I don’t know if becoming a mother upended my career, or if my career upended my ability to be a competent mother. I’ll never know.
What I do know, is that on reflection, becoming a mother was the psychological equivalent of slamming into a brick wall at high speed. The deceleration on every aspect of me was devastating.
Maybe it’s better to describe it as a multi-car head on collision at a four-way stop, with me driving every car. Me the woman, me the wife, me the daughter and me the working professional, mangled all at once into me the mom.
And almost four years later, it still feels like I’m scraping bits of me off the tarmac…
This a story from the series: Finding Family | Nine mothers share the defining moments of their rocky path to parenthood
Extra carry-on luggage
Let me rewind a bit. A little over four years ago, I returned from a heavenly trip to Italy and New York with my husband, with a little extra carry-on luggage.
I was 10 years into a career in digital media that had seen me take some unexpected twists and turns into the most incredible role. I couldn’t have thought of a better job description; I was in a state of flow for years.
Exhilarated and exhausted every day; loving what I did and fuelling myself on the mission and purpose we as a team all believed in.
The days were fast, breathless and performative and I was good at it. I was exceptional at it. I cared deeply for the work and for my colleagues. I tried to always do what was right and took the mantra of servant leadership to heart every chance I got.
It was time
I was in my early 30s, married for five years already, and we both agreed though it was time to slow down ever-so-slightly and start that family.
I was anxious about the scale of the task ahead, but it was time.
It was around that time my boss started talking to me about a new role. A brand new role. I couldn’t do this job forever, he said. They needed someone like me to take on this new challenge. A new direction. I’d be great at it.
My gut said no. My mouth said no. I loved my job. I adored my job. I was good at my job. I needed the thrill of it. I needed the pace of it.
This new job would kill me. I’d have no oxygen. I’d have no fuel. I’d be at risk of retrenchment in a department of one. I’d become irrelevant.
"But Cathryn, you are not your job. And you could never become irrelevant."
Exactly what I needed
I hated the concept of this new job. I hated the very idea of it. I knew it was a bad idea. I knew it made no sense. I dreaded giving up a team and a role I loved so much.
But I had a baby in my belly and it was perhaps maternal instinct telling me to take the offer; take the promotion, for the sake of our family.
Don’t listen to the little voice saying it’s a bad idea. Sure, it would be less exciting and less taxing, but with a baby on the way, maybe that’s exactly what I needed… I accepted the role, and then I told my boss I was pregnant.
He was thrilled for me. All my colleagues were.
It was a happy time and life carried on as normal at work.
A psychological mess
They waited until I was on maternity leave to replace me. I stayed on in the role I adored until I went on maternity leave at 39 weeks.
I met my baby girl. I was besotted. Obsessed.
And without the rapid pace of the work day to occupy what, in retrospect, was clearly a chronically anxious mind, I was a psychological mess.
We had no trouble breastfeeding, but sleep was another story altogether. I had never been around babies before. Ever.
Hers was the first nappy I had ever changed in my life.
How clueless I was
And while I thought I was coping relatively well initially, I struggled to leave the house on my own (with or without her).
I felt guilty being away from her, especially when it was for "selfish" reasons like coffee with a friend.
And when our au pair started to work with us, I realised how clueless I was about sleep schedules and sleep training and just about everything else that seems to come so naturally to other first time mothers.
It felt awful to see another woman be so much better at taking care of my child than I was.
Close colleagues came to visit me and the baby. They were just about the only ones to make such a trip to see me. I was so chuffed. And so thrilled they had thought to come see me.
You probably didn’t know
"They’ve hired your replacement, by the way. We wanted to tell you if you didn’t know. It seems like you probably didn’t know."
It hit me in the gut. I smiled. I hugged my baby. I thanked them for coming all this way to see me and to tell me. We said our goodbyes. I was devastated.
I returned to work to find my things moved to a different desk, on a different floor, in a different department.
I was a department of one, but they had space for me next to this other department and they didn’t want me to sit alone, which was kind of them.
I felt shame and embarrassment from the very first day. My team and my friends from one floor up seemed to barely acknowledge my return. Some of these people were at my wedding.
They didn’t talk to me about anything. Life had gone on and there was no reason to help me catch up.
Can you give me a job description, please?
My new officemates were kind to welcome me, but hadn’t missed me to begin with. I met with my replacement. I offered to help however and whenever I could with whatever he needed.
I gave him some insider tips and tricks. He thanked me. And I was never included on anything ever again.
I expressed three times a day, coming and going from my new desk next to my new office mates, where I did really very little else in my day.
My boss, so enthusiastic about this new journey for me nine months ago, had lost interest in the task.
"What do you want me to do, exactly?" I would ask. "Can you give me a job description, please? I’m unclear where I fit in, between departments, I would like to understand your vision for it."
"How about you write a job description of what you think you should do, and send it back to me," he would reply.
We went back and forth for nine months. At my last performance review, sometime in December, I landed up in angry tears with him.
"I don’t know what you want from me? I keep asking you what you expect from me, and you never tell me! Have you any idea what it’s like to go from being at the centre of things and working hard to help wherever possible, to the absolute vacuum of this so-called important role?!"
