My wakeup call came about a year after my fourth child was born. I had a plan that was well crafted: My husband would stay home with her, as he did with our older children when they were little.
Before my littlest arrived, I saw no warning signs of trouble. I had a career I enjoyed and a growing family. I was used to the chaos. I thrived in it. My kids were what made me happy.
When my newest arrived, she was wonderful. I had enough joy and love to go around. Babies are a lot of work — there were sore breasts and sleepless nights — but we were managing. Looking into that little face filled me with indescribable happiness.
Things were going well on my brief maternity leave, until that dreaded day when I went back to work. Everything changed overnight. It was like being ripped apart. I felt empty in a way I had never experienced before.
I had done this several times before, but this time it was different. I wasn’t coping. I gave it a week, then two, and three, before raising a flag for help.
I went on medication – delayed postpartum depression, they called it. I got the help I thought I needed, and I continued to push through.
“This will get better,” I told myself. “It has to.” Things got a little better, but I wasn’t doing great. The medication helped me numb the pain of leaving her every day just a bit.
“Medication won’t solve everything,” my psychiatrist told me. “Sometimes you have to change your life.”
I knew she was right, but I felt so stuck. I was the breadwinner, and I couldn’t just up and quit. My family relied on me.
I threw myself into my work as I always did, and I performed well. But on the inside, I was suffering. I felt stretched and empty — just a shell of my former self.
In those slivers of morning and evening when I wasn’t at work, I’d absorb all that I could of my quickly growing babe. When I held her close, I knew she was the medicine I needed.
I tried to continue my day to day and enjoy what I had. It was supposed to be everything I wanted, yet I desperately desired more time with my little ones. It was hard to explain to my husband the depth of my feelings.
Finally, it happened: I broke. I fell apart in my therapist’s office.
I was doing everything I could to make it through. I was taking a handful of pharmaceuticals each day to be able to go to work. Still, I had crippling work anxiety that made Sundays unenjoyable and many Mondays sick days, where I lay in bed feeling guilty and like a failure.
I sat across from my therapist and tried to put into words how exhausted I was, not from childrearing but from trying to be too many people at once — the good wife, boss, employee, provider, and mom.
An elephant was sitting on my chest and wouldn’t budge. Just thinking about work sent me reeling emotionally and physically. It wasn’t that my work was particularly stressful or toxic. It was the same positive culture with rewarding projects. It just wasn’t what I needed, no matter how hard I tried to make it fit.
I took a prescribed two weeks off from work, in which I had to admit to my superiors that I’d had a mental breakdown. I was too tired to think up anything else, and it didn’t seem right to hide it anyway.
I had two weeks to figure out my life. I knew it wouldn’t be enough to solve everything, but I had finally started down a much-needed path. I admitted to myself I couldn’t continue the way things were.
I worked out a remote working situation with my employer, and my husband, after some soul searching of his own, began a job search. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a start. I did my best to hang on.
I’m happy to report that I continued to see forward progress in my life shift, which began to slowly raise the elephant on my chest and close the hole in my heart. My husband, in time, landed a job that would allow me to work part-time.
I’ve only recently made the transition, so it’s too early to know whether this will solve all of the issues I was experiencing. Still, I’ve learned a lot over this process. Most importantly, I learned to listen to my heart, mind, and body when they are speaking loudly and clearly. I learned that my well-being matters, too.
I’ve learned that admitting you’re struggling doesn’t make you less strong. Making change is hard, but you can’t continue on a course that is sucking you dry, because you will crack eventually.
It’s not always selfish to look after yourself.
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