"ENJOY THE BREAK!"
"How is the break going?" "Must be a lovely break"...
Literally what everyone said to me as I finished up in work before popping out Pearl. And I suppose at the time it seemed like it would be a break. A break from long hours, (sometimes) stressful work and office politics.
Still, it's a baby not a cruise. I've determined that anyone who told me to enjoy the break either has no children or was a man with a partner doing all of the heavy lifting.
In my experience no one sleeps as soundly as a new father...who claims not to have heard the baby during the night.
Despite my protests that maternity leave isn't a holiday, I had planned to enjoy it. Maybe write a book, take more time for painting, cook everyday, get fit, lose all the baby weight, go to yoga, swim etc. etc. etc. Having worked in a job with demanding hours, maternity leave seemed to offer much more 'me-time.'
But on Monday I rejoin the world of work after 13 glorious months at home with the baby (who's basically an adult these days with 6 whole teeth!) and I can safely say I've achieved none of these. Maternity Leave hasn't been what I expected.
In fact none of it has.
1. Labour (well not strictly speaking, as I never went into labour. Honestly couldn't tell you what a labour pain feels like.)
Firstly, my scheduled two or three weeks of nesting, rest and relaxation at the start were rudely interrupted when after only five days off from work, Pearl pulled the plug and my waters broke. I knew something wasn't right because instead of squirming and kicking she'd been vibrating all evening. We were half awake in the early hours of Friday 23 June, listening to the Brexit vote results filtering in from various London boroughs. When it became apparent that the British had actually voted for Brexit, I wet myself.
Towards the end of the pregnancy, I was up every 30 minutes or so needing to get to the bathroom so I wasn't surprised. Just irritated. They were clean sheets. I got up, went to the loo and stood frozen to the bathroom floor as the fluid kept gushing. I phoned my Mum (it was 3.30 am but she'd told me to call anytime) and then Holles St. I was a couple of weeks out from the due date and everyone told me she'd be late so I wasn't expecting this.
Three days later she arrived. THREE DAYS! Three long sweaty days in the Holles St holding pen on an antibiotic drip, trying to read the paper while listening to other women screaming in agony, which ended with an unwanted epidural, a failed induction and ultimately an emergency C-section*.
And the itch!
I almost forgot. A reaction to the morphine left me with an all-over itch which deepened every hour. Nothing could scratch it. I couldn't even sleep. I was like a cat, arching and rubbing myself on bedposts and door frames, anything to ease the unbearable itch.
A nurse helped me have my first shower a day later when the epidural had worn off and the catheter was removed. Yep a catheter. And I nearly had to have another one put in when I realised out of the blue that I hadn't peed in two days which is apparently not good. Another nurse had to sit with me in the en-suite bathroom and coach me through going to bathroom. It was as if I had lost the muscles required but she told me they were still there; I just had to learn to reach them again.
I had to lift up my abdomen just to shower the scar. I gingerly felt my lower abdomen and asked her when the layers of wadding and gauze would be removed. She looked at me like I was mad and told me that there was no gauze. It was my own stretched, distorted skin and flab. I had lost all feeling in the area after the operation. It felt like I was poking at someone else. Zero sensation.
I've often thought that if men had C- sections, we'd hear a lot more about it. It's a serious operation. You are sliced open (usually awake) and stitched up afterwards only to be handed a tiny human and told to breastfeed it. And then to look after it for ever. The only pain relief was paracetamol and the occasional Difene. And when they wore off.....FUUUUUCCCKKK. That's the only way to describe the pain.
To spare you further details let me just say that I had pencilled in personal training to begin two weeks after the birth. I was going to a friend's wedding and I thought I was just going to bounce right back to normal! That was unrealistic. A section means no exercises and no driving for 6 weeks. So when paternity leave ends, you're stranded at home alone. Thank God for Dublin Bus! BTW I went to the wedding. I waddled around in a black sack dress, nude Louboutins and an obnoxiously large hat** and made the best of it.
It was a nightmare at first. Torture and tears. (Mostly mine).
Until it wasn't. One Sunday about three weeks in, I settled myself into a chair and gritted my teeth, steeling myself for the pain but it never came. Just gentle sucking and a sleepy baby. We'd cracked it! Yes we'd also cracked my nipples and there was occasionally blood but we had finally got it right for both of us. It was a joy from then on.
