When I was about to go on maternity leave in the Summer of 2021, there were a lot of changes afoot, not just at my school but nationally. We were still in the middle of a worldwide pandemic and still trying to figure out how to deal with the complications and challenges that brought. It was an incredibly anxious time, made no less stressful for me by the fact that I was facing a year ‘out of the loop’, at home with my baby, learning how to be a mother.
Everyone told me to enjoy every minute of my maternity leave, to not think about work as the time would fly by. That’s honestly what I intended to do, but it’s not that easy. Some may think it silly but I worried about being away from work. I love my job. A great deal of my self-worth and my confidence comes from teaching, leading, and being with my incredible team every day. Suddenly losing that sense of purpose that I had had for 15 years, combined with the physical, mental, and emotional challenges of having my first baby, I began to struggle. I had gone from being an expert to being a complete novice and no amount of book reading helped prepare me for the massive blow to my wellbeing that that would entail.
By Christmas, I realised I was suffering with Postnatal Depression. I have been praised by friends and family for realising this ‘so quickly’ but I desperately regret not knowing sooner as I feel I missed out on the joy of those first few months. The main symptom I was experiencing was a constant sense of sadness. When the baby blues phase has passed, it’s normal to feel exhausted, overwhelmed, and a little worried – Am I doing the right thing? Does the baby need this or that? But to feel so sad, every day, and so disengaged… I eventually realised that wasn’t right. The NHS lists the symptoms of PND as follows:
• a persistent feeling of sadness and low mood
• lack of enjoyment and loss of interest in the wider world
• lack of energy and feeling tired all the time
• trouble sleeping at night and feeling sleepy during the day
• difficulty bonding with your baby
• withdrawing from contact with other people
• problems concentrating and making decisions
• frightening thoughts – for example, about hurting your baby
Many women don’t know that they have PND as you may not experience all of these symptoms, they may build up over time, or you may just dismiss them as ‘normal’ like I did. I told myself that this was just my life now: to be miserable and tired every day. I remember not feeling that instant surge of love for my baby as soon as she arrived. I put it down to a very difficult labour and our first few days together being spent in hospital. Looking back, that hospital stay may well have been the trigger for my depression and I wish I hadn’t just ignored it.
I know it’s easier said than done but if you are feeling like this, even if it’s just mild, then please go and ask for help. Speak to your GP or contact one of the many pregnancy and postnatal mental health charities that are out there, such as PANDAS Foundation, Mind, and Tommy’s. I made an appointment with my GP, who listened kindly and patiently as I wept in her office and explained what I was experiencing. I left feeling like a weight had been lifted. I was offered medication and therapy and I suddenly felt like I didn’t need to be so scared anymore.
Since then I have been more open with my husband about how I’m feeling each day, so that I don’t let things build up. My family know that I was struggling and so I know they’re there if I need help. I am also grateful that I was offered anti-depressants. I have never had them before and I had some of the same concerns many people have: Are they just “happy pills”? Will they make me feel spaced out or unable to feel? Not at all. My medication makes me feel like me again. I still worry about things and feel anxious but my lows aren’t as low and they don’t last as long. I have a proportionate response to setbacks now and don’t berate myself so harshly. My confidence is building up again and I’m excited about every day I get to spend with my daughter.
One thing that also helped me was being honest with my friends from work and asking them not to fill me in on things that were happening there. When I first left, I wanted to be kept in the loop about everything but I soon realised that it just made me feel powerless and anxious. I deleted my email account from my phone, told people I was struggling, and focused on being present with my baby. I’m starting to dip my toe back in the water now and I know that school will still be there when I return, and that I’ll be just as competent as I always have been.
Finally, it’s important that you don’t feel pressured to spend your parental leave doing CPD or keeping up to date with subject knowledge and educational developments. There’s nothing wrong with any of that but it’s very easy, especially if you are on Twitter, to see other people getting to use their brains whilst you feel too tired to focus on even the most basic of tasks. I do a little reading here and there, both for pleasure and for work and there is no pressure as I do everything at my own pace. Finding the time to write this piece feels like a real achievement, and you have to take wins where you can find them.
Whilst on parental leave you may feel like you’re losing that part of yourself that thrived in the classroom but it’s only temporary. When you go back you will be a stronger, wiser teacher with a whole new set of skills that you can rely upon and a healthier understanding of what matters – you and your new family.