Making maternity leave work for you

I had a baby six months ago and began working again (reduced hours) after about two months.

Cue the gasp from many people I tell this to.

“That’s so early!”

Comparatively speaking, it’s not.

Canada offers one of the longest government-subsidized maternity leaves in the world (up to 61 weeks as of last year!).

We often celebrate this and we should. We are so fortunate to live in a country that values the very important role of parents.

But this option isn’t for everyone.

Many people who are self-employed like me (one study thinks it will be almost half of us in coming years) are not eligible for government-subsidized maternity leave.

Other women simply choose not to take a full year.

And, based on my own experience, I think this is a good thing.

Because – when I push my guilt aside – I must say that I enjoyed the balance of being able to take a couple hours away from the very intense world of caring for an infant to exercise my mind muscles and remaining engaged with the world I previously occupied.

The more I spoke with other women about my arrangement, the more I found women who had done similar things and had positive experiences.

And so I have come to believe that doing so (remaining engaged in the work world, even at a reduced rate, after having a baby) might help your mental state at a time that is proven to be extremely vulnerable – the new mom stage.

But of course, what the H do I know. So I talked to some experts to explore my theory.

Here’s some interesting things I learned.

Matrescence”

Having a baby is a tremendously life changing experience.

As soon as that baby is born, the life you lead up to that point abruptly ends and all of a sudden your job, all day (and ALL NIGHT), is to care for this tiny human.

This change can complicate our sense of self, says Sara Beckel, a certified labour and post-partum doula with more than a decade of experience.

(Sara is also the owner of Family First Doula Service, a very cool business in Regina that supports mom pre- and post-partum. Her website is full of great information.)

“Nobody tells you that there’s a loss of identity,” she says.

“We’re told that you’re going to have this baby and you’re going to love this baby and your life is going to be complete.

But no one is talking about the fact that it’s normal for women to grieve the loss of their old lives, Sara says.

“We’re only allowed to talk about the joys of having a baby, not the parts where you kinda want to quit today or send this baby back for a couple days. Because every single new mom has those thoughts. We’re just not posting them on social media.”

Sara B
Sara Beckel is a certified labour and post-partum doula with more than a decade experience.

There’s even a name for this period: “matrescence,” which refers to the identity shift that happens in women when they become mothers.

(Canadian writer Leah McLaren wrote a beautiful and impactful article about matrescence, which was published last month by Today’s Parent.)

Matrescence is common but problematic, says Kayla Huszar, a Regina-based social worker who deals primarily with women in pre- and post-partum phases of life.

(Kayla’s practice focuses on using creative outlets for therapy and she offers many cool services for new moms. Learn more.)

“What I hear from moms is that they just lose themselves,” she says.

There are a couple reasons for this, in her opinion. First, she believes that new moms often put the needs of their child before their own and have anxiety around making time for themselves.

“They express to me that they want to take care of themselves but something stops them and it’s often anxiety related,” she says.

She says women are also conflicted about what they should be doing versus what they want to be doing.

“We get mixed messages, like ‘it’s OK to go back to work, but you really should take 18 months.’ Or, ‘we support you either way, but why wouldn’t you take 18 months?’”

“Navigating that can be very difficult.”

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Kayla Huszar is a Regina-based social worker who deals primarily with women in pre- and post-partum phases of life and who uses expressive art therapy as a therapeutic tool.

Isolation

Another very common theme for new moms is that of isolation, which goes hand in hand with matrescence.

Today’s new moms just do not have the same levels of support as they did in previous generations, Kayla says.

“We live in a world where the village doesn’t exist anymore. We don’t always live close to parents or friends and family and we haven’t always created close knit communities for ourselves as adults.”

And even if you have supports available to you, many women feel uncomfortable asking for and/or accepting help, she says.

“You might have support available to you but you’re not accepting it because it’s seen as weakness for us to accept help. We wonder, ‘why can’t I do this on my own?’ ”

Further complicating the isolation is the fact that we feel we can’t complain, Kayla says.

“Loneliness also comes from society not being OK with women complaining or having negative emotions. We are told to ‘cherish’ this time.”

