As I start my first days back at work after seven and a half months of maternity leave, I pause here, amongst the hustle and bustle of working parenthood, to reflect on what it taught me. Here are six of the best lessons I learnt.
Maternity leave was everything I hoped for, and yet nothing like I expected. It started with those tough first weeks that any mother will have buried at the back of her mind, when you are yourself exhausted from pregnancy and childbirth and excruciatingly sleep deprived, trying to care for an infant who is making possibly the biggest adjustment they will ever make, from inside the womb to the bright, crazy world we live in. Doing so for the first time, both you and your infant are on a steep learning curve and it sometimes feels like you’ll never make it to the top.
In fact you never do make it to the top of that curve: lesson number one is that nothing stays the same forever, or even, in fact, for a week. No sooner are you into a routine, than you’re out of it again as new developments change your baby’s rhythms. As a change-agent and innovator, I’ve always been comfortable with the uncertainty and exploration that comes with progress, but never have I experienced it in such an all-consuming way.
The second lesson, is that you are not in control. You may have read a dozen books, taken advice from other parents and determined your ideal approach to parenting, but many of your well-thought-out principles will seem impossible in the daily effort to make life work right now. Being constantly at the beck and call of another human being – and worse, hardwired to respond instantly and urgently to the slightest whimper – is a tough thing to accept when you’re used to being the decision-maker. This was tough for me, because I’ve never been good at being told what to do, but I learnt to accept it, at least for a little while. That’s probably made me a better person, and certainly has been a lesson in humility.
Lesson number three crept up on me: a gradual realisation over time that persistence and consistency reap their own rewards. In fact, you can help your child into patterns and habits that suit your household and feel like good habits for a lifetime, if only you are patient enough and never give in on those principles – just think about the end result, and wait for the wind to turn your way. That’s why it’s easier to sell something you believe in: your messaging is more easily flexible yet consistent if it’s rooted in fundamental beliefs rather than what you think people want to hear.
Lesson four is a philosophy for life: one that’s been repeated to me many times, but never so clearly. Cherish every moment. Make long-term plans, but enjoy each moment as it comes. Soon it will all be over. That golden time of just you and your baby, which at the time seems by turns interminably repetitive and frustratingly unpredictable, will soon be over: you’ll be back at work, or your baby will have grown into a boisterous toddler, and those first toothless smiles and honking laughs and clumsy grasps will be but a distant memory.
The fifth lesson has always been known to me, but never more clearly shown: the value of time. Much of child-rearing is in effect, killing time. How to get through the day having entertained the kids and, if you’re lucky, yourself; having done something educational or otherwise enriching for them; and maybe, if you’re lucky, having done enough in the way of other tasks to keep the household running. Killing time is not my favourite activity – I always want to be doing something useful – but on maternity leave I learnt to accept it, even enjoy it. Now, I’m grateful to the wonderful carers at my daughter’s nursery who are helping share that task, so that I can spend some time doing the job I love. And I know that every minute I spend working is a minute I could have spent with her, so I make it count.
Even more important than time, however, is attention. The sixth and final lesson is that focusing your attention on something is a luxury, especially in the modern world, and yet it is the most precious gift. Whether it’s my baby daughter or my teenage stepchildren, whatever else I give them, they most value my full and undivided attention. Similarly at work, I get far more done, far more effectively, if I focus my attention on the right things and concentrate. When I’m at work, I don’t think about my family; when I’m with my family, I don’t miss work. I’m not sure if I could tell you when I’m happiest, except that it’s when I’m not trying to do it all simultaneously. The gift of full attention and focus is one you should give yourself as often as possible.
Have you recently become a parent or had a break from work? Comment below if you’d like to share the experience – I’d be interested to hear from you!