Applying a project management tool to avoid post-birth surprises and stress.
Before I went on my first maternity leave, I felt ready.
My hospital bag was packed, and I had picked out my painkiller and breathing techniques. This over focus on the delivery feels embarrassing now.
I was horribly underprepared for my baby’s arrival.
After interviewing hundreds of new moms, I realize that my experience wasn’t unique. Nearly 3 in 4 new moms felt at least moderately well prepared for their baby’s arrival.
What it was actually like in the first months after birth is often a different story.
Source: 4th Mom Maternity Leave Experience Study (Data as of October 20, 2022). Themes from the Q: How would you describe the first 3 months after your most recent baby was born?
Unfortunately, my findings are not new.
A study of new mothers’ experiences from 25 years ago found common feelings of being ‘unready’ and ‘realizing’.
There have to be ways to get better at managing this.
A lens to plan for the unexpected
Thinking back, I should have applied a project management tool that I’ve used to map out unfamiliar and complex assignments. I initiatively started doing this before my next child was born.
The approach is to write out the knowns and unknowns of a new situation. Doing this helped me identify planning blind spots, understand the range of questions I needed to address, and develop back-up plans.
It goes like this:
Source: My drawing of the knowns and unknowns framework
The horizontal axis related to my awareness. It covers things that I’m already aware of (knowns), and the open questions I have (my unknowns).
The vertical axis is what happens as a result of these things. When something is consistent and clearly understood, it has a known impact. Conversely, if something happens erratically or infrequently, its impact on me is unknown.
Knowns and unknowns of having a newborn
Here’s what drawing out this experience looked like for me:
Source: My application of the knowns and unknowns framework
Known-knowns: I was ready to learn how to care for a baby.
Before my first daughter arrived I started reading baby books about how to take care of a baby. Learning how to breastfeed wasn’t easy, for instance, but it was something I was braced to navigate.
These obvious needs are where most people focus.
Unknown-knowns: I overlooked what the first 6-weeks would feel like day-to-day.
Experiences of loneliness and exhaustion are common, and I was clueless. By asking the right questions, or reading Reddit threads like this one, I could have been better prepared.
Source: Me on maternity leave
The next time around, I knew to ask my husband request more time off of work, and to ask friends to reach-out and see how I’m doing.
Known-unknowns: The potential complications of delivery.
While it will be unclear which issues would happen during and after labor, on the whole I knew that complications are common.
Approximately 4 in 10 new moms experience medical issues during labor and delivery, according to this study. Serious complications can appear throughout the first year. Postpartum depression, for instance, impacts roughly 1 in 6 new moms.
Given this, I outlined complications that I had bigger chances of encountering, given my circumstance.
For instance, my first daughter cried for hours every evening, for weeks on end. I was mentally prepared that my next child could have colic. We had a contingency plan where my husband would be back from work in the early evenings to trade out.
This plan helped me feel more in control.
Unknown-unknowns: Identity changes that I didn’t anticipate.
After my 3rd child, I took a step down from a VP to a Director-level role to have less travel and more mental bandwidth for my family. I never thought I’d value flexibility more than reaching the next career level, but here we are.
Having prepared well for the other circumstances, I was well-positioned to handle this curveball.
Source: Us out on a hike
Understanding how to prepare for my baby’s arrival made the whole maternity leave experience more enjoyable.
What would the known/unknown framing look like for your situation?