Outside is still shrouded in darkness at 5:30 in the morning when Yun Williams, 30, crawls out of bed in her small-town home in Oak Creek, Milwaukee. As she pumps for breastmilk, she scrolls through emails on her phone, checking for any critical notices that may have come through while she was asleep. She’s a logistics manager at a Fortune 500 company, overseeing a team of more than 40 employees, so she doesn’t particularly like to be blindsided when she arrives at the office.
Shortly thereafter, Williams takes her dogs for a walk, hops in the shower and gently wakes her six-month-old daughter to feed her around 6:15—her son, three years old, usually gets up around this time, too. Rolling her husband over to assume “kid duties” and drive them to daycare, she scurries out the door herself.
It’s early, just 7 am, when Williams gets to her desk, personalized with photos of her family. Her son’s artwork adorns the walls of her office, too, though she seldom spends time in there. Instead, she walks the floor to check in with her production team and spends the bulk of her mornings in meetings. Afternoons, too—individual meetings, staff meetings, department manager meetings, strategy meetings, project meetings, people development meetings and more. But she still makes time to pump twice a day, storing her milk in a gold and teal mini fridge she’d spray painted herself.
Williams’ day is hectic, but she’s got a 5 pm hard cut-off so she can pick up her children from daycare and get them fed, bathed and put to bed before finally unwinding with her husband. She’s been on this schedule since she was four months postpartum with her second child, and the stress has indeed caught up to her. Now, she’s a working mother managing a team, a growing family and, even newer to her, postpartum depression symptoms.
“Two months after I returned to work, or four months postpartum, I was getting a lot of tension migraines with a lot nausea—we were taking a family vacation back home to see our family in Indiana,” Williams recalls of the onset of her depression. “I had vomited all over the backseat of the car and I kept thinking I must be pregnant, but I took multiple negative tests. Then I thought it was because of my eyesight, as, with pregnancy, my eyesight changed with my hormones. But I went to the eye doctor and things were all good there, too. Then I thought I’d been stressed and had not been getting a lot of sleep since I’d been back to work—that it must just be the stress catching up to me.”
But, one day on that trip, something small set Williams off—she started randomly crying, and she has no recollection as to what it was that triggered those tears. In fact, she realized she’d been crying quite often, about twice per week.
“I wasn’t sad; I was just super stressed, so it never occurred to me that it could be postpartum-related, but just that I had a demanding job and a new baby,” she explains. “I never knew postpartum depression was even a thing.”
Williams couldn’t get an appointment with her obstetrician for another month and, by that time, she was five-and-a-half months postpartum—a lapse of time, her doctor told her, is often associated with “situational depression.”
And Williams “situation” is certainly conducive to depression—she’d move to Milwaukee when she was in her second trimester with her daughter, where she started a completely new job in a completely new home without her support system of friends and family. Having that network of support, she believes, is what helped her through her postpartum period with her first child. This time, she was prescribed Zoloft to treat her migraines and nausea, and help her through her days. After all, going back to work this time around has been a lot tougher.
“I took eight weeks with my son and it felt like the right amount of time, so I did the same with my second,” she says, noting that she used her offer of six weeks of paid maternity leave and an additional two weeks of paid vacation. “But, with my first, I was ready to go. With this one, it was hard and very emotional. Towards the last two weeks, I was very stressed and anxious on my ability to be a good mother and a good employee. I was worried about how I was going to do it all.’”
A lot of women worry about being “good mothers” when they head back to work after taking their maternity leave.
“The goal isn’t to not miss the baby—remember that it can be a sign of healthy attachment to miss your child while away from him or her,” explains Jaime Malone, M.A., LPC of Insight Counseling and Consulting, LLC. Malone is a licensed professional counselor who provides counseling for perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, and she facilitates a motherhood and career therapeutic group. “The goal, instead, is to feel confident that you can manage missing your baby—it doesn’t have to derail your day, your mood or dictate your career decisions.”
For Williams, the first day back was actually okay—her team (of mostly men) remained supportive, and she says she handled the workday better than she’d anticipated. In fact, the first few weeks went just fine; she was confident she had a handle on things.
“It took until that [family vacation] when I realized I had some symptoms of postpartum depression and anxiety that forced me to start being conscious of how much work I was doing and needing to start putting limits on myself,” she says. “I’m very Type A, so it’s hard to tell myself to slow down.”
While her anxiousness was indeed readily apparent to herself, Williams isn’t sure if any of her employees have noticed. She tends to mask her depression at work, but break down at home. While she has a few trusted and empathetic coworkers, she only feels like she can really allow herself to be vulnerable at home and with other mothers—like one she’s befriended at work.
“As independent as I’d like to think I am, I am realizing how much I need other moms,” she says. “Do not underestimate the power of mom friends; it’s a real thing. But it’s really about having a good support system. I have an incredibly supportive husband with whom I can be completely real and vulnerable. More importantly… I’ve had to learn that, you know what, getting a B or maybe just a ‘good enough’ or ‘pass’ is just fine, too. You can’t do everything. You need to have an honest conversation with yourself and truly understand your priorities in rank. When you don’t achieve those at the bottom of your list, it’s okay.”
Malone agrees that having a go-to person and place is critical to coping.
“Like in any case of emergency, it’s always helpful to have a plan,” she says. “If you are feeling sad or having a difficult moment, where or to whom can you go? Maybe it’s an understanding and supportive colleague, or maybe it’s stepping outside for fresh air.”
Likewise, she suggests mothers create wellness plans to help pick themselves up out of depression.
“Try to incorporate habits into your work day that you’ve learned boost your mood—from having nutritious meals and drinking lots of water to doing some yoga poses and stretches or listening to music you enjoy,” she says. “Be purposeful with your commute time to add something of personal value to your day; whether it’s a phone call to a friend or a podcast on an interesting topic, commuting time can be spent purposefully to enrich your day. Then, away from work, schedule other wellness activities like any other priority. Moms can be very good at making sure kids get to their doctor appointments or music classes but easily neglect their own, particularly when returning to work when it feels like there’s not enough time.”
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.