You have been gone for ten working days and already we are struggling to picture your face, hear your voice, remember your exact, specific talents. Others’ abilities have swelled to fill the gap left by your “leaving”, and the chances of us thinking we’re going to need you, never mind accommodate whatever half-cooked, three-day a week nonsense you new mums always ask for when you return are slim to none. So, you know, don’t hurry back.
That’s likely what you’re thinking, this week, as you settle into mat leave.
At least, it was what I was thinking, in the first days of mine.
It was the longest stretch of time I had gone without working since my very first job. Or, at least, that’s what I thought. I was “working”, as it turned out, because learning how to look after a newborn is a job tougher than any, with sky-high stakes and, famously, no pay, no entitlements or leave. Lunch hours are unheard of and smoko is unimaginable.
I spent the first week of my leave (actually, the only one, as my daughter came 10 days early, eager to ruin any notion of ‘holiday’) wondering what was happening at the office, whether I had left any loose ends critically un-tied and imagining my boss already telling my replacement all the ways she did a better job than I did.
Now, given that your “replacement” is your sister, and your “boss” is your mother-in-law, I appreciate that you might not relate. But whatever the enmeshed equivalent of that situation is, I’m sure you’ve felt a pang or two of it. We’re both humans who’ve been hard-wired to care about career success, and who have spent years investing our waking hours, our self-worth, our egos and our intellects into work. Until that little person wriggling inside you breaks out and looks you in the face, she is still just a little theoretical, and work is tangible, so it’s hard, at this point, to imagine just how much brain and heart space she is about to take up.
I remember, very clearly, thinking that six months (which is what I took before going back full-time: all out, all-in) was an eternity, the longest of times. But the truth is, a profound lesson being a parent has taught me is the unassailable truth in the cliche that time flies.
These few months will crawl and fly at the same time. And there are just a few things that I would recommend - I know you love to gather recommendations - to help you find a new rhythm in the new world.
Also, you’re infamous for dissing my reccos, so feel free to ignore. Maybe someone else will want them (like, um, that time I recommended Cocaine Bear).
No-one is forgetting you. You are brilliant and valuable, of course, but also, think of all the women you’ve worked with heading off on maternity leave, coming back, going again – they were not forgotten. The time passed quickly, they were missed. And they came back, and they settled into the space they left as if it was never filled, and perhaps it was a different shape, but it was there.
Getting out of the house with a baby is hard in a million ways that are impossible to express before you’re doing it. To be honest, they’re difficult to even remember. But they’re real. The sense of achievement I felt at getting myself and the baby to an appointment at a certain place at a certain time, vaguely clean (me, her) and not screaming (me, her) was profound.
But after the initial few weeks of intense adjustment to life with a newborn, for me walking with the stroller was the absolute best part of mat leave. Alone. With other available friends. I can still see the path I beat from my (then) house to the local park, and the loop back to my door. I must have stomped it a thousand times.
I am claustrophobic at home, in the clutter and chaos and cloy of domestic baby world, and walking was and is good for my head. Walk, walk, walk.
Listen to Jessie's last episode of Mamamia Out Loud before maternity leave here. Post continues below.
I was an isolated new mum, and you are not. I was out of sync with breeding friends, and I had no family near by. So my “village” was my mothers’ group, a posse of strangers assigned to me, decided only on birth date and postcode. I would put money on you hating that idea out of hand, but it is impossible to overstate the importance of a tribe who all give a s**t about what you give a s**t about at the exact moment you do.
Because you might have many people around who love baby girl, and of course, you will have, with your beautiful extended families and your friends who are also first-time parents, but they’re not going to be as obsessed as you’re about to become with the fleeting, pressing micro-issues that rear up and ruin your life: Afternoon sleeps, poo droughts, mastitis, dream feeds, nappy rash, the intricate detail of routines. Interesting in passing, deathly dull in detail. And you need to delve into the detail.
Mothers Group, the good kind, save lives and sanity.
On baby girl being your only job. Just for a little while. The ever-present, prodding ambition and productivity guilt can be parked with the pram in the hallway for a little while. It’s coming back.
But looking after babies is harder than it looks, and it requires long periods of doing nothing but that - feeding, feeding, feeding; rocking and wearing pushing, shushing and patting and wrapping. Lean into mono-tasking and shut out the voice that tells you it’s not work. It really, really, is.
The voice that says you’re doing it wrong.
One of my most searing memories of mat leave was sitting in a class at my local hospital about sleep.
Sleep is about to obsess you even more than it already does, and in a very different way. So much so that you might actually go to a class about it.
In the class, mums (including me) were asking questions about sleep training, about settling, about whether or not we might ever expect to sleep again, basically, and the doctor - who is well-respected, and prolific, and who I can never forgive), told us all we were dreaming (pardon the pun).
Babies aren’t designed to sleep for long periods, he said. Which, of course, is absolutely true.
If you just want your baby to sleep all the time, why did you have a baby, was the gist of what he said next. “This obsession with trying to get babies to sleep in a pattern that is more convenient for us is unrealistic and self-centred’, he said, and yes, I am paraphrasing, but it’s close. ‘Accept nature and slot into their rhythms and patterns’.
And I almost burst into tears there and then. Because I would have loved to “slot into” my baby’s patterns of settling and sleeping, but it would not have worked for me. At six months, I knew, I was heading back to work. And I needed to get some sleep by then, surely. Not an all-nighter, or anything so wildly inappropriate, but, you know, more than a couple of hours at a time, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for what seemed like 100 years (but was in reality just a few months).
Point is, the nodding heads in that class didn’t share that pressure, that deadline, and I did. And I needed to judge me against me, not against them.
And that’s what I needed to learn. As I skulked, teary, from that class, I realised that newborn life is the same for all of us, which is why we need our village. But intensely different, too. Not everyone’s baby has reflux.or a bottle aversion, not every baby drops sleeps like toddlers drop raisins. And not every mother has a deadline. Or another kid at home. Or a partner who works away. Or anxiety. Or a health issue. Or a sick parent to care for. Or… you get it.
The universal experience of early motherhood is the most ordinary and extraordinary time in your life. So… learn to cherry pick who you listen to, who you follow, who you and your little family gives a fuck about. And silence everyone else.
You’re welcome. Can’t wait to meet baby girl. Can’t wait to have you back. Can’t wait to see you be a mum. So much enormous, heart-bursting, mind-addling love ahead of you.
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