“The truth is that it’s hard and it’s hard to do by yourself, if your partner is working or you don’t have support close by.”

This feeling of isolation can lead to further complications, such as post-partum anxiety and depression, Sara says.

“I think isolation is a huge factor. Maybe some women wouldn’t  feel as stir crazy if they felt they were involved in a strong community where they could meet their social needs. Loneliness and isolation just adds to the underlying feeling of loss of self or temporary loss of career.”

How to prevent these problems?

In theory, it’s really quite simple, Kayla says.

“Keep doing the things you love. That’s the message across the board for anyone experiencing anxiety or depression.”

For me, that meant continuing to work (I am lucky to have a job I love). But for others, that could mean joining a support group, hanging out with other moms, playing team sports, or continuing to do the same social activities you did before your baby was born.

“Just get out and find your people,” Kayla says.

In practice though, she admits it can be harder to manage logistically.

“I’ve been telling myself to go to aquasize for three years now,” she laughs. “So I understand there’s all kinds of limitations.”

“But you just need to start somewhere. Moms don’t love to hear this part but there are likely pockets of time in the day to do the things you love.”

In other words, make time for self-care and make time for you.

Guilt

The idea of continuing to do the things you love, or that make you feel normal and productive, seems intuitive.

So why don’t more women just do it?

I think a big part of it is guilt. Most days when I’m typing away on my laptop, I ask myself one or all of these questions: Should I be with my baby now instead of working? Am I a bad mom? Is she missing me? Am I affecting our bond by not being with her right now? Am I selfish?

And the questions continue hahahaha.

These feelings are normal, Sara says, but here are a few things to remind yourself when these feelings start arising.

We know that having a primary child care provider at home during the early years is very important for childhood development, but we also know that doesn’t always have to be a full-time mom.

“Ideally it’s a parent but at the end of the day if the mom isn’t happy and healthy we don’t have healthy children,” she says. “If you’re miserable and inattentive and angry about being there, those things really do affect baby development.

“So it’s really important for moms to make decisions to make sure they’re feeling healthy, over and above what they think they’re supposed to do.”

In her own experience returning to work after her son was born, Kayla says one of the valuable things she learned was making a distinction between quality versus quantity when it came to time spent at home.

“You can still work and be a part of your child’s life – it’s how present are you when you’re with them. Quality time for a child is twenty minutes, not three hours. By all means do the three hours if you can but for a busy working mom they just need twenty minutes when you walk through the door.”

Some other considerations: 

So many people told me that continuing to work after having a baby was a terrible idea because my brain wouldn’t work the same as it once did so I was kinda expecting this to happen.

But my experience was quite the opposite.

First, I think that exercising my mental muscles keeps them sharp. You have probably heard of “mom brain” – the concept that moms are forgetful/absentminded after having babies.

(There are many conflicting views on whether or not this is a real concept. Here’s an interesting article about this.)

What I think is indisputable is that being overwhelmed and sleep deprived (which is almost certain to happen after having a baby) does impact your brain function. But in my case that’s why it was even more important to keep working. Working for me is exercise for my brain (and I love exercise in all its forms). I truly believe this helped me better deal with “mom brain.”

But here’s what really surprised me. Having a baby motivated and energized my work!

I think there are two reasons for this.

First, increased levels of serotonin support creativity. Because my work is creative (as all work can/should be) I felt like I was able to approach it from new perspectives.

Second, I think probably more specifically because I had a daughter, I now feel more inclined than ever before to set a good example for future generations of women, to show them that we can do work we’re proud of and be examples of the forces we want to be in the world.

***

Disclaimer

I realize that my situation is unique. The type of work I do allows me to work from home and set my own schedule (to some degree). I am also incredibly lucky to be able to hire help to come into my home to allow me time each day to focus on my work.

Finally, I realize many women WANT to take time off work to have a full maternity leave experience. That is wonderful and I fully support and admire those women.

My intent with this article is just to tell women to consider exploring or creating new options for themselves. And you might be surprised how open others are to helping you make these options work. My current employers have been incredibly accommodating and flexible with my situation.

Most importantly, I encourage you to do what feels right for you and your family and not feel guilty about it (or at least try not to hahahaha).

–Delaney