You'll try out new recipes! Update your resume! Sloowww down, Mama. Just getting dressed may feel like an accomplishment. American Baby delivers what to really expect during those precious weeks off.

By baby modeling
September 03, 2014
maternity leave
Credit: Nathalie Dion

When my son Conrad was born on December 30, I imagined that my weeks off from work would be one long Christmas vacation. I'd stay home with the baby for about two weeks, and then plop him in a sling and live out my New Year's resolution to take a yoga class every day. I'd chuck the takeout menus and make home-cooked meals. We'd go to museums and catch the occasional matinee. Maybe I was a little naive, but I thought the time off would be my time -- only I'd have a sidekick, an actual Baby Alive.

The reality was a blur of loving my son, hating my Frankenstein-style cesarean-section scar, nursing during The Early Show, greeting the UPS man in a robe and with greasy hair, nursing during The View, maniacally writing thank-you notes and then never making it to the post office, defrosting frozen lasagna dinners, nursing during All My Children, constantly talking about poop, nursing during Oprah, loading and unloading the dishwasher after friends came by to "help," nursing during Friends reruns, walking for miles until Conrad fell asleep, nursing during The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, and disagreeing with my husband about everything from how much diaper cream to use to why the baby was crying. Calling the doctor. Calling my grandmother. Making the switch to formula. And wondering how the hell I was ever going to get back to work.

It was amazing, even though I never made it to a matinee. Looking back, I wonder why no one told me what I was in for. "What? And spoil your fun?" says my mom. Then, trying to help, she adds, "You can't prepare for the unknown." That's true to some extent, but from one mom to another, I feel it's my duty to let you in on what no one tells you about maternity leave. Take a breath and remember: It will get better.

Maternity-leave misconception #1

I thought I'd start my novel, organize photos, learn to cook...

"Having a newborn stopped me in my tracks," says Andria, a university administrator in Rochester, New York, one of several new moms who confided in me anonymously. "I breastfed, so I did a lot of sitting and nursing. When I wasn't doing that, I was sitting and rocking the baby. I felt I was wasting time, that I should be doing other things." Welcome to the world of high-stakes boredom. There are periods of quiet you may be too on edge to enjoy because you're anticipating your baby will wake up. "Spending eight hours a day on a couch can come as a shock, especially to women who are used to getting so much accomplished during the day," says Jill Wodnick, a doula at Montclair Maternity, in Montclair, New Jersey. Yet it's exactly what you are supposed to be doing.

Whether you're breast- or bottle- feeding, the best way to recover from delivery is to stay off your feet to take pressure off the uterine muscles. And skin-to-skin contact encourages bonding, Wodnick says. "Designate a comfy chair you'll nurse on, and put a basket next to it with wipes, diapers, snacks, and water." Hunker down: You'll be spending a lot of time there.

Lying on a couch with a newborn may sound heavenly to you. And it is. The rub is that after the first month, you'll probably be ready to meet friends for lunch, but your baby's feedings will require you to park it. "My son seemed hungry all the time, and it was overwhelming trying to figure out his schedule," says Robin, an entertainment editor. "I imagined I'd spend my leave perfecting my cooking skills and reading great books. In reality, I was happy when I made it to the supermarket."

Resolve now to shelve scrapbooking and gourmet dinners. Give yourself a break, even on your appearance. Marina, a copywriter in Brooklyn, found herself wearing her "Brest Friend" pillow around her waist all day. "I looked like a cigarette girl from the 1940s," she says. Smokin'!

Maternity-leave misconception #2

I thought I'd love every minute.

"There was a scary time around the middle of the day when I'd realize I still had five more hours before my husband got home and I had no idea how I was going to get through it," says Lucy, an editor in New York City. It's hard to imagine now, but during maternity leave it feels like it's always 4 in the afternoon. You're a little tired and waiting for something to happen, but you're not sure what.

"I had difficulty adjusting to our new schedule, and I felt guilty for not being constantly happy," says Bethany, a registrar at a private school in New Jersey. But think about it. "You're not sleeping, you're getting thrown up on, and your baby may be crying for an hour or more," says Darlene Mininni, Ph.D., author of The Emotional Toolkit. "Many women think, If I don't like this, I must be a terrible mother. No. It means you're normal."

