Don't Be Silent: On Returning to Work with Postpartum Depression and Anxiety

After the births of each of my sons, I returned to work with postpartum depression and anxiety. Each time it looked and felt different. Looking back at both of them, it’s evident how my silence only prolonged my suffering when returning to work.

While pregnant with our first son, I adamantly declared how I would return to my job. Raised by a working mother, I saw no reason not to follow in her footsteps. I couldn’t understand why women left the work force after bringing new life into the world. I sat on my High Horse of Judgment and judged until the cows came home.

It’s funny what we believe to be judge-worthy before we ever experience it for ourselves, isn’t it?

My pregnancy complications landed me on Level III bed rest at 28 weeks, and my employer graciously paid me until our previously agreed upon time of 38 weeks. That ten weeks of pay helped in more ways than one, especially considering how I planned on taking my full 12 weeks of unpaid leave after birth.

I already felt a little stir crazy by the time our baby boy arrived at 38 weeks, 2 days, having been cooped up for ten weeks inside our medium sized apartment. I couldn’t wait to finally get out and do stuff, especially with my adorable baby in tow. I imagined all of the fun things we would do, how I would show him off, how I would rock this mother thing.

Then I had a panic attack while still in the hospital. Things kind of snowballed from there, and by the time 12 weeks rolled around, I found myself deep in the throes of postpartum depression and anxiety.

Another mom at work recommended a child care provider. She trusted her beautiful little girl with this woman, so I figured it a valid option. The woman was kind and loving and all the things you want for your tiny bundle of joy, but every day when I left my son in her care, I’d have a panic attack on the drive to work. Sometimes I’d sit in my car in the parking lot at work for 10-20 minutes trying to get my breathing and heart rate back under control. I’d walk in with raccoon eyes and blame it on the sleeplessness.

I didn’t tell anyone at work the thoughts swirling in my head; how I feared leaving him, feared the care giver’s house would catch on fire, feared we’d be in a wreck on the way home from work, feared he’d quit breathing in his sleep, feared anything and everything whether he was in my care or not. I didn’t tell coworkers or bosses, not even when my brain switched from fear about what might happen to my baby to fear about what I might do to myself. I kept quiet, plastered a smile on my face, and kept doing what I needed to get done.

About one month into my return to work, I sought out a therapist and psychiatrist and started to heal. I still didn’t love leaving my baby, but I could do so without nearly hyperventilating on the way to work. I could focus on work tasks again instead of catastrophizing all that might happen to my baby, to me, to the world.

I looked back at the past judgments I’d made on those who chose to stay home and silently asked for their forgiveness. I’d had no idea how hard motherhood could feel by itself, let alone with a perinatal mood disorder. I realized, as I started to get better, that all mothers are just trying to do the best by their babies and families. I promised to cut other mothers a little slack as I moved forward.

Note that I didn’t include myself in that, just other mothers. Not me.

By the time we decided to try for another baby, I found myself in an entirely different working environment. I worked from home as an editor, setting my own schedule. It allowed me to do fun things like take my toddler son to the library for story time and enjoy playdates with the few friends I had made in the area. I figured my postpartum phase would feel like a breeze.

No one is really shocked when I say that it wasn’t really a breeze.

Instead of taking 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave, I took two weeks off. Two weeks. I look back at that and want to shake myself. I still don’t know if I felt that working would keep my increasingly anxious mind busy or if I wanted to prove that this time I would handle everything so much better.

I judged myself so hard this time around, feeling like I should better handle my “emotions” seeing as how I was now lucky enough to stay home with my two sons and still get paid. I had what others considered the best case scenario and there I was, too scared to carry the baby down the steps to play in the playroom with my toddler, too depressed to go anywhere or get dressed.

Still, I told no one.

I fought calling my therapist to schedule a new appointment the second time around because I so desperately didn’t want to be sick again. My work performance suffered, but I refused to tell my boss or coworkers what was going on with me. My marriage suffered, but I refused to discuss how bad I was struggling with my husband. My mental health deteriorated, but I figured I was just a bad mom so my thoughts were warranted.

When I finally made the call and got the help I needed, I couldn’t understand why I fought it for so long.

As moms, working out of the home, in the home, or staying home with our children, we put so much pressure on ourselves to be all and do all. The Supermom Complex often leaves us worse off than if we just said, “Hey, I need some help. I can’t do this all on my own.”

If I could do it all over again, I’d be more gentle with myself. I’d tell more people what I was going through, not just to spread awareness and break stigma, but to gain support from other people. When I wrote about my journey with postpartum depression and anxiety with our younger son after I was already out of the woods and so much better, friends asked, “Why didn’t you just tell me? I could have helped!” Support can make all the difference, but too often we’re silent because we think no one will understand. I feel like I cheated myself out of true support due to my silence.

You don’t need to keep your battle a secret, mama. Friends, family members, and people like us want to support you during your journey. You are not alone.