Over the past few weeks, I felt that my pregnancy had become a chore. I was trying to stay fit by going to yoga and walking. I was also trying to get enough sleep (because you never know) and being in touch with friends before life became even more chaotic. All of this, while also making sure I could get a sort of maternity leave — a time during which I wouldn’t be expected to be online every day to write, edit, teach or be accountable.

Trying to organise maternity leave caused more stress than I was willing to admit, as I explained last week. When I became a mother to Lorenzo, our family’s financial situation was quite unstable and, as a freelancer, I simply could not afford to stop working.

I marched through that period like a soldier. I felt like a superhero. But as anyone who’s watched a Hollywood movie knows, every superhero only appears indestructible. Sooner or later, they always come face-to-face with the weaknesses they’d rather keep hidden.

The toll of working through and after a pregnancy

I did everything with Lorenzo attached to my boobs (I reckon that for his first four months of life, I must have breastfed him 18 hours a day). Lorenzo also had a lot of firsts before he could even crawl. When he was six weeks old, he became the youngest attendee at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, where I was moderating a panel on Latin America. At two months old, he came with me to Rome for an interview with a senior politician.

When he was three months old, we left the house we were housesitting in central Italy and went off for a one-month work assignment in Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost point, and an arrival point for migrants. At five months, he became the youngest attendee at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Lausanne, Switzerland, where I travelled to as a fellow.

During that time, I also taught English online, edited and wrote many stories for Worldcrunch, and applied for several jobs and fellowships. In parallel, my partner Nacho also had his work going on, including a brief stint as the manager of a boutique hotel in Italy, but we managed to travel together during conferences and assignments so that we could make things work.

A part of me felt like a superwoman. There was a hormonal high, no doubt, that was based on managing to breastfeed successfully while staying focused on work. I guess I never found out what it meant to shift gears because I pretty much carried on with my normal life, except that now I had a baby to feed and take care of all along (and yes, I slept less, and yes, it was very tiring). But I had no option. I just did it.

It wasn’t until last year that I realised what a toll the lack of maternity leave had had on me. After losing my job at independent news outlet The Correspondent during the pandemic, when I was the household’s main breadwinner, and then miscarrying twice, I really struggled mentally. I felt huge amounts of pressure and the only thing I wanted to do was to stop trying to make things work out and just take a break from work.

I didn’t, and I was lucky. I got some great work offers, and things started looking up. So much so that as my pregnancy progressed, I realised I could afford to take some time off with the my next baby’s birth — but first I had to wrap up the seven different jobs I had. And when last week I realised that I was on track, and that I could really get to the point where I could put my feet up and watch a series and walk while waiting for the baby to come, something huge lifted from my chest.

An identity beyond work

It was a pressure that I had been carrying around with me for years. The pressure to make money, the pressure to show that motherhood had not affected my productivity, the pressure to be a present mother even if I was working. So much pressure.

It was a physical relief too. Last week, I was struggling to walk because my left hip felt stuck. This week I feel so much lighter. I don’t know what it means to be a full-time mother, and I am sure it will scare me in many ways, but this is what I want for myself at this point: to have a few days of rest and then to welcome this new baby into our home. To give myself and the baby time to simply be.

Life will probably become very chaotic, but I want to embrace that. I am not sure what my identity is beyond my professional self, and I want to find out what is there too.

And more importantly, I want this maternity leave because I believe every person who has a child should be granted time at home to be there with their baby. I believe paid family leave, especially maternity leave, is incredibly important and we should all be fighting for it to become a reality in our world.

The many benefits of maternity leave

While there has been significant progress over the past century when it comes to family leave (especially leave for fathers), the International Labour Organization recognises that only few countries grant proper paid leave to parents. The United States is the only rich country in the world not to grant any state-wide policy to its citizens, but coverage is limited worldwide, especially for women who have part-time jobs, or do informal work (or are freelancers, like me), and receive little or no government benefits.

And paid leave is important. A 2021 study looked at the health of mothers in Finland before and after maternity leave came into effect, and it concluded that the 1977 reform improved mothers’ physical and mental health, and also increased healthier behaviours, such as exercise and not smoking. The effects were more significant for first-time and low-resource mothers and women who would have taken little unpaid leave in the absence of the reform.

