On Monday, November 23, I had to return to work. This was the hardest thing I’ve had to do in my entire life (all 32 years)! Yes, I cried a ton that day and all the days leading up to it…. It’s so hard being away from you.
– from one of my letters to my son the week after my maternity leave ended
Jackson was 3 months old when I returned to work. At the time of his birth, my husband had recently been partially laid off, working only 2 days per week, so staying home with my son, or even extending my maternity leave, was not an option.
Instead of basking in the new momma bliss I had expected, much of my maternity leave was spent in a sleep-deprived haze. My son was a “high needs baby” in every sense of the definition, and I became anxious and depressed because I could not calm him (or myself). My anxiety grew as November 23 approached and I was nowhere near emotionally ready to go back to work. I began to see a therapist with the hope that I could avoid quitting my job—this was a serious consideration of mine, which would have spelled financial ruin for my family. I didn’t trust anyone to take care of my son, and because of my PPD/PPA, I had so many racing, irrational thoughts about all the things that could happen to him while I wasn’t with him during the day.
The return to work itself was difficult because I missed my son, I was overwhelmed with trying to catch up after being out for 3 months, and I was pumping 3 times per day in random locations throughout the building where I worked, sometimes in rooms without locks.
It didn’t take long for me to see I needed a change or I would break completely.
I thank my lucky stars I had already started seeing a therapist who understood me and was able to help me brainstorm ways I could feel better at work. Also, because my return to work coincided so closely with the end of the year, I had accrued some vacation days during my maternity leave that I would lose after December 31. I asked my boss to allow me to take off 2 vacation days per week for that last month of the year, which helped me ease back into working full time (and being away from Jackson only 3 full days per week, instead of 5, reduced my anxiety immensely).
Around mid-December, with the return to a 5-day schedule looming, and after some encouraging sessions with my therapist, I felt brave enough to tell my boss about my PPD/PPA. I trembled and fought back tears as I confided to her what I was going through. I was blotchy and red-faced as I asked her to allow me to work from home 1 day per week beginning in January. I explained that being at home with my son 1 day in the middle of each week would help me as I tried to recover from my PPD/PPA. I outlined the type of work I would do on that day (tasks that were easy enough to do at home), and I explained that my sister, who was in college, would spend the day at my house so I could focus on my work and stop only when I was really needed. I said I would continue to see my therapist, and I told my boss I was confident that with this extra help I would be okay.
Most importantly, I followed through with this action plan every single week, proving to everyone that I was diligent about both my work and my recovery and proving to myself that I was brave and fierce and had the strength to say out loud what I needed—and then take action. It wasn’t always easy, but nothing about recovering from PPD—whether working a full- or part-time job simultaneously or not—is easy.
Looking back on my experience 4 years ago, I understand how lucky I was to have a boss who agreed that my mental health should be the priority and allowed me to spend Wednesdays at home with my son. I don’t know how I would have got better without having a supportive boss and that extra time with Jax. I’m also proud of myself for speaking up and asking for what I needed, which isn’t easy for me to do even without PPD!
If you’re going back to work and you’re still struggling with PPD or another perinatal mood disorder, please know that you have options. If you think your boss would listen with an open mind, come up with a proposal like mine. Trust your gut! If you’re not sure, spend some time researching your legal options. This post has some very helpful information about the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and how it relates to mommas with PPD.
Even if your request is denied by your employer, there may still be some benefits to having confided about your postpartum experience. First, you just never know who will hear your story and be affected. Sometimes the “me too” or support comes from the most unlikely sources. Second, saying out loud that you have PPD might feel freeing. Saying it out loud helps to eradicate the stigma and shame associated with it, which may be important in your recovery. Talking about mental health can also be a great opportunity to educate others. Finally, you’re advocating not only for yourself but for all women who are struggling. If you’re still not convinced, this article lists 5 reasons why depression can make you a better employee.