If you have children, you know there’s no shortage of advice from family, friends and sometimes even strangers. Yet, mothers dealing with postpartum depression often feel like they have no one to talk to about what they’re going through. At least, that’s how I felt following the birth of my first child.
While I wouldn’t wish my experience on any new parent, it led me to several realizations that helped shape me as a person, as a mother and as a leader of my work teams:
- Have someone you can talk to about what you’re going through, whether that’s friends, family or a support group.
- Take care of yourself physically and mentally.
- Know what kind of maternity/leave benefits you’re entitled to from your employer and your state.
I was 29 years old when I had my first child. My husband and I were living in south Philadelphia and both working full time. He worked the overnight shift, and I worked 8 to 5 Monday through Friday in marketing.
We were financially stable and thought we were prepared to welcome our son to the world.
Then D-Day came — delivery day, that is. After 13 hours of labor, our son was born via cesarean section.
Immediately after Jesse was born, I felt overwhelmed and depressed. I remember our family coming to the hospital and I didn’t want to see anyone. I was a hormonal mess. I couldn’t stop crying. And I was in pain from the surgery.
On top of that, I couldn’t breastfeed. Even with the help of the nurses, it just wouldn’t happen. So, besides feeling in pain and emotionally raw, I also felt a deep guilt that I couldn’t feed my baby properly. I felt like a terrible mom on the first day.
I felt even worse after taking our son home. My husband was still working the overnight shift (no time off work for new Dads back then), so I was home alone at night. And since my husband had to sleep during the day, I was mostly on my own then, too. My son was colicky, so sleeping was impossible. I felt isolated and alone.
I know now that I’m not the only mother who feels this way. About 15 percent of women experience postpartum depression.1 But it wasn’t something people talked about 30 years ago. So, I suffered in silence.
I originally had asked for six weeks off for maternity leave but needed to take an extra two weeks off to heal following the c-section. My employer at the time called to tell me he couldn’t carry my workload for eight weeks, and that I’d need to find a temporary replacement while I was off on maternity.
So now, in addition to feeling like a terrible mom and being in pain, I also felt guilty about leaving my employer in the lurch. I did what he asked. Right there at my kitchen table, I started interviewing candidates to help do my job while I was out.
It was all too much to handle. On top of everything else, I might have just hired my temporary replacement. I feared it might become permanent, and I’d lose my job.
The Importance of a Support System
Thankfully, after two months of the hurricane of emotions, I started to come out of it. I credit my two sisters for helping me pull through. The three of us all had children within three months of each other (all boys), so they could at least understand some of what I was going through. I finally opened up to them and asked for help.
And that brings me back to my first realization — have a support system. It doesn’t matter if you’re a first-time mom or have several children: Postpartum depression can happen to any woman, regardless of age, income, race, culture or education.2
Take Care of Your Physical and Mental Health
Once I had my support system in place with my sisters, I finally could start taking care of myself mentally and physically. And I started thinking about why I waited so long to reach out for help.
It’s been nearly 30 years; and while there’s been progress, there’s still so much work to do to combat the stigma associated with mental health. About one in five adults has a mental disorder, according to a recent survey.3 I realize now that we should be just as comfortable addressing our mental health concerns as our physical well-being. If only I had known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have waited so long to ask for help. And mental health help in today’s world is all the more important, given the difficult environment we are all living in.
Family Medical Leave and Disability Insurance Help Secure Your Job and Provide Income
My final realization from this experience is how important it is for parents to take undisturbed time off to heal and bond when welcoming a new member to the family, and to know what benefits you’re entitled to during that time.
I had my first son in 1991, two years before President Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) that allows employees to take up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave. I’d like to think if FMLA existed then, my employer wouldn’t have asked me to find a replacement for my job while I was on leave. And perhaps I would have been more comfortable saying, “I’m on maternity leave but I’m glad to send you some names so you can do the interviewing.”
Knowing my job was safe would have been a much-needed relief. But I also had to worry about bringing in income while I was off work.
When I was on maternity leave, I only had saved a week or two of paid time off. Thankfully, I had short-term disability insurance to help replace a portion of my lost income while on leave. Without that safety net, my stress and depression could’ve been much worse if I also had to worry about paying our bills.
And it’s that final realization that’s inspired me throughout my career in employee benefits. I am a huge cheerleader for buying disability insurance, because I know what can happen without it. Sometimes it’s not enough to know your job is safe, you also need to know how you’re going to pay for your everyday expenses.
Welcoming a new child into your family should be a joyous experience. But when it gets tough, please remember — you are not alone. Ask for help when you need it. Take care of your physical and mental well-being. And take the time to learn what benefits you have available. It can make all the difference.