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I was just starting to make (a small amount of) money as a freelance writer when I found myself holding a positive pregnancy test in my hot little hands. The pregnancy was far from planned, but I was in a healthy relationship, on the cusp of a lucrative writing and editing career, and I just knew — in a way that is often romanticized but is, at least in my experience, very real — that I could be the mom my future child would deserve without giving up the things that mattered most to me — namely, my career.
And for the most part, I turned out to be right. I continued to work throughout my rather difficult pregnancy. Thanks to the freedom working-from-home provided me, I never felt awkward or bad about taking a break to go throw up in my private bathroom when morning sickness (a cute name for something that lasts all f*cking day) was at its worse, or indulging in an afternoon nap when the first-trimester exhaustion was simply too much. When I was at my best, I could schedule meetings or conduct interviews (at least during the hours when I had the most energy and the least amount of nausea). Plus, I didn’t have to worry about coworkers or bosses finding out about my pregnancy before I was ready to discuss it.
But the ability to continue to financially provide for my soon-to-be family of three, and the chance to continue to create essential professional connections and industry relationships that could prove fruitful in the future, also hindered on my ability to continue working. There would be no maternity leave, paid or unpaid. I didn’t have a coworker I could divide work obligations with, or a department I could delegate assignments to. Whether or not I became successful, at least in my mind, relied on my ability to keep working, come hell or a brand new baby.
In other words, I was at a pivotal point in my career, so taking time off to have a baby just didn’t feel like an option for me, at least not one that was worth the downsides.
So I worked. I filed two articles the day I came home from the hospital with my 6lb, 12oz baby boy. I didn’t take a single day off when I was postpartum, and while, at the time, I considered this “look at me, having it all” mindset a badge of honor, looking back, I can’t help but cringe.
I don’t know if I would do things differently if I could go back (like so many woman, I don’t believe my financial situation would have allowed me to do things differently anyway), but I can say that I did learn a lot — for better or for worse — when I didn’t take any time off after having a baby, including the following:
Just because you can do it all, doesn’t mean you should have to
People who choose to become parents, by giving birth or by any other means, are badasses. It’s especially impressive given the lack of institutional support afforded to moms and people who can get pregnant, especially Black moms and moms of color. When we live in a country that doesn’t mandate paid maternity or family leave, that doesn’t offer affordable child care, and allows moms to be paid less than dads (and let’s not even get started about healthcare) raising children is nothing less than herculean.
And still, moms are raising the next generation while running for local, state, and federal office, starting their own businesses, creating art and music and movies, and doing it all while handling the majority of the household responsibilities.
But just because we can, that doesn’t always mean we should have to. Could I write three articles, conduct two interviews, and attend three separate virtual meetings while a newborn was either attached to my hip or my boob? Sure, but I shouldn’t have had to. No one should. I deserved to focus on only two things: myself and my baby. And, honestly, in that order whenever possible.
Motherhood does not equal martyrdom
Initially, I entirely equated my worth as a mother with how much of myself I was giving and how much I was able to accomplish as a result. I was running on only an hour of sleep? Great! That must mean I’m a great working mom. I feel overwhelmed and burnt out? Fantastic! That means I am giving every single part of myself to my baby, my business, and my partner. That’s the goal, right? That’s what us moms should be doing, day in and day out, for the rest of our baby-making lives?
I’m sure you already know this, but: I was incredibly wrong.. As the postpartum period went on, I quickly realized that killing myself in the name of motherhood would not, in fact, make me a better mom. Instead, it made me a tired, impatient, angry, and eventually, depressed and anxious mom.
Contrary to the social messaging moms have been bombarded by since always, the willingness to constantly self-sacrifice does not a mom make. Do we give up certain things for certain periods of time, and, yes, sometimes always, when we have kids? Sure. But those sacrifices should not come at the expense of our mental, emotional, and physical health.
