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The Truth About Maternity Leave

By nature, Denise Salt is a take-charge kind of person. A legal assistant in Phoenix, AZ, Salt is competent and confident on the job. "At work, I can handle everything. I can fix everything. I'm in total control," she says.

But now at home, on the last day of her four-month maternity leave, Salt is feeling humbled. Her time with baby Alec wasn't at all what she'd expected it to be. "I thought this baby would come out laughing, happy all the time. I had our days all planned," she says. Salt fantasized about taking her baby for leisurely trips to the grocery store, then preparing gourmet meals while he cooed and giggled nearby. She pictured herself nursing peacefully, then lying down to rest while Alec dozed in his bassinet. As much as she likes her job, Salt looked forward to four uninterrupted months of what seemed like the ultimate vacation: time off with her first baby.

"I didn't have a clue!" she says now. In reality, Alec was a colicky infant who didn't like going to the grocery store -- or anywhere else. Instead of getting dressed up for outings and napping between feedings, Salt lived in baggy sweats and hopped from one baby chore to the next. "There were days when I didn't even brush my teeth until four in the afternoon," she says. Instead of feeling competent, Salt often felt frustrated and hopeless. But on the eve of her return to work, is she ready to give up the structureless days and numbing routine of baby care and embrace the comforting predictability and sense of accomplishment she gets from her job? Well...

"I'm miserable," Salt says, only half kidding. While she is looking forward to getting out of her sweats and focusing on something other than spit-up and dirty diapers, Salt dreads saying good-bye to her infant son each morning. Challenging though it was, her maternity leave went by too quickly. Now that it's over, Salt wonders, "Why didn't anyone tell me what maternity leave would really be like? If I'd had a more realistic picture, maybe I could have relaxed and enjoyed it more."

Salt isn't the first woman to be surprised -- and overwhelmed -- by the tough realities of life with a newborn, of course. A lot of rookie mothers find that their job skills and organizational abilities are of little help during those first months at home with a baby. They have big plans that never materialize (using their time off to refinish furniture, learn to play tennis, start an elaborate baby book) and problems they never anticipated (breast infections, babies who don't sleep, husbands who do sleep).

"For women who are used to having a lot of structure in their jobs, staying at home with a new baby is a real shift," says Pamela Suraci, a family counselor in Santa Cruz, CA. Since newborns have no real schedule, the unpredictable days and nights can drive a new mother bonkers. "You never know when you're going to sleep. Getting a meal can be a real challenge. And all of a sudden, you feel incompetent," Suraci says. "This tiny bundle that you've waited so long for can really throw you for a loop."

Being home also has its rewards: Seeing your baby wrapped in a hooded towel for the first time will make you squeal with joy; rocking him to sleep in your arms will fill your soul. But along with the highest highs you'll ever feel may come some of the lowest lows. Perspective, however, comes only after you've lived the experience. So we asked experts as well as veteran moms to share their advice and hard-won wisdom on how to make the most of your maternity leave.

Working on Relaxation

PROBLEM: "I started maternity leave before my due date, but I can't relax and enjoy it."

While many moms-to-be prefer to work up until the end, saving their precious leave for after the baby arrives, others like having a few days or weeks at home before delivering. Still, many women don't find this time off as restful and satisfying as they expected. Randi Davis, a materials engineer in Raleigh, NC, spent the first several days of her maternity leave "on edge" after her obstetrician recommended that she stop working. "It was hard to rest with so much to be done," says the mother of twins Katherine and Kristen. Philadelphia public relations executive Betsy Amoroso, who took three weeks off to rest and spend time with her husband before giving birth to her son, A.J., echoes the sentiments of many women: "I was uncomfortable and tired of being huge. I just wanted the baby to come," she says. "I should've appreciated that time more."

ADVICE: Don't beat yourself up about feeling anxious. How else could you feel with the baby's birth just around the corner? The key is to use that nervous energy to prepare for your new life: Cook double portions of meals and freeze half for later. Pack your overnight bag for the hospital, review what you learned in your childbirth-education class, and visit the maternity ward so you'll know what to expect during labor and delivery. Spend time finishing that alphabet stencil in the nursery, washing and folding the baby clothes, and making sure you have all the supplies you'll need.

Work on relaxing, too: Go for a daily walk, practice the visualization and deep-breathing techniques taught in childbirth class, and "take a few minutes each day to think positively about the birth, your baby, and your family," says Debra Pascali-Bonaro, owner of Mother-Love, a postpartum-care service in Westwood, NJ. And although you may tire of hearing it, enjoy this time while you can. Indulge in sleep, movies, and "last-chance" romantic dinners with your husband.

