by Allison Lefrak
Allison Lefrak works as a consumer protection attorney at the Federal Trade Commission where she focuses on issues of privacy and data security. Previously, she was the Litigation Director at a non-profit organization that sought to promote compliance with human rights norms through domestic litigation. Allison spent ten years in private practice, most recently at Reed Smith LLP. She served as a judicial law clerk for the Honorable Welton Curtis Sewell of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Allison obtained her law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law. She earned her BA from Colgate University. Allison’s essays have been featured in Washington Woman and MomsRising. Allison’s op-ed about representing detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba was published in The National Law Journal and her essays are included in a book compilation - The Guantanamo Lawyers: Inside a Prison Outside the Law. Allison lives outside of Washington, DC with her husband and their three children.
This article was originally printed in Washington Woman and published by Knollwood Publications in 2009 and is being reprinted with permission. Knollwood Publications is the publisher of WashingtonParent.com.
Maternity Leave Zen
It took me two days of maternity leave—before the baby arrived—to get over the feeling that I was playing hooky.
I got a pedicure, stocked up on groceries, prepared meals and froze them, organized the baby clothes, installed the car seat. By day three, I’d long since forgotten about work and was toying with the idea of outlining a novel. Or maybe I’d dig out my old acrylics and start painting again. The world was my oyster—for about 10 minutes. Until my cell phone rang and “OBGYN’S OFFICE” appeared on the caller ID.
“Mrs. Lefrak? I’m calling to confirm your induction on Monday, December 3 at 7 a.m. You’ll need to register on Sunday night by 6 p.m. Do you have any questions?”
Three weeks earlier, I was officially too big for size large maternity clothes. The baby’s head was pressing against my bladder at all times, and I moaned myself to sleep at night. So when given a choice, I promptly selected the earliest induction date available. But now, with only two days to go, I worried that maybe I shouldn’t be tinkering with nature. Surely the baby would come out when he/she was ready. By then, my husband Malcolm had arranged to take three weeks off. I washed the bottles, unwrapped the diapers, set up the stuff ed animals. It was time to have the baby.
The birth was routine. I took drugs to start contractions, welcomed an epidural and demanded forceps seconds before the baby emerged on his own, saving himself from a cone-head birth announcement. When the nurse placed him in my arms seconds after he was born, I was stunned—an actual tiny little human being who happened to be screaming his head off.
With my craving for salmon avocado rolls satisfied, I accepted the nurse’s kind offer of more drugs to help me sleep. To my dismay, she woke me every two hours, turned on the lights and handed me the baby. “Luke is hungry again, mommy,” she’d say with a smile and disappear. Through all of this, Malcolm slept soundly on a child-sized plastic chair in the corner of the room.
The next morning, Malcolm went home to shower, deserting me with the red-faced little man. Luke peered at me from his plastic bed on wheels and began to cry. I hit the nurse button on the wall. “What can we do for you, Mrs. … uhh … LeFreak?” asked a loud disembodied voice. “It’s Lefrak. The baby is crying.” Silence.
A nurse appeared and surmised that Luke was hungry. Since my milk hadn’t come in, she recommended that I feed him formula. I watched as Luke hungrily gulped down a bottle of Similac.
Hours later, we were visited by Tamara—a lactation consultant with two long, thick braids hanging down her back. When I told her that I’d given Luke some formula, she looked at me as if I’d confessed to feeding him four ounces of Jim Beam. Convinced that we ruined our baby within 24 hours of his birth, I began sobbing. Malcolm announced, “We need to leave the hospital. Everything will be better when we get home.”
Three sleepless days and nights later, I checked email. The first message was from a law school friend. “Here’s some unsolicited advice,” she wrote. “Savor every day of your maternity leave. I tried to retain that blissful state of maternity leave Zen when I returned to work, but I just couldn’t do it.”
Maternity leave Zen? Was she serious? I was engorged with enough milk to feed sextuplets. A new lactation consultant had advised me to rent a hospital-grade pump to encourage milk flow, and that it did. I was certain that Luke was paying me back for having cut short his gestation period. What else could explain his pained expression and constant grunting? “It’s only day three. Things must get better or no one would have a second child. Right?” Malcolm asked with rapidly waning optimism.
Like the traitor I always suspected he was, Malcolm went back to work after three weeks. Never have I been more envious of another human being. A montage of Malcolm at work played over and over in my mind—Malcolm happily checking email, Malcolm making phone calls, Malcolm going to meetings, Malcolm high-fiving colleagues as he walked through the halls of his law firm. Back at the homestead, each day was the same for me—wake up tired, feed Luke, change Luke, try to nap while he slept, do laundry, bathe Luke, feed Luke, change Luke, day after day after day.
Finally, six weeks into my leave, Luke cracked his first smile, and I felt as if I’d won the lottery. With that one fleeting little gum-filled grin, he said, “You’re doing fine, Mom. I’m happy. This relationship is going to work out.”That same week, Luke slept six hours straight. And for the first time since his birth, I felt rested.
On an unseasonably warm day in March, nine days before I returned to work, I strapped Luke into a jogging stroller and went for a run along the canal. Later that day, I met a friend for lunch. Luke fell into a content slumber on our picnic blanket. That evening, he sat giggling in his swing watching me cook dinner. And as I stood there slicing tomatoes and avocados, it hit me, albeit belatedly, maternity leave Zen.
When each of my three children was born, I took three months of paid maternity leave. I never considered taking more time, primarily because I was concerned about the loss of income. I worked at a big law firm when I had my first two kids and that was the norm – most women returned to work after three months. When I had my third, I was working at a small non-profit organization that did not have a parental leave policy in place. As the first pregnant employee, I made a special request to the board to receive three months paid maternity leave, and thankfully, they granted my request.
There are so many things that make returning to work challenging after only three months of leave – fitting back into your work clothes, pumping at work if you decide to breastfeed the baby, getting up for work each morning if the baby is not yet sleeping through the night, leaving the baby in someone else’s care when he or she is still so tiny – just to name a few. Looking back on it now, I probably should have considered trying to take another month off each time, even if it would have been unpaid.
As I discuss in Maternity Leave Zen, with my first baby it felt like the three months of leave ended just as I was finally getting the hang of being a mom. My two subsequent maternity leaves, while similarly short, were much less stressful. I had more confidence and as a result, trusted my instincts. I finally got the hang of nursing, which for me did not come naturally the first time around. Lastly, and probably most importantly, the second and third babies were both much better sleepers right from the start. There is a reason that sleep deprivation is a form of torture – it drives even the sanest person crazy!
As difficult as that first maternity leave was, when I re-read Maternity Leave Zen, I look back on it with nostalgia and recognize that despite all of the tears (both the baby’s and mine!), it was still a very special time in my life.