For many women, before we have a chance to start re-training our brains to think about raising a family based on our individual gifts and needs, we have already HAD the baby and are already back in the workforce.
And often, in this day and age of overwhelming mortgages and cost of living, it is unavoidable. For some women, going back to work is a reprieve, a breath of fresh adult air! But at the same time, it is almost always like a knife in the heart at the same time. I went back to work when my son was 6 months old. A colleague recently told me that her heart broke when she saw me on that first day back, I was so obviously dying inside. It was a bumpy start, and one that I had not thought all the way through, which was unusual for me. When you suffer from depression, you often lose the ability to think ahead, you just turn in circles of despair, so it was with me. I had focussed all my energy on how badly I did not want to go back to work, and there was no energy left for the practical issues like how would I continue to breastfeed? I had my breast pump with me, but was too embarrassed to use it more than once in the toilets, because it was so loud. I was also too shy to ask the administrator at work if there was a room that I could go to express. On my second day of work, I was sent to Brussels from London, overnight, to run a training session with our European teams. Within 3 days of returning to work, I was forced to start weaning my child. I wasn’t emotionally ready to wean, and I was resentful towards my work that it had come to this: that I was not free to fully control these mothering fundamentals. Aside from the mothering complications, I did enjoy the adult conversation and I enjoyed being able to dress up in adult clothes as opposed to walking around with greasy hair and vomit covered pyjamas all day. The enjoyment factor didn’t last long, because once I got into my job, and the enormity of my responsibilities hit me, the basic things got a bit tricky. For example, on my first day back, my son’s new childcare centre called me to say that my son had eaten dairy and was vomitting. This was within 3 hours of being back at work, and already I was packing up my things and flying out the door in a blind rage; I felt so angry that it was his first day away from me, and already my son was not being adequately cared for. How could I continue to leave him with these people? (It was an emotional overreaction, but one I think I was entitled to!). Not only that, but I was filled with fear and anxiety: my husband and I were both at least an hour away from home when we were at work. We had absolutely no one we could turn to in case of an emergency. I felt very keenly the pressure that we were under, living in a foreign country with no family to help us to raise our sick child. During this time, I remember saying to my husband how panicked I always felt. I was so strongly bonded to my child, and this bond was entangled with depression, anxiety and fear, which turned what might have been difficult but manageable separation into a highly traumatic daily experience. Additionally, I am a people pleaser by nature, and I felt like I was pleasing nobody at work because of my constant distraction regarding my son’s wellbeing, and this sense of failure made me feel ill with stress. The house was never, ever tidy, since when I got home, all I wanted to do was shower my son with kisses and play. I felt terribly guilty about another in a long line of failures (as a housewife), so I would do what I could to clean up, usually at about 11pm at night, when I was dog tired and wanting to go to sleep.
Getting the shopping done and cooking a meal was exhausting and un-pleasurable. Washing, HA! Not long after I celebrated the joy of being able to dress nicely again for work, I was spotted wearing a vomit covered shirt and rumpled skirt to an executive meeting. The worst part is, I wasn’t even embarrassed. I was just pleased to have made the meeting on time. I felt like I was doing a bad job at work, and a bad job at mothering, and I couldn’t see the point of it all. I began to feel that my existence was pointless. To those mothers who feel the same stress as I did, but who actually cope and pull through this difficult balancing act, I SALUTE you! You are my heroes! I, unfortunately, was a duck out of water. So just when you are trying to be everything for your boss, colleagues, husband and baby, your friends start dropping comments about how you don’t return calls and emails, how you don’t seem to value your friendships now that you have the ‘perfect house and family’.
(OK, to be honest, this rarely happened to me, but I have met many mothers who have reported this awful judgement and guilt inducing behaviour from friends who don’t get it. It is another emotional drama to have to deal with that is so entirely unnecessary when your world is so fragile. But most women in my position are the first to admit that they do not have the emotional energy to actually have a confrontation with these self-absorbed friends: it is way down the new parents’ list of priorities. So the issue of your poor relationship skill festers and creates another reason to apologise, and to feel horrible about yourself.)
Mothers all agree: there is nothing you can do to make friends without children understand how hard it is until they have a baby of their own. It is like trying to force a blind person to see. So at that point, if and when these friends DO have their first baby, when realisation dawns upon them, and before the guilt sets in, take these new mums out and make them buy you drinks in apology and have a good old laugh about how crap they were, and isn’t it just. So. Hard?? If they will return your calls, that is. You might have moved down their list of priorities while they are dealing with the new baby!
Whatever you do, don’t get distracted into placating their feelings when you are trying to hold the basics together. The friends you need around you right now are the ones who have the capacity for huge empathy and forgiveness, and are the ones who will babysit. The point is, many MANY women, especially those torn in two by the decision or need to go back into the office, will suffer from the belief that they need to be everything to everybody.
You don’t. You can't.
And you can change what is not working if you are thoughtful and brave.
For me, someone needed to be at home while we raised a family. And would you believe it, good old beautiful and kind hubby decided to put his hand up until we had sorted out a way for me to be at home. We agreed that this would probably come when we had a second child, a prospect that was the first sight of light at the end of my darkening tunnel. Because I was earning more (for the first and last time in our marriage), he became a stay-at-home dad, and kept the house running. We understood that this was a phase, and so gave ourselves permission to enjoy it. I also asked my boss if I could work from home 3 out of the 5 days, and would you believe it, he said yes. Turns out you have to ask to receive.
The stress MELTED off me. I could go to work without having just said goodbye to my screaming, traumatised son, who HATED childcare. This didn’t change until he was four years old, by the way. He was just that highly sensitive child who hated being left without his parents.The things that I was not coping with, in terms of housework and cooking, were now handled by my husband. I knew that my son was getting out in the English sunshine, because my husband is energetic and this made my heart SO glad. Once I started working from home, I needed to start work at 8:30. There was no longer an hour and 15 minute commute, so I could wake up later, and still have a shower. The RUSH was gone. Because I worked late, due to the time zones I was dealing with, I could block out 2 hour lunch breaks in my diary, and we would go for long walks in the Chilterns. It was EXACTLY the right arrangement to help me with my mental health, and to remove the damaging stress and trauma that full time work had introduced into my life. I absolutely understand that I was extremely lucky to have such an accommodating boss, but I must also insist on the concept that you have to find the working arrangement that removes unnecessary stress, and then you have to ASK for them, politely but firmly. Anything is possible if you ask for it, including compromise. Please also remember: you are not the first mother who has worked. Most bosses understand the need for flexibility with mothers and work. Many bosses are parents themselves.
Unfortunately, there was another problem lurking that would be the next trigger in my battle against postnatal depression, which I touched on earlier. My sons declining health.It came to be the mother load of all triggers and lead to a diagnosis of not just postnatal depression, but Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is the hardest episode I have had to deal with in my life, and it nearly destroyed me. But it didn’t, and now my family are on an exciting path because of it. I know that there are many many readers here who have had to deal with the trauma of a sick child, and a growing number of you might even relate directly to the trauma of raising a child with severe food allergies and intolerances. Here’s my story of how it all came about for us.
This is Chapter 7 of The Good Mood Book, available for purchase as an ebook on Amazon at: http://www.amazon.com/Good-Mood-Book-Recovering-Depression-ebook/dp/B00IZCOY9I/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1398680045&sr=1-1&keywords=the+good+mood+book