Saturday, August 29, 2015

Surviving Maternity Leave

Let me start out by saying that I was really lucky to receive 3 months of paid maternity leave. The US is one of only three countries without universal paid maternity leave. The Family Medical Leave Act provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave (which doesn't work for people that need their salaries to pay bills), but it only applies to organizations with more that 50 employees and to workers that have worked a least 1250 hours in the last year-- so it only applies to about 60% of the working population. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that only around 13% of workers have access to paid family leave. So getting three whole months at my full salary was an amazing benefit that I was lucky to get.

Let me also say that we were really lucky to get pregnant pretty easily, have a healthy and uneventful pregnancy and end up with a healthy baby. A lot of women have trouble getting pregnant or experience medical issues along the way. Other than some nausea, my pregnancy was pretty easy. Our boy came out healthy and is doing really well-- which is also amazing. All in all, we were really lucky and feel very appreciative about the whole process.

Also - we are super lucky to have a really easy baby. He hardly cries at all and is generally pretty happy. I've heard horror stories about babies that just scream all the time for months on end - which I am very glad not to have to experience.

That being said - maternity leave was really difficult for me. It's hard to admit it because there is an expectation that every minute of being a mother I should be staring into the eyes of my beloved angel and basking in his cuteness. It's already clear that there are a million things to feel guilty about, and I'm not going to let this one stand. Sure, there were a lot of really cute moments or first-time things that I'm really happy I got to witness. For the most part though, maternity leave was really hard and miserable. I spent a lot of time sitting on the living room couch, staring at a sleeping baby, wishing that I could also be sleeping, or bouncing a fussy baby, trying to get him to go to sleep. It was both endlessly busy and painfully boring. I rarely had time to shower and change out of my pajamas, my back hurt all the time, and I was always miserably exhausted. It was also very lonely - I don't think I realized how many people I interact with on an average day. Only interacting with a baby that can't even smile (until the end), and my husband for a few hours at night was a big transition from my normal chatty day.

The Birth
The short story is that I was induced at 42 weeks because that baby wasn't coming out on his own. Something about the first inducement drug really jump-started my system, throwing me into full labor really quickly. So quickly, in fact, that they didn't have time to give me any drugs for the pain, which I desperately wanted. It ended up being a very painful but short delivery, and after only 4 hours we had a healthy, little baby boy. We hung out in the hospital for a couple days, which are all sort of a blur. Then they quickly kicked out us, and we ended up back home with this mysterious little monster that we had no idea how to handle.

Chilling and waiting to get started

mystified father & crying baby

little old man in a hat

The First Month- Survival
The first four weeks were all about survival, and thankfully I was not on my own. My husband was also lucky enough to get paid paternal leave, and stayed with me for 3 weeks. After he went back to work, my mom came for another week. It was so important to share the responsibility with someone, as I was still healing and physically returning to normal. The baby was eating about every two hours all day and night, so I was completely exhausted. Having someone else there made it possible for me to occasionally nap and take turns on diapers, which was great. We were basically doing just the bare minimum to keep ourselves healthy, him happy, and the house from falling over. One of us could watch him while the other took care of chores and errands, though not a lot of chores really got done. We lived off of the food that our family and friends brought us. It could be a total coincidence, but our jellyfish caught a bacterial infection and all died during this time period. As the end of the month approached, I was terrified about being home alone with the baby. We had built a bit of a routine for taking care of him that was working with two people, and I was sure I couldn't do everything by myself.
this about sums it up.

first family picture - on the couch, not even sitting all the way up

boy starts getting cute

1 month old and getting easier and cuter by the day

The Second Month- Maintenance
After a couple really difficult days, I figured out how to take care of the boy completely by myself and then I slowly started regaining control of other aspects of life that had been completely ignored. I started cooking every night, though certainly nothing fancy. I started cleaning the house again, which had gotten completely ignored over the last month or two. Eventually, I got onto a regular schedule of chores, tackling a major item each day. Not only did the house shape up quickly, but it freed up our weekends for outings. I also started to get myself onto an exercise schedule, once I got the all-clear from the doctor. It was nearly impossible to go to the gym, but I could pretty regularly do a yoga video while the baby napped. Eventually, I started taking a short trip every week with the baby to meet R for lunch or swing by a local restaurant for lunch.

first trip in the carrier

blueberry picking

my solo trip to the park

trying to do yoga is so much harder when Wally is literally underfoot

starting to feel a bit better, but still on the couch

and everyone's still exhausted

2 months old: still growing quickly and starting to smile

The Third Month- Progress
By the third month, I wanted to go beyond basic survival and maintenance, and start making some real progress. Instead of just getting groceries and making meals, I started to create meal plans specifically to use up all the ingredients that had been sitting in the freezer and pantry for too long.  Instead of just vacuuming and doing dishes, I started deep cleaning and reorganizing every spot in the house. In the first and second months I fed the boy when he was hungry and let him sleep when he fell asleep, so it was hard to predict when anything would happen. So for the third month, I started tracking when he ate and slept, and began slowly moving towards a regular nap and food schedule. Ideally, if he was the right amount of hungry and sleepy at bedtime, he would sleep through the night. I also started to focus more on his awake times, making sure to practice all the upcoming milestones at least a few times each day. So instead of just talking to him or handing him a toy randomly, we practiced rolling over, sitting up, lifting his head, grabbing toys and chatting. Because I was super focused on his schedule, I lost my focus on exercising and getting out of the house - so while the house was looking good and the baby was doing great, I was feeling pretty cabin-fevered and miserable.

holding his head up like a champ

smiling and chatting

learning to take a selfie- but still on the couch

grabbing toys with both hands

but everyone's still exhausted.