My feeling that I was supposed to be utterly depleted as a sign that I was succeeding was not only wrong, it was massively undeserving me, my career, and my kid. Great. It’s so fun when literally no one wins.
Birth is traumatic (even when it’s not) and our bodies need to heal
True story: I kept those life-changing postpartum underwear hospitals give out to new moms. It’s been almost six years since my son was born, and every now and then I’ll throw those bad boys on and revel in the comfort those giant panties provide. They’re like clouds for my nether regions.
They’ve also served as a reminder of just how physically painful the postpartum phase can be — and I don’t mean emotionally. It is physically very painful. Whether you gave birth vaginally or via c-section, you’re going to be bleeding, you’re going to be sore, and you’re going to need to rest. While unrealistic movies and the royal family will have you think otherwise, you don’t walk out of the hospital looking unpregnant. Hell, you look very much pregnant still, and you don’t walk so much as you gingerly shuffle your way towards whatever vehicle will take you home — a ride that is as anxiety-inducing as it can be physically excruciating.
Even just sitting up and typing on a computer was physically exhausting. I needed time to rest, but I didn’t feel as if I could take that time without sacrificing my career or my finances. But holy hell, did my body need it.
Big plans are great, and flexibility is better
I had my postpartum life so immaculately choreographed. I took into account countless deadlines and virtual meetings; I considered research time and breastfeeding sessions; I calculated how much work I could get done on X amount of sleep, then scheduled out my working life for the next six months.
Two days in, my perfectly planned postpartum experience went to absolute shit. Because of course it did.
Planning is great, and I will even admit that the allusion of a plan can be comforting. But when that plan is thrown out the window, learning how to adapt and be flexible is vital.
Dads don’t do enough
I’m saying it. I’m not sorry about this. Yes, I’m sure your man is different. Sorry, dudes. Granted, as a group, you tend to be more involved in your kids’ lives than at any other point in our nation’s history, and more of you are even staying at home to take care of your kids full time, but in my not-so-humble opinion, it still isn’t enough. I consider my parenting partner pretty progressive as far as cisgender men go, but there were times when it was obvious that he wasn’t engaging because he knew that I could, and would, handle myself whatever he didn’t do.
What I needed wasn’t to have to instruct him on every little thing. I needed my partner to anticipate my needs, not because he could read my mind but because it was just so obvious that certain things around the house needed to be done. He should have been doing more of the laundry, more of the cooking, cleaning the baby bottles and the breast pump, and taking care of the “little” things that are hardly little when they start adding up, so I could spend more time working and caring for our baby. I needed him to schedule the wellness checks for our son, know the signs for postpartum depression and anxiety as well as I did, and consider the day-to-day aspects of our lives as frequently as I did.
Does this mean I hate him for not doing this? Of course not. I’ve just finished recounting all the ways my wrong thinking and bad strategies did me wrong after my kid was born. We’re all human; we fail ourselves and we fail each other. But still, facts are facts, dads can always do more to support their working mom partners.
There’s more than one way to bond with your baby
I didn’t have a “golden hour” with my son after he was born. The birth was complicated and traumatic, and the labor and delivery room was filled with no fewer than 20 people. I didn’t have the opportunity to enjoy very many “quiet moments” with my son at home, either. I started working the moment I walked through the door, stopping only to change his diapers, change my diapers (postpartum life is so glamorous), and breastfeed. My son didn’t dominate my mental headspace, as I was also worried about X number of deadlines and Y number of pitches, emails to editors and interview with sources.
But that didn’t mean I lost out on the opportunity to bond with my son. I worked, yes, but I worked with him. He was always there, during every meeting and interview, every late-night writing session and last-minute project. I worked throughout his infancy, and I have continued to work through every other milestone of the years of his life since then.
So while there are things I wish I could go back and do differently, and institutional support systems that I believe all parents desperately need that would make the postpartum period, regardless of what it looks like, easier, I don’t regret working after I had my son. At the very least, I can safely say I learned a lot in a very short period of time.
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