This piece is part of our PANpov series — firsthand stories from employees about personal experiences. Read more.
Content warning: This article contains reference to and discussion of self-harm. The article begins after the image below. Click here to return to general content.
The first time my 7-year-old told me he wanted to kill himself, I dismissed it.
He’s too young to feel that way.
He doesn’t understand what that means.
He can’t grasp the finality of death.
He’s looking for attention.
That last one still gets me like a punch to the gut. As I wrote it — and as I’m re-reading it — I feel actual physical pain. Despite my misguided inner dialogue, I texted his therapist the next day on a Tuesday morning in July.
He had been seeing her since my divorce from his father in 2018. To say I trusted her was an understatement. So when she recommended I take him to a behavioral hospital for a formal evaluation, we went. Immediately.
Yet, as we sat in the then-unfamiliar waiting area, answering intake questions to then-unfamiliar faces, I still thought this was an exaggerated response. He hated school and didn’t want to go to his dad’s — was this his way of getting out of it?
Someone came from the back hallway and looked at my son: “Your turn, ready to come back and talk without mom?” He looked into my eyes for that go-ahead-it’s-going-to-be-okay expression — but I couldn’t muster it. Instead, I nodded silently at him, tears welling in my eyes as I tried desperately to hold on to them for a few more seconds. I didn’t want my fear to become his.
As he disappeared around the corner with the intake coordinator, I glanced down at my phone. It was work. When will you be back? Where are you? Why did you call in sick last minute?
With each new ping, my heart rate jumped higher. I messaged my boss. He knows what’s going on. I must really be letting my team down, maybe I overreacted and should’ve waited until after work to bring him in. I’m a single mom and if I lose this job, I…I…I can’t lose this job!
I opened my phone and attempted to work from it. But as soon as I got into what kind of resembled a groove — the intake coordinator appeared. “Jenn DeRango, mom? Please follow me this way.”
Walking down the hall, I naively texted my partner and told him we’d be home for dinner. “Let me know if you want me to pick something up, we’ll be home soon.”
I found my seven-year-old son sitting on the floor of a room with a round table, a couple of chairs, and a desk. The door was closed behind us and the second set of words that would change everything were spoken: “He needs to be admitted. He is telling us that he wants to die and knows how to do it. We have notified the unit upstairs and should be able to get him into a room within the next few hours.”
“Does he have to stay? How long will he be here? He’s going to be so scared. He needs me to tuck him in. Can we run home and get a few things for him?” I asked as tears overwhelmed my ability to keep them inside.
“At least two weeks, maybe longer. And No. You cannot leave with him. If you refuse treatment or try to leave with him at all, we will call the Department of Child Services and report you for child endangerment.”
My stomach was sick. I spotted a garbage can in the corner of the room and ran to it.
I turned my phone on silent and my full attention to where it needed to be at that moment: on my son who was about to be admitted to a behavioral hospital for suicide at seven years old. Yet, the whole time, I kept wondering about work and whether I was jeopardizing our only source of income.
I emailed the next day to ask my boss for the week off. I couldn’t get out of bed, let alone be productive. They agreed and I took the next five work days to process what had just happened (and was still happening) to my son — while checking in throughout each day, of course.
The perfect work-life balance is a myth — an impossible undefined standard we’re all blindly chasing.
After his first inpatient stay, my son came home and life resumed as normally as expected — newly locked cabinets and all. Diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, anxiety, and ADHD — we were able to move forward with a coordinated treatment plan to help him live his best, fullest life.
I went back to work after taking the week off, and things mostly returned to normal there, too.
School started back up again in August and by October, he was struggling with feelings of suicide, self-harm, and negative self-talk. And then one night, after putting him to bed, my seven-year-old son came downstairs to ask if we could go back to the hospital. “I can’t sleep because my mind just keeps telling me to hurt myself. I hate it there, but I think I need to go.”
I can’t explain the overwhelming mix of sadness, despair, and pure pride I felt in that moment. He, I thought, is the bravest person I know.
This second time around, I only took one day off from work: the day he was admitted. I remember feeling proud. This time, I wouldn’t let my team down — this time, I would prove that I could successfully balance this stressful, life-altering personal situation with work.
A few days after he was admitted for the second time, one of my managers requested a meeting. She told me the executive team “felt concerned” that I wouldn’t be able to work full time while “dealing” with my son’s “mental health stuff.” She suggested I potentially work only part-time, on a contract-basis until things got better. And if I stay on full time, maybe my mom or someone else could take him “next time this happens.”
For a brief — albeit shameful — second, I considered it.
She went on to inform me that I used up my five sick days for the year when I took the unexpected week off, and until my work anniversary the following July, I was not to take any more time off. If I did, it would be unpaid.
Through shame, guilt, and tears — I apologized to her and told her that I’d do better. Despite her not asking, I assured her that my son was doing okay.
“This won’t happen again,” I promised.
Through my own journey with mental health, I came to understand the toxicity and impossibility of what was being asked of me — to choose work over being a mom. To choose responding to an email instead of being present in one of life’s most critical moments.
Another realization? I shouldn’t feel guilty. That the perfect work-life balance is a myth — an impossible undefined standard we’re all blindly chasing. In reality, our individual life experiences — the good and bad— dictate the weight we’re able to give to either side at any given moment.
So I made a promise that day to myself, my kids, and my partner that I would never prioritize anything above them ever again. As part of that promise, I made the decision to join PAN in January of this year and haven’t looked back. The unlimited wellness and vacation days are nice, of course — but that’s not why I’m here.
I’m here because I see a team of people who genuinely care about each other both in and outside of work. I’m here because leadership recognizes and values the importance of prioritizing mental health and family. I’m here because I know I will never be asked to choose between being Roman’s mom and having a successful career.
After all, who says I can’t do both?