How a house fire eased my fears about being a working mother

April 24, 2023, 3:05 PM UTC
Studies have shown that up to 20% of women suffer from mood or anxiety disorders during pregnancy and postpartum.
Courtesy of Alyson Watson

I had a lot of reasons to fear being pregnant. My mother had six miscarriages and sadly I have known many other people who have struggled with miscarriages or fertility issues or both. But when our house caught on fire the day after we found out I was pregnant with a baby boy, rather than dwelling on disaster, I was able to put my fears into perspective.

First and foremost, I’m grateful that I had a healthy pregnancy and a smooth delivery for my baby boy. I’m also grateful to be working remotely where I had the flexibility to fit in doctor appointments and everything else that comes with growing a human and to be surrounded by supportive family, friends, and colleagues. I’m nervous and excited to take on this new role as a mom along with being a founder, CEO, and wife, and I am excited to get some time to focus on my family. All that said, pregnancy is never “easy”–and it serves as a reminder of the importance of prioritizing one’s own mental health.

With good news came anxiety

Given my family history and everything I knew about infertility and miscarriage, when I found out I was pregnant, I anticipated facing nine months of anxiety because you truly never know if your baby is healthy until the moment you hold them in your arms.

This anxiety was compounded by the reality of planning maternity leave and the potential toll it could take on my career, not to mention the surging hormones of the first trimester. As a founder and CEO, I have been in lockstep with the company every step of the way–whether it be raising capital, helping to build an incredibly talented team, or launching new customers all over the world. The thought of stepping back is scary. Even though we’ve been growing rapidly to meet the booming demand for mental health, it’s a fragile time for every business given market conditions.

Dueling obligations

As the leader of a mental health company, there’s an expectation I’ll be taking a longer maternity leave, meditating my way through childbirth, and practicing yoga while bouncing my newborn baby on my hip.

On the flip side, there is tremendous pressure on female CEOs to prove we can do it all, particularly for those leading a company in the wellness space. We’re a hyper-growth company and I want to be there to lead my colleagues as we head into economically uncertain times.

I want to be able to make the choices that are best for me and my family without judgment or expectations–it’s what I want for all women in the workplace.

Having my home and everything in it destroyed by a fire quickly put everything into perspective.

Gaining perspective

My husband and I moved from the Bay Area to Boston to be closer to our families as we started building our own. We had just moved into our new house and found out that we were expecting when we got a frantic call from a neighbor while out of town: the home we had just moved into went up in flames after a fire started in the house next door.

Within an hour, our neighbor’s house burnt to the ground and ours was unsalvageable. We lost everything–priceless family mementos, a vintage jacket from my grandmother, a menorah from my grandfather, and my lacrosse gear from college, all of which I had planned to give to my child one day. But there was one thing we salvaged from the wreckage: the ultrasound photo from our first doctor’s appointment.

The symbolism, too powerful to ignore, somehow put my mind at ease. Through the trauma, I took time to center myself, and with help from my therapist and husband, I realized that nothing is more important than health–both mental and physical. And despite endless insurance claims and uncertainty surrounding our future, I became convinced that everything will be okay.

Reconciling the state of mental health

Over the past months of prioritizing my mental health, I’ve found comfort and greater ease. Obviously, I’m still nervous about parenthood, but more than ever I recognize the importance of taking steps to focus on my own mental health.

You don’t have to work in mental health to know, prenatal mental health for pregnant women has become a worldwide public health issue. Studies have shown that up to 20% of women suffer from mood or anxiety disorders during pregnancy and postpartum, and in the U.S. mental health conditions are the most common complications of pregnancy and childbirth.

I was fortunate in my pregnancy journey, even with the house fire, but it did take a mental toll on me. As someone who is typically going a million miles per hour, it has been so important to listen to my mind and body when I feel overwhelmed and take a break. Whether that means a physical break like a quick nap or a mental break from whatever is causing me anxiety, I’ve struggled but tried to give myself permission to step away–even for a few minutes–and know that when I come back I’ll be in a better space. I’ve also leaned heavily on my therapist to work through any concerns I have as well as continuing my meditation practice to relieve day-to-day stress. By normalizing the conversation around mental health and sharing our individual journeys, we can collectively encourage others to take care of both their physical and mental health.

The traumatic experience of the fire demonstrated the inability to control the uncontrollable. As I’ve continued to focus on my mental health, I became less anxious about maternity leave. I can’t control the volatility of the market, what other people think of me, or the nuances of my child’s development. My child might face issues and my business might face headwinds that I couldn’t possibly anticipate. Rather than agonizing over what I can’t control, I’m committing to caring for my mental health to prepare for my most important job to date: motherhood.

Together with the team we’ve built at Modern Health, we can continue to execute on our important mission. And when I inevitably slip, I’ll glance at that charred ultrasound photo to remind myself what really matters.

Alyson Watson is the founder and CEO of Modern Health.

The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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