How to Have the Best Maternity Leave Ever in 5 Steps

It has been my lifelong quest to have the "best" everything, and maternity leave was no different. I started planning for it, literally, from the moment I started to think about getting pregnant.  There is no perfect recipe for a maternity leave, but for my money, I'd say I got pretty close.

Step 1: Plan WAY Ahead

Step 1 of the plan is to plan. I know. But seriously you need to think ahead if you're going to do this right. For one thing, does your employer have a family leave policy? Oh they don't?! Join the club! No one does. Your precious unborn child will need you after he or she is born. Somehow this fact is lost on the entire country, but take it from me, you'll need some paid time off. Your options:

  • Sign up for a short-term disability policy. Try and do that BEFORE you get pregnant because you'll get a larger benefit. Also you need to jump on it during open enrollment.
  • Save up your sick leave and vacation days. Make sure your employer lets you use sick time during maternity leave. Isn't that sneaky, sometimes they don't!
  • Consider a leave of absence. Without pay. Sometimes this is allowed, sometimes not. Talk to HR. Talk to other ladies who have had children at your work.
  • Save up. Obviously. How you gonna live without paychecks??

Step 1 part B: Talk to your boss. If you're comfortable.

Obviously this is very subjective. Think about whether this will do more harm than good. In my case, it did a lot of good. I have a great boss who is also a mom. She also appreciates the ability to plan ahead for our office. Lastly (and this is important!) she can keep a secret like a mother-. We had some coffee and a chat about 3 months before I actually got pregnant. I told her that my husband and I were hoping to expand our family. We didn't know when, exactly, but it might be a few months ahead. She thanked me for letting her know and for trusting her.

Based on our previous track record, my husband and I had been pretty fortunate in the fertility department. If we weren't fortunate this time, I'd probably want her to know that too because secondary infertility is no small deal. But as it turned out we were fortunate. Four months later she was asking me about this big conference scheduled for September. I had to tell her, no, that wasn't going to work because ... baby time 2015! She was over-the-moon excited. And then she kept that secret for a few more weeks until I was ready to share. I freakin love my job so much.

Whoa! Get out of the office before the baby gets out of you.

Step 2: Get out of the office before your water breaks over everything.

The question: When to start your maternity leave?

The answer: At exactly the point where you can't TAKE IT ANYMORE. You don't want to go too soon because you only have so much paid leave time. You don't want to go too late because you'll just hate life and all your coworkers and your cankles.

I had to ask around about this one, and the consensus was this. Try hard to stay at work until your due date. But don't stay past that. You're going to be struggling in weeks 38, 39, 40. But you can do it. I started leaving work early in week 39, and people were super understanding. Once we entered week 41 I was like No. Can't do it anymore. I'm not going back there without a baby.

Step 3. Decide: Take As Much Time Off As You Can -or- Spread Out Your Time Off 

In one camp, we've got TAMTOAYC. As much time off as you can get, all at once. Pros: 

- you get this incredible block of time off that you may never get again
- no work distractions 
- never need to do laundry, really, because PJs are always OK and never dirty  

In the other camp, we've got SOYTO. You take some concentrated time off at first, then spread out your days as you gradually return to full time work. Pros: 

- you'll get days off with your little one well into their 4th, 5th or 6th months of life
- breastfeeding is easier to keep going because you can keep up your supply on your days off with baby
- you'll also have regular face time with your coworkers and boss, who will see that you are committed to the team and also that you haven't died in a tragic laundry avalanche

I decided on a hybrid approach. It went like this:

  • Weeks 1-7: Totally off work. I think I answered 1 work email.
  • Week 8: Worked 1/2 day.
  • Weeks 9-14: Worked two 1/2 days per week. Tuesday/Thursday afternoons specifically.
  • Next month: Worked full time, but took Wednesdays off.
  • Next month: Worked full time.

This arrangement was amaaaazing. I worked it all out ahead of time. Most of my work was transferred to coworkers. But I asked to keep one project (a yearly report) that I do each year in December/January. This way I'd have one succinct project to focus on. I left my "out of office" message on and did not answer email unless it was easy/necessary. When that project was done, I started catching up on everything and got back in the groove. Gradually.

