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Your Essential Guide to Maternity Leave

I wrote this 10 step guide to help new moms feel a little less overwhelmed, and a little more in control of their postnatal life.

Childbirth lasts one day (hopefully!), but motherhood is forever. This guide is here to help you prepare for the forever part.

Here are the 10 things you need to know and do as you prepare for your maternity leave.

#1 Negotiate your Leave and Request the Longest Leave Possible

First, breathe. You’re not required to tell your employer that you’re pregnant immediately. Use the first few months as an opportunity to gather information. Search your intranet to find out how many weeks/months you’re entitled to.

If there’s nothing there, talk to someone in Human Resources. If you know any women who have taken maternity leave within your company, engage them in casual conversation about how much time they took off.

Once you know what you’re entitled to, and you’re comfortable telling your boss that you’re expecting, have a conversation about your leave with a number in mind.

If you know what you’re entitled to, you have stories of other women who took x number of months, and you’ve saved up your vacation days, your boss should have no issue agreeing with your number.

#2 Honor your Leave and Allow Yourself to be Offline Completely

This will involve transitioning all of your work to other colleagues and allowing yourself to be truly unavailable. Work will survive without you for the time being, and you will survive without work temporarily.

Assume that you are going to be completely unavailable for at least the first 6 weeks. Set that boundary up front by telling your boss and colleagues that you won’t be checking your email at all for a certain amount of time.

Yes, setting expectations and boundaries is very uncomfortable. As women, we’re expected to please others, so saying no isn’t something that comes easily to us.

But by doing this in advance, you save yourself the stress of having to deal with work while you’re sleep deprived and adapting to life with a baby. Your colleagues will thank you in the long run.

#3 Prioritize Sleep

How many hours of sleep did you need before pregnancy? This number should be your daily goal. While it isn’t possible to get that much sleep continuously with a newborn, you can start to catch up on your sleep with naps.

Try your best to get your sleep in segments that add up to your pre-pregnancy sleep needs. For example, if you need 9 hours of sleep to feel healthy and energized, perhaps you can sleep from 9-11pm (2 hours), 12-3am (3 hours), 4-6am (2 hours), and take an afternoon nap from 2-4pm (2 hours). Each day will be different, but aim for your sleep goal as your #1 self-care priority.

You might be wondering: How am I going to prioritize sleep with a newborn? One idea is to talk with your partner before the baby is born and ask them if they could do the last feeding of the evening so that you can go to bed early. If you have close friends or family around, ask someone to watch your baby for an hour or two, so that you can nap uninterrupted.

And if you’re unable to sleep, even though you have created these times for rest, you might want to seek out a therapist to support you. Not being able to rest, even when you have time to, can be a sign of postpartum depression and anxiety. And the longer you go without sleep, the more intense your symptoms can become.

As a new mom, the advice “sleep when the baby sleeps,” is more difficult than it sounds. You’ll likely worry about when your little one will wake up. If that’s the case, try resting with your baby close by.

Practicing meditation can be restorative, and you can feel rejuvenated even if you don’t fall asleep. (I promise you’ll have to try really hard NOT to fall asleep if you listen to this relaxing sleep meditation!)

You might find tools like sleep meditation, aromatherapy, earplugs, and deep belly breathing techniques helpful to ease into sleep. Think about what you’ll need to rest well (i.e., dark room, pillow, or earplugs). It might seem excessive now, but allocate areas in your home to rest during the day (i.e., sofa, guest room) and night (your room, the baby’s room).

#4 Talk With Your Partner, Even About the Stuff That’s Hard To Talk About

Taking care of a baby is overwhelming for new moms, as well as for new dads. Try talking about your expectations ahead of time, as a lot of the conflict post baby will be around different opinions about what each other’s expectations are.

For example, as a new mom, you’ll want to know if your partner is willing/able to help you with the last feeding or night shifts. Likewise, your partner will need to know if this is what you are expecting. If you have this conversation, as well as other difficult conversations before baby is born, you’ll save yourself some bickering.

As a new mom, it’s important to remember that your partner still needs to get their basic needs met (like sleep), and that the transition to parenthood will be challenging for them as well. Knowing how much sleep your partner needs to feel functional in a 24-hour period will be helpful.

A conversation that you need to have before the baby arrives is whether your partner will take time off from work right away, or wait until family and friends have gone home. You might prefer to spread out the care, and want your partner to take leave after your relatives depart.

However, if you feel the first few weeks will be the hardest for you, you might want your partner around with your family to have “all hands on deck.”

