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Will maternity leave make me invisible? | Life and style


Why does it feel like a bigger deal preparing for maternity leave than it does for maternity itself? I look back at first-time me, springing out of the office on maternity leave, young and jowl-less, glowing with naivety and vitamin supplements, and I feel a melancholy affection for that sweet little girl. How little I knew. How simple that brain. This time, no. This time, the prospect of lockdown with a newborn and a five-year-old looming, I am an angry barrel rolling slowly from the building, sloshing with anxiety and ill will.

By the time you read this, I will be gone. I will have ceased to exist in my former identity, a working woman with deadlines and people to chat to by the teapoint and a morning commute. A person of whom more is expected than simply keeping a baby warm and quiet. Not much more, sure – but certainly things like getting to the office on time, performing a certain degree of critical thinking, conversational tact, computer skills, tuna sandwich and, if there’s time, wit.

It may be less of a shock this second roll around, to go on maternity leave and find myself emptied of meaning beyond your basic love and care. I hope so, anyway. Rather than a holiday, to me five years ago, it felt more like sick leave, like a kind of… flu with benefits, overwhelming exhaustion, bleak eyes, violent love, a constant thirst for the life not led. I remember tepid glasses of water, just out of reach, and days that started at night but rarely had an end. I remember an addiction-like yearning to wash my hair, a task grounded partly in the need to stand under hot water and clean myself, but also, the need to stand under hot water, alone.

I’m lucky enough to have worked ever since leaving school, and to have enjoyed almost most of it, whether standing on a shop floor and advising women about bra sizes, or uploading text message-length pop reviews to a mobile phone website, or chopping up writers’ prose with a serrated fingernail, or interviewing strangers, or writing these extended tweets. So to step away from it, from “work”, that hot wind that propels so many of us forward, feels deeply uncomfortable.

There is a clear gravel pathway to stroll along when working – not only are there moments of success and creativity, but there is a schedule, and there are grown-ups to complain to, and there are tasks to achieve, hourly. The indescribable joy of bitching quietly on the way back from lunch, or finding a new little friend when you both hum along to a stranger’s ringtone. And there is the cash, of course, a transaction that confirms your time is valuable, and allows the other cogs of life to turn.

On maternity leave, when you veer off that gravel path down a milky, shrubby bank, you find yourself alternately wading through puddles and heather, often lost. Without the wind behind me I found it hard to remember what a week should look like, and which direction I was meant to be facing. And all of this, all of this with the knowledge that at work you have literally been replaced. I mean, I’m a very, very cool guy, but even I have the odd pang, the odd worry that by leaving the room I will become invisible.

To be given leave to be maternal suddenly strikes me as a terrifying concept. And one that offers troubling weight to the week a woman returns to work, when, it suggests, she will no longer care for, about, her child quite as much. Maternity leave is a concept ripe with iconography – along with ideas of bonding and cosiness and expensive blankets, this is where ideas of the perfect mother are formed. In nests lined with parenting books, in a sudden surplus of time, in WhatsApp conversations late at night when the paranoia wakes, in the inevitable competitive rush as new mothers compare weaning plans, bowel movements, tits. Love makes every feeling bigger, even guilt and pain: unattainable ideals appear in the dark of a 5am feed like ghosts. Social media feeds your anxiety like fois gras farmers feed their geese.

But I’m determined that this time will be different. Partly because of all these shadowy lessons, learned hard. And partly because this time I will lean into the change. For all my horror at losing the identity I’d carefully created out of 30 years of uneducated opinions and blueish jokes, the benefit of returning to work, finally, was that I found something else waiting on the other side. A new appreciation of the prosaic, of the small – the joy of half an hour alone on a cool but sunny day. And then, the realisation that the old you comes back, albeit slowly and in sharp Lego-like pieces, which take a while to reassemble. But then, finally, you’re standing again, complete with cynicism, clean jumper, thoughts on the Labour party. Sure, you’re a slightly different shape – some corners sanded down, your colour now sepia-ed, but human and strong, and with something at home that needs you. See you then, friends.

Email Eva at e.wiseman@observer.co.uk or follow her on Twitter @EvaWiseman



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