There is a certain degree of mindfulness needed to survive and thrive on maternity leave in Mwanza.
Mwanza is not a booming metropolis and as a result there are scant opportunities for Mum and Baby entertainment. Some entertaining activities can be created through one’s own initiative; others can be adapted to fit into something beneficial for both Mama and the little one.
With few groups to go and join, my mind turns to the desire for productivity at home.
I work in increments of time when the babe is sleeping and needing nothing from me, and keep a running To Do list that brings a genuine sense of elation as it is reduced by my efforts. It feels validating, as if I have done something worthwhile with my day.
Hold up just a second…
I’m on maternity leave, which is paid support from my employer to recover from birth and take care of my infant son. There are countries, like the good old United States of America, where parents are not always provided with this benefit. Even here in Tanzania, normal maternity leave is 3 months and by the time I return to work, I will have been blessed with double that amount of time.
So, why is it that just taking care of my son doesn’t feel like enough?
I think we know that motherhood has always come up short when ranked in the list of one’s accomplishments. Going back even just to my mother’s generation, it would be rare to find a woman who struggled to justify staying at home with her kids. Many women stayed home, at least for a period. Going back two generations to my grandmother’s era, women were expected to be at home, unless of course it was wartime.
And we mothers can rant and rave about the devaluation of motherhood. We can post on our mommy blogs that raising a child is the most important work we’ll ever do. We can talk about it when we meet together. And I hope we do, because the world needs to keep hearing that motherhood is valuable.
But there is something wrong when even I, a new mother, find myself feeling like what I do taking care of my son all day is not substantial enough to feel like an accomplishment. There is something out of place when I find myself irritated with my son’s inability to nap well because of its impact on my self-imposed need for productivity.
Until I learn to be still and present in the repetitive sleep-wake-play-feed cycle of babyhood, I will keep hustling for some other activity to make my day feel worthwhile. And perhaps more importantly, I will miss it. Miss the little moments, the little changes, the new discoveries. Finding peace in those moments, in both the beauty of babyhood and all the frustration, allows me to make the best use of this time and to ride the waves of infancy with my little one. By practicing being present, I can place value on what I do rather than trying to fill space with other things.
But as I learn the importance of being present, I also experience the struggle of it. It’s a lot like meditation. If you’ve done a bit of meditation, you’ll know that as soon as you get into the seated position and focus on your breath for more than a few minutes, your muscles start to fire and you feel like you would give anything to be able to move. Or to follow those tangential thoughts wherever they may lead. Focusing on the breath becomes challenging, requires discipline.
One of my all time favourite slam poets, Andrea Gibson says, “…anyone who has ever sat in lotus for more than a few seconds knows it takes a hell of a lot more muscle to stay than to go.”
Practicing being present is similar. I focus in for a few minutes at a time and find myself itching to do something more intellectually stimulating or productive. My small son reminds me to be present at intervals throughout the day. As I’m feeding him and reading about Trump’s latest escapades on Twitter, I notice his eyes locked on mine asking me to pay attention. So I do, I put the phone down for a few minutes and carve that moment into my memory.
It’s as if I am fighting with myself to savour and remember these moments. I find myself writing down the memory often; how soft his skin feels or how he smells, what he looks like when he’s sleeping. I don’t want to forget anything, I am afraid I will forget everything and yet, I continue to be distracted.
I am learning how to sit still in that discomfort, to notice the little moments that pass by so quickly and to focus in on this little love who has come into my world and who has made that world so very small. I am fighting with my tendency for distraction and drive for productivity to stay in this, to stay with him, one tiny moment at a time.
For now, he wakes and I return to craft some way to make playtime a bit more interesting today. I raise my half-filled coffee mug to all the Mamas (and indeed Papas too!) who do this every day, may you find satisfaction in what you do and the staying power to be present in these fleeting days of infancy.