On maternity leave and figuring out what it means to be you now
I spent so much time thinking about giving birth that I didn’t have a moment to wonder what maternity leave would be like. It was just the bit that would come next. Maybe I’d go out for coffee sometimes, who knew.
And when I had given birth, the recovery (from a caesarean section) and the process of learning to look after our baby was so brutal that I believed I’d never do anything else again.
I remember standing in the bathroom, looking at myself in the mirror, and not recognising the woman staring back at me. I remember thinking through every hobby and activity I’d ever enjoyed before – writing, eating in restaurants, washing my hair – and metaphorically hurling every one of them out of the window. You won’t be doing that any more, I thought, it’s just sweating and surviving for you now. If you get to eat a meal every now and then too, that’ll just be a bonus.
But then as time passed, the baby put on weight, and my scar began to heal, a major need to leave the house started to kick in.
But where the hell are you supposed to go?
Once the thrill of making it to your local supermarket, around the park, and to a café with the pram wears off, you start wanting to branch out. To see other people, to visit another part of town, and maybe even to do something energetic or creative. The baby needs to get out, too. They need fresh air, the option of a nap on the move, and the chance to look at other faces and things. My features are only so interesting, I realise that.
Whilst you know that you’ll be responsible for looking after the baby everyday, you don’t appreciate that how you both spend the hours around that will be up to you as well. Weeks can look long and daunting if you don’t have a plan or two to look forward to, or places you know you can go. You can feel a bit lost and alone.
I found it really, really hard to express this for a while because I couldn’t get passed the need to make it clear that I love my daughter. I felt so guilty for needing more in my day than just changing and feeding and napping etc. that I feared that I was being ungrateful and letting her down. But I realise now that when we have a varied week and we socialise it’s good for both of us, and not a selfish act, as my hormones might suggest.
Seeking activities and groups to join can make you feel a bit vulnerable. You basically have to build yourself a whole new community; one that’s available during the day, ideally nearby, and willing to spend time with you. It’s a bit like dating, except in many cases you see people’s breasts before you know their name (or maybe that is what dating’s like nowadays, I’ve been out of the game a long time).
Antenatal classes were great and gave us a lovely little group of friends in the same boat. The internet has also been a massive help. When the weeks were starting to look a bit empty, I went online (Hoop.co.uk lists activities to do with children by location) with a policy that if anything interested me even slightly, I’d try it once. I felt the need to be brave for myself and for my daughter. I want her to grow up believing that she can walk into a room and participate with confidence, so I need to start modelling that for her now.
So I went for it. I joined a boxing class, a parents choir, and started baby-wearing dance lessons. We started going to a nursery rhymes session, and to baby cinema for a much-needed sit down in the dark. I’m doing things I’d previously have been too afraid to do in front of other people – singing, dancing, exercising – and I’m doing it with my daughter – because of my daughter – and we’re both happier for it. We’re not doing activities everyday, I’ve just found some ways to give us a bit of variation.
Not everybody you meet at classes is going to be your pal and that’s fine, there are only so many more WhatsApp groups I can handle anyway. But you never know, you might make a friend or two, or at least find nice people to chat to whilst you’re there. Most of all it’s about knowing that you need to be somewhere at a certain time, that people are expecting to see you, and that you and your child will have a good time out of the house.
Of course, it’s important to strike the right balance between doing stuff and resting. Parenting is exhausting, so as much as I’ll say that we need to get out, we need to be at home too. We need sofa time and cuddles and to catch up with Grey’s Anatomy. We need a bit of time to do our own thing – in the same room but in our own space. I’m learning more everyday about us as a duo and what we need to get by.
You spend a lot of time in your head when you’ve just had a baby – alone but in company, at home with your small person – and it can take a while to give yourself permission to prioritise what you both need, and to find the courage to put yourself out there.
But when you do start, and you see the benefits it brings to you and your child, you know for sure there’s nothing to feel guilty about at all.