Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.
This week, we hear from Stefanie Lau, founder of Small Wins, a Chicago-based tech start-up dedicated to making the lives of moms better. She started it as an outlet for her postpartum anxiety and ended up making it her full-time career. Her feature product, Bambamsleep, is a mobile app designed to be mom’s pocket baby sleep coach. Lau began her career as a medical scientist then transitioned to a decade-long career in investment banking, which she left to be a stay-at-home mom for her two young kids.
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My history with anxiety
My anxiety began when I became a mother, specifically a stay-at-home mom. There were many contributing factors, but at the core was the feeling that I had lost myself. Replacing my former identity with the sole title of “mom” was a difficult transition for me.
I had never suffered from anxiety before, but I was totally blindsided despite doing the typical “prep.” But, it turns out, I knew nothing practical to help me cope with the stresses of motherhood.
At first, the anxiety was motivating and worked to my advantage. Everything was new and I wore the sleep deprivation and “attachment parenting” method as badges of honor — as if the suffering made me a better mom. But over time, as the novelty wore off and the relentlessness of motherhood set in, the de-motivational aspects of anxiety took hold.
The breaking point was that I became victim to my baby’s sleep patterns and his refusal to sleep outside of my arms. I could not reliably get a moment to myself.
As I felt myself spiraling, I needed to find a solution that didn’t involve hiring help. I chose to sleep train my baby. I did the research, went through the painstaking process, and in the end, I regained an important part of myself during naps and after bedtime.
How anxiety presents itself physically
For me, it feels slightly manic at first, as if there is too much energy for my body. The result is a feeling of restlessness: I’m tense, pace around the room, talk excessively, my fingers won’t stop moving. If I do not find an outlet for the energy, I start to get unmotivated and it wears me down.
How anxiety presents itself mentally
Irritability and rage were surprisingly regular feelings that manifested after I became a mom. I felt an injustice for myself and on behalf of other moms. I continue to feel that there is a disconnect between the actual contribution of mothers to society and the understanding and support we receive. To be frank, it is much harder to have self-worth when society does not deem you worthy.
The collective load of motherhood, household responsibilities and a career (for those who have one) is an immense amount of pressure. I think there is a common belief in women that we need to succeed at everything and unless we succeed at everything, we will not move forward.
What a day when my anxiety is at its worst looks like
These days of shelter-in-place with two toddlers while trying to get work done is the perfect recipe for my anxiety, and I know I am not alone.
It is easy to lose control of the day and very difficult to remain present and not let my mind worry about all the other items I need to accomplish. A full day can pass and I feel drained without anything seemingly getting accomplished.
My go-to coping mechanism
It was all about reframing my expectations and channeling my anxiety into a purpose, beyond my children.
The big challenge was finding some daily time — I think that is a big reason so many moms feel depleted. That’s why sleep training was such a game changer for me — naps and nights were “me-time.” Sure, other things had to get done, but I always dedicated at least 1 percent of the time to myself.
Once I had the time, “just start,” became my mantra. I had to reframe my expectations and be proud of any incremental progress rather than talking myself out of it because I wouldn’t have the time to finish some big goal. Bambamsleep took two years to build from concept to launch, but I am really proud of it.
In fact, the name of my company “Small Wins” is based on the idea that small steps every day lead to big achievements.
After two years of incremental small steps during nap time and evenings, I learned multiple new skills and launched a free app dedicated to sleep training and helping moms achieve daily time for self-care.
What I wish people knew about anxiety
Specifically, I would like for there to be more awareness surrounding postpartum anxiety and depression. It manifests itself differently in everyone and some women may not even realize that they are anxious or that their actions are a result of anxiety.
The transition to motherhood is such a massive one that blindsides many of us. There are so many changes happening at once that make the situation ripe for a certain degree of anxiety. Becoming a new mom is a reinvention process, and if postpartum anxiety and depression were concepts that were normalized and better understood, it would be helpful for moms and their support systems to plan and cope.