has its own groups and networks, its own challenges and its own rhythm. It can be lonely, but social media and smartphones help to keep us connected, so that we can reach out and ask people for help, invite them to visit, make plans to meet. It is a phase that will pass – but one where as well as some loneliness there are so many small moments to appreciate, big milestones to observe, new friends to connect with and memories to be made.

Yes, new mums are busy looking after their baby, and often have baby groups and meetups planned. But if you know a new (or not so new) mum, send them a text or email to see how they’re doing. They’ll appreciate it, and it might prompt them to ask for some help or company that they’ve been thinking they need but don’t feel they can ask for.

I know I said it’s not all about cake, but here’s a fine chocolate and orange specimen from John Lewis. 

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