If you were on maternity leave during lockdown, you deserve a god damn medal

by pregnancy journalist

There are plenty of lofty expectations hoisted upon mums-to-be about maternity leave.

Friends and colleagues excitedly ask if you have any ‘passion projects’ on the cards, or family holidays booked, or they might just marvel that you’ll be not working* for months on end with nothing to do but play with your adorable, gurgling offspring whilst sitting on a picnic rug and eating home-made baked goods. HA.

If you’ve ever had a baby, you’ll know that the reality of maternity leave is something else altogether. And if you haven’t? Let me tell you that the idea of launching a side hustle, or painting the spare room, or getting out the door in one piece – let alone jumping on a plane – is laughable when you’re sleep deprived as hell and recovering from giving birth (because that can be a marathon in itself), all while trying to keep a small human alive 24/7.

But add a global health pandemic to the mix and any expectations of maternity leave – whatever they may have ordinarily looked like – go even further out the door.

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I went on maternity leave with my second child in February, 2021. Family and friends weren’t allowed to visit us in the hospital after the birth. My parents who live interstate couldn’t visit. And most of the prenatal scans and medical appointments I had to attend alone, without the emotional support of my partner. All this felt weird, but bearable.

Then lockdown hit Sydney in June and we were all of a sudden living in a much smaller world. But with a newborn.

Having a small infant to care for can be incredibly isolating at the best of times, let alone when you can’t see friends, or visit other people’s homes, or even go and sit in a cafe to drink your third coffee for the day.

When the supports disappear

For many Australian women there were a myriad of other social and medial support systems that COVID stole from their postpartum recovery period, as Dr Mikayla Couch, an obstetric and gynaecology registrar at NSW Health, saw first hand.

“We went from entirely face-to-face appointments to Telehealth appointments to limit contact with women, and decrease their chances of getting COVID from hospitals… Services like antenatal classes, psychology services, diabetes education and dietitian services all moved online within a period of one to two weeks.”

“Mother-and-bub groups went online and there were minimal face-to-face meetings. And women were more isolated… [for example] not allowed to have their mother come and stay to help with the newborn.”

“Pregnancy is already a time of heightened stress. For many mothers it is the first time accessing the health care system and having new symptoms. It can be very stressful… I know personally, that when we had COVID spikes in our area, women’s anxieties were markedly high. It was common for women to break down in consults due to stress, and pregnancy hormones. I completely felt for them.”

Kristine Balfour, a counsellor and doula program supervisor at Birth for Humankind, saw the same kind of pressures on new mums during lockdown, too. Especially for those for whom English isn’t a first language.

“Appointments that would normally involve physical checks or practical support are now done by phone or video calls. It is harder for the workers to easily identify and address any issues with how the family is adjusting and coping, for example when there are challenges with breastfeeding or health concerns for the baby or the new mum. Early parenting groups weren’t happening in-person either, so there was reduced motivation and opportunity to get out of the house and meet other people in the same circumstances.”

“It really does take a village to raise a child. We have plenty of evidence to demonstrate that when new parents receive good emotional and practical support from extended family and friends, they get more sleep, have fewer mental health concerns and feel more able to cope with the demands of parenting a newborn, and possibly other children.

They also enjoy early parenthood more, which is what all parents want, and those early good experiences can influence longer-term outcomes for the family.”

The silver lining is there, if you look for it

Whilst it does all sound pretty depressing, and the hardships for new mums during lockdown are hard to argue with, there were some unexpected upsides of not being pressured to get out and about. With quite literally nowhere to go and no one to see, the expectation to ‘bounce back’ to your former self – not only physically but emotionally – evaporated.

There were no family members dropping around unannounced for cups of tea in those heady new weeks. No playgroups to look presentable for. No mum-and-bub gym classes to attend. No Mother’s Groups to rush out the door to. And with that, came the absence of commentary from the outside world on how ‘well’ you looked or ‘together’ you seemed or even how many milestones your baby had ticked off.

For me, while the days were long and the weeks often blurred into each other, the lack of demarkation of time was a refreshing change from my maternity leave with my first child. Whilst I was definitely lonely, and often missed the tangible supports of friends, family and early childhood support services, I never missed the feeling of needing to race towards my post-baby ‘bounce back’. Which unfortunately, is a yard stick we still measure new mums against.

I spoke to psychologist Nancy Sokarno from Lysn about this pressure and she agreed it’s something she sees many new mums still battle with.

“In the early stages after giving birth, women are likely to experience a whole gamut of emotions. Tie this with other things like body changes, new responsibilities, changed routine and sleeplessness and you can find that new mums are under a lot of pressure. If you then add into that mix social obligations you’re adding to a long list of to-do’s and expectations for a very tired woman.”

