It's a recognised fact that when we face the limits of our physical endurance we come face to face with who we really are - which is why it often causes people to make huge changes in their life.
For some, having a baby can push you close to that limit. (OK, ok, I know that's a bit dramatic, but it really did feel like that for me). Never one to do things by halves, I doubled the norm and had two babies at once. I spent the first couple of months physically and mentally exhausted. I remember very little of that time - it's like a foggy 'morning after the night before' kind of memory. Snippits of memories of family and friends coming to visit and images of mountains of nappies and bottles surface from time to time, but for the most part, it's a haze.
Sleep came in broken fragments - I remember rejoicing once when I was woken up and looked at the clock to see I'd managed a whole hour of uninterrupted sleep. I have no idea how many total hours of sleep I was averaging in a 24 hour period - I'd be surprised if it added up to more than 4. I had known 'tired' before, but this was something else again. This was proper sleep deprivation.
And it brought me face to face with me.
Not the me that had been on autopilot for years - getting up around 7am (after pressing snooze twice on the 6.50am alarm); catching the train to work (pressed up inappropriately against complete strangers); sitting in an office all day talking and writing emails about mundane things (in the belief that it must be important to someone, somewhere); and then cosying up again to all those other closed-off commuters to get home and have a brief evening to myself before doing it all again the next day.
It's easy to slip into that kind of life. For me, days merged into one long weekday and one short weekend day. Weeks, months, years, passed by without much happening. Sure, it felt like things were happening at the time, but when I look back there are a collection of experiences - some of them fantastic, admittedly - but no real 'landmarks' in the landscape of my last decade.
But then came maternity leave. For 4 weeks I had no job to go to or even think about; and no babies yet. For the first time, probably since I was at university, I was completely free to do what I wanted for days on end. Of course, what I wanted most of all was to sit on the sofa like a beached whale - I was huge and had no energy. But still, the feeling of freedom was starting to take hold.
And then suddenly I was a mum of twins. The exhaustion and sleep deprivation hit me, and oddly, I felt... alive. And more... me. A 'me' I didn't really recognise, but 'me' nonetheless. The hormones of motherhood probably had something to do with it, as did the reality of two babies who needed me for absolutely everything. But whatever it was, it made me realise I could never go back to my old life and my old job. It didn't even feel real anymore - just a vague feature in my collection of memories.
But it was real. My employer was still paying (a portion of) my salary for a start. And as the weeks turned into months and my babies starting sitting up and contemplating solid food, the reality of going back to work became bigger and stronger and more... real.
I knew I had to find an option that didn't involve going back to my soulless corporate existence. But time was against me. By the time the sleep deprivation wore off and I was able to string a coherent sentence together I'd already given my notice that I was coming back early. 5 months early to be precise. Finances had been the decider - naturally.
'What?' I hear you ask. 'I thought you said it was the perfect time to quit your job?' Well it was. Absolutely perfect. But I didn't do it. I know now that it would have been absolutely the right thing for me to do. I know now, with glorious hindsight, that jumping back onto the City of London conveyor belt was the worst thing I could have done.
I won't go into my whole story here. I wrote about it on my blog a while ago so you can read it there. The reason I'm sharing this now is because I didn't do it and I should have. And if you're reading this and can draw any parallels to your own situation, perhaps you should do it too.
A few years on and I did eventually quit. I quit my job; I quit London; I even quit my marriage. And I can say with absolute honesty that despite financial precariousness and balancing a 'full time' business with 'full time' single parenting; running my own business is the most satisfying, rewarding, right thing for me thing that I've ever done.
But maternity leave would have been a better time to do it. Cleaner. Simpler. Easier. Yes, it's a balancing act to give yourself enough time to break through the physical endurance phase of early newborn motherhood, and then switch into a productive mode where baby naptimes make a perfect opportunity to build a business of your own, study for a new qualification, retrain for a new career, or whatever else you feel you need to do.
Maternity leave is a time of change and that makes it a perfect time for change. Tackled in the right way, it may turn out to be the perfect time to quit your job too.
You can find out about my upcoming 6 week online programme - the Career Reinvention Kit - on the Maternity Leavers website.