Returning to Work After Postnatal Depression

* Please be aware some content contained in this story may be a trigger to those experiencing perinatal mental health issues *

When I first became pregnant (goodness, was it really 5 years ago?) and looked into my (very bright and happy) future, returning to work after my maternity leave was something I absolutely took for granted.  It’s funny how things change, isn’t it?  Little was I to know, not only would my confidence and motivation take a severe battering over those 12 long months, but so too would my priority list for life.  Looking back, my naivety makes me sad for the excited mum-to-be I was at that time.  I wish I could have told her what I know now, give her a nice, warm hug, and maybe this journey would have been just that little bit easier for her… maybe.

How can I return to work?

This was a question I asked myself daily during the darkest times of my depression, before my diagnosis. How could I possibly return to the “adult” world of work when day-to-day functioning had become so difficult?  What do I have to contribute to my team at work when my best is only 50% (if that!) of what I’d considered “mildly satisfactory” before I left?  Better yet, forget about work!  How can I believe my mothering skills are even remotely good enough if I am questioning these types of things at all?  And so the negative thoughts would go on… and on… and on.

After my diagnosis of postnatal depression and anxiety (postpartum depression, PND-A, or PPD-A) in the months leading up to my return to work, both my GP and psychologist’s only focus was getting my mental and physical health back on track for my transition back into the workforce.  Neither of them were convinced I should be returning when I’d planned (I had taken 12 months of leave), and felt another month (even two) would do me the world of good before having to face the added pressure of again managing my team.  Their concern was that I had only been diagnosed two months before I was due to finish my maternity leave.  We were still experimenting with anti-depressant medication, I was still undertaking regular therapy… Was I really prepared for what returning to work might do to the progress I’d made?

Deep down though, I was convinced returning to work might help my situation.  For all the fear and anxiety the thought of re-entering the workforce brought forth in my everyday thinking, there was definitely a part of me (buried deep, deep down) that believed the re-installation of a work/life balance might actually be a good thing.

So, hanging onto this very fine thread of hope, I surged forward with my plan to return to work at the time I’d originally intended.  I pleaded with both my GP and psychologist to please support me in this decision, help me find the resources/tools I would need, and assist me in any way they could to ensure I made it there in one piece.  Fortunately for me, they agreed.

A blog by Michelle Gerdes, entitled “Returning to Work After Postpartum Depression”, summed it up perfectly for me.  She is a perfectionist, an editor at the Wall Street Journal, and a postnatal depression survivor. I’ll leave it for you to read (and be sure to read the comments also), but believe Michelle’s struggle is one faced by many working mothers when they re-enter the workforce after the birth of their baby. I certainly found the issue of who to tell at work about my diagnosis (and who not to) a very difficult decision.  With my psychologist’s help, I worked through my reasons for wanting (needing?) to tell anyone about my experience and decided I most definitely wanted some form of support within the office - someone I could turn to if things became too difficult.  Luckily for me, one colleague with whom I work closely is a mother of two children and very well educated on all things “depression”.  After speaking with her about my situation, she provided me an open door of support whenever it was needed.  If my day-to-day cracks came with me to work, at least I would have someone to help me pick up the pieces.  Whilst this was indeed a relief, my confidence was still at an all time low.  Because of this, I certainly didn’t want my boss to know about what I’d been going through.  The last thing I needed was to feel like my every move was being watched – would he think I just couldn’t do my job at all now?  That kind of pressure felt overwhelming and increased my anxiety levels beyond what I felt I could handle.

By the time I walked into my office for the first time progress had definitely been made, however the feeling of certain things being “too much pressure” remained.  What I came to quickly realise was that I enjoyed being back in an “adult” world.  Even typing those words brings back that awful feeling of “mummy-guilt” I felt at the time. But honestly, it did feel like a part of me had been revived.

Arriving at work those three mornings a week, I could make myself a cup of coffee (at my own pace), sit at my computer (without anyone needing me), read through my emails and take the time to plan my day (uninterrupted).  Completely selfish, I know, but this time to myself truly felt like a gift.  Better still, I found myself looking forward to picking up my son from daycare on those days I worked.

A stark contrast to how it had felt whilst I was on maternity leave, waiting for my husband to come home so I could hand over our son and have 5 minutes to myself with a cup of tea. Now, I actually found spending time with my son after picking him up an absolute pleasure – it was “real” quality time.  Previously, my being home with my little man every day (feeling the full brunt of my depression) had prevented me fully appreciating the joy it seemed most other mothers simply felt from the start.  Oh, how I was transformed! It was an exciting time for me and I knew with all my heart that my transition back into the workforce could not have come at a better time.

I did find some days are more difficult than others (and still do if I’m honest!).  Those mornings getting ready for work were sometimes hellish and extremely difficult for me to handle, but I managed.  And with each passing week, I felt the whole process getting just that little bit easier.  There were certainly those days when a spanner would be thrown in the works with my son doing Number 2’s all over me and himself right before walking out the door… But generally, things continued to improve.  My ability to handle the pressures of work surprised me.  I’ll admit there were those occasions when the conversation and workload started to feel overwhelming. I would always ensure I sat near to the door when having meetings so if my anxiety levels became unmanageable – the sweat, the stomach cramps, the nausea - I could leave without too much disruption. The real difference though? I now had the time to breathe.

By taking a deep breath and reminding myself of why I was there, why I had been welcomed back as a key member of our team, and why my contribution was worthwhile, I was able to rein my anxiety in and bring it back to a more manageable level before the panic attacks set in.

It did help to have the support of two wonderful colleagues during this time who noticed these “moments” of mine and always took the time to whisper quietly, “Are you okay?”.

The “return to work” issue for mums with any form of postnatal mental illness is a mine-field of emotions; the most common of which seems to be intense feelings of guilt and worthlessness. Everyone’s experience is so emotionally unique, so dependent on the organisation to which they are returning, that finding the individual strategies that best work can be not only challenging, but thoroughly exhausting! Early detection and diagnosis of our postnatal mental illness symptoms, reaching out and having that difficult conversation with a partner, friend, colleague, or GP, can go a long way towards easing this life transition (as it can many others) helping to make it considerably easier to navigate.

If you, or anyone you know, are experiencing perinatal mental health issues please contact your GP or one of the many support services available:

PANDA              1300 726 306
beyondblue        1300 224 636
Lifeline               13 11 14 (24hr)

About the Author:

Rani Farmer is a perinatal wellness and parent educator and founder of Hands Holding Hands – passionate about fostering secure attachment relationships between caregivers and their children. Rani’s interest in parent-child attachment began at university and re-ignited when diagnosed with postnatal depression/anxiety after the birth of her first child. She has a deep understanding of how everyday challenges can put strain on couples and parent-child attachment relationships.