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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

The Hardest Parts of Maternity Leave—and How to Get Through Them

A few years ago, my life changed drastically. I left the teaching job I love to have a baby. And even though I love my son, when I was on maternity leave, I felt like I was losing my mind.

In the classroom, I usually knew what do to and how to handle tough situations—but, despite all the parenting books I devoured, I had no idea how to be a mom. My baby and I both cried often, and I remember counting the minutes until my husband came home from work. I was a mess.

During that time, a good friend, who happens to be a therapist, told me that women who are educated and successful professionals actually have a harder time than most adjusting to new motherhood.

Why? Retrospectively, it makes a lot of sense. If you’re a perfectionist who relishes control at work, it’s natural that you would seek control as a new mom. The problem: control and perfection are impossible goals with a newborn—and thus, panic ensues.

But after weeks of being completely overwhelmed, I found a few strategies that helped make my life easier and helped me adjust to my new role as a mother. I hope you will employ them sooner than I did.

1. Prepare Your Paperwork

When your sweet one arrives, the last thing you want to do is worry about paperwork. So, long before your due date, seek out a co-worker who has been on maternity leave before, take her out for lunch, and ask her how medical leave works at your company. There are a lot of hoops to jump through, so make your life easier, and try to do so before bringing home baby.

2. Just Say “Yes” to Help

People are often happy to help after you give birth—but I found that I was too concerned about the amount of spit-up on my shirt and/or floor to let anyone in. But, take it from me: Swallow your pride (along with any food they may offer), and let your friends and family lighten your load.

If you’re still feeling overwhelmed and if you have the means, this is a time to hire help. When my son was born, we paid someone to clean our house, and I also found a nanny to come twice a week so I could exercise and nap. Best money I ever spent.

3. Connect With Other Mothers

Even if you’re normally a social butterfly, when you haven’t slept or washed your hair in days, you’ll likely be tempted to become a recluse. And I fully understand that temptation, but making a point to meet with other moms is the best cure for the baby blues there is. As soon as you realize that you’re not the only one who misses your job, your body, and your pre-baby life, you will start to feel much better.

So, join a support group or invite some friends to come over with their babies. Make sure to connect with women who will be real and who won’t judge; you’ll be glad you did.

4. Don’t Expect too Much from Yourself

Before you have a baby, you probably dream about how nice it will be to have time off from work. You may envision yourself keeping a tidy house and completing a long list of Pinterest projects while watching your angelic newborn. He’ll nap, you’ll fix a Food Network-approved dinner and catch up on those books you’ve been dying to read.

All of this sounds lovely, and you may be able to live up to this fantasy—unless you’re anything like me. Once reality sets in, you may realize that your baby, like mine, wants to be held and bounced and pacified all (and I mean all) the time. The idea of cooking (or even eating) is probably going to be more difficult than you ever imagined.

If this happens to you, my advice is simple: Lower your expectations. When you and your baby survive the day, celebrate, even if nothing else gets done. Laundry can wait; I promise.

5. Prepare to Return to Work

After your baby moves up one or two diaper sizes, you may be returning to work. I’m not going to lie—even if you love your job, this transition is difficult and emotional. That said, there are a few key things you can do to set yourself up for success. First, if you’re nursing, talk to your HR rep about your lactation options so you can locate a private space. Pumping is a vulnerable thing, and you certainly don’t want your boss walking in on you. I decorated my “lactation closet” with pictures of my son, and it became a safe (albeit strange) haven of sorts.

Along with this, buy some inexpensive post-baby work clothes. If you're anything like I was when I went back to work, you’ll be repulsively sick of your maternity clothes, but you won’t yet fit into your old work outfits. Bummer. Instead of being hard on yourself (see tip 4), head to an outlet mall and buy some forgiving clothes for this stage of life.

Then, print out a few good pictures of your baby for your office. Your co-workers are sure to ask to see them, and they’ll make you smile even on the worst of work days.

I don’t mean to be pessimistic, but to be honest, the months I spent on maternity leave were some of the most difficult of my life. But, they were also some of the most rewarding. Even though I was confused, hormonal, and sleep deprived, I wouldn’t trade a minute I spent with my son as a newborn.

If you’re expecting or if you’re a new mom, congratulations! It’s an exciting and crazy journey you’re embarking on. I hope this advice helps you make the most of this stressful but special time.

Photo of mom and baby courtesy of Shutterstock.