How You’ll Actually Spend Your Maternity Leave

Photo-Illustration: Getty Images, HBO

As more and more tech companies compete for talent by extending their parental-leave policies to European-levels of common decency, who among us hasn’t fantasized about getting a job at, say, Facebook (how hard can it be?) and getting pregnant, in that order? Have some irresponsible sex and ten months later you and your partner and, oh yeah, your child, are transported to a parallel universe operating outside the confines of capitalism. You exit the hamster wheel, get handed a baby, and are instantly enveloped in love, warmth, and an unfathomable amount of free time. I had a baby recently enough to know this fantasy bears no resemblance whatsoever to reality, but still I catch myself daydreaming about taking the Google Bus straight to six to nine months of paid time off. After all, what else in this life will get you more than a few weeks’ vacation?

When I had my son 18 months ago, I considered myself lucky to be able to take a month off from freelance gigs (and earning money) and slowly ease my way back into writing, working from home or from a coffee shop. When I contemplate an actual, significant paid leave — a postpartum experience without financial and time and career anxiety — my brain starts trying to invent new ambitions. I could get really in shape? Without deadlines, I could write a novel! Plus, when’s a better time to finally use that KitchenAid attachment and bake bread from scratch? As long as I’m completely remaking my identity, I may as well tack on “bakes bread,” “Kon Maris,” and “has a museum membership and actually uses it.” I imagine myself curled up on some other Mom Friend’s expensive couch, our babies kicking their chubby little legs on chenille blankets. I’d read back issues of The New Yorker. Learn to sew. Even when I’m attempting to relax, my ambition can be hard to turn off. I’ll be the best at taking baths! The best at being in the moment! I’ll meditate for 45 minutes each day, while I breast-feed?

Note that nowhere in my delusional thinking do I aspire to sit on the couch and breast-feed all day while I watch my child like a hawk to make sure he’s breathing. A more realistic ambition would have been “Walk to the corner of the block, order a $9 juice, and cry.” Contemplate running away and never coming back and then change the tenth diaper of the day. Consider that I have truly hated my partner all along I just never realized it until today. Then, before you know it, time to pull out a boob again. Out of office: “I am currently crying, bleeding, and leaking milk, wondering if I have made the biggest mistake of my life. It may take longer than usual to get back to you, because I haven’t slept in a week and don’t trust my own thoughts right now. TY!”

In my opinion, the only acceptable ambition for baby leave aside from survival is the project of watching television. Watching television is fun, it takes up time, it requires no energy. You can put headphones into your laptop and not disturb a sleeping or nursing child. It can be consumed in fits and starts, but it is consuming. It’s a blessed escape, if not quite the jump-on-a-plane-to-a-foreign-country-and-never-speak-to-my-family-again kind of escape you may be contemplating in your finer moments. At least you aren’t Tony Soprano?

I’ve found almost every new parent remembers what TV shows they watched during their tour of duty. That nostalgic sigh you hear when people think of those first few weeks with a new person? That’s the sound of all the Netflix they watched, the memory of having nowhere to be, no one to email, only bouncing and sssh-ing and The next episode will continue playing in 15 seconds, right smack in the middle of the day. It reminded me of college afternoons watching DVDs of Sex and the City instead of writing papers or going to class. Come to think of it, a nostalgic SATC rewatch would be a great contender for a postpartum television project.

Rumaan, a novelist with two young sons, told me he watched 30 Rock with his first, Veep with his second. Emily says Catastrophe was perfect. When I brought this all up with my therapist she immediately said, Scandal, with a confident nod. Helene, who just had her second daughter, recommends “all eight seasons of the BBC thriller Spooks.” Tess has a new baby and a preschool-age son, and when I saw her Instagram a photo of her laptop with The Sopranos playing, I felt an immediate kinship. She argues that it’s the perfect series for a so-called maternity binge: “I mean, the Mafia is the ultimate family, right?” My friend Helene, though, offers a word of caution: “Obviously The Sopranos is the ultimate but you DO feel a little bad about your postpartum body when they’re in the Bing.” The Bing, nota bene, is a strip club. Though I do remember relating deeply to the women whose breasts were so full it looked like they might explode at any moment.

What a time to be alive! What a time to create another life and then sit on the couch and binge-watch episodes of The Great British Bake Off!

Lovely days will happen, too, eventually. Once I got past my own initial darkness, there were lunches where we sat outside at cafés, afternoons spent in the park, Baby & Me Yoga (get over yourself and do it; it rules), even a trip to the beach. Though that all came later. First came Netflix. Or, in my case, “HBO Go and suicidal ideation.” For those dark days, I’ve forgiven myself. We survived.

Rumaan says it took him until his second to learn to treat any downtime as found time and spend it “doing whatever the fuck you like to do, even if it’s just lying in bed in your underpants looking at Twitter.” And that’s the thing: There is a lot of downtime with new babies. They’re portable, they sleep a ton, and when they’re not sleeping, they’re usually eating. You’re often not doing much, but you’re not quite free either. The key is entertaining yourself, but forgiving yourself, too. Do not overachieve your parental leave. You cannot fail at this. Those days of young babyhood aren’t a break or a vacation,” he said. “The word leave is a misnomer; it should be called a tour of duty.”

Ester is pregnant with her second and says that while she breast-fed her first, her husband read the entirety of the Harry Potter series aloud to her and their new baby. “I think my main piece of advice is to let everything possible slide. Your baby is safe, content, alive? A+, the end. There’s no extra credit for doing more than that, especially in those first few months.”

I guess I’ll save my grand bread-baking journey for when my kid starts kindergarten. Or, you know, that’s what I’m telling myself.

How You’ll Actually Spend Your Maternity Leave