The first time I was pregnant, I joked that I wasn’t taking maternity leave when the baby arrived, but instead going on “baby vacation.”
I knew that labor and delivery would be no picnic and that the subsequent healing process would be a far cry from a vacation for my body. I knew that I would be doing more work caring for a newborn baby than I ever had at any job I’d ever held in my entire life. I knew that taking time off from work to immerse myself full-time into motherhood would be a monumental, life changing experience, but not an actual vacation.
Still, I hated the sound of the phrase, “maternity leave,” so instead I optimistically chose something that sounded, in my mind, more pleasant.
What I didn’t know at the time is how exhausting mothering a newborn would be. I had no idea that I’d give birth earlier than anticipated to a smaller than average baby, who at 4lbs and 4.5oz, required more than average amounts of care.
Milly needed to nurse every 2 hours, but she had trouble nursing because she was so tiny and we both had no idea what we were doing. Plus, in order to keep my milk supply up, when I wasn’t nursing her, I was pumping. We used the pumped breast milk to feed her with a feeding syringe when she wouldn’t latch, but we’d hold her up to my boob, anyway and try to get her to suck on the syringe and my breast at the same time. Then, I’d start pumping again.
Basically, I was milking myself around the clock.
I had no idea how much TV I’d watch. How little sleep I’d get. How beat up my body would be. How emotionally draining the whole entire experience of trying to keep an extra tiny human being alive would feel.
I also had no idea that I would not have my regular teaching job to return to postpartum, so while I was trying to keep my child alive and growing, I was also trying to find new places to teach and build new relationships in my community.
I definitely got more daytime naps in than I ever had before, but I certainly didn’t have much “me” time. I barely took 1 shower in the first month my daughter was alive, much less give myself time for a pedicure or a massage. I didn’t even read an adult book until she was well over a year old.
I was full to the point of bursting with stress and anxiety. I was terrified that our daughter was too small and that I wasn’t enough, physically or emotionally, to help her grow.
I was worried about my career and deeply concerned about my financial security. As a yoga teacher (aka independent contractor), I don’t get paid leave. And since I didn’t have my longtime classes to return to, I was essentially starting from scratch after 8 years of teaching. It was daunting and terrifying.
Plus, Nathan didn’t get much leave himself at the time, so he was back to work less than 2 weeks after Milly was born.
Not quite the warm, fuzzy, special time some people think of when they hear the words “maternity leave.”
Recently, a woman named Meghan Foye wrote a book called “Meternity”. Although her book is a work of fiction, her basic premise is that non-moms deserve “meternity leave.” Essentially, meternity leave is paid time off for self-care, self-discovery, and in her words, ““socially mandated time and space for self-reflection.”
Sorry. I was busy hysterically laughing there.
There’s been a fair amount of brilliant and caustic rebuttal from other moms all over the internet at the audacity of this woman’s assumption about what maternity leave is or isn’t, so that’s not what I want to do here.
What I am interested in talking about is self-care. I think that self-care is super important. I also think that most people neglect their basic self-care, whether they are new moms or non-moms. Moms tend to put everyone else’s needs before their own, so their self-care practices get put on the back burner. Non-moms are just as guilty of ignoring their own self-care needs, but usually because they are prioritizing their work or relationships over everything else.
If you’re a working mom like I am, inclined towards Type-A, overdoing everything tendencies, you’re doubly screwed when it comes to self-care.
This is actually my biggest bone of contention with Megan Foye, who claims that non-moms like her have to pick up the slack for the moms she works with. I call bullshit on that one. Not only is that an offensive statement, but it’s entirely untrue. As a working mom, I take a lot of pride in the work that I do as a yoga teacher and health coach. I tend to overwork myself, something I am consciously trying to change. As I write this, however, I am wearing my infant son strapped to my body in a Moby Wrap, while my 3 year old is snacking and painting behind us. I am 3 weeks postpartum with my son. I am really really not so great at the “taking it easy while recovering from giving birth” thing.
Back to self-care.
Flash forward a few years to pregnancy and baby #2. This time, I knew what to expect but I still jokingly called my time off from work as “baby vacation.” What can I say? I’m an eternal optimist. Or delusional.
So far, everything has been different than it was with Milly. Archer arrived 1 day prior to his due date. He was a little bit bigger than his sister, but labor and delivery was smoother, which means my recovery has been a little faster and I’ve been able to do much more physically postpartum than I was the first time.
What has made the biggest difference in my postpartum recovery process this time around has been continuing the nourishing self-care practices that I’ve sustained throughout my pregnancy and postpartum, as well as some of the systems for maintaining healthy habits that I didn’t have the first time around.
Nearly 3 weeks out, I’m still healing but I feel stronger and more conscious than I did postpartum with Milly.
This isn’t a postpartum issue.
This is an issue of knowing how to take good care of yourself, no matter the circumstances. Self-care is knowing how to prioritize yourself because YOU MATTER. How you take care of yourself matters.
Here’s a secret:
How you take care of yourself teaches other people how to take care of you.
And it teaches other people how to take care of themselves.
Here’s the truth:
I am able to take great care of myself while I’m on maternity leave this time around, especially in comparison to my first postpartum experience.
I was completely unprepared for what motherhood was going to throw at me. I also didn’t take such great care of myself the first time I was pregnant. That combination led to a level of depletion that impacted my mental health as much as my physical health many months after my daughter was born.
This is what led me to create a big shift in my priorities.
In order to take care of my kid, I knew I needed to take better care of myself.
Here are my top 5 self-care tips:
1. Make time for yourself every day.
I know this sounds easier said than done, but you don’t need an hour a day. At least not at first. Start small. 5 minutes can feel like a big deal if you haven’t given yourself any time in the past few months or years. Once you have 5 minutes a day of self care, you can double it and go for 10.
Sounds simple, but it’s not. So you have to systemize it.
2. Create a system for your self-care
In order to make daily self-care a regular habit, you have to set up routines to make it smoother. For example, in order to make sure I give myself a full body oil massage every day, I add it to another habit that I know I’ll do every day. So every day after brushing my teeth in the morning, I do 5 minutes of full body massage. Works like a charm.
3. Know Your Needs
What are you missing? What makes you feel more alive? What makes you feel more grounded? Make a list and then decide what is most likely for you to do daily.
4. Incentivize Your Self-Care
I have 3 non-negotiable practices that I do every single day. If I don’t do them, I feel yucky. Even if I only have 5 minutes for each practice, I do them. The incentive might be as simple as not wanting to feel yucky. You might give yourself a different kind of incentive. What would make it worth your while to start your necessary daily self-care practice?
5. Be Compassionate When You Miss a Day
You are human. Some days are harder than others. And sometimes, even on the hard days, you manage basic nourishing self-care for yourself. Other days, you might not. If nothing else, those particularly tough days might give you perspective on how much your daily self-care sustains your sanity and health. Missing a day or 2 might help you recommit to consistent self-care.
You don’t need maternity leave or meternity leave to give yourself the self-care you need. You just need to know the importance of taking good care of yourself and learn to prioritize YOU.