The end of maternity leave: The most important work

Endofleave

 

The bags are carefully packed and are waiting by the door.  The pump bag filled with bottles and pump parts and cleaning wipes and the hands-free bra, the bag with extra clothes with carefully ironed-on name labels, the bag with diapers and wipes and coconut oil, my backpack with my laptop and all of the hospital bills I still need to pay when I get a spare moment… and tomorrow I’ll fill a cooler bag with the bottles of breastmilk I have measured and re-measured a million times, unsure of how much to actually send.  Oh yea, and my diaper bag and purse.  Tomorrow I’ll be the bag lady.

Tomorrow I go back to my job outside the home – I won’t call it going back to work, because I’ve been doing work.  Important work.  The most important work in fact.  The work of giving birth.  The work of recovering.  The work of building bonds with my baby.  The work of establishing my milk supply.  The work of learning how to balance parenting two children.  The work of laundry. So. Much. Laundry.

I’ve done this before.  The night before going back to your other job can feel a lot like the first day of school after a long summer…  Who are these new people?  What are these new policies?  Will they recognize me?

That last one might sound silly… of course they’ll recognize me, on the surface.  But underneath, deep down, I’ve been transformed.  And each child transforms you differently.  With my daughter, I was utterly transformed by this feeling that I would go to the ends of the earth for this tiny human being.  Her birth changed me into someone who at all costs, believed in myself.  My breastfeeding journey with her showed me the deepest reserves of strength I never knew I had.  As someone who previously struggled with my own perception of my body, I now viewed it as this amazing temple that could perform the biggest of miracles.

My miscarriage transformed me.  I was no longer invincible, no longer innocent.  But I learned how to grieve, and how to heal.

With my son, I’ve been transformed again.  His birth showed me how to harness my power.  Breastfeeding him has taught me how to trust my instincts.  I hold my parenting convictions more deeply; I’m unapologetic about my bedsharing, and even more outspoken about how the postpartum period should be.  My heart has grown astoundingly bigger, for another tiny human who I love just as fiercely as the first.

So yes, I wonder if they’ll recognize me.  Motherhood has changed me.  They might notice that all of these big feelings, this other job of mothering, impact my work.  It means that I’m more efficient with my time.  It means that I can multi-task at a whole new level.  It means that I’m a more nurturing teacher.  It means that I’m less likely to second-guess my instincts.  It means that I’m more willing to be flexible when circumstances change.  What makes me a better mother also makes me a better employee.

Everyone has asked me if I’m ready.  I don’t know if you can ever be ready.  I’ve already cried 3 times in the past week, and I’m sure more tears will be shed in the morning.  But I remind myself that this is a choice I am making.  I am privileged that it even is a choice for me.  Despite how glorious the last 19 weeks have been, I have spent it feeling sad and angry for my friends who do not have the choices I do.  We live in a country that does not respect new motherhood as the most important work. 

For the mothers who only got 2 weeks off… I am sorry that you weren’t given a chance to recover from birth. I am sorry that you were not allowed to get off the hormonal roller coaster first.  I am sorry that you had to go back to work on a paltry amount of sleep while your baby still had their days and nights mixed up.  I am sorry that you likely had very little “choice” in how you fed your baby.

For the mothers who only got 6 weeks off… I am sorry that recovery from birth is apparently the only thing that matters, and that many of you still won’t be recovered by this point.  I am sorry that you had to leave just as you were getting to know your baby.  I am sorry that just as it was starting to get easier, it got harder.  I am sorry that if you had any breastfeeding issues, you may not have had enough time to resolve them.  I am sorry that you didn’t get the optimal chance to firmly establish your milk supply; I am sorry that you may have to wean earlier than you intended.

For the mothers who only got 12 weeks off… I am sorry that you’ve likely taken much of this time unpaid.  That despite your desire to spend more time with your baby, the threat of losing your job is forcing you to go back.  That even if you have the flexibility to take more time off, that the financial burden of doing so unpaid is too stressful.  I’m sorry that you may have had to put your baby in daycare during the height of cold and flu season.  That your first weeks back at work were actually spent at home taking care of your sick baby.  I’m sorry that if you got through the hardest part of breastfeeding, through to the part where you absolutely love nursing your baby, that you have to pump multiple times a day to maintain that relationship.  I’m sorry that this will be a source of stress, and that some of you will have to fight hard for every ounce.

For the mothers who own their own businesses… I am sorry that there is no safety net for people like you.  That some of you never quit working, despite having given birth to a human being.  I hope you were able to assemble enough support.

