Maternity leave: Finding your new reality

November 8, 2012

First, let's get something out of the way: the phrase “having it all” needs to be terminated, wiped off the planet or made illegal. It’s pure gobbledeygook nonsense, like “losing weight and eating everything you want.” Unless you actively dislike your child or you absolutely have no professional or creative ambitions beyond raising a child, it’s simply impossible for a woman (or man) to "have it all." Taking care of a kid means time away from other things and vice versa.

Right after I had the baby I congratulated my husband and myself on our equal partnership. He was right there alongside me feeding the baby, changing him, going to the doctor’s, everything. None of this too-good-for-a-poopy-diaper, you-get-up-instead-of-me stuff. It was great. I felt bad for women who had caveman partners.

But then he went back to work and I stayed on maternity leave.

There are a lot of great parts about maternity leave: Being able to wear sweatpants all day and catch up on TV; time to do the dishes and the laundry; being there for the baby.

But those can also be the bad parts about maternity leave. I missed talking to adults and I missed having a place to go. I didn’t think I resented spending time with the baby, except sometimes, like when Steve came home from work and would express frustration when the baby didn't cooperate. Then I thought, "But I get this all day long and I put up with it." I knew the baby a little better than he did; I folded his little socks, ordered the diapers and massaged his blocked tearduct. But I realized that it wasn't awesome, all this incidental knowledge. Our equal partnership wasn't quite so equal anymore.

We had a good “come to Jesus” talk last weekend, where I said, “I need to vent to you but you can’t take it personally.” I told Steve that I felt very reduced, in a lot of ways, to this feeding, cleaning, providing automaton whose work was necessary but not exactly fulfilling in a way I was used to (finishing a load of laundry, for instance, feels a lot less satisfying once you already have half a new pile of dirty laundry built up from the time you started doing the laundry).

“I’m sorry,” Steve started to say. “It’s just that—” and I said, “No, I need you to listen as my friend, not as my husband. Because I’m not mad at you. I know you’re not out there drinking beer and sitting around letting me do all this work that you have all the time in the world to pitch in on.” Because he didn’t. What was I going to do? Let all the housework pile up just to make a point? Force him to do things I had the time to do?

Then Steve confessed that he, too, sometimes resented my role. He'd be out working and getting tired, then he’d come home and I’d be in a bad mood when all it seemed that I had done that day was spend time with the baby and maybe have lunch with a friend. Even if I had gotten more bad time with the baby, I had gotten more good time with him, too, and he had missed that.

It will all be fine. We’re still luckier than most and are blessed to have support and health on our side. But the truth of the matter is that no matter how smart, ambitious or sophisticated you are, or how enlightened and helpful your husband is, at some point after you have a baby you are going to be The Mommy, doing Mommy Things. These are things that need to get done, but it’s not the same as completing a good work project or finishing a race or something like that.

I go back to work today. I am melancholy about this (sometimes heartbroken) and yet I know it’s what I need. It will probably help me continue to find the new me and to be happy, and it’ll be better for the baby as well.

Things don’t go back to normal after you have a kid — you have to find a new normal instead.