Below are some questions that you can ask your partner to get the conversation flowing about what life will be like post baby and what you both can expect from each other.

  • Are you taking any type of paternity leave? If so, when will you go back to work?
  • When you are back at work, who will be helping to support me when you are gone?
  • Are you able to work from home at all?
  • What time will you get home most evenings?
  • If you are going to be more than 15 minutes later than expected, will you text me?
  • Will you be waking up at night for bottle feedings or not on work nights? Or will we switch nights?
  • Or if I’m breastfeeding, will you do the diaper changing and burping after I feed the baby?

Remember, you’re on the same team and both adjusting to the demands of your new baby, so be patient with yourself and each other. Sometimes the partner assumes the mom always knows what to do to calm the baby.

This can be a lot of pressure! It’s helpful to remember that when your party is off-duty, to really let the other person rest.

If mom is taking a break, but has to give step-by-step instructions the entire time, this isn’t a real break. This also means that mom needs to let go (if necessary, leave the house) and let her partner learn on their own, and develop their own style of parenting.

#5 Throw Away Your Mile High Expectations

Newborns are adorable and a miracle in their own right. When your baby is born, you will find yourself being in awe of the fact that you created a life!

These moments of awe will come and go, but your first weeks will be consumed by changing diapersgetting your baby to sleep, feeding your baby, and taking care of your most basic needs (shower, food, and sleep).

A good tip is to lower your expectations and to let go of what you believe life “should” be as a parent before the baby arrives. It’s extremely probable that if you believe you “should” be able to go out to dinner at least once a week as a new parent that your greatest challenge as a new parent will be going to a restaurant. If you’re convinced that your baby will be a good sleeper, (because why wouldn’t they?), it’s quite possible that your baby will wake up every hour on the hour.

The less expectations you have as a new parent, the less likely you’re going to feel like a failure, bad mom, or like your baby is “difficult” when things don’t go as planned. For example, there will come a time where you’ll be at your wits end because your baby just…won’t…stop…crying.

After having changed a diaper, fed, and tried to put your baby to sleep, you will have the option to either hope that your baby stops crying, and get more and more frustrated, or just accept the fact that you’ve tried, that there’s nothing wrong with you or the baby, and that you deserve a five or ten minute break before you attempt to calm your baby down. Again. This will get easier with practice. I promise.

Another helpful tactic is to trade expectations for appreciation of what is. Look around, and then ask yourself this powerful question: “what’s not wrong right now?” and write five things down.

Shifting away from your expectations, into appreciation can help flood your body with feel good hormones. And let’s be honest. Doing something other than taking care of your baby’s basic needs and yours will feel like you’ve just run a marathon. And won.

The daily postpartum checklist is also helpful for resetting your expectations. And remember that checking off a single item on the list is a WIN! It might seem ridiculous now, but “just” feeding yourself and your baby for the day can be a jam-packed and exhausting day. If you manage to squeeze in a shower, that’s an amazing postnatal day.

Please give yourself the emotional and mental space for your postpartum experience to be whatever it will be—both positive and negative. Don’t expect life to be anything like it was before you became a mom.

And no matter what happens, you’ll find your new normal in time. You may become a mom overnight, but it takes a while for the rest of your life to catch up.

#6 Find Your Working Mom Tribe

Write down the names of your friends that are already working parents that you see eye-to-eye with, as well as any friends that are pregnant around the same time as you. If none of your friends are parents, or pregnant, “mommy and me” groups, pre and post natal yoga, baby boot camp classes, and breastfeeding groups are a great way to meet new people.

If your pre-baby life is quite hectic, social media also offers you the opportunity to connect with like-minded parents, without having to add more “stuff” to your schedule. You can join the private Wise Mama tribe on Facebook, to jump in on conversations with mamas that share your values.

A great thing to do is to reach out to three of your closest friends and talk with them about how they can best support you after your baby is born. You may even want to send them some version of the following note, or have a similar conversation over tea.

#7 Get Comfortable Asking for Help

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “It takes a village to raise a child.” If you’re not a parent, queue the eye roll. But parents everywhere agree with this saying. As a new mom, you don’t have to do it alone, and it’s very unlikely that your partner or family expect you to.

So when you need help, ask for it. Don’t expect your hubby, family, and friends to be mind readers and know that you’re struggling.

As women, we can feel that asking for help is a weakness, or that we’re not good enough. However, the opposite is true. It shows immense strength and emotional maturity to know your needs and to vocalize them.

