I didn’t have a job when I found out I was pregnant with Oliver. Michael and I had only been dating a few months when he invited me down to Nicaragua for the summer. We had dated at sailing camp and struck up a deep relationship that flowed easily like the ocean we sought. When we arrived back in the states, I realized that I hadn’t menstruated throughout our travels. Soon after I recall shakily dialing his phone number and stumbling the words, “you have to come over now.”
Months passed, we briefly moved in with our parents to save money, then found a condo close to our new jobs and settled. I remember going in for the interview and praying my blowsy top would cover the bump. But it grew, and after months I told my boss I was pregnant and talked to her about my time away. The conversation was disappointing.
We lived in North Carolina at the time, and because I hadn’t been with the company for over a year when Oliver was born, I took the non-FMLA 12 weeks. Baby Ollie was a month early and dropped in weight. I had to nurse him every two hours, which meant that I had to set a timer for every two hours and in between nurse him for thirty minutes on each breast; do the math, that meant I slept for an hour before getting up for the next nurse. I became a zombie.
My mom told me how hard it was for her to leave my brother and me when she went back to work. However, she didn’t tell me about the afterbirth hardships. The bleeding, constipation, painful breasts, fear, worry, anxiety, and sleeplessness were all left out. The new life completely blindsided me.
The dread of returning to work layered thick on my daily new mom worries. I didn’t want to go back. My reasons were a mix of childcare distrust, lack of interest in my job, and a severe cling to my sweet, tiny boy. Finally, after countless conversations and scenarios (I even tried to nanny with a newborn in tow–it was ugly), I begrudgingly went back to work. My new morning routine entailed rising hours before my time to clock in to nurse, pack, and spend at least a half-hour holding, staring, and crying over my baby to only drop him off in the infant room and run to the bathroom stall to cry more. It was a dark time.
I look back now on my emotions running rampant during those early months in motherhood transition. I wonder how it impacted my son. There’s no doubt Oliver absorbed a second-hand emotional load. Scientists also find breast milk as a gateway to pass on stress. There’s no doubt the strain pushed a steady thrush of hormones through me; researchers found that babies who drank high-cortisol breast milk tended to be more fearful and harder to soothe. Not only was my stress orchestrating the negative spiral of anxiety and depression, but I was also passing along these negative emotions to my baby.
This realization caused me to stop and step back, pondering,
How are the systemic pitfalls of our maternal welfare impacting our future?
Are we building an anxious generation to follow our own?
Research has found an association between longer maternity leave and a lowered risk of PPD, with women taking less than six months of leave being at an increased risk for the disorder (Chatterji & Markowitz, 2004; Dagher, McGovern, & Dowd, 2014).
When I read this research and World Health Organization recommendations pointing to leaves as a remedy for postpartum depression, I wondered how my life would be different and how my son would be different if we just had a bit more time.
The “what if things were different” train is a dicey one, and I’m hesitant to jump on. But when I do, I realize I wouldn’t change anything about my son, but I would completely transform my experience in the beginning.
Work, money, stress, and fears were all distractions aggressively pulling me away from what mattered most–enjoying the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of first-time motherhood.