Motherhood chose me before I knew I was ready.
After a summer traveling Central America with my soon-to-be husband, we arrived back to the US with golden tans and an unplanned souvenir growing within.
We scrambled to move into a place of our own, get jobs, and prepare for an exciting yet frightening new chapter. When the logistical chaos calmed, I became excited about building a family and molding the idea of what kind of mother I wanted to be.
My bright fantasies dropped when I spoke to my boss about maternity leave.
We lived in North Carolina at the time, and because I hadn't been with the company for over a year when Oliver was born, I took the non-FMLA 12 weeks. Baby Ollie was a month early and dropped in weight. I had to nurse him every two hours, which meant that I had to set a timer for every two hours and in between nurse him for thirty minutes on each breast; do the math, that meant I slept for an hour before getting up for the next nurse. I became a zombie.
The new life completely blindsided me.
I was the first in my peer group to have a baby and felt isolated without kindred companionship. All mixed with constipation, bleeding, soreness, fear, anxiety, leaking, and clogged milk ducts-- I was overwhelmed.
The dread of returning to work layered thick. I jumped from bonding with my baby to figuring out a schedule conducive to returning to work. But as any mom will tell you, babies don't do consistent schedules--ever.
I began to hate the idea of going back to work. I saw it as a thorn pricking my time with Oliver, and it became so painful that anger bloomed.
I started to articulate the reasons for leaning toward refusing to go back to anyone that would listen: childcare distrust, lack of interest in my job, and a severe worry around my fragile infant getting sick or hurt. But it didn't make financial sense. So finally, after countless conversations and scenarios (I even tried to nanny with a newborn in tow–it was ugly), I begrudgingly went back to work.
If I only had more space and time to enjoy him and see him grow to be bigger and stronger, leaving him wouldn't have been as hard.
If I only had more space and time to bond with him without the pending strain of returning to work so soon, I would have felt more ready.
But I didn't get more space and time. My new morning routine entailed rising hours before my time to clock in to nurse, pack, and spend at least a half-hour holding, staring, and crying over my baby to only drop him off in the infant room and run to the bathroom stall to cry more. It was a dark time.
I look back now on my emotions running rampant during those early months in motherhood transition. I wonder how it impacted my son.
I wince at the worried thought of Oliver absorbing a second-hand emotional load.
It's been nearly ten years since I journeyed through the hardship and loneliness of first-time new motherhood. The uproar of the Paid Family Leave Act churned up my story. And I'm able to look back on it and reflect from a perspective of hope and change for the better.
Lack of time and space for mother and baby to bond and look forward is not only hindering us now but in our future as well.
Scientists have found breast milk as a gateway to pass on stress. Researchers found that babies who drank high-cortisol breast milk tended to be more fearful and harder to soothe. Not only was my stress orchestrating the negative spiral of anxiety, I may have passed along these negative emotions to my baby.
Yes, having a new baby is overall stressful. Still, we must consider the systemic pitfalls of our maternal welfare, namely a too short paid family leave, adding to the natural stress of new motherhood?
Are we building an anxious generation to follow our own?
Other countries successfully conduct a more supportive introduction to new parenthood, and there are positive results. Research has found an association between longer maternity leave and a lowered risk of PPD, with women taking less than six months of leave being at an increased risk for the disorder (Chatterji & Markowitz, 2004; Dagher, McGovern, & Dowd, 2014).
When I read this research and World Health Organization recommendations pointing to longer leaves, I wondered how my early years in parenthood would differ if we just had a bit more time.
The "what if things were different" train is a dicey one, and I'm hesitant to jump on. But when I do, I realize I wouldn't change anything about my son, but I would completely transform my experience at the beginning of our story together. I deeply regret obsessing about my decisions at work and allowing the stress of those thoughts to rob precious bonding time.
Work, money, stress, and fears were all distractions aggressively pulling me away from what mattered most–enjoying the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of first-time motherhood.
I can't relive the past, but I can advocate for change to paint a more supportive picture for our future.
Join and learn more at www.chamberofmothers.com and paidleave.us.