Making the Most of Your Maternity Leave

When I found out I was pregnant with my first child in 2015, I was elated. I spent the next nine months meticulously planning every detail of my daughter’s arrival. The nursery was hyper-organized and color coordinated; my hospital bag was packed months before my due date; and I made a detailed list of all the things I was going to accomplish during my maternity leave.

I had categorized piles of all the books I was going to read, a binder of recipes I was going to make, and a plan to finally scrape off and paint over the horrible mural on a wall that faces the back of our house. Maternity leave, I was sure, was going to be a magical time where I worked efficiently and quietly while my baby slept, using my new Supermom powers to multitask my life into a Martha Stewart-approved wonderland.

Big-time rookie mistake. When my daughter arrived in epic emergency-level fashion, I was thrown into new motherhood weeks before I’d expected and nothing was like I’d imagined. Those hours I’d have available for reading and projects? Gone. When my baby wasn’t eating, she was crying—a lot. Her naps were short and fitful, and most days I was happy if I was able to eat my meals and take a shower. My collection of books slowly became a storage area for diapers and supplies, and my carefully planned dinners became an unending string of freezer meals and delivery.

Having a baby is a life-altering experience, and maternity leave can often prove challenging for many women. Here’s how to make the most of your maternity leave so you come out the other side feeling (relatively) normal.

Know Your Rights

I was one of the 59% of American women* able to take advantage of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides 12 weeks of unpaid medical leave to workers employed full-time without fear of being fired. But, for every five working women in America, two of them do not qualify for protection under FMLA.

Those women who are not employed on a full-time basis or have not been with their employer for one year prior to maternity leave may not be protected by FMLA. Similarly, women employed by a small business (fewer than 50 employees) may not be eligible for FMLA.

Make sure you fully understand your company’s maternity leave policy, if one exists. If your company is small or does not have a policy in place, make sure you have a meeting with management to understand their expectations and what your company expects from you. If your company does have a preexisting policy, make sure you fill out any necessary paperwork before you leave to avoid dealing with complex paperwork in the weeks after you have a baby.

Set Reasonable Expectations

As I reclined in my hospital bed the day after I gave birth, I received all kinds of advice from the nurses who came in and out of my room. “Make sure you take time every day to brush your teeth and shower,” said one of the nurses, “You’re going to need that time, so take it.”

Of course I’m going to shower every day, I thought to myself.

But in the weeks following my delivery, I barely knew what time it was, let alone what day. The post-pregnancy hormone crash is real and you’re operating on very little sleep; self-care can sometimes fall by the wayside. So can dinner, social calls, and other important things that aren’t directly involved in caring for your baby.

Don’t be upset or blame yourself if you feel like you’re falling apart a little bit. Get by every day and do what you can—everything else can wait.

Let People Help You

It can be hard to let people into your post-baby maternity leave bubble. You’re likely in some form of pajamas or other comfy attire with bits of food or stains on them, so you’re probably not feeling company-ready. Regardless, let people in to help you and tell them what you need.

Often times, friends will say, “Let me know how I can help you,” which is an open-ended and vague offer. Some friends who are not parents may not know how you need help, so don’t be shy telling them how they can feel like they’re really helping you. Whether it’s bringing by a meal or just holding your baby while you shower, there are concrete ways that the people closest to you can help. Let them.

Find Other New Moms

I was very lucky to have lots of resources for new moms available in my neighborhood. There were many organizations offering free events, meet ups, and play dates for new moms that I was able to take advantage of.

Maternity leave can make you feel like you’re living on another planet, divorced from other humans living their daily 9-5 lives. Other new moms provide the best support group and if you have questions (Why is my baby making that weird noise? What products are you using for your baby that really work?), these moms can be your guiding light. Plus, it never hurts to make some new friends.

Your local YMCA, YWCA, community center, or religious center might have programs like these specifically for new moms. Do some research before you give birth and scope out some groups that might be a fit for you.

Take Time for Yourself

Taking some time to do what’s important to you is not just good for you—it’s good for your family, too. A friend told me that an empty glass cannot provide relief to the thirsty, and it’s so true. If you’re spent physically and emotionally, it will be hard to dig deeper and give to your family, too.

Whether you like to hit the gym, have coffee with a friend, or get a pedicure, take time for yourself. You’ll feel more relaxed and in a better position to take on the challenges of new motherhood.

Get Ready To Go Back To Work

For some women, the end of maternity leave marks the time when they can finally reenter the adult world. For others, the thought of leaving their child is too much to bear. Whichever camp you fall into, for many moms, going back to work is inevitable and there are some things you can do to prepare.

Schedule a meeting with your supervisor to get up to speed on some of the projects you might be working on upon your return. Grab a cup of coffee with a colleague and have them fill you in on all the events that have happened in the office since you’ve been away. Reaching out will help you feel more included when you return. Be sure to also ask your HR manager or other supervisor about your options for private space if you plan to continue breastfeeding and need a place to pump.

For most of us, our bodies continue to change in the year after we give birth and chances are that your prior work wardrobe might not be the ideal fit for you as you return to work. Invest a little in some clothes that make you feel good and accommodate any needs you might have (like access for pumping).

And, finally, get ready to feel a little overwhelmed and tired as you acclimate to returning at work. It’s normal to feel a little rusty, but you’ll be back and killing it in no time flat.

Maternity leave might not be what you thought it would be, but that’s okay. Taking care of your baby, your family, and yourself is no small task, so don’t sweat the small stuff. Take time to care for yourself and cut yourself some slack as you head back to work. You’ll have this working mom thing all figured out sooner than you think.

* Source: U.S. Department of Labor’s 2012 Family and Medical Leave Act Employee and Worksite Surveys, February 2013