Lessons from Maternity Leave

I am coming to the end of a maternity / parental leave from work and have been taking time to reflect on the lessons that I have learned over this leave period. I have undertaken a lot of formal and informal training in my life, but the experience of becoming a mother has been the most powerful learning experience of my life. Learning how to take care of a baby has taught me many lessons that can be applied to work and to life in general. This is what maternity leave has taught me:

Start from Empathy: Thinking about things from another person’s experience helps you to build a relationship and to avoid frustrations. Babies do a lot of things that are very frustrating for their parents. They have crying fits, they wake up at all hours of the night, they throw food all over the floor and refuse to eat, they pull hair, they resist having their faces wiped, and won’t stay still for diaper changes. All of these things can make parenthood feel like a battle of wills. It can be easy in a sleep deprived and stressed state to believe that when your baby does something you don’t like, they are doing it deliberately to frustrate you or to win some sort of victory in the household. This is simply not the case. Babies want to learn, explore, and be loved. The world is a new, interesting, and a sometimes frightening place. When you think about things from their perspective you may find that some of the things that could otherwise be viewed as frustrating could instead be fun games to share or opportunities to sooth and build a bond. Thinking empathetically and trying to understand where another person is coming from is the best way to operate in any situation. We all easily fall into the trap of the fundamental attribution error in which we erroneously assign negative traits or intentions to other people.

Accept that You Can Only Do So Much in A Day: There are a lot of little distractions in life and they tend to come in the form of tasks that we feel that we need to complete. We sometimes get the idea in our head that everything is a priority and that we need to complete every task immediately. Having a baby throws day to day planning on its head. Babies are somewhat unpredictable. You can’t predict from one day to the next whether your baby is going to have a long nap, a short nap, or no nap at all. You can’t predict whether they are going to be in a happy, receptive mood or whether they are going to be grumpy and unwilling to wait while you get things done. The baby is the priority, everything else gets done during times when the baby is sleeping. Some days that will give you very little time, so you won’t get to the end of the task list. Congratulate yourself on what you were able to do and don’t worry about what you didn’t get done. You will have another chance tomorrow.

You Do What You Prioritize: I just listed that being a parent means that you are going to be able to get less done in a day, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to get anything done. I learned that I was able to take care of all of the tasks that I determined were priorities for me during my maternity leave. I did this by taking a little time every morning to plan for the day. I made a task list in which I included my top priority jobs for the day first. Whenever my baby napped I went to the list and worked on the most important tasks first. There were some days when I was able to get through the entire list in one day. On other days I carried over list items to the next day. In the end, however, everything got done.

Set Realistic Tasks: Don’t assign yourself tasks that you cannot realistically accomplish because this will just frustrate you. If you have a big job that you want to tackle, break it down into smaller, more manageable chunks, so that you can see the progress that you are making. When my baby was very young I never undertook a task that would take more than 20 minutes to complete because I knew that I would have about that much time during each of her naps. Later as her naps grew longer I was able to assign myself longer tasks.

Expect Changes: Babies are always changing and growing and their habits change and evolve with their growth. I have gone through three or four distinct nap/activity schedules with my daughter. The first time that she outgrew a “routine” I was frustrated. I have come to understand and feel comfortable with the routine. When she started to change her habits I realized that I had to change mine. The next time her routine changed I made my adjustments more smoothly. Transitions require flexibility and thought, but they are manageable and if you are willing to go with the change you often find that there are advantages to each new routine.

Enjoy Your Memories, But Focus on the Present: It is very easy to look back nostalgically on some past phase in life and wish that things hadn’t changed. When my baby was very young she used to sleep on my shoulder for hours at a time. It was such a sweet experience. She stopped doing that a long time ago and will now only sleep in her crib and almost never while out on the go. I may miss certain things from the early days, but there are so many things that are better now. Instead of a sleepy little bundle, I have a bright, alert little person. My little person is also sleeping longer, doesn’t experience the “witching” hour, and is lots of fun to play with. She gets more fun every day. It can be tempting to look at the past with rose coloured glasses and want to get back there, but instead we need to enjoy what we have in the present and look forward to the future.

Seek Support: There are lots of challenges involved in parenthood, but you don’t have to face them alone. Turn to the people you love and trust in your life and let them know how you are doing and what you need. If you don’t have anyone in your immediate circle you can turn to for help and support about parenting, then look to your community. There are lots of people out there who are going through the same things that you are and are happy to talk and listen to you. There are going to be difficult moments and bad days. Reaching out to others can reassure you that you are not alone and that there are other people out there who are going through the same things that you are. These supports may provide you with answers to specific questions, ideas for new activities or techniques, or emotional and social support. This post focuses on the experience of parenthood, but these types of communities and networks exist for other areas of work and life as well. If you are undergoing a difficult situation at work, then don’t feel like you need to go it alone. Find people you trust to talk to either in your office or through networks of other professionals or through employee assistance programs.

Don’t Forget To Take Care Of Yourself: Parents and other people in care and service roles often feel like they need to devote all of their energy to other people. Our babies, partners, patients, or clients are important and we do need to prioritize their care and our relationships with them, but that doesn’t mean that we have to sacrifice ourselves for them. If you don’t take time to take care of yourself, then you can’t take care of anyone else. Do things to take care of yourself physically like getting sleep (naps when possible), exercising, and eating well. Also take time to do things for yourself mentally or emotionally. Take time to do things that you enjoy and that energize you.

Featured image by Jacob Bøtter

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