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Why a mothers work is never done

I didn’t love my two stints of maternity leave, at home with my babies. I was really grateful I had the opportunity to share in their first year, to recover slowly from labour and be able to get to know these funny little people. And to not have to work until I was ready. I was grateful, but I didn’t love being at home.

My first maternity leave was spent stressing about all the big things – is he sleeping enough? Is he sleeping too much? Does he have a routine? Should I be more spontaneous and less routine-driven? Am I doing it right? Ergh. By the time I got the hang of things, calmed down and started actually enjoying being at home with baby, it was time to go back to work.

sleep anywhere baby

Lisa with her son in the early years

Second time around, I was prepared. Precious time together, I thought to myself. The first bub was actually a great sleeper and I didn’t take advantage of his sleep-anywhere-anytime demeanour. I wasted time with worry, I had thought. And so I decided: second time around, I want to enjoy things more. I will go out, I vowed. I won’t be so nervous about the breastfeeding in public thing. This time, I’ll be one of those mums who is social and carefree, who takes their infant and toddler to Cry Baby movie sessions, and doesn’t freak out when they scream the place down. I’ll be sooo relaxed and take my good sleepers out for coffee dates with friends. I’ll venture out to baby music sessions and even baby gym.

That did not happen.

Baby #2 did not sleep during the day. She did not care for any of her brother’s sleep props or triggers. She hated being in the car seat, hated being sat up in the pram for long stretches. She hated being in any form of transport except if it was attached to me. She wanted to be held and she wanted to see what was going on. And she did not want to sleep during the day, not if she could exhaust both of us instead and keep us upright for hours before falling into an exhausted, tear-filled dreamless sleep at night. So ironically, second time around, I experienced the type of housebound mat leave I’d prepared myself for – the first time around.  

An interstate family visit showed us what was wrong. Following a flight and hoping for the sometimes-possible 20 minutes’ respite, I put her down in the travel cot in a cool dark room in her grandparents’ Federation home. She slept for four hours. In trepidation, I put her down in the evening and watched the clock in amazement as she stayed asleep until the midnight feed. Back to sleep she went. Throughout our visit, she repeatedly fell into deep grateful sleeps in the day, and didn’t scream the house down when evening came around. So we finally worked it out. We saw that actually she wasn’t a ‘bad’ sleeper or eater. She was just sensitive to light. While her brother could sleep in an open pram next to a dance floor at a wedding at the age of 11 months, our daughter could tell, almost from birth, when it was daylight (“playtime”) and when it was dark (“more appropriate time to miss out on all the fun”).

smiling while sleepwalking

Lisa enjoying an outing with her daughter during her leave

Fast forward eight years later and I had the rare and beautiful chance to have another “maternity” leave. Not with a new baby, but with my 10 year old and 8 year old. A career break, an unexpected redundancy package that gave me the chance to bring forward a cherished plan to spend quality time with my kids after a bruising workplace restructure. A chance to travel overseas and see far away family and friends. To see other cultures, histories and experience the challenge of taking kids out of their known environment.

On the 22 hour direct flight, we left our hometown at 11pm. Way past bedtime. Both children were so vibed with excitement neither could fall asleep. Despite reassurances, they started getting overtired and panicky. I found myself resorting to techniques that hadn’t been needed for years. I have a snapshot in my mind of that flight, a memory of me sitting upright in an aeroplane seat, with my 10 year old laying awkwardly against me while I soothed him to sleep, my daughter falling into exhausted, twitching dreams across my lap as I patted her once more.

It’s such a precious memory now, and was startlingly tender to experience, even as it was happening. I looked down on my babies, my long lean and very independent children, both still needing me, both trusting me to help them learn how to negotiate this new experience.

Whereas before I’d worried too much and tried to control too much, that trip was my dream maternity leave, where I could finally enjoy being the mum of two small people. First time around, it was all so new and I had to go through it all to appreciate how good I had it. Second time around, I learned I didn’t have it all worked out and couldn’t take anything for granted.

Third time around, my unexpected “maternity” leave taught me that somewhere along the way I’d learned to be a patient and loving mum who took nothing for granted and was open to small moments of tenderness wherever they happened and whenever they were possible.

The beauty of a maternity leave, nine years later than planned.

Lisa is a Melbourne writer and mother of two who wishes she could travel more, worry less and sing a lot better. Follow her @telluslisa on Twitter to connect.

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