Oh, the plans I had for my maternity leave. All the friends I was going to visit. All the books I was going to read while my baby napped peacefully in her bassinet, not to mention movies and new-parent groups.
But by the time I figured out what was available in my area, what to pack in the diaper bag, and how to time a trip so I wouldn't wind up with a crying, wet baby in a no-diaper-change zone, maternity leave was over. So, my pregnant friends, my advice is to get it together before Baby shows up, so you can actually enjoy part of your leave! Here's what I wish I'd done.
Take it from me, the know-it-all who thought six years of parenting journalism was all I needed to get through the first weeks with a newborn. Line up your help, and play to each person's strengths. For example, my mother was great at grocery shopping and cooking, but virtually useless when it came to waking up at night for a feeding. My friend Pete was great at entertaining me with "Sex and the City" DVDs and keeping me company when I got lonely, but hopeless at diaper changes. Getting help early makes it a lot more likely that you'll feel energized and ready to have fun later on.
My husband and I, fools that we were, thought we could take advantage of my extended time off and head to Europe for a relaxing vacation. The time change wouldn't matter because the baby wouldn't be sleeping through the night anyway. You can guess where this is heading: The farthest we managed to wander was to the corner diner.
The truth? Those first few weeks with a newborn are a shock to everyone's system. You're getting used to being a sleep-deprived, milk-leaking mom; your baby is adjusting to living outside the warm comfort of your womb; and your husband is adjusting to being a dad.
This is not the time to pressure yourself into running around being social or productive. Simply walking around the block can feel like a major accomplishment. That's not to say that you shouldn't make plans; just make sure the fun is on your terms and works for you. That cute little bistro where you and your best buddy used to brunch may be too cramped for a stroller -- don't be afraid to insist on IHOP instead!
Now is not the time to be a shrinking violet! Brand-new parenthood can be lonely, especially after your help has departed and you're facing time alone with a helpless baby. So if you see another pregnant woman at Starbucks every day, strike up a conversation. I made a new friend on maternity leave while standing at a crosswalk. She was there with her newborn, I was there with mine; it turned out we lived in the same apartment complex, and our daughters, who were born two weeks apart, had the same name. We've been friends ever since.
If you're not as outgoing as I am, find out where the new-mom groups meet (your OB-Gyn's office, pediatrician's office, place of worship, or town Web site likely has information) and check out the scene. Groups come in all styles and sizes. That means that if you're a big co-sleeper/breastfeeder type, you may not want to mingle with the strict bedtime, no-snacks-before-dinner supermoms, if you catch my drift.
Another vital issue when it comes to choosing new mommy friends is whether you're planning to go back to work or stay home. Here's the problem: If you're going to stay at home, no matter how much you bond with the working types, you're not going to see each other much once leave is over. So it's best to find a mix of both -- moms you'll see at the playground every day, and moms you can walk with on weekends. Working moms can really benefit from friendships with other working moms because they often have the same schedule and experience similar issues.
You'll need to get dressed and get out of the house, ideally once a day at least, for your own sanity's sake. Scout around and see where other mothers tend to gather, where the best playgrounds for young kids are located, and what other places seem stroller- and child-friendly. The last thing you want to do is schlep your child to a local restaurant or store, only to realize when you get there that it's too cramped for your stroller or too uncomfortable for you to nurse.
For weeks -- pre and postpartum -- I lived in fear of the Baby Bjorn. Never mind that it's hands down the most convenient way to tote a newborn. There are so many straps and buckles, I was afraid I was going to hang myself or that the baby would slip out through a leg hole onto the sidewalk.
The lesson: Try out the gear you fear before you have the baby so you'll have the hang of using it by the time he's arrived. Return any stuff you don't like before you break it or baby spits up on it, whichever comes first.
Here's a tip: It very well might not be the really cute one you've coveted since you conceived. If your bag is uncomfortable, too big (everything settles on the bottom in a jumble), too small (no room to cram in 90 extra wipes), or just impractical (I had one that didn't fit over my stroller straps or my shoulder), getting out and having fun is going to be that much harder; so shop around and compare bags. Keep in mind that you'll need to fit diapers, wipes, a change of clothing for baby, bottles (if you're not breastfeeding), burp cloths, a diaper changing pad, your wallet, keys, and a cell phone at the very least.
Another word on diaper bags: In your postpartum haze, it could take you half an hour to pack it, so fill in supplies as they dwindle, or make a checklist of what you'll need and shove it into one of the bag's pockets. Consult it to avoid stumbling around the house looking for that thing you know you need but can't for the life of you remember.
There's only so much socializing a postpartum body and new baby can handle. On many a day I found myself alone in the house with a snoozing baby, too wired to sleep, but too tired to do anything productive. I would have liked to watch the various movies I'd missed in the theater or read a trashy novel.
The problem was, I had such a bad case of Mommy brain, I couldn't remember the titles of any of those books or movies. Avoid this pitfall by writing down in advance any movies you want to rent, and pick up a bunch of novels at a used book store (I'd tell you to use the library, but I know I probably couldn't get those books back on time, so I wouldn't put that burden on you).
Also jot down any other indulgences you might desire. One friend of mine ordered one of those electronic foot spas; another bought Mad Libs. Whatever form of entertainment you crave, making it easy to access assures that you'll really enjoy those precious moments you have to yourself.