All moms who’ve made it through the first year or even the first few months, know how hard it is to care for a newborn. I urge you to reach out to them, even if you don’t know them that well. Just hearing “it will get better,” or “this is just a phase,” is incredibly therapeutic.

Make asking for help a habit by asking someone to help you at least once day. And yes, it’s best to start this today so that you get used to the feelings that arise when you ask for help. It can be uncomfortable, especially if this is a new skill for you.

If you find yourself having an especially challenging time, it can be helpful to review the common symptoms of postpartum mood disorders here, and then meet with a therapist who specializes in maternal mental health.

Postpartum depression is more common than you think, as it affects one in seven women who give birth each year, and can occur anytime in the first year following childbirth. If you find yourself suffering like I did (see my TEDx Talk for the whole story), know it’s not your fault and that you will get better, but please seek professional help immediately. You don’t need to suffer in silence.


#8 Plan For More Help Than You Think You Need

Have you thought about who will do the cooking, cleaning, and laundry once you get home from the hospital? Perhaps you can get your friends and family to cook you weekly meals so that you have leftovers, and have only to reheat your food.

Instead of a baby shower, maybe you can gather your friends for a cook-a-thon, and stuff your freezer with healthy meals that you and partner can have post-baby. Additionally, maybe your parents or in laws can help you do laundry?

If you don’t have a cleaner, maybe it’s time to get one on a weekly rotation. If you don’t have any family nearby or even if you do, think about hiring a postpartum doula for those first few weeks after birth.

It’s vital that you rest and recover from childbirth. Although this process is natural, your body has just created a life, and delivered it (i.e., taken a beating). You wouldn’t run 10 miles the day after completing a marathon, so don’t overdo it after childbirth.

Many women outside of the US are supported post-delivery by their families and communities, and are not allowed to do any housework and chores for the first month. Your family and friends will want to help, but you’ll need to let them know what you need.

To help make being supported by others feel more natural, check out this receiving support meditation. And remember how good it feels to help others. You are not being needy; you are giving others a chance to feel great.

Whether it’s a postpartum doula, night nurse, babysitter, mother’s helper, lactation consultant, house cleaner or chef, find people in your area and make a budget for what you can afford and whom you’d like to hire. Remember, the first few months are the hardest, and this period doesn’t last forever.

So if you need help, get it. The investment in your sanity is worth it. You can checkout out DONA International to find a list of postpartum doulas in your area.

Also, TaskRabbit is helpful for electric needs, and UrbanSitter and are helpful spots to look for babysitters.

#9 Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is such a buzzword these days, it can create all sorts of complicated ideas in our minds. The concept of mindfulness is quite simple in theory, but can be difficult in practice.

Mindfulness is the state of awareness that arises from intentionally paying attention to the present moment, without judgment. Basically it’s a state of mind that arises when you’re actually focused on doing what you’re doing, and not wishing it were different.

Sounds simple, yet, when holding a crying baby, practicing mindfulness can seem out of reach since all we want to do is calm the baby down.

We probably have many thoughts (I just changed the baby’s diaper and fed her. Why is the she crying again? I bet Leslie’s baby doesn’t wail like this, I must be doing something wrong) pulling us away from the direct experience of the sounds the baby is making, the weight of the baby in our arms, the gentle rise and fall of the baby’s chest. When we can practice mindfulness, we hear the baby’s crying, but also remain centered and know that this is the way our baby is trying to communicate with us.

One way to increase mindfulness is to practice meditation, so that you start to train your brain to pay attention to the present moment. One of the most simple meditations you can practice is to pay attention to your breath.

Every time you catch your mind wandering away from the breath (it will!), and you bring your attention back, it’s like a bicep curl for your brain. Repeat these “reps” for a few minutes until you’re ready to end your practice.

Mindfulness also helps to remind us that “this too shall pass,” and “this is only temporary” and these are saving graces for all new moms out there.

#10 Practice Self-Compassion

I must admit that I was extremely skeptical of the power of Self-Compassion and even went as far as to think that it was problematic and self-indulgent. I figured if I was too nice to myself, then I’d let myself off the hook and would never strive to do anything great again. I thought I would become lazy and just settle for “ok.”

The opposite is true.

According to Kristin Neff, a researcher on the topic, Self-Compassion is comprised of three elements: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.

Fostering self-kindness helps us stop judging ourselves too harshly, common humanity helps us realize that life can be tough sometimes, and mindfulness reduces our tendency to exaggerate or ruminate on problems.

In essence, Self-Compassion is the opposite of letting ourselves off the hook, it’s simply looking at our struggles at face value, and then talking to ourselves the way a friend would.