When you have these kinds of thoughts -- and you will -- try to accept that this solitary-mom feeling is as much a part of maternity leave as sleep deprivation. "You may have times when you feel anxious and isolated," says Dr. Mininni, who suggests navigating these moments with an if-then strategy. For example, tell yourself, If I feel overwhelmed, I'll strap my baby into the sling and get some fresh air. Or I'll call a friend to chat or connect with moms online.

You may never get comfortable with afternoons when you have nothing much that you can actually get around to and lots of time on your hands. If you keep a feeding log for your baby, add a column for your own moods. You may notice a pattern to your ups and downs, and once you know your emotional witching hour, you can try different things (a happy playlist?) to make yourself feel better.

Maternity-leave misconception #3

I thought I'd have motherhood nailed halfway through my leave.

When I start a new job, the first few days I feel weird not having anyone to grab lunch with; by two months in, I've got a work husband and the run of the place. The thing that blindsided me most about maternity leave is that it doesn't follow that same progression. Motherhood is more like a corn maze: It starts off as an adventure, and then you get stuck. It can be frustrating or scary or both, and you have to trust your gut to find your way home.

You may not feel confident yet, but resist comparing yourself with other women. "I blame Facebook for this. I would look at friends posting photos of themselves and their babies at the Museum of Modern Art, and that's when I started having expectations of what I should be doing," says Lucy. But every baby (and mom) is different.

There will be plenty of Saturdays to gaze at Van Goghs as your little guy grows, so rather than malign yourself about what you're not doing, view these weeks as an opportunity to make mistakes and relish small triumphs. Conrad was a winter baby, and it took me eight weeks to figure out that he didn't like tummy time because the floor in our apartment was drafty. Every "whoops" moment will get you closer to, "Wow, I know what I'm doing." That was the case for Robin, who realized a whimper didn't mean her son was starving. At 11 weeks, she eased him into a routine. "I started waking him up at 7 a.m. to eat and making sure he finished all his bottles so that he wasn't hungry between feedings," she says. "He fell into the schedule as if it were his natural rhythm."

Maternity-leave misconception #4

I thought I'd never be able to return to the office.

The day I went back to work, Conrad was sick. In a photo my husband took of us, he looks stuffed-up and puffy. I'm trying to smile, but my eyes say it all: I'm not ready. Yet something made me go, something more than the fact that I had to because my husband was out of work at the time. Part of me craved conversation with adults about things that didn't involve bowels. I wanted to wear pretty clothes. And I was excited to introduce my writer life to my new mother life to see if my two passions could get along. "When you become a mom, there's no need to check the rest of your life at the altar of motherhood," says Dr. Mininni. It's okay to still want other things.

One way to prepare: Drop by work -- with or without your baby -- a few weeks before you return. You'll be surprised at how reassuring those cubicles can feel. Bethany visited her office to meet her new boss, who began while she was on leave. "I felt so nervous, like I was starting a new job," she says. "I kept thinking, How am I going to go back? I'm going to miss my son so much. But I was also excited to see everyone, which of course made me feel guilty."

There's no way around it -- you're going to feel guilty. Guilty for leaving home, guilty for wanting to. But when those I'm a terrible mother thoughts creep in, remind yourself that going back to work can make you a better mom, and that parenthood can make you better at your job. I was very surprised by how clear-cut my priorities became. I chatted less with coworkers so I could jet out the door at 5:15 on the nose. I perfected an easy, pretty ponytail that afforded me an extra 10 minutes of cuddling.

And eventually on a sunny Friday, my maternity-leave fantasy came true -- albeit three months late. I came home early from work, plopped Conrad in his baby carrier, and called a friend, and we hit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I fed Conrad at the steps of the Temple of Dendur. And while we sat there next to antiquities unearthed in Egypt, I felt satisfied knowing I'd also made a discovery: I finally figured out how to be a mom.

Originally published in the November 2013 issue of American Baby magazine.

American Baby