Pregnancy amplified my workaholic tendencies, but here's how I learned to chill

Dec. 6, 2019

When I first found out I was pregnant, I went into overdrive. Wanting to earn more money and prove myself, I started taking on more projects at work only to discover that I could barely handle what was already on my plate. When the first trimester fatigue hit me hard and I faced burnout, I finally realized what was happening: My pregnancy was amplifying my workaholic tendencies. 

The stress of knowing I was bringing a child into the world in just nine months made me want to be even more accomplished, but this thinking only led to more stress and a pretty bad case of anxiety-induced insomnia. This isn’t unusual, though — and the cause may be our work-centric culture. 

“Our society rewards us for ‘doing’ and not for ‘being’,” says Alexandra Stockwell, M.D., a relationship and intimacy expert in Benicia, California. 

As a self-identified workaholic, I had to admit that things had become more intense for me since getting pregnant because I had a hard time letting go of work projects or even just not thinking about work. That tendency is not unusual for workaholics, says Stockwell. 

“At its most extreme, a workaholic is singularly focused on their work and spends time working and thinking about work instead of sleeping, spending time with family, exercising and pursuing other activities of interest,” says Stockwell. 

Guilty as charged. But pregnancy was forcing me to rethink my workaholic tendencies if only because I was now physically and mentally incapable of doing as much as before. Learning to chill wasn’t easy but definitely necessary. 

“Pregnancy requires you to recalibrate your expectations for both what your body can handle and for your ability to engage in work the way you did before you were pregnant (staying up late, traveling excessively, etc.),” says Katherine Morgan Schafler, LMHC, a New York-based therapist and writer. “This is not a commentary on your skills and gifts; it has nothing to do with your work ethic or your intelligence. You have a human growing inside your body, pressing on your organs all day long. There are arms and legs and a little beating heart taxing your system every second of the day. Expecting yourself to engage in any aspect of your life in the same way that you did before you were literally growing another human inside your body is simply unreasonable.” 

With that thinking in mind, here are nine ways that I learned to let go of my workaholism and instead focus on enjoying my pregnancy — and early parenthood. 

1. Take up mindfulness meditation

One of the biggest things you’ll need to learn in parenting — that can benefit you in all areas of life — is to be more present. This is crucial in early motherhood when you might be stressed out changing diapers and figuring out breastfeeding but wishing you could focus on tasks you know you’re good at (as in, work!). But Stockwell reminds us that “the delight and gratification with young children is in being present.” 

One way to learn to be more present is by taking up mindfulness meditation, which can help you with the mind shift needed to “resist thinking about work or feeling bored by simple experiences with children,” she says. “The best way to pivot is through mindfulness meditation or practices which create more embodiment.” 

She recommends trying one of the many meditation apps out there currently and starting with just five minutes a day to get the benefits, which include learning “to be comfortable with whatever is arising in the present moment, and in so doing, become more comfortable with being with others.”

2. Become comfortable with slowing down

Slowing down and resting can be very, very uncomfortable for those of us who are self-proclaimed workaholics. But there is a very specific physical impact of pregnancy — such as morning sickness or extreme fatigue like the kind that left me sleeping 11 hours a night in the first trimester — which often forces us to calm down. It’s OK to acknowledge that this is all easier said than done though, says Stockwell. 

“Resting, just appreciating the moment, taking time to smell the flowers (with feet up at the end of the day) does not come naturally to most women in our society who are highly functional and that is especially true for workaholic moms and moms-to-be,” she says.

But, nevertheless, consciously taking the time to slow down is really important for pregnant women.

“It is important to use pregnancy to relax into and become more comfortable with being,” Stockwell says. “Moving through life with a slower internal state, to ease the transition when the baby arrives."

3. Work on a gratitude list — sort of

We often hear the advice to compose a gratitude list during times of stress as a way to remind ourselves of all that we have. On my list, “work I love” is often the first or second thing I write but, if I’m working on letting go of some of these workaholic tendencies, it’s important to compose a gratitude list that consists of the other parts of life. 

“The most important way to deal with workaholism tendencies is to learn to feel gratified by other parts of life besides work, by enjoying the taste of food, exercising, time with friends and family and being alone,” says Stockwell. 

This can be a bit of a challenge for those of us who are “driven by a desire to experience success and results,” she says. But keep working on it so that you can find an inner sense of satisfaction in making the internal switch to feel gratified when you’re with family and friends. 

4. Get at least 20 extra minutes of sleep

When I first got pregnant, I struggled with my need to sleep more. Not only did I have to cut down on my caffeine consumption, but I also found that my body and mind operated best when I got at least 10 to 11 hours of sleep every night. It also took me almost an hour every morning to feel energetic enough to get out of bed. 

Needless to say, spending an entire half of my day in bed severely cut into my work, but that’s totally OK, says Schafler. In fact, she recommends more sleep for all pregnant women and those struggling with workaholism. 

