It’s the last day of the school year. For the last 26 years of my life, this day has been a huge source of celebration and often, relief. Last year, it meant the start of a whole year away from work: my maternity leave.
As the term has drawn to a close and I’ve seen my teacher friends counting the remaining get-ups, I’ve been reflecting on this past year, and how I’ve spent it. I know I’m lucky and privileged to be able to spend a whole year on maternity leave; we did make some sacrifices to allow me to do that, and it helped that Ben was born during the summer holidays. Many people take 6 to 9 months. Some don’t go back to work at all. In the UK, we are particularly well-supported; many countries don’t offer any maternity leave.
Very few of us will get another opportunity to take months at a time off work, through choice. But while you’re looking after a new baby, and getting used to the concept of being a parent, do you get the chance to use that time wisely? And how would the concept of ‘wise’ change with the demands of parenting?
Maternity leave pre-baby
Personally, I knew I would really enjoy being at home – I am a bit of a homebody at heart, and find being at home refreshes me in a way other things don’t. The start of my maternity leave was shaped by our kitchen, or lack of it, as we were having an extension built and a new kitchen fitted. The work was running hugely behind schedule, and my visions of spending time sorting out the new kitchen, stocking up the cupboards and freezer, baking, and generally cleaning the layer of plaster dust that covered everything came to nothing. In the end, when Ben was born, we had no kitchen altogether, and it took until he was nearly 8 weeks old to get finished.
38 weeks pregnant and a building site for a kitchen.
However, in some ways, this was good for me. I spent the last two weeks of my pregnancy pottering about, swimming, drinking frappuccinos at Starbucks and putting my newly-pedicured feet up. As someone who tends to keep myself very busy, it was probably helpful.
I have done a bit of research for this post, and here is what a selection of other new mums have said about ‘Pre-baby maternity leave:’
“My advice for people would be enjoy the weeks before the birth and rest up (the hospital bag does not need re packing 8 times!!) and to not worry about clearing up for visitors!”
“I had planned on doing a million jobs around the house before baby arrived. The reality was I lay on the sofa with as little on as possible watching tv or mumsnetting.”
“I second what everyone says about making the most of the prebaby maternity leave – I was so frustrated and spent all my time (three weeks in the end as I went two weeks over) grumping about and feeling hormonal. Boy, if I could have that time now!”
Looking back, I think the most useful things to do in those pre-baby days would be:
- Stock up your freezer with meals, the cupboard with staples and learn how to do an internet grocery shop.
- Clean through the house – many women report that they have a ‘nesting’ phase. If so, make the most of it!
- Do all the things you won’t be able to do easily for a while: go out for a meal, have your hair done, buy a few birthday presents for birthdays coming up.
- Rest as much as you can.
Maternity Leave: The Early Days
In some ways, this is the loveliest time of maternity leave. You can sit on the sofa most of the day (probably feeding) and watch television. You can get people to come to visit you. You can take the baby out and about and he or she will generally sleep the whole time.
It can also be the scariest time as you get used to having the baby around. It’s also exhausting, as you will be doing night-feeds. It can feel like the baby will never stop crying, and consulting Dr. Google at 3am is commonplace. If reflux or colic is a problem, you may feel like you are facing a huge uphill struggle, and an hour can feel as long as a month when you’re so exhausted.
In addition, you may still be healing after the birth, particularly if you’ve had a caesarean, and pregnancy, delivery and then breastfeeding all place huge demands on your body.
I found these few weeks really quite difficult. In hindsight, I think I was putting too much pressure on myself to establish what ‘normal life’ now looked like. I loved having the time to bond with Ben, and to find out about his moods, his likes and dislikes, but it wasn’t instantaneous, and I expected it to be. I also didn’t want to ‘fall into traps’ (as I saw it) of only letting him sleep on me, or never sleeping in his moses basket. Some days he would seem like a completely different baby to the previous day. It was only when I allowed myself to think that it was okay to watch tv, to cuddle the baby, to go for a walk just to get him to sleep and to give him a dummy at night that I started to relax and enjoy it.
This time is all about bonding with your baby and getting to know him or her. It’s also the time to get support, and to call in all those offers of help – meals, babysitting (get willing friends to take the baby for a walk for an hour while you do whatever you need to do), company. If you’re struggling with something, particularly feeding, get professional help from the NCT or similar.
