Motherhood Gave Me a Nervous Breakdown

When does the "work-life balance" debate turn into a public-health crisis?

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I was one of those women who seemed to “have it all”: a loving husband, beautiful children and a fabulous career running a department for a Web-design agency. It was a lot to juggle, but I was determined to make it work. Like so many women in my position, I became hyperefficient. I learned to complete 10 hours of work in five and make dinner in less time than it takes to watch a PBS cartoon. I learned to make fundraising calls for my daughter’s preschool while pumping breast milk in a conference room, and eat dinner while washing the dishes. I learned to delegate, prioritize, negotiate and, when necessary, give up seeing friends, alone time with my husband and — hardest of all — sleep.

Unfortunately, years of unceasing activity — and the attendant stress and exhaustion — have a way of catching up with us. One day, on the way to Target to buy diapers, I broke down. Not my car. Me. What followed was weeks of panic attacks, insomnia and profound depression, followed by months of medication and therapy. I had to quit my job. It was a year before I was able to work again.

(MORE: There Is No Such Thing as the Traditional ‘Male Breadwinner’)

During my slow recovery, I began talking to other working moms. How did they do it all? Turns out, many of them too struggled with anxiety and depression. Often they suffered more exotic maladies, like vertigo, heart palpitations and lingering coughs. They were teetering on the line between “everything’s fine” and total collapse.

While researching my book, Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink, I received e-mails and blog comments from more than a thousand women around the country who struggled to meet the demands of work and family and keep themselves healthy in the process. Many confessed that they had “hospital fantasies” — the desire to get in a minor accident so that they could be relieved for a few days from their to-do lists. In one survey I posted for working parents, 88% of the nearly 500 respondents said they had suffered stress-related health problems (like anxiety and depression) since having kids and going back to work. One woman told me that at the peak of her working-mom stress, she started having seizures at night. (She quit her job; she’s fine now.)

These stories are shocking, but they shouldn’t be. Studies like “The Three Faces of Work-Family Conflict” explain that America may be the most hostile country in the developed world for working parents of all income levels. Low-wage workers contend with rigid schedules, no paid time off and a lack of affordable child care, while professionals are often expected to work grueling hours and travel for business. Although we experience the problem in different ways, the result is the same: chronic stress.

To be sure, this is not only a women’s problem. As men become more involved at home, studies show that they too are struggling with work-family conflict. And often they work longer hours than women do. But mothers still do more housework and child care, even when both parents work. Mothers multitask more than fathers and enjoy less leisure time than fathers. And mothers experience more guilt about working full time than fathers do.

It makes sense, then, that women are more at risk for the health effects of stress. We are 60% more likely to suffer an anxiety disorder and 70% more likely to suffer from depression than men. Women may be four times as likely as men to suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome. Women are also more likely to suffer from eating disorders, sleep problems and substance abuse as a result of workplace stress.

(MORE: It’s Not Just Sexism — Women Do Suffer More From Mental Illness)

It’s time to recognize that by refusing to give parents — and especially women — some basic support to meet their competing obligations, we have created an impossible situation for them, one that has the makings of a serious public-health crisis.

Is it better that women don’t work? Of course not. Most of us want — and need — to work. But we can’t keep going at this pace. We need more fathers to share the work of raising a family (which means, for many men, working less). We need employers to offer options like telecommuting, flexible scheduling and better part-time jobs to protect all workers from burning out. We need better government policies: things like paid sick leave and paid parental leave, something every developed country in the world except the U.S. offers its citizens. The bottom line is this: we have to stop making mothers choose between financial stability and their own health.