So if you're struggling and you want to breastfeed, persevere. Seek help. La Leche League and Cuidiu aren't the breastfeeding police; they genuinely want to help breastfeeding families. Paracetamol and nipple balms are your friend. Nipple shields did nothing for me but I know other women who've exceeded their personal breastfeeding goals by using them. So it's whatever works for you. I grew to love it, for the closeness, the convenience and the snuggles. For me it was one of the best parts of the last year.
It's lonely as a first time mum. Especially when not many of your friends have children. And sometimes you just don't feel up to dragging yourself and the baby to a coffee morning full of strangers (often friendly strangers but strangers nonetheless). And some of them can be a bit judgemental, like the lovely 'lady' on a local mums' whatsapp group who suggested that complaining about the cost of good childcare in this country means you're not committed to your child and went on to suggest that you shouldn't have children if you can't afford them! Bitchy McBitch Face.
It's hard enough without some cow trying to get you down.
I told a friend recently that a large portion of my early maternity leave was spent binge watching Law & Order. She thought I was joking but there were days at the start when I'd sit down with a cup of tea and watch about 7 episodes back to back while feeding the baby and letting her nap on me (when she was very small). That's 7 hours of murder and courtroom drama. Spoiler - the good guys usually win.
Between the constant feeding and being up half the night, I hadn't the energy to do much else. It got me through some interminable rainy days when I'd check the clock thinking it must be nearing six and that my husband would be home soon, only to find it was 2pm. Those were the worst.
The first 4 or 5 months were HARD. I'd do the groceries and cook every night, trying to be the perfect wife, mother and housewife but that wasn't sustainable. I even gave up having the house cleaned weekly which seemed like an unjustifiable expense while I was at home. Bad idea FYI. Some days the kitchen was literally growing.
Instagram could suggest that my maternity leave was pretty glossy. A constant stream of flat whites in fancy places with my perfect baby. But more often than not I was alone with her and a six month old isn't a sparkling conversationalist.
But we had our fair share of afternoon tea, lunches (sometimes alone, sometimes not), art galleries, shopping trips and coffee dates with friends. Our ladies days out together are the part I'll miss most!
4. Sleepless nights
We were lucky in this respect. Ours is a sleeper. I generally don't shout this too loudly because it pisses off sleep deprived parents (and rightly so). That said, she was waking for a feed or two until about 18 weeks (it all feels like a distant blur now so I'm not sure about when she started sleeping all night). So it'd be a lie to say I got no sleep but I certainly got less than I need to function properly and everyone knows sleep deprivation is a form of torture. There were days I certainly shouldn't have been driving.
It's scary when you realise you're about to nod off at the wheel.
Weirdly, a breastfeeding mother's body adapts to the constant waking at night. It's like you're never fully asleep; the slightest baby murmur and you're wide awake. No grogginess. When you return under the duvet you conk out immediately. I read that it's like your body bypasses the initial stages of sleep and goes straight in REM to maximise your sleep.
If you're still in the sleepless brigade, just know that it gets better. You won't be a 'mombie' forever. And you might find that you come to miss those special 3am snuggles when it's just the two of you in the dark.
5. Working Girl
Although I didn't write my novel or shed the stones I wanted to, it's still been a good run!
Pearl and I got to a few baby events, including baby swimming (which I'll really miss) and some more cultural outings too - baby workshops at the National Gallery were lovely. We managed to make two of them and they're well worth booking for a day out. They book up weeks in advance though so email early.
And in terms of grown-up activities, I made it a priority to get my hair and nails done to stay sane and feel like more than a milk-machine. I got out for cocktails with friends more than you'd imagine. We even managed a few weddings, an over-night in Hayfield Manor for a party (where Pearl started crawling...took a five star hotel to get her going!) and we threw a surprise party for my Mum too in the middle of everything.
But here we are at the end. And so on Sunday night, I'll lay out my freshly pressed clothes, my dedicated work bag (I treated myself to something nice to ease the pain) and pack up the baby's bag for nursery...and I suppose it'll be back to business as usual. Fingers crossed I haven't forgotten everything and they'll still let me be a lawyer!
*For the record, I was happy with my experience in NMH (Holles St.) I had a lovely consultant and I felt well looked after throughout the pregnancy and afterwards. My experience wasn't what I expected and I could have done without the three days waiting around but I also get that their preference (and mine obviously) was a normal delivery instead of a section.
** If you know me IRL you've probably heard about my paparazzo that day? A lady stealthily walked around me and took a few sneaky photos of my hat from various angles, then ran away! So odd. Fab wedding though!!!