The end of maternity leave: The most important work



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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3 thoughts on “The end of maternity leave: The most important work

  1. Nice post – I think it’s such a shame that there is such a discrepancy in how much maternity leave people get. I am so fortunate to be returning after having almost a whole year of maternity leave. I would be in pieces if I’d had to return after 19 weeks so you are doing great!


  2. Pingback: The Breastfeeding Bargain | The best season of my life

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