I thought maternity leave would be a holiday – it wasn’t

Written by Holly Pigache  |   16 Jul 2023

Before going on maternity leave, we’re often met with all sorts of excited well-wishes from work.

But whether it’s your boss wishing you “A lovely long break” or colleagues asking what you’re going to do with all of your free time now – all this gives the impression that maternity leave is a vacation. Time off. A break from work.

Doesn’t it?

Team TRB’s maternitiy leave stories

Whilst this is such a crucial and special time for mum and baby, the expectation that mums-to-be can simply relax and recover on maternity leave is unrealistic from the get go – even as their due date approaches, many expectant mums report third-trimester symptoms like back pain, heartburn, shortness of breath, needing to urinate more frequently… the list goes on.

And then there’s the fatigue.  Exhaustion from carrying the bump, not feeling like yourself, sleepless nights, and worrying about the birth.  “In the weeks before my due date, I was sleeping all the time,” says The Ribbon Box Founder, Eloise.

The reality is, maternity leave is simply not something that is talked about enough, both in the workplace and beyond.

We asked the mummies on our team at The Ribbon Box and polled our fab TRB Instagram community about some of the misconceptions surrounding maternity leave and what this period was really like for them. Keep reading to discover their stories.

Not at work – but still working

Many first-time mums have a hopeful view of maternity leave and look forward to being able to achieve so much during this time.

After all, you’re not at work, possibly home alone and there are probably no weddings/holidays/christenings taking up your valuable time away from work. Hey, you might even be able to write that book you’ve been thinking about for years…?

Pandora Sykes and Bryony Gordon famously wrote their books “How do we know we’re doing it right?” and “The Wrong Knickers”, respectively, during their maternity leaves.  Both are worth reading if you manage to find five minutes of peace and quiet…

In reality, when you bring home your newborn, your basic human needs no longer come first – and it’s fair to say that the time and energy you used to spend on yourself is now spent on your little one.

“Sometimes, it’s hard to find a moment to even get water,” Eloise tells me.  As a new parent, your entire existence pivots around your baby’s feeding schedule, all day and night.

And, those nights can be nerve-wracking; “I remember having a fear of the nighttimes,” Eloise notes.

“You are sleep deprived to another level and you have to keep a little human alive who doesn’t care if you’re tired,” says Harriet at The Ribbon Box. “The days of nipping anywhere are long-gone; you’re completely restricted.  You can’t even nip out to get milk without timing it around the baby.”

It can be an isolating time

Feeling lonely during maternity leave is not uncommon.

Many of your friends will still be working, some might not be overly interested in your newborn, others might be trying to conceive and prefer not to be as involved in your life right now. (Click here to read our tips for how to tell a friend who’s TTC that you’re pregnant.)

Plans will also change on a regular basis.

Left your newborn at home with your partner and enjoying a much-needed early dinner with friends?  Your phone’s ringing – the baby won’t settle, they’ve tried everything, can you come home and breastfeed?

Sorry, friends.  (The silver lining is you can drive home because you can’t really drink if you’re breastfeeding.)

All this can mean that it’s easy to feel isolated, and finding connection and support is so so key. Communities like The Ribbon Box and TRB’s Parenting Instagram are great places to find support during maternity leave.

maternity leave stress

All the while you’re busy keeping your baby and yourself alive, possibly caring for other children, ageing parents or an unwell partner, ensuring the house is sort of clean and tidy and feeling guilty for not keeping up with friends, hormones are raging around your body.

Emotional?  Yes.  Delicate?  You bet.  Exhausted?  Did I mention that already?  Absolutely. “Maternity leave is never enough time!  I completely underestimated how overwhelming it would be!” says Edie from Instagram.

“There is no Me Time anymore.  You are either with the baby or not, and if you’re not, you feel guilty,” Harriet remembers.

The career fear

When you book holiday leave off work, the chances are you’ll be having a fun time off and not pulling your hair out over finances.  You’ll feel confident (*sad?) your desk will still be there next week on your return and your colleagues will only be envious of your time off for a few days.

But when mums-to-be embark on maternity leave, worries about finances and job security abound.  In fact, whether maternity leave is paid or unpaid, worrying about money is extremely common.

“Will I run out of money during maternity leave?”

“Do we have enough money to buy the essentials our baby needs?”

“There’s not enough money!”

It’s common for women to simultaneously feel eager yet apprehensive about returning to work after maternity leave.

You may wonder: Will I be seen the same way when I return to work?  What will my work schedule be like after maternity leave – will work be flexible with childcare responsibilities?

On the other hand, many mums find themselves longing to use the part of their brain not overtaken by baby-related thoughts.

“At work, I finished the day feeling accomplished, caring for my baby on maternity leave is a long-haul game,” Reena tells me via Instagram.

What are the different maternity leave laws?

In the UK:

  • Current government guidance is that eligible employees can take up to 52 weeks of maternity leave.
  • For a maximum of 39 weeks, Statutory Maternity Pay is paid.  During the first 6 weeks, expectant mums are paid 90% of their average weekly earnings (before tax) and for the next 33 weeks, they’re paid £151.97 or 90% of their average weekly earnings (whichever is lower).  The final 13 weeks are not paid.

In the US:

  • There is no statutory paid maternity leave.
  • Some employees are allowed to take up to 12 weeks’ unpaid leave but only around 60% of workers are eligible.
  • Some states have passed their own maternity/paternity laws.
maternity leave worry

Pressure to ‘get back on track’

Whether you’ve had a natural birth or a C-section, postpartum recovery can take months, with some sources suggesting that so-called postnatal depletion can take up to seven years to move on from.

Yet our culture is obsessed with ‘losing baby weight’ and mums’ figures ‘bouncing back’ – no mean feat when you’re suffering from an aching vagina, sore nipples, painful abdomen and backache, and feel totally overwhelmed.

With so little time to care for yourself, it can also be tricky to find time to exercise or prepare healthy meals. “Most of the time you’re running on adrenaline, so it’s hard not to eat rubbish,” Eloise tells me.

The bottom line

Maternity leave can be a really lovely and special time, but it can also be a whirlwind of emotions and exhaustion that we simply must talk about more. Whilst taking time off to care for your newborn is wonderful, don’t feel guilty if you’re kind of looking forward to returning to work.

It’s also an essential time for you to address your health and happiness, along with that of your baby. If you find that maternity leave isn’t as you (or others) expect, don’t beat yourself up and know that you’re not the only mum who’s going through this.

Getting support from sources you trust and finding a sense of community throughout might just help smooth the journey when you need it the most.

At The Ribbon Box, we’re here to support you through the highs and lows of pregnancy and parenthood. Join the community to stay up to date, and get practical support and handy tips just like these delivered straight to your inbox.

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