I’ve been on maternity leave twice. And both times, I experienced people who thought that my being on maternity leave was basically me having a holiday. Sometimes it wasn’t said so blatantly as that. Sometimes it was.
And this used to really get my goat. Because being on maternity leave, or a stay-at-home parent for any length of time, is no holiday, as anyone who has done it will know. Being at home with babies/small children is not a walk in the park, although you will often find yourself doing just that because sometimes it’s the only remedy for an unsettled child and a frazzled mother. Looking after these little dependants is hard. It’s monotonous, and isolating, and relentless, and I don’t know of any other job that can leave you as mentally, physically and emotionally annihilated all at once. Anyone who claims that a mother on maternity leave is having a holiday, is a fool.
Now I am back at work, and work is tiring as well, but it’s not the same kind of tiring. It’s tiring because my eyes are staring at a computer screen all day, under fluorescent lighting. It’s tiring because the processes to get anything done involve a seemingly never-ending obstacle course of hoops and jumps. It’s tiring because there’s a need to be strategic in everything you do, right down to the smallest email, it all requires thought and analysis. But these issues go away at the end of the day, they’re only issues for as long as they’re right in front of me. It’s tiring, but without the investment.
The parenting issues that make you tired, they don’t go away at the end of the day. There is no end of the day! And there are no quick solutions, it’s simply a state of being that you have to accept you will be in for the foreseeable future. And that’s just the parenting piece of the pie, there’s all the other life stuff as well that needs to keep ticking over. Housework. Finances. Appointments. Relationships. Obligations. When you put all of this together, you have the full job description of “mother”.
Having now painted a bleak picture of the early days at home with baby, funnily enough, my last year of maternity leave was probably the best year of my life. My first round of maternity leave? No, not so much. But this second round….I had the knowledge and appreciation that comes with having already had one child. I had been relying on that to see me through, hoping that my previous child-rearing experience would be the key to ensuring that this time, it wouldn’t be as brutal. And luckily for me, that was exactly the outcome.
Being able to side-step all the confusion, the unknowing, the shock to the system, and the lack of confidence that the first time brings, last year I was able to focus on what this time meant for myself, my baby, and my family as a whole. I knew how fleeting a baby’s first year is, and I knew what was important. Of course, there were moments. Moments when I thought I would go mad, when I wanted to run away and leave it all behind for someone else to deal with. But I had known those moments would come, and I was better able to deal with them when they did. And I was also able to say to myself with certainty – “this too shall pass”. It always passed, and when it did, I could once again focus on the little things that matter, on taking in every second and trying to hold it in my memory, on leaving all that mental debris behind so I could just watch. Watch my little ones as they played, as they ate the food I prepared for them, as they looked at the world with curiosity and enthusiasm. All the time, while I was juggling the ongoing demands of a household of four, I made sure to do so with mindfulness and integrity. And I tried to pay more attention to my own mind and body, understanding what I needed at any given time, and providing it without guilt.
I was on maternity leave. The busyness never stopped, and I worked harder than I think I ever have in my life. It most certainly was no holiday. But it fed my soul, and I never felt so content.