“Sleep is a near-magical act of restoration; the benefits it gives you are innumerable,” she says. “It's amazing how many juice cleanses and expensive face creams we try instead of just sleeping more. Even 20 minutes more, it would be great to start there.”

5. Let go of the mom guilt

If this is your first pregnancy (like me), then you might not yet be familiar with the concept of mom guilt — but it happens to many of us. It can be especially exasperating for those of us who are workaholics because the measure of success at work is very different than that at home. 

“If a mother has young children, it frequently happens that working feels better to her sense of self and ability to accomplish things, whereas time with her children brings up self-doubt and uncertainty,” says Stockwell. “For a woman who likes to feel competent, working can be far more appealing in the short term, but it comes with a cost.” 

One thing that moms can do before the baby comes is let go of the mom guilt, meaning start working now on letting go of any expectations you had of being the perfect mom and also still working the same hectic schedule you did before baby. It’s not an easy process, but speaking with a qualified therapist can help this transition. 

6. Recognize when you’re close to burnout

Workaholics can often feel burnout and struggle with it. This is especially true when you’re pregnant since your body is typically incapable of handling the same physical and mental load as before. At least that’s what happened to me, with burnout completely overwhelming me at the end of the first trimester. 

If you’re not sure what burnout looks like, Schafler offers some signs: “Falling asleep during the day, feeling groggy, neglecting your health, eating junk food regularly because you can't seem to find the time to eat healthfully, and ironically, not caring that much about your job anymore are all signs of burnout.” 

When you’ve hit burnout while pregnant, it can be especially difficult to get back to things because you need rest and restoration more than ever — especially because “a single dedicated hour invested into a project is typically much more productive than giving four hours of your time to the exact same project when you're burnt out,” she says. 

Once you know the signs of burnout, you can work on managing it before it happens. Schafler’s suggestion? 

“Focus on managing your energy, not your time,” she says.

If you need more sleep, get more sleep. If you need to not cook tonight, order takeout. Do whatever it is that will give you back some energy so you can get back to your restored self. 

7. Start your maternity leave early

It might seem like counterintuitive advice for pregnant people who are workaholics, but taking a bit of time off before baby comes can really help with the transition from work-all-day to maternity leave, says Stockwell. 

“I advise people, whenever possible, to start their maternity leave prior to going into labor, so they can experience the often painful and complicated transition from work consciousness to being at home before the baby actually arrives,” she says. “Doing so makes more room for bonding and internal spaciousness for the transition into motherhood.” 

This is something that Stockwell herself experienced. After going on maternity leave early, she struggled with “feeling useless and lonely.” 

“I used to grocery shop and do laundry and work 90 hours a week, and now it took all day to grocery shop and do laundry,” she says. “I didn’t understand it, and it was frustrating. But I recalibrated and was so so so grateful that I did. As a result, when my daughter was born, I could thoroughly enjoy her and bond with her and experience becoming a mother, rather than piling on top of that my existential conundrum and letting go of the familiarity of professional activity that I experienced a few months earlier. Otherwise, it would have been a major distraction and limited how present I could be with my girl.”

8. Reframe what it means to be a good employee

When I got pregnant, it was difficult to go from the perfect employee I thought I was to someone who struggled with some daily tasks due to fatigue, morning sickness and myriad other pregnancy symptoms. But this can be a blessing in disguise since it gives us workaholics roughly nine months to reframe what it means to be who we are. 

Schafler suggests that parents-to-be work on “appreciating that the experience of parenthood will help you to grow and learn in a way that will ultimately benefit your perspective as an employee or boss.” 

Wait a minute, being a parent will actually help me? Definitely, she says. 

“You can think of parenthood as the ultimate experience because it's boosting your ability to offer more, not taking it away,” Schafler says. “If your boss doesn't agree, they can hire the 22-year-old who's got nothing but time and energy on their side. But you are likely the much better fit. Being a parent doesn't take away from your ability to meaningfully contribute but it, in fact, adds to your ability to meaningfully contribute.”

9. Invest in your relationships — and yourself

When work is the most important thing in your life, the transition to caring for a new little human in your life can be challenging. But, Stockwell reminds: “The quality of our lives is determined by the quality of our relationships, and it is essential that mothers find their way to be present and enjoy their relationships.” 

That’s why it’s so important to invest in your relationships while pregnant and beyond. 

Stockwell suggests scheduling time with loved ones and with yourself the way you would schedule any work task. 

“It can almost be treated as a work assignment so as to be disciplined about following through on the plan,” she says. 

Don’t be afraid to take this time to try new activities and ways of doing things so that you can figure out what you truly enjoy outside of work. Schafler agrees. 

“Pregnancy is an amazing opportunity to explore new ways of working that better fit your personality, the lifestyle you want and your goals,” she says. “Building your work around your lifestyle instead of building your lifestyle around your work is one way of reframing this opportunity.”

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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