And certainly not a paid one for me.
I live in the US, which means there is no mandatory parental leave. If you’re lucky enough to work for a large company like I am, they have to honor FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) which entitles you to 12 weeks of unpaid leave and job safety during that time. They can’t fire you, but they also don’t have to pay you. At my workplace, there is no “maternity/parental leave.” I work for a company that has been in business for a couple of decades and has around 500 employees. No paid parental leave. What they offer employees is six weeks of short-term disability through a third-party. The catch is that it’s only actually four weeks paid and at 60%. The other catch? It maxes out at $800 per week. Now, my company is mostly a technology company, so this would only be 60% of pay for a very small number of employees as most are paid a higer salary. For me, it worked out to be less than 40% of my weekly pay—and let’s remember I only got it for FOUR weeks. I’ll leave the serious math out of this, but let’s just say it was a massive financial strain on our family.
I had a horrible pregnancy. I had hyperemesis which provided me with 24/7 debilitating nausea and a few doctor/hospital visits to receive IV hydration. Symphysis pubis dysfunction which means my pelvis separated too much and too early—I couldn’t really walk the last month because I basically was dislocating my pelvis. A failed glucose test and tracking of my blood sugar (through finger pricks) four times daily which included a two-hour fast before each one—obviously counterintuitive to the recommendation to snack every hour to help my nausea. Blown eardrums or at least the feeling of it—I researched this and it’s actually something that can happen during pregnancy due to increased pressure in the body. And the basic other fun pregnancy symptoms.
Labor though? It wasn’t bad. You can read all about that here. I was lucky.
It’s AFTER labor that sucks. I had a second-degree tear. I couldn’t really get out of the hospital bed unaided for a day. And after that, I was pretty slow for a couple of days. Followed by weeks of heavy bleeding and diaper-wearing (plus, spraying warm water down there while peeing and then using Dermaplast to numb it. Cute, right?) No joke, I slept with a towel under me in bed because I was scared I’d wake up to a murder scene. What is rarely talked about is the large, dinner-plate-sized wound inside your uterus from your placenta that is healing. That’s the source of a lot of the bleeding, not just the superficial stuff. So, even without a c-section (shout out to the moms that underwent that major surgery), your body is left repairing a wound bigger than most people have seen in their lives. THIS is a major reason parental leave is important—not just for the birth-giver, but also the support system.
(Oh, and once the lochia—post-partum bleeding—slowed, I got two weeks of freedom before the dreaded first post-partum menstruation. That was just as bad as the post-labor bleeding. And it’s repeated itself for the second period as well. I can’t wait to see what the third is like while I’m back to work. jk. )
After birth, I also developed bilateral carpal tunnel, unexplained knee pain (most likely due to the hormone relaxin that messed up my pelvis), and a jaw that moved enough to start damaging my bottom teeth (same cause as the knee most likely).
And yeah, the sleep deprivation is unreal. For both parents. Imagine getting about 2 hours of sleep per night, and not consecutively. Then, getting up, getting ready, and pushing through a full day of work. Your brain isn’t firing on all cylinders with that lack of sleep, so you’re not a quality employee anyway.
Let me give you a sample of a typical day those first eight weeks. Keep in mind that I was exclusively pumping the first two-to-three weeks and then switched to exclusively formula. This schedule is once I switched to formula because I can’t even mentally go back to those days when this schedule was out of control PLUS pumping every two hours. My mental health wasn’t good and for me (and my clogged ducts), formula feeding was just a better option. Props and shoutouts to the moms that breastfeed/pump and to those that had a c-section. Both of those add even more complexity to this schedule.
(Honestly, I don’t even know what hour to start with because, at that point, we were just living in two-hour increments. Day and night didn’t even matter.)
- 1230am: change diaper/feed
- 1:30am: finally get baby back to sleep
- 3am: change diaper/feed
- 3:45am: give baby gas drops because he won’t stop screaming and we’ve tried everything else
- 4:15am: finally get baby back to sleep
- 5:30am: change diaper/feed
- 7am: finally get baby back to sleep (or not)
- 7:05am: change MY diaper
- 8:30am: change diaper/feed
- 9:30am: make coffee while the baby screams in the other room (or send dad for a coffee run while he was still on leave)
- 9:45am: shovel whatever bit of food I can find around the house
- 11am: change diaper/feed
- 12pm: pray that the baby will fall back asleep so I can maybe eat lunch.
