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February 20, 2023
Min read

“I struggled with postnatal depression. Getting therapy through work helped me recover.”

Written By
Nausheen Eusuf
Alicia Riley, People & Talent Lead at Ben

Alicia is the kind of person who’s always doing a million things.

She thrives in fast-paced, high-energy environments. As Head of People at edtech startup Arbor, she saw the company headcount triple in size. She was constantly on the go, meeting people, and loving the busy whirlwind that was her life.

So when she went on maternity leave in June 2020, it was hard to switch off. She and her husband were thrilled to be expecting their first child, but the pregnancy itself had been physically and emotionally draining. The pandemic lockdown also added a layer of stress.

“I completely underestimated the feeling of isolation when you go on maternity leave. Work was a massive part of my life. I was constantly connected and in meetings all the time. And then suddenly there’s a cut-off. It’s a really odd switch.”

There was also anxiety at the back of her mind. A prior miscarriage made her very aware of how fragile pregnancy is. She hoped everything would go smoothly this time.

Alicia waited for the baby to arrive, but the due date came and went. Another two and a half weeks passed by, and finally she had to be induced. The experience of childbirth was not at all how she’d imagined it:

“We get this image from TV and social media where you have your baby naturally and everything is beautiful and perfect. But induction was a horrendous experience. I was shocked.” 

<quote-author>Alicia Riley<quote-author><quote-company>People & Talent Lead at Ben<quote-company>

When contractions started, the pain was intense. Her husband wasn’t initially allowed in due to Covid restrictions—so she had to go through this terrifying experience on her own.

“I was in floods of tears and I had no one there with me. The pain was unbelievable—it was absolute agony. Eventually I was given Pethidine, but it made me throw up and go in and out of consciousness. Even an epidural only provided partial relief. By that point, the excitement had turned to absolute fear.”

Alicia was in labour for 12 hours. She lost a lot of blood and ended up needing up to 20 stitches—risks she wished she knew about beforehand.

Her physical recovery would take about nine months. But the psychological impact was just as severe.

The psychological aftermath

After returning home with the baby, Alicia struggled with mixed emotions. On one hand, there was joy, excitement, and gratitude. On the other hand, there was pain, exhaustion, and isolation.

“The pain and bleeding continued for weeks after giving birth. It completely limits you physically. I couldn’t sit properly. I couldn’t wash myself properly. Even going to the toilet was really painful.”

During the first few weeks, Alicia was sustained by the euphoria of having a newborn, as well as visits from friends. Her husband was also at home after a pandemic-related redundancy. But eventually the visits stopped, and her husband had to start working again.

Suddenly, Alicia was alone with her thoughts. The traumatic labour she’d been through started to catch up with her.

“I didn’t really have time to digest what I’d gone through. Then suddenly you’re home, you’ve got a baby, and you’re like—what just happened? That was not what I thought it was going to be.”

<quote-author>Alicia Riley<quote-author><quote-company>People & Talent Lead at Ben<quote-company>

Alicia also struggled with breastfeeding. While she felt cultural pressure to do it, the traumatic birth and ongoing physical issues had affected her ability to produce milk. 

All these difficult events and emotions would soon become overwhelming.

“I felt like an awful mother”

One afternoon, it all came to a head. Alicia was trying to breastfeed, but the baby was screaming and wouldn’t latch on. She tried pumping, but nothing came out. At one point, she broke down.

“I’d gone from high-flying career woman to out of work, isolated, exhausted, and in pain—and stuck with a baby that just screams all the time. I thought, ‘He doesn’t love me. He just wants milk and I can’t give it to him.’ He had ruined my body and my life. I felt like: ‘I don’t love this thing and I don’t want it in my life.’ I felt like an awful mother.”

The more exhausted Alicia was, the more she would be tormented by these unwelcome thoughts that she had no control over. She would be pushing her son in a pram in the park, and she’d imagine the pram losing control and falling into the river. These thoughts terrified her “because once you’re a parent, you have a responsibility and there’s no going back.”