3 months old: smiling, jabbering and developing a personality

The Last Weekend
Through a total coincidence, it turned out that the last weekend of my leave was also a long-scheduled memorial service for my grandparents at Lake Tahoe. (I talked about my grandfather's passing here, and then my grandmother passed away a few months after him). We decided not to travel with a baby, so instead I went by myself. It was really difficult emotionally and surprisingly painful physically to suddenly be separated from the boy after so much constant contact over the previous three months. It was important to me to be present for this family reunion and final farewell to my grandparents though, so I'm glad I went. While I would have much preferred to have had the boy and spouso with me, it was a little nice to have a break and remember how to be on my own again. Jarring as it was, I think it made the transition back to work easier.

I'm hiking around the lake

menfolk at home without me

ashes and flowers in the lake

Lessons Learned
Now that leave is officially over and I am back at work again, I have a few thoughts on things I could have done better, or things I figured out that I want to keep doing.

1. Do housework and chores during the week
I got in the habit of doing a different chore every day, partially to give myself something to do during the week. What I discovered was that I could get the chores done surprisingly quickly during the period of one nap (less than an hour), and totally free up the weekend. I plan to continue my weekly schedule, tackling each item as soon as I get home from work, so that I don't have to waste an entire weekend day to housework. Monday is grocery day, Tuesday is for dusting and vacuuming. Wednesday is laundry day and Thursday is for cleaning the bathroom and kitchen.

2. Do something fun every weekend
Because we weren't spending all weekend doing chores and I was so desperate to get out of the house, we put a lot of effort into planning an activity each weekend. Finding things we could take a baby to turned out to be a lot easier than we expected, so we had lots of options each week. We went berry picking, found a drive-in movie theatre, sought out some oysters, and enjoyed a flight of beers at our local brewery. Instead of wasting away the weekend in front of the tv or doing chores like we used to, we actually got out and experienced a bunch of new things. Even though I will have less of an urge to get out of the house on the weekends, I would like to keep the practice. With not a lot of effort, we can make fun memories and real answers to the perpetual question, "What did you do this weekend?"

3. Go outside every day
So this is something I was actually pretty horrible at during my leave, and maybe went outside one day a week. On days I was stuck inside, I got much less exercise, ate more, felt lonelier and more bored than days I went out. I stayed inside because it was hot out and hard to carry the boy with all his stuff up and down the stairs, but I should've just gone anyway. A change of scenery, some fresh air and the excitement of running into people, nature and whatnot make even a short trip totally worth it. From now on, and definitely if I do this again, I will definitely plan to go outside every day.

4. Watch TV purposefully
In the beginning, I would just turn on the tv and mindlessly flip from station to station throughout the day. As the boy got older, he became more interested in the tv and started staring at it mindlessly too, arching his back to turn around if I tried to block it from his view. I really don't want him to be addicted to the tv, so I started turning it off whenever he was awake and only watching during naps. Then, instead of wasting a short tv break on something stupid, I made an effort to watch the shows I actually wanted to see. Over three months, we watched all of the Madmen episodes (start to finish), the most recent season of Orange is the New Black, the first seasons of Outlander and Wet Hot American Summer, and about half of Scrubs, but stopped watching all the HGTV and Food Network tv we usually have droning on in the background. We actually talk to each other more often because we aren't distracted by the tv always being on, and when it is on, it feels like more of a treat. Instead of background noise, it's a shared activity that we can talk about later. Don't get me wrong - some mindless decompression time is important, but I don't want to be a family of zombies. Tuning in occasionally to something we actually want to see feels like a good compromise between constantly staring at something we don't actually care about and turning off the tv altogether.

5. Take care of yourself
Unlike the classic advice to sleep when the baby sleeps (which is basically impossible and deeply annoying to hear), the sage advice to take care of yourself is truly wise and useful. I set a goal to take a shower every day, and only missed a couple days. When I couldn't get around to showering until late in the day I felt gross and depressed, but when I could shower and change into clean pajamas, I felt a little more like myself. I get cranky and frustrated when I'm not eating well, so I made meal plans and grocery lists every week to make sure I had healthy food I wanted to eat for all three (or four) meals each day. When I did get a chance to exercise, even just a bit, I felt stronger and better about myself than on days I just sat around. I wasn't great at exercising regularly, and should've shared the middle-of-the-night feedings more, because a little more exercise and sleep would have made me feel immensely better. It's hard to prioritize yourself, even for only a few minutes because the motherhood guilt force is strong. I think it comes down to the old airplane safety rule that you put your own oxygen mask on before helping those around you - you can't take care of anyone else if you don't take care of yourself first.

6. Get on a schedule
Obviously my Type-A colors showing, but the more scheduled and structured things got, the smoother everything went. In the beginning it was all about the weekly schedule for chores, which made me feel a little less overwhelmed by everything that needed to get done. Then it was all about the daily schedule, so that I knew when to expect naps and meals and could avoid him getting too tired or too hungry. Obviously you have to stay flexible, because the schedules can get thrown off easily - but generally getting more scheduled made everything a lot easier.

Anyhoo - that's my last three months in a nutshell. Really hard, but also pretty amazing. I don't expect to go on maternity leave again anytime soon, but I think I'll do a better job at it next time. Now that I'm back at the office, things are transitioning into a new normal.