- 12:15am: change MY diaper
- 1:30pm: change diaper/feed
- 1:50pm – 3:30pm: walk around the house with the baby strapped to me in a carrier while he screams and pray that he stops screaming.
- 3:45: gas drops
- 4pm: change diaper/feed
- 5pm: think about making dinner while the baby sleeps, but the baby probably doesn’t actually sleep.
- 5:15pm: change MY diaper
- 5:30pm: order food or scrounge something together to eat
- 5:30-630pm: It’s a blur. Maybe ate something if we had it at home, or just waited for food delivery
- 6:30pm: change diaper/feed baby
- 6:30-9pm: take turns walking around the house with the crying baby hoping he’ll chill out. One person washes and makes bottles. Other administers gas drops.
- 9pm: baby falls asleep when it’s time to eat
- 9:05pm: change MY diaper
- 9:15pm: baby wakes up very angry that he missed his time to eat. Change diaper/feed
- 10:30pm: baby falls asleep
- REPEAT the above
What the above is missing the things that are insanely unpredictable with a newborn. Mostly which just consists of the baby screaming for who knows what reason and not sleeping when you think they should. Oh, and notice that there are no showers in there. Some days I found a way to make time, a lot of days I didn’t. Also, there are no bathroom breaks (beyond the changing of my diaper sometimes), snacks, binge-watching a TV show, napping, or even time to do shitty household chores like dishes or putting laundry away.
When my fiance went back to work after four weeks, I was sad. I cried the night before in bed. I was going to be alone. Not that I couldn’t handle it, it was more that I was going to be lonely. And I was. That schedule up there? I was doing it alone. No one to tag in, to talk to, to back me up if I needed a break to pee, doze off for a few minutes, or was just losing my mind from the constant crying. No one to laugh with at the cute little noises the baby made. Just me (well, and my dog. And she was a lifesaver during those days, even if she did add a level of needy to it all.) I was exhausted—mentally and physically. I was slightly resentful. But I was also so happy to get that time with my precious boy.
And that leads me to the emotional and bonding needs that are imperative those first few months. Honestly, it’s a serious topic all of its own, so I won’t dive into it and all of the studies showing that this time together has lifelong effects. But know that I’m about to send my infant off to daycare at 12 weeks old and I feel like we still need more time.
And yeah, it got a bit easier. But honestly, really only the last few weeks. He is sleeping a bit better at night and we’re getting longer stretches. We sort of understand what he needs and he’s less frightened of the world of around him so he’s happier. He’s smiling, which is just soul-warming all around. He’s less fragile and can hold his head up a bit. So, it does get better. But it’s still the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
Tomorrow, I start back to work. I work with nice people. I like working, in general. It’s part of my identity and if we get all mystical here, the Capricorn in me thrives on productivity. I like being good at something and helping other people using that skill. I like making money, obviously—and I don’t have a choice.
I have always said I couldn’t be a stay-at-home parent, and I stand by that. That is reserved for a very specific type of human and they are heroes. But would I like the option of working a couple of days a week and raising my children the other? Of course. Unfortunately, that’s not in the cards right now.
I think dropping my son off at daycare tomorrow is going to be harder than I expected. I have the scariest Sunday scaries I’ve ever experienced. Just handing him off to a stranger (I know he’ll be in good hands) to spend more waking hours with him a day than I will makes me sad. What if I miss his first laugh? His first roll? His first crawl? His first step? What if he becomes more attached to those new influences in his life than he is to me? I know that’s selfish because I want him to like his daycare teachers, but these are my real fears.
And listen, I’m lucky. I took the full twelve weeks even though it has put us through financial pain. I planned on taking eight but told work twelve in case I needed it—I did. My fiance had zero leave but used his PTO to take four full weeks off. We were lucky to have him around those really important and hard weeks. Some parents don’t get any leave (and it’s even worse for “non-traditional” families. God, I hate even using that term. Any family counts and fuck anyone or policy that says it doesn’t.) It’s brutal and unfair. The parents need the time. The baby needs that time. And the world needs families to have this time.
So, next time you roll your eyes at someone’s parental leave or call it a vacation, maybe ask them what the experience was really like for them instead? I can guarantee you it was the hardest and most emotional weeks of their life—and far shorter than they felt they needed.