|Earlier this week, I wrote a piece on LinkedIn about “why mom’s quit,” based on my own story — a journey from languishing to mental wellness.
Another mom commented, “I appreciate your raw honesty. You are right. It is uncomfortable to talk about, but it is so critical that we do.”
And so, I decided I needed to share that story and the first steps towards a solution.
In 2007, as a smart and ambitious woman, I’d hoped to use the birth of my first son to pivot careers.
“Society,” said I could do it all, so I launched into a master’s program, working part-time and being an amazing mom.
By October 2008, when my son was only 15 months old, I quit.
My son had viral-induced asthma and spent more days at home than in his daycare.
We could afford it as his dad brought home a comfortable salary and, my son’s health came first.
While this choice felt good as a mom, I felt like a failure as a smart, professional woman.
Ultimately this situation meant my physical health and my mental wellness came last, and I languished.
During the day, I’d cry for no reason other than loneliness and a loss of direction.
At night I’d lay awake sleepless, feeling guilty for not being happier.
I told myself, you SHOULD be happy, grateful, and full of joy.
My gut told me there HAD to be another way.
The society we’ve built, in which stay-at-home parents are relegated to the home to care for children alone, is not made for flourishing.
I thought about how surprised I’d been when I visited the Gambia and saw women working in the fields with huge lathes and babies tied to their back.
I thought about other places I’d traveled in which I saw a woman running a small store or selling something on the side of the road, with kids running around.
I saw a picture of a blond woman from a royal family (Lichtenstein or Luxembourg maybe) nursing in an official meeting, which made me think that we really need to normalize nursing across all economic and cultural statuses.
For eons, women worked with community support caring for children. Or had choices in regards to who cared for their children without going broke themselves.
Some of the changes that we’ve made as a society are good for preventing child labor and safety.
Still, we’ve also created this situation in which paid work is not compatible with motherhood or parenthood. Offices are for work, not for kids.
We send adults off to skyscrapers and kids off to daycares.
What can we do differently?
The society we’ve built is unnatural.
It may make you uncomfortable to read that, but I know in my bones that it’s true.
We can do better. We can do differently. And we should.
I’ve spent the last decade reading, studying, and trying to figure out what to do differently.
Along the way, I’ve had hints and tastes of the answer.
Brene Brown and the concept of Shame opened my eyes to an emotion I didn’t know I had. And then she really changed my world with the idea that “imperfection is a gift.”
Thich Nhat Hanh and the concept of “washing the dishes to do the dishes” literally turned washing the dishes into a task I enjoy. However, much of what he taught went right over my head.
Studying positive psychology helped me understand the mechanisms behind habit building, habit change, the difference between authentic self-care and “a massage.” And the need to actually work on building mental wellness.
We can build different institutions. We can change how we see childcare and working families.
We can pay teachers and childcare workers better while also giving parents the time they need with their kids.
I am confident that everyone in society will benefit in the long run, even those who choose to our who cannot have children.
I know that change takes time. And lasting change needs to be led by strong and resilient people.
To start this process of systems change, the first thing we as women need to do is start by reclaiming our mental wellness to stand and speak up for that which we value.
My Journey to Resilience
Since I first started working with the theory of Positive Intelligence or PQ in February of this year, my life experience as a working mom has changed.
I feel more love for myself and the world. Less guilt.
I can let go of the little things that used to poke me.
I can BE in the moment with my kids.
I can BE in the moment with my work.
I’ve not accepted what’s wrong with society, but I am now ready to work on changing it, one woman, one mom, at a time.
I’ve finally understood what it means to say, “I’ve arrived, I am home,” the theme to Thich Nhat Han’s 2004 Mindfulness retreat in Colorado, which I attended, but clearly didn’t integrate over the last 17 years.
I have arrived, I am home, I am right where I need to be.
And it is so peaceful.
I invite you to join me.
|Read About the 6-Week PQ Coaching Program
My first PQ Coaching Group starts this Saturday, May 22nd, and registration is closed (full).
The next one starts the first week of June.
I’d be thrilled if you want to join me.
In 2009, as my first son neared his 2nd birthday, I came out of the fog of early motherhood to ask, “what now?”
Up to this point in my life, I’d been really hard on myself.
I had a very strong inner critic and so I always went the extra mile to please anyone and everyone.
I felt guilty when I said no, and I always had FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).
I knew lots of people and yet felt very alone in the world and wasn’t quite sure what I needed to do to find deeper or more meaningful connections.
I started to wonder if there was something wrong with me.
Depression crossed my mind, but I also thought perhaps I just needed a different community and to do more.
And so I tossed myself into a period of DOING.
I became politically active, campaigning for Obama and then working with a friend to write, influence, and pass an ordinance allowing backyard chickens. I joined a babysitting cooperative. I baked, I canned, I gardened, I volunteered with Meals-on-Wheels and I laughed at the antics of my amazing son.
I blogged about all of these things on a site called GreenMe.vg, and yet, I couldn’t shake this feeling of lethargy or limbo, and I couldn’t see my future.
My inner critic told me that nothing I did was of real importance or value.
And so, I thought if I could just figure out what I needed to do differently, I could be happy.
I convinced my husband we should to move closer to his office into a thriving little walkable community. We left our “perfect” house and my dear strawberry patch for a “pretty nice” place and a big yard.
