42 days to recover from childbirth and pregnancy. 42 days to bond with a baby. 42 days to adapt to a world changing event. 42 days to learn a life sustaining skill (breastfeeding). 42 days to get your shit together.
42 days. It sounds so much worse than six weeks, doesn’t it? Six weeks seems like a good chunk of time. As I type it, I’m still confused as to who decided this length of time was sufficient for post-partum women to return to work, but that’s a different blog post. (Let’s also insert all of the commentary about the United States failing families for paid maternity and paternity leave.)
I had a really great pregnancy. Despite the common complaints of heartburn, back aches, and the like, I enjoyed carrying my baby. Pregnancy had a calming effect on me. I felt strong and in awe of my body. I enjoyed nesting and having thoughtful conversations with my husband about parenting styles. In retrospect, my preparations were a bit laughable. While it was good to talk about parenting styles, I should have spent a little more time educating myself on the first year of my baby’s life. I knew everything about pregnancy and labor and a good amount about childrearing but absolutely nothing about infant development. I guess that’s normal, though, right?
Luna arrived fast and furiously on New Year’s Day. The countdown begins. 41 days to return to work. Oh yeah, in case you didn’t know, the first day of maternity leave is spent pushing a baby out of your vagina (if you’re lucky and aren’t in surgery).
There is nothing that will prepare you for the first two weeks of parenthood. You have to live it to fully understand the insanity of it all. It’s kind of humorous now but I can remember getting into bed about six hours after delivering my daughter and I couldn’t even lay down. All I wanted to do was sleep, but my mind wouldn’t allow my body to lie in bed. The last time I was lying in a bed I was having contractions. I was in excruciating pain. I didn’t want to trigger that again. Thankfully my sister-in-law Lauren found me and comforted me into lying down to rest. Otherwise, I’d probably still be lying/sitting awkwardly in my bed crying.
The next ten days were a blur. Luna’s weight loss after birth was on the cusp of being dangerous. She lost just enough to weight to put us into a feeding frenzy. I was in a black hole of breastfeeding her ‘round the clock and then pumping to supplement her feedings, all the while wondering if my milk had “come in.” When was the engorgement going to happen? Where were the tingle sensations in my breasts? When would I wake up in a pool of milk? I spent a lot of time crying to Lauren. I didn’t think I was producing enough milk; meanwhile, I was a few days post-partum and already overproducing due to all of the feedings and subsequent pumping!
My first appointment with Katie Madden was ten days postpartum (32 days until I returned to work). I barely remember most of what she told me, to be honest—I was a crying mess–but a few things stand out.
1.) Luna was back up to birth weight, chunky, and beautiful. (Yay!)
2.) I was doing a good job and, with minor tweaking of the latch, my nipples were going to survive. (Thank goodness!)
3.) I needed to come to support group. (Hmm. Okay, sure, that will probably help.)
4.) I had to immediately and strategically prepare for my return to work by storing two ounces of milk a day and taking the Pumpin’ Mamas e-course. (Not sure how that all works exactly, but it’s less pumping than I’ve been doing. I can work with that.)
5.) Returning to work means that I need to pump on my train ride commute to Philly. (Say WHAT??)
I think this is what I love about Katie most: She’s so encouraging, warm and loving. She knows exactly what to say to make a vulnerable woman feel empowered and strong. She also doesn’t have any qualms about telling it like it is. I was barely able to climb the steps to her office on the third floor of The Birth Center and Katie hits me with the notion of expressing breastmilk on a dirty, public train. Like I said, I don’t remember much from that first appointment, but I can hear her voice saying, “Get your head around it now.” I hadn’t even breastfed in public, yet!
The next day I went to my first support group. It was the first time I took the baby out without my husband. I gave myself the normal amount of time to get to The Birth Center completely forgetting that I had another human being to bring who was on her own schedule. I got upstairs to group a few minutes late. The room was full of babies. All were quiet and seemingly perfect and happy—except mine, who was crying. Everyone looked comfortable—except me, who was in maternity jeans that were falling down and dying from embarrassment with tears pooling in my eyes. Everyone looked like they knew how to be a mother—except me, who felt completely out of place wondering if I was even allowed in a Moms’ Group.
