Pre-Baby Maternity Leave Is the Strangest Vacation

Photo: Aleksei Adzhem/EyeEm/Getty Images

On a recent Monday, I woke up refreshed. Just kidding: I woke up exhausted — I’m 37.5 weeks pregnant and sleep is as elusive as a glimpse of any body part beneath my stomach. But this particular morning was the start of my maternity leave, a new chapter of life that I had been looking forward to with exceptional ardor.

Work meetings could be declined, the daily commute banished. Having gone from job to job with only a few days in between, it made sense to stop and take stock before having a kid. Going on leave pre-baby was a frequent bit of advice from other parents, to secure some non-baby personal time. It reminded me of how friends celebrated getting into graduate school by leaving their jobs early and doing fabulous things, like traveling in South America or taking cooking classes, secure in their knowledge that they would be gainfully employed in the future.

Except I was weeks away from my due date. When the day rolled around, it dawned on me: What was I going to do on maternity leave without a baby?

Pondering this question is, of course, a privilege. As the Cut and others have chronicled, America is shockingly bad about granting paid parental leave, in general — only 13 percent of private sector employees get any paid time off. Even New York City, whose mayor has been crowing about new parental leave policies for city employees, has more to be embarrassed than proud about: Only employees at the manager level get that new, paid six-week leave, leaving workers like teachers left to string together vacation and sick days to care for their newborns.

So, this is a lucky spot to occupy. Still, I can‘t go out drinking. I can’t get on a plane or even a train, really, unless I’m comfortable delivering an Amtrak baby. Any pretense of “wellness” is out of the question: I’m not going to start a new exercise regimen or go on a juice fast. Moving, in general, is rather unpleasant. The exact length of this vacation is wholly unknown. And yet the time is so precious, the last chance to [fill in the blank] before [fill in the blank]. It would be a shame to waste it.

Monday. First things first: Get out of bed. This takes more effort than it used to because I have to roll sideways and put my legs against the wall and then somehow use my belly as a fulcrum to hoist myself upright. It’s fairly ridiculous. But I got up around 7:30 a.m., made a pb&j, fed the cats, brewed coffee, and then, satiated, did something I’d been wanting to do for weeks but which the burden of going to work had prevented. I went back to bed.

Ninety minutes later, I repeated the exercise to get out of bed. I was still working remotely-ish, for the next few days, and had one very pressing order of business — to make myself an out-of-office message that would last for 14 weeks or so. Should I mention maternity leave being the reason for the absence? I went back and forth, but decided, yes, it only made sense to say why I would not be replying until the summer.

I wrote a message and turned it on, and then went back to the kitchen for more food. Within three minutes, my computer and phone began ringing. Apparently I had done something wrong and my OOO was activated to send retroactively to everyone who has ever sent me an email — so while I was grazing in the fridge, hundreds of emails were automatically being sent. One co-worker got an estimated 70 OOO messages from me in less than a minute. Public and private Slack channels were begging me to turn it off. Strangers began replying to congratulate me on the good news. My face burning, I frantically tried to find whatever setting had turned on the message in Mailbox. No dice. Tech support was not responding to my messages. Each second, more emails went out. Finally, I found the setting that has misfired the OOO and silenced it. Alone in my apartment, I stared out the window and adjusted the pillow that I have to sit on for my hemorrhoids.

Made a third breakfast of honey, Feta cheese, and toast. It was 10 a.m.

Online and in person, I solicited recommendations for how to fill this strange time. Many people mentioned going to the movies as something that you’d miss doing as a parent. Self-care activities like massages and manicures were also frequent suggestions. Two people suggested going on trips (to Hawaii and Miami). “Try your best NOT to spend every last second cleaning every spot of every part of your home,” opined one mother on Facebook. “My suggestion is to spend time with Patrick and enjoy your last days as a COUPLE,” added a well-meaning father.

On Tuesday, I rose again at 7:30 a.m. This day had some structure — lunch near midtown, a haircut appointment in Williamsburg, phone call to do my taxes, a work conference call, and then back to Manhattan for a movie. I read the internet all morning, soaking in the full range of content options that a day job had prevented me from accessing. I considered trying to go to an exercise class, but after scanning the pregnancy discussion boards (there are some people who still go running in the final weeks of their pregnancy) I decided I was not capable.

The walk to the subway was enough. Maybe more than enough. It was a relief to have plans, though, to keep moving, forestalling much thought. When I finally got home after 10 p.m., I told my husband that I was excited for the incoming blizzard. “It’ll be such a cozy day indoors,” I enthused. He looked up from his computer. “Indoors? We have a hospital appointment at 9 a.m. and then a doctor’s appointment after that,” he said. Oh right. We’re about to have a baby.

The doctor appointment and ultrasound had revealed that the baby had grown an alarming amount so I was back in the doctor’s office a few days later for another three-hour glucose test to test, again, for diabetes. So far, no daytime movies.

I brought my laptop with the idea that I’d finish off a few work loose ends. But I forgot the computer cord and iPhone cord, and spent the majority of the three-plus hours with my phone on airplane mode as I alternated Candy Crush and a really boring tile game. Canceled plans to meet a friend for a drink. Honestly, can’t remember what happened during the rest of the day. Probably went back to bed.

You might be wondering about Candy Crush. Wasting time has long been a shame of mine. I have friends who run marathons, go to yoga retreats, take care of their bodies with attention and skill. Other friends write books, start businesses, run for office, volunteer, focus on their families, take care of aging parents, write TV pilots, get into bullet journaling, have dinner parties, go to plays, go to art shows, travel. They live, basically, like we will all someday die. Some of these activities are “productive,” some are more inward-looking, but all seem more worthwhile than continuing to play Candy Crush while lying in bed in front of an open laptop.

It’s not even that I’m seeking pleasure through my screen time. At its core, it’s just a way to let the minutes and hours pass. Having a baby as a strategy to stop playing mobile phone games isn’t good, but is it really that bad?

A week or so into maternity leave, a bright spot emerged. I was spending a lot of quiet time by myself, something that I hadn’t realized was missing in a normal routine packed with commuting and meetings and socializing. This was something that came highly recommended by mothers. “Maybe try an isolation tank, because you’ll never be alone again in ya life,” cracked one friend on Facebook.

The condition of never being alone again had always struck me as one of the most ominous, nightmarish parts of parenthood — a point of no return.

After the snowstorm, the weather turned bright and warm. Alone in the apartment, I made a pile of waffles and opened a magazine, then my computer, and then the magazine. I washed the plate, fed the cats, and then decided to go on a walk to the park. It sounded nice, a pleasant, aimless jaunt, something that someone on maternity leave should do. Halfway there, I decided that it was more important to go to the grocery store and pick up more grapes and ice cream. Who was this walk for, anyway? My phone, dulled from Candy Crush, would be dying soon. I put it on airplane mode and picked a podcast and waddled on, still pregnant.

Pre-Baby Maternity Leave Is the Strangest Vacation