I don’t remember it being so hard before. No, I’m not talking about the pregnancy. And I’m not even talking about the delivery. I’m talking about going back to work. Somehow 12 weeks flew by, my maternity leave was over, and I had to return to the office last week.

Before I go on, I’ll start by saying that I know how lucky I am to have been able to cobble together 12 weeks of paid leave. Maternity (and paternity for that matter) leave in the States is a joke, but that’s a whole other discussion altogether. Add to that cruel joke that at the point where our babies start to “talk,” smile and become interactive, back to work we go.

Maternity leave for me, and I suspect many other loss moms, is a momentous time filled with all sorts of emotions. There’s the pure joy of finally getting to bring your breathing, living, and hopefully healthy baby home. There’s the overwhelm of caring for this new life. The craze of hormones racing through your body. And there’s the guilt, grief and sadness of the baby(ies) you never had this opportunity with. That’s quite a combination to deal with on a good day, let alone a sleep deprived one.

When I was home on leave with C, it was the most calm and relaxed I have ever been. I may not have carried or birthed him, but he was our son, and it felt incredible to finally have a baby home with us. I spent those three months peacefully enjoying motherhood, with all focus on him and our family. Now, that’s not to say that there weren’t moments of chaos, sleeplessness and uncertainty, but the overall was a feeling of relief and joy. He was formula fed, so Aaron and I switched off on feedings, and those feedings were quick 20 minutes, changed and back to bed. When my leave was ending, I was able to ease back into work with a combination of working from home and in the office. I wasn’t ready to go back, but I made the most of it.

Fifteen months later, my maternity leave with J was completely different. I was so relieved and proud to have carried him to term, and so frazzled. It wasn’t that I delivered him and was recovering, it was not having a clue about how much breastfeeding entails and not being prepared for that. J was a fussy baby, and I questioned my abilities as a mother (even though my gut told me I was doing a great job). And I was also trying to balance having a toddler running around. Aaron and I went to man-to-man defense, and we got into our groove with the boys, and I started to navigate working full-time while being the mother of two under two.

Fast forward three years, and my time off with Little E was all over the board. This time, I knew what to expect from nursing, but the chaos of having a 4 and 3 year old in addition to a newborn posed new challenges. Aaron and I went back to zone defense, trying to put together a new play book, for a game where the rules were constantly changing. I looked forward to my quiet time with Little E during the week when the boys were in school. I tried to stay present, enjoying each moment, knowing this was the last time I’d have this opportunity. On my last day of leave, I sobbed…we’re talking big ugly cries throughout the day, as though I’d never see Little E again. I was going back more exhausted then when I had left, and uncertain of how it was going to come together.

As these 12 weeks ended, I look back and wonder where it went and what I accomplished. I had all sorts of goals in mind. In addition to spending time with the baby, giving my body the chance to recover, and catching up on sleep, there was so much I wanted to do: write, exercise, cook, organize…the list goes on. Sure, I realize (and probably knew then) that this was not practical, and quite frankly unrealistic, yet the pressure to do it all, and do it well while smiling was there.

But then I remembered an article a dear friend shared with me. And I remembered I should be kind to myself and really take a look at what I had done during my time off. When I stepped back, I realized I did exactly what I was supposed to do. I spent quality time with my beautiful, new son. I took naps. I fed him. I read with him. I made him feel safe, warm and loved. And I even showered and got dressed every single morning. #winning!

As a loss mom, and a mom in general, it is easy to get caught up with “the shoulds” of motherhood. And it is easy to rationalize it by saying, I worked so hard to get to this point, I should only be grateful and do all of the things. Yes, and…this is still real life. As another loss mom friend reminded me, don’t invalidate how tough it is in the moment. And right now, it is tough. I’m not sure how I’m going to do it, or what’s in store for me. What I do know is that I can make the choice to not try to figure it all out. I can make the choice to breathe, and to put one foot in front of the other to keep moving forward.

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