He didn’t know how to even look me in the eye. Maybe he thought these were the insane ramblings of a tired first-time mom.
He kept saying "I know. I know. I’m sorry."
But nothing changed.
Three months later, I was given a choice to take a package, or take a demotion. The company had to cut costs and, as my department was new, I was unfortunately included in the round of 189s.
I was too embarrassed
I went icy cold. And eerily calm. My boss asked what I was thinking. All I could say was "I told you so". I took the package, after close on 12 years at the same company.
After promotions and awards and friendships that spanned more than a decade, I left. I didn’t even tell anyone I was leaving.
I was too embarrassed. I sent a goodbye email on a Friday afternoon to a select group of colleagues, hitting "Send" as I walked out the door.
I came back the next day to pack up my desk. And that was that.
It’s been two-and-a-half years since that day. And I have never recovered.
I doubt everything
I have no professional confidence; the typical imposter syndrome any young woman feels, working her way up the ladder, has been magnified a hundred-fold now.
I doubt everything about my professional journey thus far. Perhaps it was a fluke I succeeded in the first place.
Even though I was complicit in my own professional demise, so to speak, I still feel betrayed. And while this isn’t the typical tale most new mums face when they return to work from maternity leave, the end result was the same.
Side-moted; all trajectory and velocity lost.
You see, I lost myself when I became a mom for the first time. Life changed forever. And while some moms have the luxury of returning to work and having something familiar and empowering in their lives again to help them rebuild, I lost just about everything I used to define who I was.
My boss was perhaps right, one is not one’s job. But I was.
I had no instinct
And without the control and process and rhythm of my typical day to help me regain my sense of self, I fell to absolute pieces.
The worst of it all was that the depression of sitting in a job with no purpose, and that made me doubt myself as a professional, spilled over into my personal life.
I thought I was a pathetic mother. I had no instinct. I made mistakes all the time.
I missed signs and signals from my baby. I couldn’t get her to sleep like the au pair would. She wasn’t hitting her milestones like other babies her age. I didn’t have the patience for parenting.
I didn’t have a nurturing instinct. And paradoxically, I could bear the idea that the best possible thing for my child – as a terrible as a parent as I thought I was – was for me to sit in a meaningless job nine hours a day, so that I could earn a salary to pay a stranger to look after her for nine hours a day.
It seemed unnatural, and yet another sign of how bad a parent I truly was.
But nothing changed
It took a second pregnancy, and an unexpected bout of so-called "gender depression" (which is the poorly described experience of sadness over the sex of your baby), to finally send me to a psychiatrist.
I had sought the help of psychologists several times since becoming a mom, but I couldn’t afford the visits and I didn’t gel with any of the professionals I met with. We talked a lot. I talked a lot.
But nothing changed. And so I never stuck with it.
The psychiatrist I met with listened to me for barely five minutes, and diagnosed me with pre-natal anxiety and depression. And post-natal anxiety and depression from my first child.
The heart of the issue
Two-and-a-half years in the wilderness; feeling sad and powerless and overwhelmed by my inability to be a good mom and a successful professional, and this doctor saw right through me, to the heart of the issue.
I had lost all control the day I became a mom. Don’t we all?
But the difference is, I never got it back, And as someone who was able to harness her underlying anxiety in such a way as to over-achieve in my career, I hadn’t even noticed I had anxiety to begin with.
Without the busyness of work; the regular state of flow; and with the impact it had on my capacity to objectively assess my parenting abilities, I was at a complete loss.
Learning my second baby wasn’t going to be the sex I hoped for, was just the last straw.
I’ll never know
I’ll say this again: I’ll never know if becoming a mom made me incapable of succeeding at work; or if taking on a new challenge at work (and failing) made me incapable of succeeding at being a mom.
Everything happened at once and there is very little left of the woman who came back from Italy and New York with a little extra luggage in her belly.
I’ll also never know what permanent marks I’ve left on my firstborn from the anxiety and depression I didn’t know I had.
Or if I’ll ever forgive myself for the sadness I felt for not getting the second-born I wanted.
I’m grateful though for the help I’m now getting for my mental health. Moms are the centre of their children’s universes and I can’t afford to be broken any longer.
I love them too much to make them bear that any longer.
I still resent myself for not listening to my gut
I do know my career trajectory will never be the same. It hasn’t just plateaued. It’s broken. It broke because I broke.
And I still resent myself for not listening to my gut at the time, and I resent my employer for taking advantage of my extended leave from work to make his life easier in replacing me.
I resent my colleagues for learning to live without me after just four short months of leave.
And the hard part is just beginning. Asking for afternoons off because of childcare crises; sporting events; school functions; taking breastfeeding breaks; babies on my lap during Zoom calls… I often wonder how different this might all feel if I was still at the top of my game.
Would I still be apologising profusely for all these things?
Would I feel like a bad employee AND a bad mother all the time like I do now?
Add it to the list of things I’ll never know.
Words by Cathryn Reece
Edited by Elizabeth Mamacos
Read more in the series here: Finding Family | Nine mothers share the defining moments of their rocky path to parenthood
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