Actually, Maternity Leave Is Not a Vacation

You’re at home—not at work—and you just changed your baby’s diaper. Three hours later, they’ve pooped again, except this time it has seeped up and over the diaper’s edge. You change your baby’s diaper again, switch their outfit, and maybe run the laundry if you have the energy and if the clean-clothes pile is dangerously low. But now the baby is crying uncontrollably, and you aren’t sure why. You feed them, change them again just in case, and walk around the house. Nothing is working, so now you’re crying. (Just a little. Or maybe a lot.) You don’t want to take them outside because that could put them at risk for infection. On top of that, if you’re breastfeeding it might feel daunting to consider exposing your breasts in public, especially if this is your first child.

You’re stuck pacing the halls of your home, endlessly rocking and shushing. When you finally get a chance to look at the clock, you realize you’ve spent hours stuck in this cycle. Or maybe only minutes have crawled by, making it feel like this is how you’ll spend the rest of your life. As for sleep? You barely remember it as a concept, much less a reality.

Vacation this is not. And yet so many new parents are confronted with the stereotype that maternity leave is more or less a vacation. A break from work. Time off. This is quite the opposite of what I’d consider a vacation.

The very word vacation conjures images of escape, relaxation, and other things not synonymous with caring for a crying newborn. My typical vacation activities don’t include waking up every two to three hours or spending six weeks with bleeding and pain from a recovering uterus and torn-apart vagina. But given the typical comments and connotations about maternity leave, you’d think that as soon as you have a baby, someone hands you a plane ticket for an all expenses paid trip to some tranquil, sandy beach. Fun fact: They don’t.

I, for one, spent the beginning of my maternity leave standing in front of the bathroom mirror staring at my breasts in anguish. I’d been trying to breastfeed, but four days after my first child came into the world, my breasts started to feel hot and achy. Along with the burning pain they were hardening and getting larger, and I saw some redness on the left. This new development (and in retrospect, a case of postpartum blues) made me cry. I didn’t feel like this was my body.

Although I have a lot of medical knowledge—I’m a neonatologist, or a pediatrician who specializes in newborn care—I am not a gynecologist, obstetrician, or lactation expert. My pediatric medical training didn’t prepare me for the rigors of breastfeeding. Thus I had no idea what was going on with my breasts. Was I experiencing mastitis, an infection that can happen when milk ducts become blocked or engorged? Was this just my milk coming in? I kept returning to one question over and over: Is this normal?

As it turns out, it was. Ultimately I found out my chest was engorged because I was suffering from a clogged milk duct (without an infection), which is frustrating and painful but common and not a major cause for concern. I was able to unclog the duct with warm compresses and massage, and I was able to breastfeed as I’d hoped. Eventually my bout of postpartum blues also dissipated as I fell into a rhythm of caring for my baby.

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