Thriving at Work After a Traumatic Birth Experience
September 28 2021 – Kathryn Wepfer
How one mom's work helped her overcome the postpartum depression she experienced after a traumatic birth experience.
Name: Monica Matoush
Occupation: Communications Director – House Committee on Armed Services
Children: Son – 11, daughter - 7
What was your job when you had your children and pumped at work?
I was an active duty military officer when both of my children were born. My son was born in July and then I started the new role in October, managing an account in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) Public Affairs press desk, and my job required me to interact with the media on a regular basis. I had intended to take another month of leave, but they called me back early, which is part of military life, and was not ideal for me.
When I returned to work, I pumped three times a day for 30 minutes, every day. Thankfully, I was on a team with two other females who would back me up if needed during my pumping sessions, and luckily my pumping schedule never interfered with my work.
It must have been incredibly hard to be called back to work before your full, planned maternity leave:
I was very frustrated, and I recognize in retrospect that what I was feeling on maternity leave was postpartum depression, but no one really talked about it back then. I didn't recognize it right away, and when they called me back to work, I had just reached the point where I felt like I was bonding with my son and we were starting to understand each other. We were finally in a rhythm as a new family of three, and then it was all disrupted on someone else’s time and not on my own time.
We didn’t have daycare lined up yet, and as a military person you go on a wait list for daycare and hope that something will open up. I had always planned to start taking my son to daycare well in advance of my return to work so we could start with one day a week, then two days, and work up to a full schedule, but I never got that chance. Thankfully there was a daycare spot available, but I just wasn't ready to put my uniform back on at that point.
I also hadn't figured out how pumping would work at the office. At the time no one talked to me about the great nursing rooms, and it felt like there was so much I didn't know, especially because I was stepping into a new job that I would have to learn from the beginning. I just wasn't ready for so many new things at that point when they told to come back to work.
When they called me back to work, I had just reached the point where I felt like I was bonding with my son and we were starting to understand each other. We were finally in a rhythm as a new family of three, and then it was all disrupted on someone else’s time and not on my own time.
Was the new job a position you had previously sought out, or one that was chosen for you?
At that point, I was coming out of a school program and I knew I had to go somewhere to start a new position. While I was in school, they wanted me to start a position that would require a move to Nebraska, and I said I wouldn’t take that job. I referenced Military regulation that says I can’t be required to move within six weeks on either side of my due date, and I was not going to waive my rights, so I refused the move. I had a right to stay exactly where I was, where I was already doing my prenatal care, and so the compromise was that I would graduate from school on a Friday, and then would show up to the new office the following Monday. That Tuesday I had a regular prenatal checkup and the doctors thought I had preeclampsia. I was immediately checked into the hospital and delivered my son four days after I reported to the new job.
What was pumping like when you returned to work ahead of schedule?
I started pumping when I returned to work and pumped all the way until my son was 13 months, at which point he basically self-weened. In general, breastfeeding went very well with him. I didn’t have any issues with supply. He ate well, I made enough milk, and I even had extra.
Once I figured out the pumping logistics at work, it went very well. The Pentagon has a nursing program, so at the time there were six nursing rooms that you could use. The rooms had hospital grade pumps so all you had to do was bring your equipment, and you could pump for however long you needed. Most of the rooms had refrigerators, and some had a sink, and they could all accommodate three to four people at a time. Most of us didn’t mind the group pumping rooms – we were focused on doing our business and then going on our way. That was back in 2010, and it felt like there was still a bit of a stigma about exposing yourself in a group pumping room, so some women didn’t like it. For the most part, we came in there, put pictures of our kids on the wall, and focused on the pumping. Most of our kids were the same age, so some of my closest friends at the time were from the pumping room.
For the most part, we came in there, put pictures of our kids on the wall, and focused on the pumping. Most of our kids were the same age, so some of my closest friends at the time were from the pumping room.
How was the experience similar or different with your second child?
My daughter is four years younger than her brother. At that point I was in a role working directly for the Secretary of Defense doing event planning. I didn’t have to return to work early, but I felt almost like I was ready to come back. My daughter and I bonded very quickly, and we had a better early experience overall.
One difference I found the second time around was in the pumping room. I was less patient with the milk and so I didn’t produce as much for her as I did with my son. She had enough milk for the entire 12 months, but there was no extra milk. It was just a different experience. With my son, I had a bit of anxiety and uncertainty around the weening experience. I wasn't sure when we were going to stop, if I would be the one to initiate weening, if it would it be difficult to wean, and if I would miss the nursing experience. Then with my daughter I literally felt like she was sucking the life out of me and wanted to stop as soon as she was ready.
In the pumping room, the moms were also different. With my son, we were all first-time moms at the same stage and were asking the same questions and sharing information. In the second room, we were a mix of first timers and old timers and it created a different environment. I could tell the first-time moms were a lot more worried about their baby’s development. I remember one mom in particular was so concerned that it would stress me out while I was pumping, and eventually I had to change my pumping time so we wouldn’t be in the room at the same time.
I didn’t expect the Pentagon to be such a pumping-friendly environment, but it seems to be a very supportive workplace:
The Pentagon is one of the most pumping-friendly environments. I’ve known active duty military members who have pumped there, and civilians in the military who have pumped there, and I would say all of us have had positive experiences with our bosses. Some of it is that we as moms look at the schedule and figure out for ourselves where things need to be handled in order to accommodate the pumping, so it never gets to the level where a supervisor has to get involved. There was never a stigma attached to pumping and taking the time out of your day to pump.
You said after your son was born, you experienced what you believe was postpartum depression, though it wasn't diagnosed at the time. What enables you to recognize that in your experience?