So yes, I am lucky that I had a choice at all.  I chose to take 19 weeks off.  I am privileged to have been able to take 13 of those weeks unpaid.  I am choosing to go back to my job, which I love.  My bags are packed and waiting by the door.  But there’s an invisible bag I’ll be carrying with me tomorrow.  This heavy baggage in my heart, this feeling of disappointment that every mother does not have a choice, this sorrow that they are not being allowed the time and space to transform.  I hope that some day soon, our country will realize that this is the most important work. 

 

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The Beauty In Bedsharing

 

bedsharing

 

This morning, I slipped under my nearly 3-year old daughter’s covers to wake her up with a kiss and a cuddle, but was met with resistance.

Her: Noooooo mommy, I didn’t ask you.  It’s wake-up time, we can’t cuggle. 

Me: Just a little cuggle? {I try to assume our usual position, by slipping my arm under her neck}

Her: No, your arm hurts my head. 

Me: Oh… that hurts my heart.  I wanted to cuggle you.

Her: It’s okay mommy, I still love you.

My heart shattered into a thousand pieces.  Where was my little baby girl?  Where had she gone?  She allowed me the small concession of carrying her out of her bed… but it’s only a matter of time before she’s too big to even do that with.

I tried.

I tried to capture her smallness.  I tried to hold on to the last breaths of her babyhood. But try as I might, it has slipped right out of my grasp.  Despite my efforts to slow down and enjoy every moment since everyone told me it goes so fast… all I have left are memories and photographs.  But it doesn’t mean that I can re-live it.  Not really. 

Some of my favorite memories of her as an infant will always be of bedsharing.  She always started the night in her own bed, but after her first wake-up of the night, I’d scoop her out of her room and bring her into our cozy nest to feed her and quickly soothe her back to sleep.  And for the most part that meant that we all got more sleep… except for the times I’d find myself staring at her while she slept.  I’d watch her tiny chest move up and down, and memorize every little detail of her perfect little face.  I’d think to myself this is crazy, what are you doing, go to sleep. But those memories, in the dead of night, the ones where there aren’t any pictures – are the clearest in my mind’s eye.

The morning cuddles were always the best.  There was always lots of cooing and giggling, which eventually morphed into babbling and games.  She’d drum on my belly, or rub her daddy’s back.  It usually ended with a ticklefest involving pretend spiders.  On the weekends, we used to be able to trick her into sleeping in with us.  But now she bounds into our room at 7 am every morning exclaiming It’s wake up time! I slept in my princess bed all by myself. We can’t sleep, the sun is shining. I want to watch something. Now sleeping in means lying in bed with my eyes closed, listening to a Tiger on TV sing catchy jingles about life lessons.     

When she was a baby, she slept in the crook of my arm, her hand always on me.  I could feel the rise and fall of her chest all night.  Eventually she got bigger and then she slept next to me, but I still curved my body around hers, close enough to still hear her breath.  And then one day, she could talk, and she began making very specific requests on how I “cuggled” her.  This arm here, mommy.  Don’t breathe on me, mommy.

I find myself wondering when it’ll be the last time.  On average, she woke up twice a night until she was a year old.  And then once a night until she was two.  But for the most part, she’s slept in her own bed all night for almost the last year (a sentence I never thought I’d say).  But there is still the occasional wake-up because of a nightmare, or a noise, or just the request Mommy I want to sleep in your bed with you.  There was one night, about a month before her brother was born, when I got just such a request.  I willingly obliged, preparing myself for the chance that this might be one of the last times that I might share a bed all night with her.  I memorized her sweet breath on my face.  Her little arms wrapped tightly around my neck.  Her legs propped up on the side of my growing belly.  I tried to capture her smallness.

I know that if we offered it, she’d still want to sleep in our bed.  But now that her brother is here, he’s claimed her old spot.  I’m still holding on to the fact that she even wants to sleep with me once in a while.  If daddy’s out of town and she asks, I let her.  When it’s the weekend and baby brother is napping and I’m tired too, I let her.  It’s not the same anymore, since I have to face the baby, acting as the barrier between them.  But now she says heart-melting things like Mommy I want to be close, and she drapes her arm over me, acting as the big spoon.  She’s the big spoon.  How did that happen?

My only regret is that I didn’t start bedsharing sooner with her.  I had heard all of the warnings during pregnancy; that it was dangerous, that I’d never get her out of my bed, and that there was a short window of time in which I needed to sleep train her or else she’d never learn how to sleep.  Everything in parenting had been presented as a choice, except for this.