Step 3 part B: If Your Partner Can Take Time Off, Do That Too

My husband's time off was also hybrid:

  • Weeks 1-3: Totally off work.
  • Weeks 4-8: Worked full time, but took 1 day off per week.
  • Weeks 9-14: Worked full time, but covered for me on Tuesday/Thursday afternoons. (As in, he was off work and watching the kids during this time.)
  • Next month: Totally off work.

Doing paternity leave like a boss

Having some days home with me throughout my leave was the BEST. I was very worried about getting the postpartum depression, so this was integral to building up my support network. Also integral: regular visits with friends, play dates, coffee dates, visits from family, Christmas (that happened), social media, oh and WellMama too. Definitely WellMama.

Jake's decision to take that last month off work had two major advantages, aside from his total delight at taking a month off to bond with his baby. First, it prolonged Baby Henry's time home with us. He got lots of one-on-one attention. And no daycare germs until he was 4 1/2 months old. And no daycare expenses.

More importantly, I firmly believe that partners become really great partners when they get the chance to parent alone. Let your husband or partner (husband in my case) take charge for a while. Maybe it's a month, maybe it's just a weekend. But try and let them figure the parenting thing out. Babies will take a bottle, eventually. Dads will find things that soothe the baby. Together they will develop their own special relationship. Staying home all day with a baby (or multiple kids) is exhausting. Both parents should experience it if they can. It creates a healthy appreciation for stay-at-home parents, for daycare providers, for the work and drudgery and, at times, the joy of full time parenting.

Step 4: While on Maternity Leave, It is OK to Have a To-Do List, but... 

...You probably know what I'm going to say. Adjust yo' expectations. If you are Type A like me, this will be very difficult. In all likelihood, you will fail at this. Try this: first, go ahead and write out your whole crazy list, just go nuts. Think of everything you'd love to get done during this time "off." 3 months off from work? WA-HOO! Right?  

Wrong. Three months will fly by. Your list is way too ambitious. Don't torture yourself. Parenthood, especially NEW parenthood, is hard enough. 

But that doesn't mean you can't accomplish a few things. I hate it when everyone tells you to just calm down and embrace your baby and do nothing. I ... can't ... not ... do all the things!

So now that you have your crazy long list, start prioritizing. Slash and dash. But remember, it's very satisfying to cross some things off your list, so throw a few low-hanging fruits on there. 

Lastly, consider keeping a "Done List." You can create a Done List by writing down everything you got "done" that day. Include whatever you want: grocery shopping, creating a shopping list, watching HGTV, watching the baby sleep on your chest, building a custom bunk-bed. (Just kidding. Who builds things, honestly?) 

I've always been big on lists (can you tell?), so I was a little scared to give up my to-do list in favor of a Done List. But in the end, I'm so glad I did. I did it with only 10 days to go, but oh well. Now I have a few pages of memories of what I did, which grew increasingly funny and self-centered (Day 9: watched HGTV! Had coffee with Missy!).

Step 5: Enjoy.

Enjoy. This final tip goes for all the mamas who are on good footing health-wise. Who are not struggling with postpartum depression or anxiety. Who have reached a point of peaceful acceptance with their laundry-drenched living rooms and never-clean kitchen sinks.

Just enjoy. You never get to have a baby this small again. That is true every day that goes by. Don't drive yourself crazy thinking about it (as I did, at times). Just embrace it. And embrace that tiny baby.

Enjoy the little moments you get to have. It won't be a picnic every minute of every day. Sometimes it will be friggin unbearable. But sometimes you will get to have a great playdate with your stay-at-home mom friend at the local kids' gym, and you'll watch the kids goofing around and you'll think, this is so fun. It's 2:00 on a Tuesday! Sometimes you'll get to make coffee for your friend and you'll hear about her baby who is waking up every 1.5 hours at night. Your baby will chill out for a while, allowing you to be there for her and really listen.

I thought I would do these fun things "all the time!" As in, "we can go to the library for storytime all the time!" "I can write on the blog all the time!" It didn't happen. It took me a while to figure out that it wasn't physically possible to watch HGTV and take the kids to the park and catch up on my online course all at the same time all the time!

I enjoyed the moments though. I ticked a lot of things off my list. A couple of favorites:

1. Letting my baby fall asleep on my chest.

2. Going to WellMama and feeling the mama love.

3. Waking up late each morning next to my baby and trying to make Henry smile. Sometimes Olivia too.

That's what counts. Enjoy, mamas.