This is the time to treat yourself gently, and not to start on those projects you daydreamed about when you were working. Your baby won’t have any set pattern or routine, and in some ways this can be frustrating, but it can also be liberating. You can take a tiny baby out and about without worrying if it will clash with nap times or meal times. Enjoy it if you can, but don’t feel pressure to enjoy – it’s difficult being a new parent.
I loved these words of wisdom from a friend:
“I didn’t realise that I would really want to spend time with my baby. That sounds silly – I knew I would adore him but I think he is an amazing human being and I find him funny and a pleasure to spend time with.”
Established maternity leave
For me, I think I really started enjoying my maternity leave when Ben was around 4 months old, and then it kept getting better and better. Part of this was his routine – his naps got longer, which meant that I had some time to myself. Part of it was getting over those initial fears and adjustments, and realising that I could make it work.
From January (when Ben was 5 months old) I became quite structured in how I approached my ‘free’ (i.e. nap) time. I got fit again, training to run a 5km. I started a blog. I baked, cooked and slow cooked. I met up with friends frequently. I even started doing some planning for school.
I also started going regularly to some activities – swimming lessons, courses at the Sure Start centre, baby cafes and playgroups. Some were good for a little while, and then they clashed with his nap times. Some were only short courses. Some were much more informal. We had the additional challenge of being limited to buses on many days, and so some activities were just too hard to get to.
I found I really needed to do ‘something’ every day, and to get out of the house every day. Others felt the same:
“I never imagined the feelings of being trapped, unable to just go somewhere when I felt like it despite having the luxury of time!”
“I just get so BORED if we’re home alone for very long stretches!”
The sense of loneliness and isolation can be overwhelming at times, particularly if you don’t have many friends with babies:
“The worst bits were the lack of money and the isolation.”
Despite seeming to have a lot of time, it’s very difficult to get much done with a baby awake – especially one which is moving!
“I too manage to get far less done during the week than expected – but DH has majorly stepped up to the plate to cover that.”
“Mat leave was MUCH busier than I thought it would be and I totally underestimated the always-something-that-needs-doing feeling I had.”
I can completely relate to this final comment. I can count on one hand the number of times I have slept or even just sat down and read a book while Ben has been asleep during the day – there is always something that needs doing! But I do feel as though I have tried to make the most of it. I’ve made new friends, learned new skills, and, most importantly, established an incredibly precious relationship with my son. Ultimately, that is what maternity leave is for.
Interestingly, for me, it has reaffirmed that I want to go back to work. I’ve missed teaching, and I’ve missed being in a working environment. Although I’m only going back 3 days a week, I am sure that Ben will love nursery, and I’m looking forward to it. Before that, though, we’ve got the summer to enjoy!
Maternity Leave Finances
I think one of the biggest worries for me before having Ben was the financial strain of taking a year’s maternity leave, having some months unpaid, and being on SMP for a lot of it.
We did make some big sacrifices, the biggest being to sell my car (sob!), and I would be lying if I said that it has been easy without a car. But it has made a massive difference to us. However, we’ve also been able to go on holiday 3 times throughout the year, and we haven’t exactly been living on lentils and baked beans.
The financial aspect of maternity leave cannot be ignored:
“The worst bit was the lack of money.”
“I didn’t follow my friend’s advice which was as soon as you find out you’re pregnant save as much as you can. Wish I had.’
But it’s not all doom and gloom:
“Actually though I didn’t find mat pay as crippling as I was expecting. My husband and I both expected to be straight into Asda value beans and unable to afford to go out for dinner more than once a month but its not like that at all.”
Saving does make sense, and having a baby is expensive; there’s no getting away from that. But we found that our lifestyle became less costly with a baby around – we don’t really go out for meals often now, because that means getting a babysitter; I don’t have to have a separate wardrobe for work, or petrol costs for commuting. I wonder if we’ll feel poorer when we have to pay for childcare, even though I’ll be back at work.
Making the most of Maternity Leave
Having been a teacher for almost all of my working life, I have loved the freedom of maternity leave. The joy of going on holiday during term time was great! I’ve been able to visit family without being limited to certain weeks or times, and I’ve definitely been able to enjoy the recent heat wave.
At times, though, I have felt limited – by meal times or Ben’s need for a nap, and I personally think that this is just something that comes with parenthood. I’m sure the feelings of being limited will change over the course of Ben’s life, and then when he heads off to University or work, we’ll enjoy the freedom again!
I know I’ll never have a year like this again, and I honestly do think it has been the best, most amazing year of my life. And the kitchen did finally get finished.