Collapsing Under The Pressure
How not to return to work after maternity leave
I’ve always been the ‘I’ve got this’ gal. A modern-day unsinkable Molly Brown, I rarely buckle under the weight of life’s curve balls. Motherhood was no different for me. Last February when my son was born, my maternal instinct kicked in and, after seven years of trying, I was more than prepared for this next phase of my life. On leave, I was in my element. In between feedings and naps, I even found time for some yoga, evening walks and, dare I admit, some reading.
Given my relative ease into mommydom, I assumed returning to work would be a breeze. After eleven weeks out of the office, I hit the ground running as a human resources generalist in a growing global private equity firm. Familiar and rewarding, I returned to my back-to-back meetings and evening conference calls, forgetting, at times, to eat, drink or even use the bathroom. If there was a poster for the model working mom, what I can only imagine as a multitasking Durga taking a call with a latte in her right hand and a feeding child in her left, I wanted so much to be it.
Reality came crashing, quite literally, one night when I woke to feed by son. While in his crib crying, I rose and walked to the kitchen to make a bottle. Sometime in the process of preparing his milk, I lost consciousness. I collapsed, head first, into our kitchen countertop, shattering the cabinet. My husband woke at the sound and found me unconscious in a pool of baby formula and shards of wood. I came too moments later, disoriented and in pain. I refused to go to the doctor and, as a testament to my denial, returned to work the next day. It wasn’t until I started to feel the effects of a concussion while I was at my computer that I decided to seek medical advice. Ultimately, I learned that I had suffered a concussion due to a combination of low blood pressure and lack of sleep.
Laying in my bed for two days in silence and darkness, I realized something. I was so in love with the working mom illusion, I wasn’t paying attention to the facts. Behind that woman I was portraying was someone operating on five hours of interrupted sleep, a desire to cry at almost any moment and the constant sensation that her identity was being ripped apart by two opposing paradigms — mother and employee.
I’d like to say that the concussion was the wake-up call I needed to slow down. Right after the accident, the only real behavior change on my part was a gradual transition from sleeping to standing to avoid fainting. Only in the last few months have I made genuine strides in improving my well-being, health and work-life balance.
I can’t have a do-over, but for those mama’s returning to the workforce, I offer up some advice to avoid my return-to-work fail:
Don’t pretend to be the same person you were before a baby. Every mother I met echoed the same common refrain, ‘your life is about to change’, with an almost eerie consistency. What they don’t tell you is that change happens from the inside out at an almost molecular level. Everything you assumed before — your values, habits, beliefs, sense of identity — in some way shifts shape. Before my son I only knew one path to success, the one I was on. Having him, I had to reframe my definition of success and ultimately my life's goals. The easiest path, and the one I chose initially, was to be who I was before plus a baby. I didn’t give myself the time and attention needed to reconcile the profound change of becoming a mother. For some, these changes are obvious and immediate and for others it's a gradual shift. Honor that truth and give yourself permission to explore this new you.
Set boundaries. While exploring this enhanced version of yourself, it’s important to set some ground rules. Say no to the things that don’t bring you joy (even if that might upset your boss, in-laws or loved ones). Tell your friends and family what you need help with (childcare, meals, date nights, chores). The people you love will lend a hand, you just have to ask for it. At work, set realistic expectations for the tasks you are taking on and communicate when a deadline might need revised. Be unapologetic for your changed circumstances.
Practice some self-love. As a new mama, everything your baby does is met with heartfelt adoration, tenderness and acceptance. What would it feel like if you looked at yourself with the same loving kindness you so easily give your child? Looking from the outside in, you might just tell yourself to go to bed earlier, stop sweating the household chores, rest, and fuel your body with foods that give energy. Survey your needs, whether they be physical, emotional, spiritual or other, and find one action every day you can do to meet that need. For me, it meant having some time with my husband and my best friends on speed dial. Whatever your action plan, pay yourself first. A little bit of ‘take’ can make room for a whole lot of ‘give’ in the long run.
I won’t pretend that I’m acing life right now. We are celebrating my son’s first birthday next week and the daily demands of work and life still keep me on my toes. That said, I’m more at peace with my new reality and am kinder to myself in the process. I’m sleeping through the night and haven’t collapsed since that shocking morning last May. Every day is a balancing act but one that increasingly tilts toward my favorite career and latest promotion — mom.