There is also a wealth of research showing how much paid leave benefits children: it has been linked to lower infant mortality rates and higher rates of vaccination, and better child-parent bonding, among others.

So, for my sake and my family’s too, I am taking some self-attributed leave. It is not paid leave, mind you, but I have organised my work so that I could afford to take most of the months of November and December off.

What does this mean for you, the reader?

What does it mean for this newsletter, and for you, my readers and supporters?

I have prepared some newsletters ahead of schedule so that you won’t miss me too much. They will come to your inboxes every other week between 3 November and 19 January, when I plan to be back to work with many stories to share, and with a totally new perspective on this part of the first 1,000 days of life.

In the meantime, please feel free to leave comments or email me. I won’t switch off completely, and it will be nice to hear from you. Also, please recommend this newsletter to a friend or family. The newsletter has grown too slowly this year, and I want to make sure that my writing reaches more people.

You can tell your friends that they can sign up for free here, scrolling to the bottom of the homepage. And if you feel like getting someone a membership as a present, you can do so here.

Finally, I have opened a PayPal account to receive donations. Even if you can’t afford to pay for a monthly or yearly membership for The First 1,000 Days, you can leave one-off donations here, and they will go towards my maternity leave fund. 🙏

And for founding members, I will be back with monthly calls — most likely in a renewed, more engaging format — in February 2023. Watch out for this space!

What I’ve been reading

Seven out of ten children in Egypt are born by Caesarian section, over three times the world average, according to recent government data. C-sections may be more profitable and easier to schedule for overworked and understaffed medical personnel, but they represent a higher physical and mental health risk for new mothers and babies. This article by Egypt’s independent media platform Mada Masr looks at how civil society and the government are trying to bring more awareness regarding natural births, and how hard it is to reverse the trend.

What I’ve been listening to

This is an interesting episode of the Some Families podcast that focuses on LGBTQ+ families. It features a lesbian couple who went through pregnancy at the same time and gave birth to their children on the same day. Sandeep joins from Hong Kong, where she works as an English teacher. She explains how hard it was to be considered as a couple in the public hospital and what a bonding experience it was to go through a pregnancy at the same time as her partner

What I’ve been watching

I watched Nanette, the 2018 stand-up show by Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby, and I can’t recommend it enough. It is funny, dark, deep and real all at once. It deals with the sexism, homophobia and assaults that Gadsby has faced in her own life, but also with art, the tools of comedy, mental health and pain. It slaps white straight men right in the face, in a very direct but smart way, and it is impossible not to talk about the concepts of gender and our roles in society afterwards. Please watch, and let’s talk about it!

Who’s been inspiring me

This op-ed by Guardian columnist Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett manages to get straight to the heart of a very important question: why it is important for free childcare to exist. Cosslett tackles what some taxpayers may say: “Why should I pay for you to have a child? If you can’t afford to look after your child, don’t have one.” She made me laugh with her comeback: “‘Why should I pay for someone to have had a child in 1948 who is now in a dementia nursing home?’ Or: ‘Why should any of us pay for anything? Why don’t we just, I don’t know, roll around in our own excrement?’ Because what is society? What is humanity? Let’s just all be chimps, picking fleas off each other. Which is actually quite a nice communal childcare model, come to think of it. At least when compared with what is available in Britain.”

What members have been saying

Thanks for all the lovely messages you sent in after reading my newsletter last week about my fears around giving birth. Some congratulated me for managing to organise myself to take time off to welcome the newest member of our family. Others sent reassuring messages about how much more confident they felt with the second child compared to their first. “You realise how much you learnt the first time around,” wrote one reader, adding that boobs also remember how to breastfeed! I’d love to hear your thoughts about your fears and lack thereof in case you had a second child. It is never too late to leave a message. You can do so by writing below this story on the website.

With love and care, 

📣 The First 1,000 Days is edited by community member and friend, Shaun Lavelle.

Photo credits and alt-text: Markus Spiske on Unsplash, pacifier on a wooden desk.

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