It’s over. Tomorrow morning the era of maternity leave ends. And this time it’s different. Every other time I’ve gone back to work safe in the knowledge that another baby is planned, another stint at home beckons, and this isn’t really FOREVER. But now it is! So on the eve of my (less than) triumphant return, and with three-tours under my (wide) belt, here are my Nine Stages of Maternity Leave.
Stage 1. Stressing
The most natural first-time mama’s reaction to a stint of maternity leave is the utterly ridiculous and completely unfounded fear that you’ll have far too much time on your hands and end up bored. Bored perhaps, but time, no chance! Veteran mamas skip this stage having used the hope of another maternity leave like a mental crutch to survive the months or years since the work-home juggling act began. Afterall, all you have to do is squeeze a large child out your vagina and keep it alive and happy forever! Where’s the stress in that?
Stage 2. Pipe Dreaming
Coinciding with the largest pair of under-the-bump maternity trousers coming out from the back of the wardrobe, the pipe dreaming starts.
First comes the beautiful notion that you’re about to go AWOL and likely miss some super stressful work project or deadline; followed quickly by the lovely thought that you’ll have a Christmas / Summer off work.
Second comes a semi-drunk euphoria that has you thinking of all the things you’ll achieve in all this ‘spare time’. On my first baby it was: excellence in the kitchen, a bi-lingual Irish babbling baby and a return to full fitness. Now in fairness the cooking skills improved, but fair to say my mono-lingual child and my lardy post-partum arse spoke to my failure in those other departments. On second and third babies, reality had set in and I aimed to survive and enjoy my leave with as much of my body and soul intact as possible. I abandoned any previously (read: stupidly) published hopes of making the perfect macaroon, or any macaroon for that matter. I did however, manage to eat some macaroons so yay me. I return to work at my most Rubenesque, but having had a really lovely time of it. A real endorsement of that best parenting mantra: aim low.
Stage 3. Preparing
On first babies this stage swings from complete immersion in all classes / facts / articles, or absolute denial that a real baby is moving towards the emergency exit and will, at some point, demand to get out. You clench, massage, manicure, wax and nest. The hospital bag is packed from 36 weeks. Your husband is banned from drinking with a month to go. The TENS machine has three space sets of pads and batteries.
Not so for subsequent deliveries. Around the 38-week mark, ‘vaginal veterans’ clench those pelvic floor muscles while picking up a toddler, an open carton of juice and a half eaten pack of raisins, and are delighted to find their pants are still dry. Forgetting what can’t be seen – namely toes and bikini lines, the experienced mama turns her attention to the real issue – who can keep precious other little ones alive and entertained while they squeeze out the newest arrival. Volunteers are rounded up, lists compiled and numbers swapped. Meanwhile, the TENS machine pads are retrieved from the bottom of the toddler’s toy basket and absolute faith is placed in the almost scientific fact that if you rub and shake dead batteries they come straight back to life.
Stage 4. Delivering
The much heralded arrival comes in to the world. You meet your new boss in a haze of fluffyness. You fall in love with father and baby all over again. And you get tea and toast. You are simply a Goddess. From texts, to cards, to flowers and dinners, you are surrounded by feel good loveliness and swim in a sea of oxytocin. There is a beautiful window of opportunity where it’s acceptable to talk about your cervix to anyone who will listen – and also to your Dad. The window is small.
As the haze lifts, the weeping starts. Tears. milk, sweat, lochia and all sorts seep from your swollen body. This is a stage defined by all-over dampness. Your only friends are the mega-pregnancy knickers you once laughed at while dancing around your room. Admittedly a tad snug around the back, they are your only hope of containing those Soviet style maternity pads. They are kind and comfy and – one day, may even be too big for you.
Stage 5. Emerging
On a first baby it can take weeks to leave the house. You worry about feeding in public, and the cleanliness of changing facilities, about parking while the baby cries. On subsequent babies you find yourself stopping to do the groceries on the way to the BCG clinic with the five day old and a few toddlers in tow. A muslin addresses all feeding and changing concerns, and you find parallel parking your family-mega-bus much easier when the baby’s cries drown out the toddler’s roars.
This is a stage where the early maternity wardrobe is to be embraced and – given the overlap with the weeping stage, dark colours are your friend. Top tip: don’t sit on a lightly coloured, fabric covered chair. Just sayin’.
Stage 6. Managing
After a few inevitable ‘will I sink or swim’ moments where you wonder how you will actually manage with a newborn / herd of children, you find your own groove and settle into the new craziness. For endless weeks and months your diary is dominated by check-ups, weigh-ins (them not you), vaccinations and visits. On a first maternity leave you may panic about your lack of ‘you time’ and that fact that you frequently forget what day it is. On subsequent babies you are grateful that the repetition of Groundhog Day means you don’t have to concern yourself with the distractions of the outside world, and that your children think you are really quite great even if you do look like a chipvan driver.
Stage 7. Gambling
Normally this kicks off with the old ‘come on into the office for a coffee and let’s chat about what you’ll be doing’ or a drastically shrinking bank balance. Whatever the trigger, reality dawns and you are forced to admit that maternity leave is a temporary state. A stop-start acceptance of this fact causes you to both confirmation your sketchy childcare arrangements and start doing multi-draw quick picks in the Lotto.
As the reality dawns, and the date approaches, the inevitable conversations play out.
It’s hardly worth me working, is it? You say.
It’ll be fine. He says.
I mean when you put a price on the hassle of getting out everyday, you really have to ask yourself ‘why’? You say.
It’ll be fine. He says.
I don’t think I actually have time to work. You say.
It’ll be fine. He says.
I hate my job. You say.
It’ll be fine. He says.
This stage is ugly. It *may* end with someone placing a laxative in someone else’s dinner. May.
Stage 8. Despairing
In addition to the despair brought on by the return to work, comes a brutal examination of the very important stuff – namely your looks.
When you examine your wardrobe it become patently clear that style, fashion and co-ordination have taken a back seat to comfort; access to breasts; and ability of fabric to be wiped clean. You try a few things on only to swear that they’ve all been shrunk and are of crap quality in the first place. Then there’s the hair. Multi-layers of curly baby hair round the back twinned with a ‘relaxed’ maintenance routine have the old mop in a sorry state. And the skin. Oh, the skin. Between the dark circles, the acne and wrinkles (I mean smile lines), it’s fair to say it’s all seen better days.
Stage 9. Surviving
When all is said and done this is the final stage.
Maybe you head off to work, knowing that another escape plan has been hatched.
Maybe you are happily back in the office – admittedly having forgotten the basics like how to get into the building or to log onto the computer, but you get there. You embrace the return to work, the finished cup of tea, the idea that someone asks for – AND LISTENS to your opinion; the fact that you get a pay-cheque; or simply the joy of not being informed when colleagues have done a poo.
Now, I’m not going to lie to you. I’m not in the mood to accept that in less than 12 hours I’m back to being a working mama. I’m looking for a last minute repreive. I reckon have two choices. Either I announce a hidden pregnancy – the kind you read about in the Daily Mail, and quickly start to act like a small head is actually about to pop out my vagina; or I check my numbers and see if that one-in-a-lifetime cancellation of last night’s Lotto draw was to my advantage.
Either way, wish me luck.