Going back to work after my son was born was more a matter of having to take things in my stride, than a conscious decision.
After a high risk pregnancy and premature birth, Tex was born two weeks after I had received the national Rural Women’s Award and became an ambassador for rural women across the country. The whole pregnancy I had been travelling and to speaking engagements and other events as the state winner of the award, so when the birth came I continued to do the same, it’s just that I travelled with more luggage.
That continued until my son was about 2 and into absolutely everything. Life was starting to feel out of control – and as a person who is used to maintaining a certain element of control, that made me pretty highly strung. I didn’t like the person I became.
I remember one day that we were flying home from an interstate event, the flight crew had put us in a great seat under the bulkhead where there was plenty of room for Tex to sit and amuse himself. Before we’d even taken off, he got so annoyed that he had to sit still on my lap and grabbed at absolutely everything within his reach – including the ipad that the businessman sitting next to us had in his lap. Tex threw it across the aisle, and although I apologised profusely, I didn’t get one of those ‘I understand, he’s just a kid’ glances.
On the same trip, at the airport on the second leg of the flight I was attempting to push an overloaded luggage trolley with one hand, while pulling the pram (with Tex in it) behind me with the other. It was the last straw after having been provided with accommodation on this trip to a second story unit, and already having had to mobilise this same load up and then down four flights of stairs. As the luggage trolley wheels skidded and tipped the trolley every few metres, things continued to slide off of the top. I was soon in tears, absolutely exhausted as I stubbornly dragged it along. One of the cleaners from a car rental company saw my struggle and ran out to help me, pushing the trolley all the way to the check in gate for me. I don’t think I’ve ever been so grateful. With that simple act of kindness, he had changed the entire course of my day.
It wasn’t long after that trip that I became pregnant with our second child. I was working on an ad hoc basis from my home office. Travelling less but working more with the scaling of my own business.
When our daughter Scout came along, the first few months went by in a blur. I hadn’t actually stopped working. In fact, I actually had my laptop open and was using the delivery table as a desk, keeping myself busy during labour. Some people play music, I do work.
By the time our daughter could crawl, my mental health had already begun to spiral. I wanted to work, but I was a mum with two young kids depending on me. I returned to medical treatment for depression, and began seeing a psychologist weekly. I completed a Mindful Awareness Parenting series of personal development with her, and continued cognitive behaviour therapy.
During this time I learned something about myself that I hadn’t realised. I love my kids and wouldn’t change a thing about this beautiful family we have created, it’s just that for some reason parenting didn’t come naturally to me. It didn’t ‘fill my cup’…. work did. Whatever I was managing to put into that cup was being emptied out almost immediately, and there seemed to be a constant demand for more. I felt incredibly helpless, overwhelmed, perhaps even suffocated.
It took a long time and a great deal of trial and error to find ways to manage the juxtaposition of being a mother and business owner. The advice I would give to anyone else going back to work is to cut yourself some slack. It will be different for you than it was for someone else – they aren’t in your shoes, and you don’t know what is going on behind the mask that they wear.
And as a parent, I would tell you that in those moments when you think you can’t handle it for a single second longer, take a deep breath and know that this is just temporary, it is going to pass. This is a phase…. Everything is just a phase. If it is a good phase, enjoy it while it lasts. If it is a difficult phase, hang in there, it won’t last forever.
The other thing I would say to people going back to work is: if you want to feel productive, perhaps a home office isn’t the best idea. If you can work elsewhere, you are more likely to remain focused and on-task. It is far too easy to allow divided attention and parental guilt to interrupt your flow from a home office!
What I did better my second time around was learn to let other people take control – delegate to my team, let my family help out more, outsource things that I didn’t need to do myself.
What I didn’t do well, was use the time that I had created for myself wisely. I created space and then filled it with more work because it felt so good, but all it did was increase the expectations on me and make me feel as though I wasn’t achieving as much as I should be. And what’s worse, I began to feel as though I was losing my mind.
I made allowances for the fact that I probably still had ‘baby brain’, but that didn’t explain my loss of short term memory, inability to make decisions or the incredibly slow speed I was now processing information at. And it didn’t account for my constant irritability. Or the weird physical stuff that was happening to my body (gosh I could give you a list of about 20 things I can’t explain)!
Although it is widely recognised that cognitive decline is one of the side effects of serious depression and anxiety episodes, improving it is rarely a treatment goal for patients (treatment usually revolves around improving emotional wellbeing and lifestyle). The research shows that cognitive function does not return to pre-episode levels in the same timeframe that emotional state recovers. It can remain impaired for a long time, and it seems that the impairment might get worse after each serious low.
And that’s where I’m at now. I’m at the stage of trying to remember how to spell things or do simple calculations, trying to remember the directions to a nearby place or the name of my friends kids. It’s not great.
I have had a psychiatric review to make sure that I am on the correct dose of medication for the stage that I am at, I continue to see my psychologist every fortnight, and have physical check-ups with my GP quite regularly. I’ve bought myself a smart watch and I’ve set it up to remind me to eat, and to track my sleep. It gives me the much needed nudge I need to get up and move around every so often, and get a drink of water.
So, small steps. I try to make healthy choices in my work day as well as my home life. I have put into place things that give me an objective perspective on how I’m travelling, and hold me account to the progress that I want to make. It is a slow and often frustrating process. But I have to stick at it, because the decisions that I have made by choice, have led me here. So I can either see my current state as a ‘mental health condition’ and motherhood as a ‘having to make sacrifices’ – or I can choose to surrender to the path I’ve chosen, and be the best version of myself that I can, one day at a time.