I’ve had three babies and three postpartum experiences. But this is the first time I’ve been postpartum during a pandemic.

My third baby was born in January 2020, 8 weeks before the world shut down. As I write, we’ve now spent 10 weeks isolated at home. That means my baby and I have been in quarantine longer than we’ve been out.

It sounds worse than it is, actually. Once I got past the initial shock of realizing the first 2 months of my baby’s life would forever be earmarked as “Before Corona” — and once I accepted our new reality might last longer than expected — I was able to see quarantine in a new light.

It’s no secret that the first year after birth is incredibly difficult, no matter the circumstances. Besides learning the preferences and personality of a new baby, your body, mind, emotions, and relationships are all in flux. You might feel like your career or financial life have taken a hit. Chances are you feel like your very identity is shifting in some way.

To make things more challenging, in our country, the protocol for postpartum care and family leave is antiquated at best. The paradigm of working motherhood is to return as fast as possible, hide the evidence of having pushed out a child, and prove your commitment and capabilities all over again.

Strive for balance, they tell us. But there is no balance when you have to fully abandon your own healing or ignore half of your identity in order to survive. I’ve often thought it wasn’t balance we should aspire to, but integration.

Experiencing the fourth trimester in quarantine forced me into just that: an integrated lifestyle where the lines between family time, caring for baby, work, and self-care blurred. What I’ve discovered is, in some ways, postpartum in quarantine is easier — a gift, even. And in some ways, it’s much harder.

But across the board, spending the first months of my baby’s life at home with our family has made it abundantly clear: time, flexibility, and support are what new moms need most in order to thrive.

I have spent every day with my baby for the last 18 weeks. This fact is mind-boggling to me. It’s longer than any maternity leave I’ve had before, and we’ve experienced huge benefits as a result.

Extending maternity leave

With my first baby, I returned to work 12 weeks after birth. With my second baby, I returned to work after 8 weeks.

Both times when I went back to work, my milk supply plummeted. The pump just wasn’t as effective for me — maybe because it doesn’t trigger the same oxytocin release. Or maybe I always felt guilty leaving my desk to pump, so I put it off as long as possible. In any case, I had to fight for every blessed ounce of milk with my last two kids. But not this time.

I’ve been pumping since we came home from the hospital, preparing for the day when he would have to go to day care. And each morning, I’m shocked at the amount of milk that I express, even after a feed.

Being with my third baby day in, day out has allowed me to nurse him on demand. And because breastfeeding is a demand-driven process, I haven’t seen the same drop in my milk supply that I experienced both times before. This time my milk supply has increased over time as my baby has grown.

Time with my baby has also heightened my instincts. Babies grow and change fast. For me, it always seemed like what worked to calm my babies changed each month and I had to get to know them all over again.

This time, being with my son all day every day, I notice small changes in his mood or demeanor quickly. Recently, picking up on small cues throughout the day led me to suspect he was having silent reflux.

A visit with the pediatrician confirmed my suspicion: He was losing weight, and reflux was to blame. After starting medication, I took him back 4 weeks later for a checkup. His weight had increased exponentially, and he was back on his projected growth curve.

For the first time since becoming a mom 7 years ago, I can recognize different types of cries. Because I’ve had so much time with him, I can tell what he’s communicating so much easier than I could with my other two. In turn, when I respond to his needs effectively, he calms down more quickly and resettles easily.

Successful feeding and being able to help your baby settle when upset are two huge factors in your perceived success as a new mom.

Maternity leave is so short — and sometimes nonexistent — in our country. Without necessary time to heal, to get to know your baby, or establish milk supply, we are setting moms up for physical and emotional struggle – and both moms and babies could suffer as a result.

More paternity leave

I’m not the only one in our family who has spent more time with this baby than our other two. My husband has never had more than 2 weeks at home after bringing home a baby, and this time, the difference in our family dynamic is pronounced.

Just like me, my husband has had time to develop his own relationship with our son. He’s found his own tricks for calming the baby, which are different than mine. Our little guy lights up when he sees his dad, and my husband is confident in his parenting abilities.

Because they are familiar with each other, I feel more comfortable passing the kid off when I need a second to myself. Their special relationship aside, having an extra set of hands at home is amazing.

I can take a shower, finish a work project, go for a jog, spend time with my big kids or just calm my frazzled brain when needed. Even though my husband is still working from home, he’s here helping, and my mental health is better off for it.

Speaking of working from home, let me tell you about returning from maternity leave during a pandemic. It’s no small feat to work from home with one kid on my boob, one kid on my lap, and the third asking for help with remote learning.

But my company’s support of families during this pandemic has been nothing short of impressive. It’s a stark contrast from my first return from maternity leave, when my boss told me my pregnancy was “reason to never hire another woman.”

