Returning from maternity leave with a baby…and a mental illness

By Heather Baker, CEO, TopLine Film and TopLine Comms

maternity leave

Before I had babies I had a very clear picture in my mind of what life would be like as a working mother: within three months of giving birth I would be bored of nappies and baby talk and champing at the bit to put on some make-up, head back into the office and spend my day talking about strategy and budgets instead of poo and nipple cream.

I’d pick up just where I left off when my waters broke in the sales meeting and I’d relish the opportunity to be in an office where I could go to the toilet unaccompanied. I wasn’t going to be one of those women who took the full 12 months of mat leave. My business needed me and I was going to give it what it needed.

“Your priorities will change,” and “you don’t know how you’ll feel with a small baby,” volunteered everyone I ever spoke to when I was pregnant. But I just brushed that off as the unsolicited-advice-offered-at-every-turn-to-every-pregnant-woman-everywhere.

But it turns out those people were right. My priorities did change. Within eight weeks of giving birth my top priority became digging myself out of a deep pit of anxiety so that I could feel half like a normal person again and be available and useful to my family. And correct, I didn’t know how I would feel with a small baby, and I felt like shit.

I was diagnosed with postnatal anxiety and depression and it was all-consuming. I started a course of antidepressants and I started seeing a therapist. I extended my maternity leave to give myself more time. But eventually I had to go back to work.

Returning to work after maternity leave is hard for any woman. I had completely underestimated how having a baby would affect me. Yes, I was physically back at the office, but I wasn’t the same person and I certainly didn’t feel like a leader. Running a business, particularly a service business, requires energy, positivity and time, all of which were suddenly in short supply. I could no longer drum up the enthusiasm to prepare for a new business pitch or the charisma to deliver a winning pitch. I couldn’t stay late to finish a report (my nanny finishes work at 6pm). Even standing up in front of my team to deliver the quarterly business update was suddenly hard – I felt frumpy in my breastfeeding-friendly clothes, exhausted after months on end of sleepless nights and out of touch with the business generally. In short, I’d lost my mojo and I felt really guilty about it.

Almost a year later I am back at work full time, and coping better, but I’ve still got a long way to go. It’s a process, but here are three things I’ve done to help me get by:

I was honest with my team

When I felt that the pressure was becoming overwhelming, I sent an email to my team informing them that I needed more time. I was amazed by the outpouring of empathy and compassion – and surprised by the revelation that many of my team members were battling their own mental health issues (we now have a great mental health strategy within the business).

I made time for me

I found that the things that helped me most were yoga, meditation, exercise and therapy. But I had to find a way to fit them into my day. That meant longer lunch breaks, flexible working and working from home. I took the extra time without feeling too guilty about it because I knew that it was an investment in my future contribution to the business.

I was open with suppliers and clients

I decided that rather than getting dragged into meetings that I wasn’t ready for I would be open with suppliers and clients that I’m not back full throttle – and I would happily explain why to them. If it meant we lost a client, then the business would have to deal with that.

I’m by no means out of the woods yet – I still have a long way to go to get back to my pre-baby self (if that’s even possible), but I have developed excellent empathy for working mums and I hope that over the next decade people will feel more comfortable being open about their battles with mental illness.

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