When I had my son, I had an emergency C section and lots of complications. I lost three liters of blood and it turns out you only have five liters total in your body. I had to be intubated and I woke up the ICU, so when he was born, I didn't see him for over 24 hours. There was no skin to skin contact right after birth. When I finally woke up in the ICU, I was on a pump to breathe, and no one was there to explain to me what had happened. I was under an epidural for two days because they had pumped so much epidural into me that it took that long to wean me off it. I just really wasn't involved in any of the first things he did. Instead of pumping colostrum they had started giving my son formula, and my husband was feeding him through a syringe, teaching him how to nurse, so there was just a lot of bonding that we missed.
When I had my son, I had an emergency C section and lots of complications. I lost three liters of blood and it turns out you only have five liters total in your body. I had to be intubated and I woke up the ICU, so when he was born, I didn't see him for over 24 hours.
After that, every time my son did something, I sort of looked at him like “what am I supposed to do?” and my husband would swoop in, or the nurse would swoop in to help. I was in the hospital for six days, and by the time we went home, I felt like I still didn't know what was happening, and I hadn't figured out what I was feeling. There would be days when he'd be crying, and because I couldn't figure out what he was crying about, I literally would just watch him cry. I never had any desire to physically hurt him or myself, I would just watch with no emotion.
That lack of connection existed even before birth. When I was pregnant with my son, I had a condition where he was underneath the placenta, so I very rarely felt him kick or move. I think because of that I constantly wondered if he was still alive in there. I would panic and go find my little Doppler thing and see if I could hear him. Eventually my doctor told me I had to stop doing that because those over-the-counter devices don't work like the devices medical professionals use, and it was just making me feel crazy.
There would be days when he'd be crying, and because I couldn't figure out what he was crying about, I literally would just watch him cry. I never had any desire to physically hurt him or myself, I would just watch with no emotion.
That sounds like an incredibly traumatic birth experience. How did you move forward from that to your second birth?
With my daughter, she was not underneath the placenta and was dancing all the time. I didn't have any preeclampsia or high blood pressure, so when she came it was still via C-section, but it was very calm. We had immediate skin-to-skin contact and were together from the very first moment. The experience was so different. Everyone was around when she was born, but when my son was born early, my mom wasn't there, it was just me and my husband trying to figure it all out. With my daughter, I could enjoy the experience and there was somebody here to help. She was a good eater and a good sleeper. It was just an easier experience.
Years later when I asked my husband about my son’s birth, he said something like “you just seemed really weird when he was born.” Now when I look back, I see that it was probably postpartum depression. I hadn’t wanted to talk about the fact that I almost died, and the Military wasn't good about asking those questions or working through any of those issues back then. Thankfully I processed it and got on the other side of it.
Now when I look back, I see that it was probably postpartum depression. I hadn’t wanted to talk about the fact that I almost died, and the Military wasn't good about asking those questions or working through any of those issues back then.
Was it just a natural process of coming out of that depression, or did something help you?
I came out of it at almost the same time I returned to work, because the call back to work helped get me out of the fog I had been in. Being called back presented a problem that I needed to solve, and I needed to solve it quickly, so then I had something else to focus on instead of just newborn life. Then I could focus on getting him into daycare and making all of the arrangements for returning to work, and once I went back to work, I legitimately was like, “Oh yeah, okay I’ve got this. I'm okay.”
What continues to fuel you today as a working mom, now that you’ve moved well beyond the pumping and baby stages?
What fuels me from a work perspective is having my children see that you can do and be anything if you put your mind to it. People ask why I’m a working mom, and it’s because I don't know how not to be a working mom. While I love being a mother, I know that that's not the only part of me. After my son was born, I realized that not being able to work was frustrating to me, and as upset as I was when they called me back early, I also recognized that I needed something else to concentrate on. I had spent a lot of time concentrating on breastfeeding, which everyone said was such a normal activity. They said it was easy. They said it was natural. They said you bond with your baby right away, and so I was concentrating on all of those things that didn't feel normal to me at the time, and if I had had something else to focus on, then maybe I would have been in a different place. With my daughter, I felt like I was more focused on work and more connected to contributing to the mission of my work, all while I had this little bundle of joy that was looking up to me. It helps me to compartmentalize the parts of my life, so from the beginning when I dropped my son off at daycare, I turned into Capitol Hill Monica, and then when I was on my way home I turned into Mommy Monica, and still do to this day, so I don't blur the lines, and that separation works well for me.
What fuels me from a work perspective is having my children see that you can do and be anything if you put your mind to it. People ask why I’m a working mom, and it’s because I don't know how not to be a working mom.
Looking to the future, what are your hopes for your kids?
I hope they recognize that they can be and do anything, and that there are no traditional roles for males and females. You can ask my kids, and they’ll say that daddy isn’t the head of the household, mommy is the head, mommy is the boss. We have a relationship where everybody can do everything. My husband and I have both been active-duty military, and he currently is active-duty military, so I've become very accustomed to getting in there and handling the business. I thrive in that environment, and although we both have Type A personalities, mine is more A+ where his is more A-, and he allows me to take that on.
I want my kids to understand that there are no specifically mommy roles and there are no specifically daddy roles and that everyone should be a contributing member of society in whatever way they choose to be. If you want to be a leader, go be a leader, if you want to be a follower, that's okay too, leaders can't be leaders without followers. And you can't be the leader if you don't understand what makes a good follower, so I want them to be whoever they want to be. Whether that's as a leader or a follower or a sit-down observer, but the world is your oyster and you just have to make choices about what's important to you, and what's important to you doesn't have to be important to anybody else. Those lessons are very important to me.
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