This time, I know I am supported. My boss and team aren’t shocked when I’m interrupted on a Zoom call or answering emails at 8:30 p.m. As a result, I’m getting my work done more efficiently and appreciate my job that much more. I want to do the best work I possibly can.

The reality is, employers must realize that work — even outside of a pandemic — doesn’t only happen between the hours of 9 to 5. Working parents must have flexibility in order to succeed.

To help my child log in to her class meeting, or feed the baby when he’s hungry, or tend to the child with a fever, I need to be able to complete my work in the chunks of time between mom duties.

As a postpartum mom, flexibility is even more important. Babies don’t always cooperate with a set schedule. There have been plenty of times during quarantine when my husband or I have had to take calls while bouncing with a baby in our arms… which has uncovered another important revelation for us both.

Even though both of us are working full time from home with kids, it’s more acceptable for me, as a woman, to conduct business with a baby on my lap. There’s still an expectation that men will keep their family life entirely separate from their work life.

I am married to an involved dad who has not shied away from conducting business while tending to kids. But even he has noticed the unspoken expectation and element of surprise when he’s the hands-on caregiver of the moment.

It’s not enough to only offer flexibility to working moms. Working dads need it, too. Our family’s success relies on the participation of both partners. Without it, the house of cards comes crashing down.

The physical, mental and emotional load of keeping an entire family healthy and happy is too big a burden for mom to bear alone, especially in the postpartum period.

I think the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” is deceiving. At first, the village is actually raising the mom.

If it weren’t for my family, friends, lactation consultants, pelvic floor therapists, sleep consultants, doulas, and doctors, I wouldn’t know the first thing about anything. Everything I’ve learned as a mom has been nuggets of borrowed wisdom, stored in my head and heart.

Don’t think that by the third baby, you’ll know it all. The only difference is that you know enough to know when to ask for help.

This postpartum period is no different — I still need help. I needed a lactation consultant when dealing with mastitis for the first time, and I’m still working with my doctor and pelvic floor therapist. But now that we’re living in a pandemic, most of the services I’ve needed have moved online.

Virtual services are GODSEND for a new mom. As I said, babies don’t always cooperate with a schedule, and getting out of the house to make an appointment is a huge challenge. Shoot, showering is hard enough. Not to mention, feeling confident enough to drive with a baby when you’re sleep deprived is a legitimate concern for a lot of first-time moms.

I’ve been thrilled to see the extended village of support move to a digital platform where more moms will have access to the help they deserve. I’m lucky to live in Denver, Colorado, where support is easy to find. Now, with the forced digitization of services, moms living in rural areas have the same access to help that I do in a city.

In many ways, the proverbial village has moved to a virtual platform. But there is no virtual substitute for our village of immediate family and friends. Rituals around welcoming a new baby into the fold are just not the same at a distance.

My biggest sadness has been the fact that my baby didn’t get to meet his grandfathers, great grandmother, aunts, uncles, or cousins before we sheltered in place. He is our last baby — growing so fast — and we live 2,000 miles away from family.

Our summer trip to visit our loved ones on the East Coast was going to include a reunion, a baptism, birthday celebrations, and long summer nights with cousins. Unfortunately, we had to cancel the trip, with no idea when we might see everyone next.

I never realized just how sad I would be if those rituals were taken away. The things I took for granted with my other babies — walks with grandma, the first plane trip, hearing aunts talk about who our baby looks like — are put on hold, indefinitely.

The tradition of welcoming a baby serves mom, too. These rituals fulfill our primal need to ensure that our babies are safe, loved, and protected. When we have the chance, we’ll cherish every hug, every mediocre casserole, and every doting grandparent like never before.

My hope is that, as a country, we can apply the multitude of lessons learned in quarantine, adjust our expectations, and design a better postpartum experience.

Think of the benefit to society if new moms were supported. Postpartum depression affects nearly 22 percent of new moms — I’m sure that would drop significantly if all moms had time to adjust, support from their partners, access to virtual services, and a flexible work environment.

Imagine if families were guaranteed paid leave, and the return to work were a gradual ramp-up with the option to work remotely when needed. Imagine if we could fully integrate our role as mom within our existing career and social life.

New moms deserve a chance at success in all areas of life: as a parent, a person, and a professional. We need to know we don’t have to sacrifice our health or identity in order to find success.

With enough time and the right support, we can reimagine the postpartum experience. Quarantine has showed me that it’s possible.

Saralyn Ward is an award-winning writer and wellness advocate whose passion is to inspire women to live their best life. She’s the founder of The Mama Sagas and the Better After Baby mobile app, and an editor for Healthline Parenthood. Saralyn published The Guide to Survive Motherhood: Newborn Edition ebook, taught Pilates for 14 years, and offers tips to survive parenthood on live television. When she’s not falling asleep at her computer, you’ll find Saralyn climbing mountains or skiing down them, with three kids in tow.