I went back to work six weeks after giving birth to my daughter, Isla.
I was still bleeding. My breasts were still leaking. My hemorrhoids hadn’t healed. My hormones … well, let’s just say they weren’t back to normal.
And, of course, Isla wasn’t sleeping and neither was I. But, six weeks is the maternity leave that my employer offered, so that’s what I took. (Side note: I was covered under FMLA so I could have taken an additional six weeks, but that felt indulgent and sinful. Work needed me!)
So I slapped on a maxi pad, slathered on some Preparation H, stuck on nipple pads, smeared on mascara, chugged some coffee, and off I went — Isla stayed home with her grandma.
The mascara didn’t last long. I bawled the whole 20-minute drive to work and I couldn’t make myself stop.
There was no identifiable cause of my tears — it was physiological. Isla was my second baby so I knew some baby blues, as the experts call them, were to be expected. With my son, Archer (now four), I was diagnosed with postpartum depression and put on medications. I also got to stay home with him for six months.
Six months is way different than six weeks. I bonded with Archer. I felt like I knew him. I knew which cry was a hungry cry and which cry was a dirty diaper cry. I knew his schedule. I knew when he napped and when he ate. And he knew me. I could tell by his smiles and laughs when he saw me and by his cries when I left.
This time around, I felt like I didn’t know Isla and was certain she didn’t know who I was.
In casual conversation, people would ask me how much she ate in one feeding. I didn’t know. They’d ask how long her naps were. I didn’t know. And if I didn’t know her, how could she possibly know me? She smiled at her dad, mostly.
Back when I was pregnant with Isla, those same people would ask me how much time I was taking for maternity leave. I’d tell them, “Six weeks.”
My answer was almost always met with a gasp. So much so that I would feel the need to explain, “It’s fine. Why would companies offer six weeks of maternity leave if women really needed more?”
I wasn’t fine. Six weeks for maternity leave is bullsh*t.
I struggled through my first week back. Every day was filled with intermittent sobbing. What was the point in popping out a baby, going right back to work, and letting someone else bond with her? Shouldn’t that be the mother’s job? She and I maybe got to spend two-and-a-half quality hours together. I felt like I was getting robbed.
Isla would typically get up for the day around 6:30 a.m. and I’d leave for work by 8 a.m. I’d get home around 5:30 p.m., make dinner, eat, give baths and try to get both kids to bed by 8 p.m.(FYI: my partner played a helpful role in this routine).
Anyone who also has a toddler knows how chaotic the mornings and evenings can be.
They’re filled with directives such as: Get up! Brush your teeth! Eat your breakfast! Get dressed! Don’t color on the walls! While the evenings are similar but different: Pick up your toys! Eat your dinner! Put your penis away at the table! Take a bath! Don’t poop in the tub!
And so on and so forth.
I just wanted to be home with Isla. Not at work.
While in a team meeting one morning, the sobbing started and I couldn’t stop it.
I camped out in the restroom for the remainder of the meeting and then walked to my boss’s office. He’s a progressive, middle-aged man — with two daughters and a wife — so I felt semi-comfortable losing my shit in front of him. That said, I still wanted my job and didn’t want him to think I was “crazy.”
Outside of his door, I composed myself and walked in.
“I’m not OK,” I said.
He sort of smiled, not knowing what was coming next. But, all I could do was blubber and stammer, “It won’t stop. The tears won’t stop. I don’t know why. They just won’t.”
A veil of compassion fell over his face and he said, softly, “It’s OK. It’s physiological. It’s hormones. Need some water?”
No, I told him. I just needed to calm down.
“Go home. You don’t have to be here,” he said, “I’ll call you an Uber.”
That seemed awfully dramatic so I told him I would just sit in my office until I could drive home, which I did.
I took a few more days off, snuggled with Isla, rested, and did my best not to feel guilty about it. Because my boss was right: I didn’t have to be there.
And in the world of postpartum depression and child care, I know I have it pretty good. I’ve worked with patients who suffered from postpartum psychosis and have friends who needed to be hospitalized.
Childbirth is beautiful, ugly, strenuous, uncomplicated, painful, painless, and emotional. It should be respected with an adequate amount of time off work.
Numerous studies have linked a short period of maternity leave to depression. One study I read found that an increase of just one week of time off decreased the number of depressive symptoms in postpartum mothers.
Let’s talk about Europe. I’m sure most of you know that the norm over there is at least six months of paid leave, while several countries allow more than three years.
Although I would argue that three years of leave may be excessive and detrimental to a woman and her career, I think six months is a happy medium. After all, let’s not forget that the benefits of appropriate maternity (and paternity) leave also benefit the baby.
I’m happy to report that seven months after having Isla, I’m now confident she knows who I am. She smiles and sometimes giggles when I walk into a room, and whimpers when I walk away from her.
Some days, when I’m driving with her I have to reach around and hold her hand so she knows I’m still close by.
I know that she likes sweet potatoes in the morning and bananas with warmed-up oatmeal in the evenings. I know she likes to chew on my hair and get raspberries on her tummy. I know she enjoys a cat nap before dinner and will be disappointed if we don’t play peek-a-boo before bedtime.
I know all of this because I am her mom.
Meghan Ensell cohosts a parenting podcast, blogs, and performs on Arizona’s live-storytelling scene. For more, follow her on Medium.
This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.