But I had no idea how strong my biological need to be close to her {and her to me} would be.  Every bone in my tired, aching, postpartum body screamed at me to pick her up and sleep with her. She was the furthest from my body she had been in 9 months; she was unsettled, and I was unsettled. If I wasn’t with her, I’d constantly wake up to check the monitor to make sure she was okay.  She only wanted to sleep in our arms or on our chests.  She flat out refused to sleep in the co-sleeper in our room.  She’d wake up the second we laid her down in her crib.  Parenting in the modern, Western world just wasn’t agreeing with me {or with her}.

Eventually, I gave in to my intuition, did some careful research on safe bedsharing, and took the plunge. And it just felt right. Of course, I didn’t need much “permission” to give in to it.  I shared a bed with my parents until I was two, and my brother did the same.  I witnessed bedsharing as the norm when we’d visit extended family in India.  We never had a crib in our house.  In fact, I never even saw a crib until I was thirteen years old and started babysitting.  So, it wasn’t that big of a leap for me.

I can’t talk about this topic without acknowledging that it’s mired in controversy.  But an army of 10,000 pediatricians couldn’t have kept me from sleeping with my baby.  It’s like the CDC’s recent recommendations against alcohol for all young women.  It’s one-size fits all, and is so condemning in its tone that it fails to do the most important thing: actually educate people.  We’re mothers, not monsters.  We have brains and boobs and biological instincts, so just let us use them already.

If half of us are even occasionally bedsharing, but lying to our pediatricians about it because their response is just don’t do it instead of here’s how to do it safely, then no one wins.  But to be fair, even though the American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t support bedsharing, it is supported by The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, the USA Breastfeeding Committee, La Leche League International, UNICEF, the WHO, and even the Breastfeeding section of the American Academy of Pediatrics (how’s that for a mixed message).  Just read anything by Dr. James McKenna and you’ll know where I stand.  Every family is different, and bedsharing isn’t for everyone. But it can be safe, is entirely natural, and the bottom line is: it worked for us.

After I went back to work full-time (which coincided with the dreaded 4-month sleep regression), bedsharing became a necessity to get a good night’s sleep.  After being apart all day, she missed me, and I missed her.  There was no way that I was going to spend precious time fruitlessly bouncing my baby back to sleep in her room for half an hour, only to have her wake up when I put her back in her crib, when she would peacefully fall asleep in my bed in 3 minutes flat.  Putting her down to sleep initially is a different story… but as long as the waking happened after I was ready to go to bed, I was fine with it.  As soon as I stopped treating her night-wakings like a problem, they stopped being one.

And now I just have these beautiful memories with my daughter, who is no longer a baby. But my son is a baby, and has been in my bed since the day he was born.  So I’m soaking it in and am recognizing all of the beauty in bedsharing…

There’s beauty in the fact that despite the early loss of my nursing relationship with my daughter, bedsharing restored our bond.  Those first 10 weeks of pumping every 3 hours meant that I lost precious time that I could have been holding her.  I made up for it by snuggling her and soothing her back to sleep in my bed.  When she was old enough to use sign language, she’d wake up in the morning, and sign for milk.  I’d sit up in bed and pump her a fresh bottle, while she clapped her hands with excitement and anticipation.

There’s beauty in the fact that it lets me better take care of my kids when they’re sick.  When my daughter went to bed with a low-grade fever, I was able to keep her close and feel her body heat enough to know when it spiked in the middle of the night so I could do something about it.  And when my son was congested and having difficulty sleeping, I could position him to be more comfortable so he could breathe.

There’s beauty in the fact that I sometimes get the privilege of catching a smile flash across their faces or hearing a laugh escape from their mouths.  What wonderful dreams they must have.

There’s beauty in the fact that every time my son startles awake, I don’t have to feed him.  I simply lay my hand on his chest, with my other arm touching the top of his head.  All it takes is my subtle touch, the awareness of my presence, to soothe him back to sleep.  It’s how we survived the fourth trimester.

There’s beauty in the fact that when my son does need to nurse, there’s no crying. It took me several weeks to even learn what his hunger cry sounded like, because I honestly never heard it at the beginning – he was always close enough to get the milk flowing before the tears were.

There’s beauty in the fact that when my son wakes up in the morning, his entire face lights up with delight as we lock eyes – the way he looks at me sets my heart on fire.  He does a whole body stretch like he’s had the best sleep of his entire life. He latches on to nurse, but unlatches often to smile a gummy, milky grin at me.

There’s beauty in the fact that our mornings start together.  My daughter creeps into our bed in the morning, telling us about her dreams. She pokes and prods at her baby brother, he babbles back at her, she scratches her daddy’s back, kisses are doled out, we all tickle each other, and start our days with smiles on our faces and joy in our hearts.

So when I look back on this season of my life, I’ll always the cherish the beauty that bedsharing brought to our days {and nights}.

 

 

 

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