Maternity leave for me was a beautiful time, with some significant challenges that I only realize now that I am well into working motherhood.
I had the unfortunate complication of preeclampsia during week 35 of my pregnancy, and was rushed to the hospital with dangerously high blood pressure levels and elevated proteins in my urine. Despite all of this, I felt ok on the outside. Sure, I was a frayed wire of emotions that week and seeing spots in my eyes, but I didn’t know any better regarding what those symptoms had meant. I just thought my body was out of whack that day. The doctors rapidly identified that I was moments away from a stroke and possibly losing both my life and my baby’s.
After a peaceful and beautiful induced birth, I brought my son home to my humble NYC apartment and started to try to navigate the city I had once known like the back of my hand, but now seemed like a maze of dark streets, inaccessible staircases, and unfamiliar and unfriendly faces with no compassion for moms like me who were just starting on their journeys.
We don’t have any family near us, so it was a powerful experience to raise my son in this small space, with virtually no assistance — other than good ol Amazon and the friendly bagel delivery guy. My husband was given one week off for paternity leave, and I had to stay in the hospital for six days due to my physical complications from pregnancy, which meant my husband was only home with me and my son for ONE day. One single day to bond as a family. This crushed me. Deeply. In retrospect, this was the day that anxiety entered my life. I felt immediately alone, terrified, confused, and far from calm. Now I know that was also attributed to the preeclampsia (which took months to go away) and the cardiac complications that knocked me off my feet more than once (which at the time, I thought were panic attacks). All of this made me feel inadequate as a new mom.
Eventually, I realized my power. I had been given this new set of skills. All of a sudden, I knew how to do things, instincts kicked in, my milk began to flow, and we started to bond and communicate as mother and son — feeling out each others needs and wants. I was feeling incredible. I was equipped. Since my son was a preemie at just 5 pounds, he slept a lot and wasn’t a fussy sleeper, eater, or generally cranky. I was blessed with a peaceful son, who somehow knew his mother needed the rest to recover from her trauma as well. We helped each other when we needed it the most.
Week by week, I had a few visitors here and there, but I felt bound to my home. My anxiety around leaving my apartment was daunting. I was afraid the worst would happen. Would we get run over by a cyclist? Would a giant Fresh Direct truck cut us off in the crosswalk of 2nd Avenue? Was a stranger going to come up to us and reach for my son? What if we had a diaper blow out and I had nowhere safe to change him? What if we got stuck underground in a subway? (It took me almost 8 months to try the subway with my baby.) So many scary thoughts twirled around my head like angry butterflies… but each day, step by step, I was able to venture farther, breathe easier, and walk more freely and confidently with my baby as we explored this new life. The process became easier.
My work gave me 12 weeks maternity leave, two of which were paid. As the primary financial contributor to my home, this was scary. I needed strong planning and preparedness for all of the extra expenditures, NICU bills, specialist doctor out-of-pocket costs, and more. I thought breastfeeding was going to be my greatest challenge (it was definitely up there), but maintaining my home, financial concerns, rent, and food expenses really took a toll on us. We were drowning in medical bills from our complicated delivery, and of course you just have to have the latest bottles, and carriers, and strollers when you live on the Upper East Side. Appearances matter here…although I wish they didn’t.
As I neared the end of my maternity leave, I had to start to shift my mental focus. What was happening in the world, what were the emerging trends I needed to absorb and identify? Where were my most valued contacts, and would they see me as the same PR pit bull that they had grown to admire and depend on? So much unknown, so many lists to tackle, and yet I could only think about the next feeding, the next developmental milestone, the next immunization appointment. This was the reorganization of the files in my brain that I didn’t know would happen. How was I going to write again? Ideate creatively? Navigate tricky strategic situations? I was afraid I had lost my touch, my effectiveness, my drive.
When I eventually did return, it was vastly different — I needed to catch up and navigate my way. I had been assigned a new office, in a different building from my team, which isolated me from my tribe, hindering any reacclimation that I really needed to be accepted back into the fold. I was alone, separated, and afraid about my job security. Sure, they welcomed me back with a nice sign on my door, but that was about it.
I had to fend for myself, make mom friends in the office, and ask tough questions. My pumping room was a couch in a freezing cold room (read: converted closet) that had a small fridge inside, where people were storing their yogurts and cold-pressed juices. On more than one occasion my milk had been haphazardly removed from the fridge and had spoiled when I came back to retrieve it. I was defeated. There was no lock on the door, so I always pumped with paranoia that someone would walk in on me. I ended up making a “Do not enter!” sign for precaution. It wasn’t enough though, and I eventually stopped pumping and went to formula because I did not feel adequately accommodated for my breastfeeding/pumping needs.
My general managers were kind, and my company thankfully has a liberal work-from-home policy, but optics matter too. “Oh she’s already working from home? Why does she need to work from home if she has a nanny? Why does your nanny need to leave at 5:30pm?” Lots of things kept entering my head. But, I powered through. I made time to pump, I made new friends who helped carve a path for me, and set firm boundaries about my arrival and departure times.
I worked super early in the morning (5:30am) and worked late (after 10pm) nightly to compensate for the time I needed to spend with my son, pump for the next day, and oh, I guess eat something and say hello to my husband before we crashed into our pillows for a few hours of precious sleep. I did my best to prove my commitment and worth to the company.
In hindsight, what would have been helpful for me would have been more illustrative details on the return-to-work policies, a mom or mentor to welcome me back, better-equipped pumping spaces and more information on what my rights were and weren’t as a new mom. Also, regular check-ins on my mental health as I re-emerged into the workforce. A few months after I returned, I suffered a cardiac episode and had to be taken out of the office in front of my colleagues by ambulance. I had been burning the candle at both ends and my anxiety was not doing well. I was in full-blown postpartum depression, and had no one to talk to about it — no one to check on me. I was hurting to my core by trying to be everything to everyone, and nothing to myself.
Exhale. That was tough to relive while writing. Now, my son is two, I am excelling at work, have lost 70 pounds, am completely off of all medications, and am thriving in my personal and professional life. There is life after baby. There is life after maternity leave, but we have a long way to go in helping women through this massive life transition. We owe it to our future mothers and our future colleagues to provide for their families to be better — to be advocates and look out for each other. If I could do it all over again for the first time, I would build up a stronger support team, advocate for my rights unapologetically, and enroll in the proper postpartum care for my emotional needs. I believe this community can enact change, but only with authentic and honest storytelling.
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