“Lockdown likely could have provided some much-needed respite for new mums in allowing them to spend that precious time with their family and focus on what’s most important. It also meant that new mums didn’t need to feel guilty for saying no to social gatherings or to saying no to potential visitors who may be keen to meet the new bub (too soon)!”

For me, I know I felt like I was really just running my own race while cooped up at home – meaning there were fewer opportunities to compare myself to other mums who might have a similarly-aged baby. And with that? Came freedom. Freedom to just not care as much about when my son started rolling, or how ‘good’ his sleep routine was. Sokarno sees this all too often, saying “There also seems to be a lot of pressure that comes from comparison – which they say is the thief of joy. We tend to compare our experience with others without just enjoying our own journey. Everyone ‘bounces back’ in their own way and there shouldn’t be any pressure to do it in a matter of weeks. Removing these expectations can allow new mums to fully experience this precious time in the right way, rather than worrying about bouncing back.”

Comparison is the thief of joy. Image: iStockSource:BodyAndSoul

Good, bad or indifferent?

So did the benefits of lockdown outweigh the drawbacks? That depends on each mother’s postpartum experience. For me, it did. But I’d done it all before and so felt like I didn’t need my local Early Childhood Development Centre, breastfeeding support group, my GP and mother’s group as much, as I (vaguely) knew what to expect when I hit the inevitable bumps along the road.

Friends I asked often cited the fact that their partners were working from home as a positive, meaning they were available not only to help out between Zoom calls, but also that they enjoyed more time bonding with their babies.

New mum Jade reflected however that even this came with drawbacks, saying “On one hand I was grateful for the help and my husband could be there for all the milestones that he would have otherwise missed, but on the other hand it was supposed to be time with just my son and I… finding our groove.”

But for a friend Jaymie, the silver linings weren’t worth the struggle after her son was born in early 2021. “Being in lockdown while on maternity leave was mostly awful.. It was kind of good in the beginning that I didn’t feel pressured to go to things I wasn’t ready for (like long road trips to see family) but because they change so quickly at this age everyone missed out on seeing him grow… Since he’s my first baby, not being able to see my family and get help from anyone was so rough.”

Edwina, also a first time mum, put it succinctly – saying for her that maternity leave mostly spent in lockdown was “bad.” “I’ve looked forward to maternity leave forever and I missed four months of playdates and activities”

So can mums ‘make it back’?

Dr Couch reflects that now that lockdowns have lifted, she hopes that “women are using online websites, Facebook groups and Instagram to connect with the many fantastic women who are paving the way in reducing maternal trauma.”

Balfour agrees that more support is needed to help redress the balance for those who were adversely affected. “For the families who have welcomed a new baby… during lockdowns, many of those early supportive social connections they would have made are still missing, so their sense of isolation continues. It would be wonderful if, for example, those who missed out on new parents’ groups were offered the chance to catch up on those missed opportunities even though their children are now older.”

Sokarno suggests that if you are still struggling with feelings of overwhelm and isolation, the best policy is often honesty. “You can also be honest with your friends and family and tell them that you’re currently feeling a lot of pressure with obligations at the moment… Talking to friends, family or experts about how you’re feeling can make you feel like some of the burden has been lifted (and you’ll soon realise people can relate)! Many people will have experienced exactly what you’re going through and it can be nice to vocalise things to show that you’re not alone.

The other option, especially now that restrictions are lifting and life is getting busier, is to ask for professional help. “If you don’t feel comfortable talking to friends or family, seek the help from an expert. Services like Beyond Blue and Lifeline provide free over the phone support with trained experts. Services like Lysn provide access to psychologists via video chat, which can be accessed from the comfort of your own home. These kinds of services can be available at your discretion and also outside of regular hours if needed, so can really help when it suits you – no matter the time.”

If you or someone you know needs help, phone Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the 24-hour Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467.

Mental health professionals are available 24/7 at the beyondblue Support Service – 1300 22 46 36 or via for online chat (3pm-12am AEST) or email response.

Dr Mikayla Couch is a proud Bundjalung woman and obstetric and gynaecology registrar at NSW Health. You can follow her on Instagram .

Kristine Balfour is a social worker, counsellor and doula, as well as doula program supervisor at . She has as spent her entire career working cross-culturally, mostly with people from refugee and asylum seeker backgrounds.

Nancy Sokarno is a psychologist at Lysn. Lysn is a digital mental health company with world class wellbeing technology which helps people find their best-fit professional psychologist whilst being able to access online tools to improve their mental health.

This content was originally published here.

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