I sat in the corner crying for a long time. I couldn’t even speak. It came time for me to introduce myself and I was barely able to say my name. I’m pretty sure that I cried for at least an hour until I blurted something like, “People need to stop f****** saying that it gets easier and better. Every time it feels like it, I’m dealing with the next pain the a** thing.” The reaction to my outburst could have gone a number of ways. Thankfully, the room was filled with supportive people who met my anger with understanding rather than judgment or offense. The room erupted with love. People shared encouraging stories and compassionate looks. It was the exact environment that would help get me back on my feet and ready to launch into motherhood.
Since my mom was planning to watch Luna when I went back to work, we thought it would be a good idea for her to come over during the week to get into a routine. She was over Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for the next three weeks. I was going to Moms’ Group on Wednesdays and Breastfeeding Support Group on Fridays. My husband was home on Tuesdays. Family and friends were in touch every day wanting to visit and see the baby, which meant I felt the compulsion to be showered, dressed, and in a tidy house.
It got really overwhelming really quickly! I felt my maternity leave being ripped away from me. Every Friday, I was happy thinking that Luna was another week old. It made me curious about her development for the upcoming week and also sad that I was seven days closer to returning to work and having to leave her.
All of my maternity leave was being spent on healing my body, family visits (aka other people holding my baby while she was happy and returning her to me when she was hungry and pissed off), tidying up my house so I felt comfortable having people in my home, pumping milk for a freezer stash, explaining to my friends that I was too tired for visits and hoping that they weren’t upset with me, and all the while breastfeeding to keep a baby alive. Where was the bonding? Where was the relaxing into a new life?
I value my career. I enjoy being successful and take pride in my work. Still, I had an overarching desire to stay home. Not forever, but for longer. Just when Luna was started to come into her own, I was returning to work. The insane weeks were over and my physical strength was nearly back. Luna was developing a fun personality. She was now a joy to be around. After all my hard work and tears, now I had to leave her. What kind of cruel joke was this?
I signed up for Katie’s Pumpin’ Mamas e-course 14 days before returning to work. I was a little behind Katie’s recommended time frame for the program, so I engrossed myself in it. I had no other option. It was time to get my head in the game. The program is awesome. I love that Katie walks you through all the emotional aspects of returning to work before she gets into the logistics of bottle feeding. It’s so easy to skip over the mental game to get to the mechanics. Mechanics are often easier to understand. The mental aspects are complex and emotional. It’s also the piece of the puzzle that can’t be ignored, but is easily forgotten. I worked the program and did trial runs for daycare and bottle preparation. It was time to stand in my decision and return to work.
The first week was nothing short of awesome. Everything went smoothly. Luna was sleeping for eight hours at night. My colleagues were happy to have me back. They were sensitive and aware of my delicate state. It was a great way to be back in the office.
The second week was okay. It was harder to leave Luna and the excitement had worn a bit. The pace at work was picking up but Luna was still sleeping soundly. Life was good.
The third week was awful. So were the weeks that followed. I was an emotional mess. I came home crying almost every night. Luna got congested and it was keeping her up a night. Work was hard and I was tired. My husband and I were arguing about stupid things. I felt like I was failing at everything. And then the dreaded sleep regression hit with fury.
I’m writing this at 16 weeks post-partum. I’ve now been back to work longer than I was out of work and I’m doing okay. I’m not yet thriving but I’m doing a lot better than merely surviving. Sometimes I forget that I was gone from work and I don’t know if that is because my leave was so short or if it is because my leave coincided with the holidays. Work is actually the easiest part of my life because it’s the most familiar to me.
I’m still adjusting to motherhood and feel weird when someone calls me a mom. I still think it’s bullshit when someone says “it gets easier”; the challenges surrounding motherhood don’t miraculously get any easier because a period of time elapsed. Instead, we mothers learn to navigate the challenges and adapt to this new world of motherhood. Yesterday’s challenges become tomorrow’s stepping stones. It remains hard, but with each accomplishment we gain confidence.