The unexpected joys of maternity leave – four lessons for life

I am just coming to the end of eleven months maternity leave. Maternity leave can look pretty cushy – you’re off work and, if coffee shops are anything to go by, usually out having coffee and cake, right? But of course having a baby is also tough – you aren’t off at all, you have reduced income, you are going through a huge change in life physically and emotionally, not sleeping, figuring out how to keep a small person alive (and yourself – it is surprisingly difficult to have time to feed yourself when you have to feed someone else every two hours).

Many women find maternity leave can be an isolating time – without the routine, interactions and little daily achievements of working life. There can be a sense of losing your identity as everything focusses on the baby. And despite having a constant stream of nappies, feeding, cleaning, playing, and naps going on all day, these are long hours to fill…

But I don’t want to paint it as negative either. It has been a transformative, instrumental time in my life. There have been some unexpected lessons in joy. Lessons I can take back into my life when I return to work. So here are some unexpected joys I have learnt from maternity leave – what are yours?

  1. The joy of – Switching off and moving more. I am writing this on a laptop. I am so happy to be back writing on a laptop. But I am happy because I have had a long break from this. I didn’t even open a laptop for about 6 months after baby Ziggy was born (though I have a tablet and Iphone so wasn’t completely offline). And it was wonderful. It made me realise just how much time I spent bending over a screen, staring into it, not around me. And although I no longer had time to exercise (or was even physically able at the beginning) I moved so much more. No longer rushing a short walk to the tube, to sit at a desk or in a meeting, telling myself I will get up and stretch soon… but then getting sucked into the screen, into the next deadline, the next email, until 7pm comes round and it is time to get back on the tube and get home. Instead with a baby you have to physically move all of yourself, all of the time, picking up, putting on a wash, changing a nappy, dragging a buggy out the house, in the house, running up and down stairs… you naturally have to move so much. If you are into chakras, the best way to describe it is that you have to focus on the root, you are staying alive, moving, focussed on the basics. And in such contrast to the more abstract, cerebral energy of professional life. And now I really will try to have that walk or stretch every two hours at work. And let’s try to look at people in meetings, not our laptops and phones.
  2. The joy of – single tasking. It is great to be busy. I love having lots of meetings, lots to do – it is stimulating. We also attribute success to being busy, to having lots on, juggling, having a full life. And I am looking forward to that again. When you are on maternity leave and the primary carer of your baby, you are a slave to their routine. But you can shape that routine as well and once you have a routine, beyond making sure they are fed, cuddled, sleep, the day is both of your own. You can walk the longer scenic route to get home. You can meander. You rarely need to be more than one place a day, if that, but you want to get out. You don’t need to clock watch – you have hours to get where you are going. So you can just truly be in the moment – you are at the mercy of the small person who needs care, but all you have to do, all day, is care for them. This is in contrast to the constant clock watching of a day of appointments and calls, always thinking of the next thing you have to do, to the point you aren’t really focussing on what you are doing now at all. Freeing yourself from a perception you need to be doing three things at once to be doing anything makes you free to realise the absurdity of it, and how we would all have more focus if we actually focus on what we are doing now and celebrate the joy of single tasking.
  3. The joy of – appreciating where you are. The world is full of beautiful places; living in a city there is always somewhere new opening, something else to do, another place to see, just jump on the bus, or train or tube, there is also always somewhere more beautiful to think of being. It’s great to have a sense of adventure. But with a baby it is easier to stay closer to home; and in doing so, you have to learn to appreciate what is around you right now. The café with the best cakes, a beautiful hanging basket, a tiny park down a side street you didn’t know existed, a lane that cuts through a street of houses with a cascade of jasmine growing over the side. When it makes sense to stay closer to home with a baby, you begin to see the nuances, and appreciate the details, of the place you are in. You have to find your own little adventures every day.

In fact it has got me thinking that everyone – regardless of whether they have a baby or not – should be able to take some (socially and professionally sanctioned) extended time off work, provided they use it to do something challenging and new that provides a total change to your usual routine – everyone should be able to have this sabbatical. There are unexpected joys to be found in having a new routine where you can no longer really choose what you do but at the same time, can only choose what you do.

And this realisation has, delightfully, made me appreciate and take joy in my old routine when I return to it. Because that is the final unexpected joy of maternity leave – going on the tube alone, being in a meeting, having a conversation about something I know about at work – I can newly appreciate and find joy in that too.

For some proper solid advice on finding joy from two truly inspirational spiritual leaders, this is an amazing read: The Book of Joy, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams.

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