A good friend told me this week that she's expecting a baby - what wonderful, happy news! As the conversation went on, we covered all the important points; the gender, the birth, what type of mum she's going to be, how much unnecessary baby paraphernalia we're told we need! Knowing the magical time she has ahead, I am so full of joy for her and, I must admit, feeling a little (ok, a lot) broody.
It wasn't until shortly after we hung up the call that my darker memories started to creep in, and I revisited what a difficult period my pregnancy had been for me. Not just the physical changes to my body and the inevitable lifestyle adjustments we had ahead, but the shift in my mental health that knocked me for six. The heightened levels of anxiety, including panic attacks in the office, and all the other challenges I wrote about in a previous blog post (More Than Mother's Guilt). Then there was that weird, irrational fear that someone was going to punch me in the stomach whenever I walked down the street (not an uncommon fear during pregnancy, apparently).
But today I need to write about the work situation, because that always seems to come up in my conversations with first time mums-to-be. I remember a previous boss, and now a very senior woman at a US firm I worked, boasting about her return-to-work two weeks after giving birth. My stitches hadn't even healed and I could just about walk from the sofa to the bathroom! I'm still not sure what message she was trying to send out. Other women I admired encouraged me to take my time and not make any plans until after the birth, as anything can happen, and not to put any pressure on myself. Of course, I had always been a planner, super organised in every aspect of my life, so I made a decision early on and was dead set on returning after 9 months. Looking back it's clear that the decision was driven solely by money - bad, bad, bad! Nonetheless, the date was saved in the calendar and everything from the nursery to holidays (priorities!) were scheduled accordingly.
We worked towards the plan but it evolved and I (too) slowly realised I'd wasted a lot of time, effort and worry along the way trying to stick to it. I put pressure on myself to return to my career, a career I'd enjoyed for many years, but no longer served me well. Perhaps at an earlier stage of my life I would've sprung back into the office with different priorities and a desire for the workplace routine. Perhaps if my workplace had been welcoming and supportive there would've been a different outcome.
Advice to my younger, pregnant self is a tricky one, because I don't regret those days or wish events had turned out differently. I learnt some hard lessons which serve me well today, in my business, in my relationship with work, and certainly as a Wise Up expert when I'm mentoring others. If there was one thing I wish I'd known it's this; there were many similar experiences across my extended network which I didn't fully appreciate at the time. People that had gone through difficult times at work, either during maternity or otherwise, with whom I've since reconnected with and learnt a great deal from. Organisational change, changing roles, redundancy situations, horrible bosses, the list goes on. I should've reached out for more career support sooner - starting with a phone call, a walk or a coffee - as simple as a kind person asking how I was doing and then listening as it all came flooding out, followed by a gentle nudge in the right direction.
Ultimately, I did have huge support from my network, although this came a little later once I felt more comfortable talking about what I'd been through and how it had affected my corporate mindset. I've lost count of how many kind souls have said, "if only I'd known...", "I went through something similar...".
For me, the decision to leave my career was a black or white one; it was either career or motherhood and I chose motherhood. I admire those who can balance, or choose, both. "Having it all" means different things to different people, and perhaps strangely I do have it all - everything and everyone I want and need in my life, anyway. Isn't that what it means? My transition into full time motherhood took a couple of attempts as I struggled (impossibly) to prioritise one over the other, but once I understood the importance of good mental health, and how critical it was for myself and for my family, then the decision was simple.
The Corporate Mind by Ann Camargo