Our new neighborhood burst with life, and like-minded neighbors, young kids, and even my babysitting co-op moved and grew. We had Friday afternoon cocktails on sunny backyard porches, and for the most part, it was divine, except I just couldn’t shake the “meh.”
I still couldn’t envision my future.
No one knew my inner turmoil, because I didn’t know how to talk about it and I don’t think I really let myself feel anything. As far as my friends and extended family could see, we were a happy, thriving little family unit and I was a happy, active young mother.
And then, the boy who’d struck my heart with a bolt of lightning at age 20, when I studied abroad in Madagascar, came to visit. In the numb state that I’d learned to live, it never crossed my mind that feelings from over 12-years before could be so strong, but they were.
My world cracked open, and I realized where I’d gone wrong. I’d forgotten how to live, to set goals, and dream. In fact, I’d taken all the dreams of my youth and packed them in a suitcase, and stashed them in the darkest corners of my soul. No wonder I was languishing.
I’d always been a value-driven visionary fascinated by what makes humans tick. I’d been a collector of information and knowledge, and I had a view about the way the “world could be.” I’d spent hours as a younger person philosophizing and discussing the meaning of life, altruism, and just about anything you tossed my way.
And yet, somewhere along the way, I’d decided that I wasn’t worthy to dream, or if that I chased my dreams I might fail and the world would laugh. I decided that stories of inspiration and purpose were for a lucky few, and fictional characters, but not for boring old me. Other people did cool things, but not me.
I took Yves, our house guest on a hike up the Fourth of July Trail, one of my favorite places, and all my forgotten hopes and dreams of my late teens and early twenties started rushing back.
On our drive back into Boulder, I sobbed. Hit with waves of emotion that I think had been building for a good decade — perhaps since 9/11. Embarrassingly, I also felt intense passion towards this man, and I was ashamed to have brought him into our lives.
It was frankly shocking that I suddenly felt a passion that I’d forgotten could exist. He too was surpised.
And so he left.
He went away, and my husband and I went to marriage counseling.
We talked a lot. We tried to realign our vision, and I pushed him to dream big. To ask him “what if?” I asked him to commit to traveling and living overseas, taking some risks, and trying new things.
He said no. I’m good right here with what I have.
Of course, it was a bit more complicated than that, but we both realized that we had a completely different idea of “life.”
And so, I moved out. It was an odd feeling to be both free, and lost, at the same time. I still had a sinking suspicion that something was wrong with me.
Divorce is hard and terrifying. And oh so filled with judgment.
My community shamed me, several of my relatives told me straight to my face that I was going to Hell and requested that I not dirty their lives with my presence.
And then I had a beautifully metaphorical dream. I washed away in a Tsunami. Twice. It was a terrifying dream until I found myself safe — standing in a wooden house face-to-face with the man who had cracked me open and let the light in.
We were both dressed in white cotton clothes, like Indian gurus. I put my hand on his chest, and I could feel his heart, his warmth. My own heart skipped a beat, and he said, “I am right here, waiting for you.’
I let the dream settle, but it kept coming back. And so I found Yves (we’d previously cut all ties) with periodic access to Facebook Messenger staked out on a cold and lonely military post in the mountains of Afghanistan.
He confirmed that he was waiting for me. And he invited me to join him and his daughter that summer at his sister’s house in Seychelles.
And so, that July, my son (now 4) and I left on the first of many worldly adventures together. We spent 5 weeks with the man who is now my husband and the young girl who is now my step-daughter.
I was scared out of my wits. And at the same time, I felt alive. I felt certain. And I could suddenly start to envision a future — a life worth living.
At this moment, I started to learn that to be alive, I must be as willing to feel and acknowledge my fears, as I am to embrace what I love.
Courage and inspiration come from that which we most fear.
When I got back from this trip, the first thing I had to do was find a job that exchanged money for energy (my work for the last few years had all been voluntary).
I knew that I wanted to be more than a mom — I wanted to find my calling. I enjoyed taking care of my son, but I was desperate to connect my work to something bigger.
I started a master’s program in International Non-profit Management, and I got my dream job as Executive Director (ED) of an International Nonprofit. I got to fly to Haiti and do things that scared me, that filled me with passion and purpose.
I started to live.
Along the way, I was very scared.
As ED I had constant imposter syndrome, and I learned to experience a different kind of mom guilt — the kind moms have when they spend more time at work than with their kids — but I also started to take close accounting of my values.
I began to realign my goals and my life with what I wanted to be and create. And I found in my Malagasy host-brother (now my long-distance boyfriend) a similar vision for the world.
In 2000 he had joined the French Military and had spent the last decade-plus in hot spots around the Middle East and Africa. I’d always considered soldiers to be fearless.
One day he said to me, of course, I am scared Alison, fear is normal. It’s more worrisome to NOT feel fear than to feel it, it’s what you do next, what you do with the fear that matters.
And so, by the time I turned 33 I’d committed to doing things that I feared and to stepping into my fear to find my courage.
And at that moment, I suppose you could say, I set down the path to be my own wise woman — slowly transitioning from someone who denies her fears, but rather embraces them, explores them, gets’ curious about them and then convert them into something useful.
In owning my fears, I learned to live.