“Sorry, I am going to be late.”: Returning from Parental Leave with Postpartum Anxiety

This was written in contribution to Performant Mental Health. Performant Mental Health is a five-part series designed to ignite greater awareness of mental health issues. Written for everyday people by everyday people.

Anxiety has ebbed and flowed throughout my life since I was a teen. Keeping me up for hours on end with severe insomnia because of intrusive thoughts or making me physically ill with migraines, gastrointestinal issues, and at its worst, shingles. However, despite all my worries and ailments, my anxiety never made an appearance in or at my work until I returned after the birth of my second child.

Following my return to the office at the end of my parental leave, my anxiety grew and filled all spaces of my day where I was not physically with my children. I was unable to escape horrible notions of harm coming to my children because of my assumed beliefs that I would inevitably fail as a mother. It didn’t matter where I was or what I was doing — sitting in meetings, between meetings, at my desk, pumping milk, even on the couch after they had gone to bed — I would experience these thoughts along with heart palpitations, rapid breathing, dread, and eventually habitual checking and other OCD tendencies. These thoughts were so intrusive they got to a point where I had no way of controlling them or the symptoms that accompanied them.

The most pervasive worry was of leaving my youngest in the car all day while I worked. My rationale was that it happens to well-intentioned, “good” mothers so why not me? Me, a woman with flaws and one who was more than excited to return to a career I found fulfilling.

Balancing these awful feelings against my beliefs of what made a good mother, a loving wife, and a successful career, was made even more complex by the fact that everything looked okay from the outside. Especially at the workplace. How do you tell a teammate, “Hey, sorry I am going to be late to the meeting because I am about to breakdown if I don’t go and check my car for my baby in this 90 degree weather,” while also trying to keep it together in case this was the time you actually did?

For me there was also added shame. I experienced none of this anxiety after the birth of my first child, so it was hard to understand why this time was different. And as a consistently high performer at work, my capacity was now severely diminished. I was tired both physically, from having a nursling that was still waking through the night, and emotionally, from all the worry. It was difficult to focus and ramping back up was a challenge. I was just not performing in a way that I wanted or expected of myself. This shame only exasperated my anxiety.

Given my history with anxiety I knew I was at a heightened risk for Postpartum Depression and Anxiety. Since my anxiety was only intensifying and becoming more debilitating I knew I needed to speak with a therapist. I was tired of having no control over my thoughts, I was tired of letting my anxiety take away my ability to be the best mother and best employee I could be, and I was tired of being tired. I knew with professional help things would and could get better. Now, I would be remiss not to say that I am fortunate enough to have access to health care services. Because of this access I was able to find a therapist focused on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). For me, knowing my history of anxiety and the various treatments that have and have not worked allowed me to start getting help immediately. But even still it is a process and has required effort and commitment to feel well again.

Currently, I am feeling significantly better from when I first returned to work. The highly intrusive thoughts have subsided as have the panic attacks and other symptoms. I feel confident and capable as a mother and in my performance at work. And while I still have my anxiety (and I still see my therapist weekly), it all feels so much more quiet and manageable.

Here’s what helped:

  • Being vulnerable. Speaking my feelings aloud to myself, my therapist and a few, close friends, took power away from my intrusive thoughts. And by joining a large, supportive mommy group on Facebook, I was able to connect with others on similar journeys.
  • Accepting help. Realizing I couldn’t solve my anxiety alone and knowing I didn’t need to allowed me to seek out the support I desperately needed. Accepting help didn’t make me a bad mother, it made me a better one.
  • Connecting with a trustworthy therapist. Having a therapist you feel comfortable with helps with progressing treatment. I recommend an intro email or call to make sure your preferred methods and goals align with the therapists specialities.
  • Reframing self talk. Rather than focusing on what I would tell myself I consider what I would tell a dear friend. Reframing has allowed me to express greater kindness, compassion and understanding towards myself.
  • Teaching myself the worst isn’t going to happen. I have been able to reduce the prevalence of my worry thoughts through practice. One such way has been to recognize my problematic thoughts then identify evidence supporting and negating the thought. This has helped me to harness rational thinking when my irrational thoughts start to take over.
  • Focusing on self. Taking 30 minutes of my day to workout, finding quiet time to read a book or getting a massage gives me time to be present for myself. During this time I try not to think about my duties as a mother, as a wife or as an employee.

Mama || Design Manager at FB || East Coaster (in SF) || Lover of To-Do Lists, Coffee, Books || She/Her

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