You are about to embark upon an adventure like one you’ve never experienced before. And although it’s an adventure fellow-women have been going on since the beginning of humankind, it is still full of surprises for each brave woman who embarks upon it. Luckily, you don’t have to go it alone. There are tons of resources out there to help you. But I wanted to write this article to specifically address the nuances and experiences that you can expect as a professional, working woman to help you as you begin preparing for maternity leave. Getting off the corporate treadmill and behind the baby stroller during maternity leave is one experience that you’ll never forget and it will change you forever.
I had my first child (a baby girl) three years ago and took four months of maternity leave from my high-stress, travel-heavy senior marketing manager role. Now, I’m 39 weeks pregnant with my second and in the thick of the swollen hands and ankles, unpredictable flatulence, and alien baby parts protruding from my belly, I wanted to pass on some wisdom I learned from my first maternity leave. For context, I am no longer in a corporate role. After my first child was born, I had some unexpected epiphanies that led me to gain my coaching certification and open up an executive coaching practice. More about “expecting the unexpected” below… This is the guide I wish I had when I was preparing for maternity leave.
Here are some things you can do to prepare for maternity leave:
- Wrap up loose ends at work- if this is your first leave, the thought of not being involved in what’s coming down the pike at work might seem very foreign. But believe me, you won’t want to be the go-to once you flip into newborn mommy-mode. You will be in a completely different mental space once that baby arrives, not to mention ridiculously sleep deprived. Train and delegate before you go out so you are not the only one the company has to rely on in a crisis.
- Talk to other professional women who have been through a maternity leave- choose people who share similar values and set up time to hear about their experience and best practices. This will give you a better idea of what to expect (although, no matter how many people you talk to, I guarantee there will be surprises). This also helps you start to build your mom network. This is a special, almost sacred group of women who will understand and sympathize with all the new experiences you’re about to embark upon (raging hormones post-birth, an overwhelming need for freedom after endless hours tethered to a baby, the humor in getting poopy diaper remnants on your nightgown at 4am). These women will understand what you’re about to go through and you’ll find comfort in knowing you’re not alone. They also will be able to give you advice about how to manage/navigate expectations at work post-baby (particularly if you’re working in an environment with few senior managers who support the idea of prioritizing family).
- Join a local mom’s/parent’s group- one of the most pleasantly surprisingly discoveries for me the first time I entered the baby tornado was the support fellow moms naturally develop for one another. Start to find your tribe/village/family support before your leave. You will need them, especially if you don’t have family (or reliable family) around. It’s amazing how quickly and easily you’ll be able to bond with fellow moms going through the same experience. Many parent’s groups have subgroups based on when you give birth. There will come a time a month or so after you’ve been stuck indoors with only an infant and your partner when you will need to connect with outside humans. And if you can find others who are going through what you are, you can get a sanity check on all the new feelings and experiences you will cycle through. Find strength in numbers as you prepare for maternity leave.
- Schedule a weekend getaway four to six months post-baby with your girlfriends. This one may sound controversial to some. And I admit, this was one of the hardest but BEST things I did after my first child was born. It was emotionally really challenging to leave my daughter and a pain to plan for all the pumping needs while away but, at my sister’s advice, I booked this trip and arranged for care with my husband and in-laws prior to the baby’s arrival. During this trip, I went to see one of my favorite bands (Dave Matthews) play a three-day concert in Mexico. I can’t begin to tell you how freeing and therapeutic it was. Between the girl time, the beach, the sun, the cocktails, and the music, I felt like my old self for the first time in months. And it completely revived me to come back to work and be fully present for my daughter. I actually pumped in a smelly port-a-potty during this trip but I was so thrilled to be out, it barely phased me. Trust me, booking a trip will be a welcome change of pace and help create cohesion between your pre and post baby life. Here’s a picture from my post-baby girl’s trip:
- Get ready for all the miracles you’re about to experience- it can feel overwhelming to plan for such a long break from the life you’ve known for so long (work) to plunge into the unknown. There will be times this will be tough (this is not a vacation. I repeat: this will, in no way, resemble a vacation) but there will be really beautiful amazing moments along the way. There are no words to describe how magical it is the first time you see and hold your baby, the delight your baby brings to your family, the pride you experience when you baby starts to hit their milestones. You are in for some of the biggest highlights of your entire life so give yourself time to look forward to what’s coming.
- Expect the unexpected- many, many new moms go through a major shift in priorities and a clarity of values after their baby arrives. While in the past, being 100% committed to the job at hand may have been your primary focus, don’t be surprised if that flips on its head once your baby arrives. Let yourself cycle through what comes up for you. Many women return back to their same job post-leave (in fact, 25% of American workers return to work ten days after their baby is born) but many women realize that their former job is no longer the right fit- just over 1/3rdof American mothers don’t return to work after giving birth. Change is inevitable when you have a kid. The key is identifying the right change for you and your new situation. Give yourself the time and the space to explore these new thoughts so the path you pursue post-baby takes you where you want to go.
- Find time to sleep- no joke, be as well-rested as possible before baby comes. Give yourself time near the end to nap/rest/read/have meals with your partner and good friends. You will need this stored energy (and then some) once baby arrives. Trust me. Soon, this will be you (but don’t worry, this too will pass).
- Prepare yourself to be ok with the unpredictable. As professional women, we tend to be planners and any variance to our plan can incite stress. Expect that your plans will be disrupted. The biggest mistake I made with my first was getting somewhat obsessed with little details that didn’t matter (but she’s been in the same outfit since last night, I forgot to sterilize this bottle, she can’t have a pacifier! It might interfere with breastfeeding). Unless the consideration at hand will severely hurt your child or put their life in danger, just let it go and accept imperfection. It will make your life, and your partner’s life, much easier. Prioritize your sanity as much as you prioritize your baby’s needs.
- Enlist help- this starts early. When you’re prepping the nursery, buying all the things needed, looking for a pediatrician, etc.- accept and ask for help. You can’t do it alone. On second thought, you likely can do it alone because you are a superstar and high achiever. But allow others to help so you don’t burn yourself out. This is a magical time and others want to be a part of it so invite them in. And let yourself focus on the most important piece of this journey: you will be meeting the newest member of your family soon and your heart will never feel so full. Embrace and cherish the moment- it will be one of those rare times in life that you will inevitably never forget.
In addition, here’s another great checklist to reference as you prepare for maternity leave.
If you take nothing else away from this article, remember this: this new chapter of your life will change you in ways you can’t fathom now. Look for the positive in these changes and know that you are equipped to navigate what’s coming. Your little one will grow up fast but, in the beginning, the days (and nights) will feel very LONG. Look for ways to cherish the miracles that you witness and let go of everything but the focus on keeping your baby alive and maintaining your sanity. Take care of you along with that baby, mama!