Child Care Management

PROBLEM: Caring for a newborn is a job that never ends. I am overwhelmed!"

When Jennifer Louden's first child, Lillian, was born, Louden expected to "take care of my colicky newborn, finish writing my book, exercise, have sex with my husband, keep my house clean, and make it to a friend's wedding -- all within the first few weeks," says Louden, author of The Pregnant Woman's Comfort Book. Needless to say, most of these things didn't happen. Adds Leslie Bazer, a new mother and high school teacher in Hicksville, NY: "Because I wasn't working, I had this expectation that I'd be able to take care of the baby around the clock. But there were times when I'd just hand my son, Oren, to my husband and say, 'I cannot deal with this.'" On top of everything else, parenting is a job that first-time mothers don't have any experience with -- even veteran moms are rattled when they bring a new baby into a household that they've worked hard to fine-tune. "It's overwhelming," admits Carmen Thomas, a Knoxville, TN, financial administrator who gave birth to her second child, David, in October.

ADVICE: Don't overestimate what you can realistically get done. Write down everything you hope to accomplish during your maternity leave, in addition to taking care of your baby (housework, laundry, grocery shopping, cooking, gardening, organizing closets, volunteering for the church fund-raiser, and the like). "It's sobering for a woman to sit down and look at her expectations, to get them out in the open," says Louden, who leads workshops for new mothers. "Most of us end up amazed at how hard we are on ourselves." When you're through making your list, ask yourself: "Who is it I'm trying to please with these expectations?" "Where do the expectations come from?" "How realistic are they?" Sort through your answers, then try to eliminate as many of the entries as possible from your list. Do you really have to work on the flower beds next month, for example? Remember, your number one -- perhaps your only -- priority right now should be to take care of yourself and your new baby.

Of course, some chores can't be overlooked. That's why asking for help is vital. So sit right down and make another list -- this one of things you do each week, including laundry, grocery shopping, cooking, and stopping at the bank, dry cleaner, and post office. For each entry, "try to think of someone who might assume that task for you," suggests Pascali-Bonaro. Even if you can't think of any potential helpers, keep the list by the phone. Every time someone calls to congratulate you and asks, "What can I do?" give that person a job. "People actually feel better when they're helping out," says Pascali-Bonaro. "You can do the same for them when they need it."

If you can afford it (or if your relatives or coworkers want a great gift idea), consider hiring a baby nurse or postpartum doula. For a daily fee of $135 to $175, a nurse will help you learn breastfeeding and infant-care basics while assisting with the baby. A doula is there to nurture you so that you can focus on your newborn. Light housekeeping, cooking, and running errands are included in a doula's fee of $15 to $25 an hour. (Your doctor or local hospital should be able to recommend private baby nurses. To find a doula in your area, contact Doulas of North America at 206/324-5440.)

Getting Organized

PROBLEM: "I can't stand how unpredictable my days are. I never get anything done."

Since working women often depend on detailed itineraries, the unpredictability of a baby's schedule can be exasperating. "I had no sense of what Oren would do," Leslie Bazer says. "I'd put him down for a nap and get ready to take a shower, then he'd cry five minutes later." Betsy Amoroso encountered similar difficulties: "I'd plan to give A.J. a bath, feed him, play a little bit, and take a walk," she says. But on many days, Amoroso managed only to keep A.J. fed and changed while she fielded congratulatory phone calls and hosted well-meaning visitors. "There was no routine. It was a struggle to find some normalcy in our day," she says.

ADVICE: Career women are accustomed to being organized, in control, and on schedule. "Babies aren't like that," says Janet Hyde, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin. "Once you realize that you can't control and predict everything they do, you'll be better off." So go with the flow: Shift into low gear and let the baby call the shots. Enjoy what's happening rather than worrying about what's not. "Who cares if you don't shower until noon?" Amoroso says. "You're with your baby, and that's what's important."

While you're taking care of your little one, don't neglect yourself. Follow your doctor's instructions for postpartum recovery, eat well, and drink lots of fluids. And although you'll be tempted to use your baby's naptime to do work around the house, don't. Experts and experienced moms agree: Sleep when the baby sleeps. Napping is not a luxury -- it's vital to your health. (Remember, a generation ago new mothers stayed in their hospital beds for up to two weeks after giving birth.)

