In 2014, we’ll be featuring occasional posts from a variety of different voices, including BBF presenters, partners, and staff. First up is Norah Piehl, the BBF’s deputy director. Remember those “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” essays from elementary school? This is kind of like that, but about maternity leave. Enjoy!
Dispatch from Maternity Leave
You may have seen me at the Boston Book Festival in October, like a frigate under full sail, sweeping (or perhaps waddling) my way across Copley Square throughout the day. I was nearly 37 weeks pregnant at BBF 2013, and my son had the good sense to wait a full four days after the festival to be born.
Since then, I’ve been on maternity leave. When I first started my leave, several people asked me, “What do you plan to do during your time off?” I bristled at this at first. Did I really need to accomplish anything—wasn’t seeing my son and our family through the chaotic newborn months enough? As the fuzzy-headedness of those first few weeks began to wear off, however, I discovered that yes, there are portions of the day that can be devoted to tasks other than eating, sleeping, and gazing adoringly at my eating/sleeping baby.
As I prepare to return to work full time (it’s high time to start planning BBF 2014, after all!), I thought I’d gather some of the things I learned during my leave, in the hopes that they may be helpful to other bookish mamas-to-be.
Do Something Smart
Just because you’re “on leave” doesn’t mean you’ve taken leave of your senses, and that includes your sense of intellectual curiosity. Consider your leave a sabbatical of sorts, a chance to dabble in something new or reawaken a dormant scholarly passion. Rediscover the exercises in your high school Wheelock’s Latin textbook, dive into Proust, or persevere until you finish each Sunday’s New York Times crossword. I tried to squeeze in reading time while my son was nursing, and I was able to get through more books than I would have thought, including Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree and Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun. While both of these focus on issues of parenthood, they are more than just “baby user’s manuals”—they helped me feel I was staying engaged with larger social and cultural issues, too.
If You’re a Writer, Write
Your mother-in-law or someone else has probably told you to “nap when the baby’s napping.” This is, of course, admirable advice, but if you’re the kind of mother for whom creating a new life has also awakened other kinds of creative urges, the baby’s naptime can also be the perfect time to hit the notebook or keyboard. In her memoir, Great with Child, Debra Rienstra writes that in the postpartum period, “I went to the writing place … because I desperately needed a place of retreat.” Having created a tiny, unpredictable life, creative women may feel a need to give birth to something over which they have at least some control. Stuck on what to write? Start with your baby’s birth story. Everyone’s got one, and recounting birth’s inherent drama just might inspire you to bring other stories or poems to life.
When I was in college, what I valued nearly as much as the give-and-take of the classroom was the relatively unstructured days. While you’re on leave and when your baby’s young and portable, you can recapture some of this freedom. If it’s a beautiful day, take a walk in the sunshine; if it’s freezing, visit your neighborhood coffee shop at 11 am. Just because you can (and you won’t believe how much shorter the line is). Take advantage of long days at home—especially if your leave happens to fall, say, during one of the snowiest winters in Boston’s history—to explore a hobby more deeply. For me, that’s cooking, and I’ve spent wintry afternoons talking to my baby as I made granola bars, soups and stews, pumpkin butter, bread, and pasta sauce. In addition to occupying dark days and giving me a sense of daily accomplishment that can be hard to come by with an infant, my freezer is now stocked with provisions that will make weeknight dinners a little easier once I return to work.
Connect With Others
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying every moment was filled with rosy-hued light and the aroma of baking bread. It can also be a stressful and lonely time, especially if you’re accustomed to a stimulating career. Seek out other new moms at breastfeeding help sessions, postnatal yoga classes, or the baby matinees at movie theatres in Arlington and Brookline. This year, I’ve actually seen more Oscar-nominated films with my four-month-old than I have with my husband! Find a Meetup group for new moms, or start one (maybe a book group?) of your own. Make dates to meet friends, colleagues, or your spouse for lunch near their offices. Seeing you and your baby in the middle of a workday will be as much of a treat for them as leaving the house is for you!
Do Something Dumb
Let’s face it: there will be days and maybe whole weeks when sleep deprivation and your baby’s incessant demands will mean that preparing a hot meal (or even taking a hot shower) will skip ahead of Anna Karenina on the to-do list. For those times, find something frivolous to read, watch, or do. Devour Penny Vincenzi’s Spoils of Time trilogy, check in on the soap operas you watched in college, or master your favorite smartphone game. My not-so-guilty pleasure has been Miranda, a British sitcom starring Miranda Hart, who plays Chummy on Call the Midwife. I like to fool myself into thinking the British accents make the show more cerebral than it is; in fact, it’s just jolly good fun.
Do Nothing at All
After I return to work, I’m sure I’ll get another round of “but what did you do during your time off?” The truth is, while I’ve actually done a fair amount, the moments I’ll remember most are those that look an awful lot like doing nothing at all. Holding my newborn in the crook of my elbow as we laze in bed together; seizing warm(ish) February afternoons to walk with him through our neighborhood; setting aside my latest book or project because I just have to look into his eyes for a moment or an hour—these are the memories that I will cherish most after I return to the routines and schedules of a working parent. No matter how short or how long, maternity leave is a gift of time—more than that, it’s a sort of time out of time, the rare opportunity to escape from deadlines and meetings and instead just be.
I may not have written the next great American novel, remodeled the bathroom, or even gotten my son’s baby book completely up-to-date, but I do feel refreshed, renewed, and ready to throw myself back into the career I love. And at BBF 2014? I’ll be the one striding across Copley Square, hopefully a little thinner this time, perhaps taking a break or two to introduce Curious George to a certain brand-new one-year-old.