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Mom Talk: Saying Goodbye To A Rollercoaster Maternity Leave

Written by Emily Smith

Photography by Photographed by Nicki Sebastian

Maternity leave. It’s a different beast for each mother that goes through it. In today’s Mom Talk essay, Emily Smith shares the story of her rollercoaster 6 months at home with her son on the eve of returning back to work. Laugh, cry, and relate… -KHZ

It’s the end of my maternity leave. Monday, I return to work after nearly 6 months of leave; 1 month prior to the birth of my son, and just shy of 5 months with him. Am I ready to go back to work? No. Not really. But I will be. I have been preparing myself these last few weeks, slowly getting reacquainted with the life of grown-ups and MUNI rides and noises of downtown San Francisco. I’ve done practice runs of leaving my son with his caregiver, first for an hour or so, and most recently up to half a day, shoulders tensed and always stealing glances at my phone. Nervously clicking away to his sweet, patient nanny, “Is he awake yet? Did he eat? Has he pooped?”

I’ve slowly wandered through department stores, attempting to find pants for work that button or zip to tuck away the soft, squishy parts of my body that remain after pregnancy. Armed with billowy blouses and “transitional jeans,” from a clothing perspective, I’m ready. Mentally, I’m getting there.

Friends and colleagues have told me the first three to four weeks after returning are a blur, but each day will become a little more gentle. “You’ll get your groove back. You’ll realize it’s kinda nice to be able to walk out of the house without having to check your bag for the third time and ask, ‘Did I remember diapers, a bib, bottle and baby hat?'” Admittedly, I’m looking forward to testing this theory. And I won’t miss washing the endless tub of bottles that accumulate over the day. This, I can say with 100% confidence.

In the very early days, when we were discharged from the hospital, I remember thinking to myself one morning, after three hours sleep and a third round of pain medication: “My husband is better suited to do this. He’s good at diapers and seemingly has more energy. I’ll be the one to go back to work first.” I was bleary eyed and in pain. So. Much. Pain. I could barely lift my baby, let alone my own legs from the bed to the floor. Nothing was comfortable. My whole pregnancy, I looked forward to the return of back sleeping and tucking my feet under my tush while sitting on the couch. Silly me. These small joys would have to wait. Instead of peaceful moments with my son, gently rocking together in his nursery, my husband would guide me out to the couch and awkwardly prop me up against a pile of pillows while my parents rubbed my feet and positioned ice packs around my swollen ankles. And so it went. Slowly and clumsily though, I found my footing.

Maternity leave was Stormy Daniels and Kim Jung Un and the Thai soccer team rescued from the cave. Harvey Weinstein and Mark Zuckerberg and the Russia investigation. Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade. Oh. And Judge Kavanaugh. It was about one billion dollars that I didn’t have, spent on Amazon and Instacart and Good Eggs deliveries. Hours and hours and hours and hours of scrolling the Internet and Facebook Mom Groups in the quest to find the ideal baby bottle, the best play mat, and safest pacifier; the right time to “size up” diapers, and the correct way to wear your baby in a carrier. This list is endless and continuous.

Many, many, many texts logged to various friends. Calls to my sisters. FaceTiming with my mom and dad. “Am I doing this right?” Exhaustive research on Diastisis Recti and the safest way to repair my broken, separated abs. Endless Googling to find out “when does uterus return to normal size!?” and alternatively, “can organs be placed back inside body incorrectly after c-section, and does this make you look pregnant?!” because I was gobsmacked by how many strangers would ask me, “How far along are you?” well after I had birthed my son.

Two cases of mastitis, including one with a trip to the ER. Oh, and a five day anxiety spiral during which I convinced myself we had bed bugs or dust mites or fleas, and spent another billion dollars I most certainly still did not have on experts with mite-sniffing dogs to come to our house and tell me, “Lady. There’s nothing here. That will be one billion dollars, please.” It was an ocean’s worth of water used for laundering piles and piles and piles of wash. And then another ocean-sized amount of water to clean bottle after bottle after bottle. A baby book I have yet to fill out, and while on the subject of keepsakes, a wedding album I haven’t made either.

All four hours of “The Today Show,” every day. And “The Good Place” and “Sweet Bitter” and every season of “Southern Charm,” minus the back half of Season 4, which mysteriously disappeared from On Demand, leaving me left to wonder, “But how? How did Katherine end up losing custody of her children again?!” Only one rainy day. A trillion steps logged with the stroller, peering into the beautiful single-family homes of Pacific Heights, daydreaming about which pacifier they deemed the safest? Which baby carrier they shelled out the big bucks for? And did the higher price make this thing easier to wear? Witnessing businesses opening and closing along the streets in my neighborhood. Figuring out which cross streets have sloped sidewalks for strollers, and which do not. And crying. Lots of crying. All types of crying. Multiple trips to the lactation consultant. The physical therapist. The infant cranial sacral therapist. The postpartum core experts. The pediatric ENT. So much mommy and me yoga.

It would be disingenuous to say I’d do it all again in a heartbeat. I’d do it all again, but not as quickly as a heartbeat. Because it was really, really, really hard. And it will continue to be hard. What’s easy is finding the words to describe the stresses and uncertainties. What’s harder— impossible really—is to articulate how I feel about my son. How I feel about my husband becoming a dad, and me a mom. What is the word to describe the feeling of having gone from a couple, to a family? It is an emotion so big, there is no word yet created to express it. Is the word love? I don’t think so. Because I love “Ozark.” And red Gatorade and the smell of baby lotion. It doesn’t really seem appropriate to try and sum up how I feel about my family with the same word I use to describe a Netflix show and a sports drink.

I’ll keep searching for the word. In the meantime, today I am going to take my son for a walk. I’ll feed him his bottles and put him down for his naps. We will giggle and give each other neck nuzzles and I’ll pepper him with kisses and thank him for his smiles. The same as everyday. Because what I am realizing is, maternity leave coming to a close doesn’t mean time with my son is over. He’s my son. Forever! So, it’s not the end of something. Not at all. It’s the beginning of everything.

(Except for washing bottles. It is definitely the end of washing bottles.)

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