Alicia’s husband insisted they call the doctor, who put her back on the antidepressants she had stopped taking during pregnancy. Alicia also decided to seek therapy.

“Therapy was a game changer”

Alicia now knows that these distressing thoughts and feelings are quite common for new mums—and sometimes new dads—experiencing postnatal depression. She was able to access therapy through work, and got matched with a therapist right away for an eight-week course of CBT.

“Therapy was a game changer. It gave me the tools and skills I needed to manage those negative thoughts and regain control.”

<quote-author>Alicia Riley<quote-author><quote-company>People & Talent Lead at Ben<quote-company>

Developing healthy routines and finding social support were also key parts of Alicia's recovery. She started going for a walk every day, meditating with Calm, and reaching out more to family and friends. She and her husband took turns looking after the baby so she could have time to look after her wellbeing.

Alicia and her husband had also joined the NCT (National Childbirth Trust), a charity that supports parents through pregnancy, childbirth, and the early years of parenting. They got to know other parents and found a close-knit community of peers for activities, meetups, and support.

The more Alicia talked to people, the more she realised that she wasn’t alone in what she’d gone through. In hindsight, she wishes she’d reached out sooner. She also started doing charity work, which helped her regain a sense of purpose.

“You lose a lot of your identity when you become a parent, especially a mother. You need to find things that give you enjoyment or satisfaction—that remind you that you’re still you.” 

New policies for new parents

In her current role in the People space, Alicia is passionate about supporting new parents in the workplace—especially new mums—with clear and robust policies. She’s been actively opening up the conversation around mental health, parental leave, and pregnancy loss to make sure people can prioritise their wellbeing and receive the support they need.

Alicia remembers the isolation she felt during her own maternity leave. So the parental leave policy she’ll soon be rolling out asks how often someone wants to be contacted, what they want to be updated on, and what they need while on leave.

She also emphasises the importance of flexible working policies. For her, being able to work from home and choose her own hours was absolutely essential.

“Flexible working is absolutely key in supporting women through their recovery. It allowed me to return to full-time work while spending quality bonding time with my son.”

<quote-author>Alicia Riley<quote-author><quote-company>People & Talent Lead at Ben<quote-company>

Alicia’s journey through pregnancy, labour, and postnatal depression has fundamentally changed her perspective on mental health. Before, she wasn’t someone who opened up. But now, she feels strongly about people sharing their stories to create awareness and support.

The most important thing she’s learned: “never underestimate what people are going through—and how it makes them feel.”

For new or expecting parents seeking support and resources, Alicia recommends the NCT and the Big Careers, Small Children podcast. For employers who want to support employee wellbeing in the workplace—including parents specifically—she recommends taking a look at Monzo's policies for inspiration.

Oliva therapist photograph

4 tips on managing postnatal depression

by Oliva therapist

Maria Barquin

Cut yourself some slack

It might come as a surprise to feel down and anxious after having a baby, but it’s pretty common. You’re likely exhausted, overwhelmed, and sleep-deprived. Try not to beat yourself up about the way you’re feeling. Instead, reach out for help. Online therapy is a convenient way for new parents to get support from home.

Try not to compare yourself to others

You are the best mum for your baby. It’ll take time to strike the right balance, and your routine might end up different to what the books and glossy magazines suggest. In those first few months especially, parenting involves a lot of trial-and-error. But you will get there.

Don’t believe everything you think

When feeling down or exhausted, our brains naturally pay more attention to information that matches our mood. You might end up focusing more on negative cues from your baby (e.g. crying), dismissing positive cues (e.g. smiling), or ignoring neutral cues (e.g. showing curiosity). But always remember that your perception is being influenced by how you’re feeling.

Stay focused on the present

Focusing on your negative thoughts too much will create a negative cognitive bias, which can create a vicious cycle. Instead, try to refocus your attention on your environment. What can you see, hear, and smell? Staying focused on the present will help you pick up more neutral and positive cues from your baby.