When Sophie Ader (my former executive boss) had her first child, she took maternity leave and returned to work part-time a year later as is the case for many professional women in Australia. At the time, this was the longest maternity leave ever taken by an executive leader in our area of work. Like so many new parents, Sophie found the juggle of working parenthood in a high-level position quite taxing, despite having a supportive partner and employer. Plus, so much had changed for her since becoming a parent.
When on maternity leave with her second child not long after, Sophie took the opportunity to think more about aligning her values and passions with her daily experiences – deciding to seek volunteering opportunities while on leave. It was through those volunteering opportunities that Sophie serendipitously landed her dream role combining her passion for Indigenous knowledge/ culture and native flora.
Sophie encourages all mothers to take the time they need away from work during maternity leave to hold space for what they may want in their future, acknowledging for some this is a short time and for others it may be much longer.
Read more about Sophie’s pregnancy to postpartum journey below:
What was your game plan career-wise for having kids?
With the second, the year off allowed me to volunteer in an area I am truly passionate about. I just took her along in a carrier, breastfed in meetings and changed poo in car parks and cafes! But hey, I was a volunteer so it was more relaxed. That led to an opportunity of a paid job in an area I feel I was born to do.
So, time away from my ‘career’, actually led to the best shift in what my work life has become.
In terms of a game plan though…none of it was planned, apart from knowing I wanted to take a year off when they were each first born, and I wanted to return part time for a while.
Some mums make the same choice, others make the choice to return full-time quite soon after their baby is born, out of necessity or because that’s just them. All the choices we each make are the exact right ones for ourselves and our situation. We are all different, doing the best we can.
Did you engage in any pre-natal education?
Yes, we joined the group with the private clinic and found this really beneficial for learning about what to expect with the birth, and to meet people at the same stages of pregnancy as us (which later became a mums group). We also did the Australian Breastfeeding Association course, and I subsequently joined the association. Seriously such a great organisation – I cannot recommend it enough. Breastfeeding, despite the picturesque pictures you always see, is NOT at first picturesque! It is a skill that we need to learn, and can be daunting. ABA is fantastic support.
What made pregnancy such a positive experience for you?
I was just amazed at the whole process. I can’t say it was all easy or pleasant. The foot swelling, carpal tunnel syndrome, sickness, weight gain, mind fog and all that comes with growing a human being were completely unlike anything I’ve been through before, but I got good support and information, and was relatively healthy and engaged in my work, so managed to stay pretty positive and excited about it all.
How did you feel about your first birth?
I was nervous about the birth. I don’t think I was clear in my mind whether I really wanted to try for a natural birth or not – my mother almost died and still has horrific injuries and resulting lack of functions down stairs as a result. We tried for natural, and wanted to induce, but as my son became 10 days overdue, with still no signs of becoming ready, my obstetrician said that there was a 50/50 chance of needing an emergency c-section, given his size vs my size. He was born the size of a 6 week old. So… I made the right call in the end as we both had a very healthy and safe delivery and recovery. But in truth, and something I probably haven’t ever admitted out loud before, I doubt that I had enough faith in my own body at the time to really press for a natural birth, even if he had arrived “on time”. I had fear of pain, of a re-lived experience from my mum’s horrible trauma.
What was the best thing you did to prepare for parenthood?
Gosh…. what ever prepares you for such a thing?… Australian Breastfeeding Association is probably one of the best things, but also just being present in the moment, slowly buying the bits and pieces I needed to get my mind ready for the life of another human being, being part of pre-birth mums groups to share fears and worries with. The other thing I think is to try and just accept and ‘know’ that you will cope. It will be hard, but you will do it. I was never really too worried… more excited! And though as a mum you doubt so many of your decisions, and feel guilt about a lot too… at the end of the day, kids are resilient, and we love each other so much.
What do you wish you had done or wish was available to help you to prepare for parenthood?
Hmm, you can never really prepare for what sleep deprivation does, but I think a little more of a heads up about it and the effects, and what you can do to keep healthy (as you can) through this time, while also remaining the type of parent you wish to be. I think also getting the awareness that it is totally NORMAL for night waking, and society isn’t designed to accommodate mums of bubs in its fast pace – we need to carve this out for ourselves! The Milk Meg (a lactation consultant based in the Sunshine Coast) has a book called ‘boobin all day, boobin all night’, which really helped to normalise the night waking for me. Once I accepted it, it became easier, and I started figuring out what worked for me to roll with the night waking and how I felt during the days of poor sleep weeks. Also, the change to your purpose and identity is big. You feel that momentum you had, or planned for your career is halted, and despite any skills, ambitions, qualifications and experience you have, little of it seems to matter in the first months! Your most important job becomes keeping this little person alive, and yourself sane. It throws a spotlight on your strengths, and shows you dimensions of yourself you didn’t realise you had. Some positive, some that could use development!
Tell us more about your most challenging aspect of the postpartum period for you.
With my first, it was sleep deprivation and the effect that had on most aspects of my life. But to be honest, more challenging has been after my second – she has just wanted me all the time, not her dad. She’s 2.5 now and is only just really starting to enjoy his company. So, for the first 12-18 intense months, I very very rarely got much of a break, day or night. Now in her second year, she goes to day-care 3 days a week while I work part time, so I get a bit more of a break, but it’s still me she favours. This has really impacted on so many areas. The hardest for me being the impact on the relationship with my son. He was almost 3 at the time she was born. I really missed the one on one time with him, and the mummy-son connection bubble. That impact, the loss of my own personal space and identity and ability to do much else than look after this little being, and the sleep dep, really got me down, and at times this manifested as an anger which really took me by surprise and made me doubt myself. Having read more into it, I believe it was a form of postnatal depression, and sleep dep, but there were a range of factors in there.
What part of early parenthood surprised or excited you the most, what has been the best part?
The love – it’s like nothing ever in this world! I literally would jump in front of a bus to save my kids if I had to. I wouldn’t give 2 thoughts to it. The other part is watching these beautiful little people emerge and grow and learn, and become whoever they are becoming, in their own sweet time.
What does it mean to you to ‘Postpartum like a boss’?
In life, there is time for everything. There is time to be a boss, time to help many, time to be a mother, time to help just a little. Don’t stress about your career, or your job, or that project you really want to be part of that you’ll miss out on, or that next job opportunity. It will unfold as it’s meant to.
I will add to that advice to always keep a little bit of your dream and passion alive in you, even if that’s in a small way – a thought, a book, a Facebook group, so that when you are in the thick of motherhood and on those hard, tough days, you don’t lose yourself. You have something that remains you and yours, that you can use as a guiding light when that horrible mum doubt niggles at you and clouds your thoughts.
Gemma Smith is a Postpartum Doula based in Brisbane, Australia. Gemma is also a mother of two under three, partner of one over 32, former HR professional, recovering perfectionist and lover of study. Gemma’s qualifications include; Master of Social Work, Bachelor of Creative Arts, Diploma of Yoga Teaching, Diploma of Business Management and Postpartum Professional certification.