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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

The Professional Woman's Guide to Surviving Maternity Leave

As a new mom, I felt prepared for many aspects of life with a newborn: the sleepless nights, the numerous trips to the pediatrician, the emotional rollercoaster that transported me back to my angsty teenage days (only now I’ve replaced my babydoll tee with a baby sling and wear a lot less eyeliner). But what I wasn’t prepared for is the new mindset I would have to suddenly commit to, one that’s completely antithetical to my usual working woman brain.

Let me explain: Your first few weeks as a mom comes with a series of paradoxical feelings. You are incredibly busy yet unbearably bored. You accomplish so much (I kept a child alive with nothing but my breasts and a bouncy seat!), yet get nothing done (I’ll never have a clean kitchen again). You feel protective and confident (Don’t tell me what to do with my baby, Mom!), yet clueless and insecure (I have no idea how to raise a child). It’s enough to drive any woman, especially one who’s accustomed to organized project plans and punctual kick-off meetings, crazy.

Adrenaline, coffee, and Netflix are a new mom’s best friends, but, when you start to lose steam and your queue dwindles down, keep these things in mind:

1. You Have One Job and One Job Only 

As a professional woman, I’m always doing two things at once. I answer emails during my commute on the train, proofread presentations while I eat lunch, and tune in to webinars from the treadmill. While multi-tasking is a key skill later in motherhood, during maternity leave my multi-tasking abilities became limited to changing a diaper and crying at the same time.

It’s easy to feel like you’re not doing anything during those first few weeks of maternity leave, but remember that taking care of your baby is your only responsibility. Laundry? Not your job. Dishes? Out of your control. Grocery shopping? Delegate, delegate, delegate. Now is the time to let other people—whether it’s your partner, your neighbors, or your parents—help you out with anything that doesn’t directly involve you and your baby. And if there aren’t enough hands, just let the dishes and laundry pile up. A dirty house for a few weeks just doesn’t matter.

2. Think of Your Plan as a Set of (Loose) Guidelines

If you’re like me, you have a detailed, bulleted, potentially color-coded plan for nearly every activity of your work and life. Naturally, I had one of these for the first few weeks of my son’s life, too. I determined the feeding methodology I wanted to use, talked to my husband about tag-teaming night-feedings, and carefully set up my house so that we could spend most of the day in one room (getting around, even in a small house, is quite painful during those first few days out of the hospital).

But what I didn’t (and couldn’t) account for is that my baby has a mind and personality of his own. For example, I planned on having my son sleep in a bassinet beside my bed, imagining that his steady breathing would lull me to sleep every night. But didn’t expect my son’s nighttime breathing to so accurately match the strength and volume of his father’s snoring so early in life. He was moved to his nursery not long after we got home.

Like any good project plan, your post-maternity handbook should be an editable document. Be flexible and accept that each day will bring new challenges and require adjustments.

3. Set Attainable Goals

But let’s not sugarcoat it, even if you’re armed with a flexible plan and plenty of help, taking care of a newborn is stressful, and the hormone cocktail pumping through your veins can make you feel like you’re the worst mother in the world, even if your baby is happy and healthy.

To defend against this anxiety, I found it helpful to set attainable goals, and then to reward myself for achieving them. Daily goals included taking a shower, brushing my teeth, and going outside to get the mail. I would reward myself with a cup of coffee or half a glass of wine, and if I managed to change out of my pajamas into real clothes (yoga pants count), I would full-on celebrate with a decadent dessert.

4. Take a Lunch Break

When I’m having a chaotic day at work, I make break-time a priority. Whether it’s a walk around the block or 30 minutes at the coffee shop next door, I try to get out of the office, even when I’m swamped. Likewise, many parenting guides tell you that it’s important to schedule time for yourself and let someone else take care of the baby for a few hours. But, honestly, for the breastfeeding mother, this can be almost impossible during the first two months of your baby’s life.

Instead of trying to set up a full day away for myself, I focused on simply getting out of the house (with baby in tow) at least once every day. A jaunt to the grocery store or Target or a walk around the neighborhood was enough activity to keep me sane, but didn’t lead to complete exhaustion. And, as an added bonus, you’ll find that most babies promptly fall asleep in the car or stroller (silence is bliss!)

During my last trimester, I asked a number of mothers about their birth experiences and the first few months of their babies’ lives. This question—What can I expect?—is, of course, on every mother’s mind (it’s the signature phrase of the “baby Bible” after all!). But the best advice I’ve received is this: Abandon your expectations. No two newborns are the same, and it’s best to simply try to fulfill your baby’s needs as best you can. Load up your iPad, buy a good nursing bra and a few pounds of coffee, and remind yourself that you’re a capable woman who has delivered results under pressure before.

Photo of woman and baby courtesy of Shutterstock.