It's also important to get tough with callers and visitors. It may seem rude, but the last thing you need right now is a lengthy chat with your Aunt Gertrude and a constant parade of well-wishers. Instead, record information about the baby on your answering machine. "So often the caller just wants to know if the baby is a boy or a girl, when she was born, how much she weighed, and so on," Pascali-Bonaro says. Also keep a bathrobe and a pair of slippers next to the door. Even if a new mom insists on getting dressed and wearing makeup, slipping on the robe and slippers before visitors arrive is a must. "If you look wonderful, they're more likely to hang around all afternoon," Pascali-Bonaro explains. "If they see you in a bathrobe and slippers, they won't stay as long."

Handling Seclusion

PROBLEM: "I'm not used to being home all day, and I miss having adult conversations."

It's nice when you don't have to leave the house, but being cooped up for days on end can drive you crazy. "I was surprised by how much I missed the people at work during my last maternity leave. I had a bad case of cabin fever," says Nancy Smith (not her real name), a computer programmer in Rochester, MN, who's expecting her second child this month. "I'm looking forward to this baby, but I'm not looking forward to the isolation and loneliness."

ADVICE: Joining a mother's group will provide support, a network of new friends, and an excuse to get out of the house. To find a group, check the bulletin board at your pediatrician's office, nearby hospital, supermarket, or house of worship, or call local parenting centers or community organizations, such as the YWCA or the parks and recreation department.

Also get together with friends you may not have seen since they disappeared from the working world: stay-at-home moms. Since these women are all old hands at the new-baby drill, they'll empathize with you about the challenges of motherhood and steer you toward infant-friendly meeting places. A park where the baby can nurse and sleep to his heart's content gets a thumbs-up. A downtown bistro where the wait for a table is an hour and businesspeople shoot your baby icy looks is an invitation to disaster.

Don't underestimate the value of a stroll around your neighborhood or a drive through a park or nature preserve in your area. While some infants are too fussy for an extended shopping trip or an afternoon matinee, babies enjoy fresh air and need a change of scenery. Getting out of the house is also a good way to stay in touch with co-workers. So drop by the office with your new baby if that's in keeping with the corporate culture, or meet colleagues elsewhere.

Finally, when the planning and maneuvering required to get Baby from point A to point B before he becomes hungry or fussy cease to be worth the effort, give it up. More and more, new mothers are discovering the beauty of the Internet for social interaction. If you're online, use your browser to search for parenting news groups, chat rooms, or web-site message boards. Some are even geared specifically to working moms.

Returning to Work

PROBLEM: "My leave is almost over. How will I ever be able to part with my baby?"

In spite of all the challenges maternity leave may present, many new mothers are sad when it comes to an end. "Even with three months off, I felt the clock ticking after my son, Spencer, was born," says Victoria Brock, a technical writer in Albany, NY. Before delivering her second child, Elliot, in March, Brock vowed to take off six months instead of three. "The only regret I have about my maternity leave with Spencer is not having more time with their new baby, so returning to work is often more difficult than they expect. In a recent University of Wisconsin study of 570 new mothers, half said that they wish they'd taken a longer leave. "For that reason, I advise women to take the longest maternity leave they can possibly afford to take," says Janet Hyde, who led the study. Think about it: You can always cut your leave short, but extending it often proves difficult.

ADVICE: If possible, ease back into your job with shorter days or a three-day workweek at first. It helps to leave your baby with her father, a grandparent, or a trusted family friend until you're settled in at the office, according to family counselor Pamela Suraci. "Do anything you can to make yourself feel better about the transition," she says. "If you have any flexibility in your job, take advantage of it."

Above all, recognize that leaving your baby will be difficult, emotionally as well as logistically (see "Back-to-Work Countdown"). To prepare yourself, try to picture what dropping her off at daycare and returning to work will be like. "It sounds like a great idea to just put it out of your head. And yeah, you shouldn't dwell on the separation so much that you don't enjoy your maternity leave," says Suraci. On the other hand, being caught off-guard by the drama of the situation will do you more harm than good.

Realizing that parting with Alec would be heartbreaking, for instance, Denise Salt wisely put her son in daycare a few days before she returned to work so that she could practice dropping him off and being away from him for a few hours each day. So how did she do on her first day back on the job? "I cried, of course," Salt says. "But I have to admit, it is kind of nice to get back to my old life."

Annette Spence is a contributing editor of BabyTalk and the mother of two boys in Knoxville, TN.

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