The Parenting Handbook That Never Came

Navigating anxiety, adolescents, and a career in the classroom
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Postpartum anxiety and depression in working mothers is a real and present problem, especially given the lack of appropriate maternity leave and postpartum support systems currently available at most employers. And while many companies have drastically improved their policies and programs, The Center for Mental Health shares that there are numerous ways in which human resources personnel, benefit directors, and supervisors can assist in mitigating the negative effects of postpartum distress in working mothers that, in turn, will help optimize their company’s workforce, employee well-being, and labor productivity. Supportive work environments can also offer a strategy to build loyalty, retention, and trust among valued employees, helping to set a company apart from others as an employer of choice.

Educator Jennifer Belford shares her experiences, insights, and learnings from a career in the classroom, raising two children, and navigating postpartum mental health issues.

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Becoming a mother and having a family was something I always hoped for. I was blessed with a supportive husband, a family of my own and a fulfilling career in education.  Something I was not prepared for, was the difficulty of balancing being the best mother and most effective educator I could be. 

After my first child Elizabeth arrived, I suffered from postpartum depression. The waves of depression and anxiety consumed me. I was drowning in worry and uncertainty. Would I not be able to take care of my baby correctly, would I not be able to keep the house clean, get the laundry done? Would I lose the job I had worked so hard for? Despite being on maternity leave my biggest fear was the possibility of not being effective when I returned to the classroom.  Once I was back on my feet, my days with my daughter were filled with laughter, loving moments and milestones.

When I returned to the classroom I was utterly overwhelmed. I had put so much pressure on myself to be the perfect wife, mother and educator that the anxiety I felt after my first pregnancy began to creep back into my life. I began having moments of immense guilt due to the drastic changes in my daily routine. Things such as calling my parents to check in or getting dinner on the table so everyone could eat together varied from week to week. It caused me so much stress and unnecessary personal ridicule. 

Two years after my daughter was born, our son Steven arrived. At a young age, he began struggling educationally and socially. While maintaining a home, work, children and relationships with my husband, friends and family, I went from treading to drowning in both my personal and professional lives. The B12 supplements stopped helping me balance my moods and the Melatonin supplements only allotted me a few hours of sleep each night. In addition, work became more of a challenge for me. A new assistant principal was hired and had me rethinking my career choice. The staff, as well as myself, dealt with daily harassment, criticism, and manipulation; three factors which complicated my already fragile emotional and mental state.  Though I received glowing evaluations year in and year out from my principal, I felt my performance in the classroom was suffering due to the unsupportive environment I was working in.

While maintaining a home, work, children and relationships with my husband, friends and family, I went from treading to drowning in both my personal and professional lives.

A few years after getting my son on track, my daughter hit puberty. Her grades began to slip, she was always angry and sad. Elizabeth slowly began to remove herself from spending time with friends and family. My husband and I chalked her behavior up to teenage angst, but there was something more serious going on. Soon after having her evaluated, Liz was diagnosed with depression and social anxiety. I began absorbing much of how Liz felt during this transitional time in her life. My husband and I had her working with professionals, where she learned the coping mechanisms to manage her emotions. During this time, I had hit rock bottom. I was doing much of what Liz did before her diagnosis. I did not want to go to work. I did not want to be around my family or friends. I cut myself off from those who loved me most. I lacked drive, motivation, and passion for everything important to me.

We do not receive a parenting handbook when we are on the way home from the hospital. We do our best as we navigate the rough waters. I tend to think that many of us, myself included, find ourselves in tough times while working full time and jumping life’s many hurdles. In retrospect, I figured out the reason my uneasiness consumed me was because of the expectations I put on myself, as many working mothers do. We try to be Wonder Woman, but is that our reality? You’re bound to break a few plates while you’re spinning ten at a time. Working and parenting is about experience and finding balance. Once I realized this, I made adjustments to my life and let go of those expectations I held for myself.

We try to be Wonder Woman, but is that our reality? You’re bound to break a few plates while you're spinning ten at a time.

I began speaking to a therapist who reassured me I was not going crazy, but was overloaded due to my own vision of myself as a mother and teacher. She told me to carve time out for myself each day whether it be exercising, taking a walk, or listening to music. What I took away from those sessions was the realization that the roles I played could not be scripted, that I needed to accept what was thrown my way each day and deal with the issue at hand instead of worrying about what could happen tomorrow.

The Kids We Raise at Home and in the Classroom

My last “aha moment” was realizing I needed to separate my family time from my work time. Teaching is not a job that ends when the bell rings. It is a job that you take home with you, whether it be worrying about a student’s well being, making phone calls home, planning lessons, projects or trips, or making and grading assessments. This required sacrificing on my part. It meant not opening my bookbag until my children were tucked away in bed for the night. It meant longer hours and less sleep, but it was worth it because my time with my children took precedence over everything else. It allowed me to enjoy my time with them instead of becoming frustrated because I was being pulled in different directions while I was trying to get work done for school. My anxiety and stress level lowered by making these simple changes in my life. I slowly found myself again. That was the biggest and best gift I gave myself and my family.

The Need for Realistic Standards and Expectations

My advice to every working mother is stop being so hard on yourself. Do not set goals for yourself that are not attainable. It will lead to disappointment and feelings of failure.  There is no one size fits all way of balancing work and being a mother. Ultimately, we are all works in progress. It is okay to leave unfolded laundry on the couch or dishes in the sink. Your floors will be washed, eventually. Multitasking is very overrated and depletes your energy. Stop and watch your children experience things for the first time and revel in those moments. Make memories. Most importantly, set aside time to take care of yourself, without guilt. A ten-minute drive blasting your favorite music does wonders for your soul! 

   I was very hard on my younger self because I was looking to please everyone and hear what a good job I was doing. I compared myself to other mothers and tried to be someone I was not.  Our journeys may be very different, but what binds us is motherhood. Take care of yourself so you can be the best version of yourself for your children. Even when the walls are high and your spirits are low, let me assure you that you can do this. One of my favorite quotes was shared with me by my twenty-one-year-old daughter. It describes motherhood in the simplest form:

“To describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power.” 

                                                                                                                         —Maya Angelou

Jennifer Belford grew up and lives in Staten Island, NY with her husband of twenty-five years, two children, and their yellow labrador retriever. Over her twenty one year career in education, she has worked in special education, taught fourth grade and is currently an eighth grade homeroom and junior high science teacher. In her spare time she enjoys reading, scrapbooking, gardening, and appreciating the little things she once took for granted. 

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