Three life lessons from a tumultuous last decade.
1. Self care is no joke.
For a long time I believed that rest was for wimps. In college, I attended class all day, headed to a grueling three hour gymnastics practice, then studied at the library well into the night. I’d wake up for my eight o’clock classes and start all over again. It wasn’t that I was a human machine - one of my professors even called my gymnastics coach because I was constantly falling asleep in class. I simply would not acknowledge that I needed rest. After college, I kept this familiar schedule, working all day and coaching at night. Looking back now, I was running on fumes of anxiety. Down time terrified me. The expectations I put on myself were crushing and no amount of studying was enough.
It took having kids and leaving a job in academia after almost a decade to help me understand that this pace was unsustainable. It wasn’t one moment or even several, but a slow realization that I because I was not taking good care of myself I was not showing up as the person I wanted to be in the world. I had an extremely short fuse, lots of simmering anger, and I didn’t have any clue about experiencing the present moment. I had one speed - GO.
Gradually, I made big shifts in my life. I quit my job that had me commuting over an hour each way (with kids, full time). I started a new job from home. I went to therapy for the first time. I began my writing practice. More recently, after my migraines started significantly impacting my quality of life, I decided to try to get eight hours of sleep each night. I finally figured out how to nap.
I did these things over the course of about five years. There was surely no magic bullet. But I can honestly say that most days I feel really good about what I’m doing with my time and how I am progressing as a person. I have so much room to grow, but I’m also really proud of the choices I’ve made to get myself to this place.
2. Most of the small stuff doesn’t matter. Really.
Not long after my husband and I moved into our first home, a poorly built condo for which we paid way too much at the height of the real estate market before the recession, we had a toilet break. My parents were visiting. All of a sudden water starting coming through the ceiling where the chandelier was hung over the dining room table. I completely lost it. I was screaming at my family as if it was somehow their fault. I couldn’t calm myself down. My dad finally suggested I go out for a walk to cool down. This was my thing - get really mad, really quickly. Why was I so quick to boil over? Who did this anger serve? I guess I got a release and adrenaline rush when I let that anger go by yelling, but this was something I was not proud of.
For me, it took experiencing significant life challenges to fully understand and agree with the idea that most minor annoyances of daily life are not a big deal. When you say goodbye to your newborn, delivered into the world just hours earlier, and watch him wheeled away to undergo a cardiac catheterization under general anesthesia; well, traffic and picky eating and email just seem like ridiculous things to be worried about. Practicing being grateful has helped me too. When I’m struggling mightily with being a caregiver for my mom with advanced dementia I try to recall how grateful I am that my sister and I are a team, almost always aligned in decision-making and having each other’s backs for support. Facing this disease without my sister is unthinkable.
I lose sight of this one routinely, but I think I’m getting quicker in my recovery and I know my anger has decreased significantly. Just recently I arrived at the pool with the kids and noticed a hissing sound when I get out of the car. Turns out there was a screw in my tire. Instead of losing my cool, I thought about how fortunate it was that I noticed it and I quickly got the car back home before the tire was entirely flat. No biggie.
3. Your story really is your strength.
Like lots of new moms, I joined a baby group when my eldest was a newborn. There were probably 20 mom/baby pairs in this group led by a breastfeeding expert. I remember watching with a kind of horrified fascination as all the moms laid out their adorable teal and white chevron baby blankets, placed their baby upon them, and then actually sat back and participated in the discussion. My own dear baby (the one who’s now 10), screamed bloody murder if you dared try to leave her on the floor by herself. She was usually screaming anyway, but the volume was somewhat decreased if she was attached in some way to me. I can’t recall a single positive moment from that group and I think I may have stopped going, unable to handle the feelings of defeat that came in waves as I tried to get through those sessions. My early motherhood was filled with these moments of feeling alone, separate from the other moms, aside from my closest of friends.
We've since learned that this little baby, my daughter, Carly, experiences the world differently than most people you know. When she was a toddler she would often tell me she wished she was still inside my belly. The world was too much for her to bear. She needed parents who could let that be ok. Parents who could handle huge emotional hurricanes that roared through her little body. We were not those parents. Slowly, over the course of several long years, we changed the story of the parents we thought we were to become the parents Carly needed us to be.
Back then I couldn’t have imagined how Carly would have changed my outlook on life, but now I see how she has rewired my entire brain. The experience of feeling isolated as an outsider was new to me and brought along a new perspective, a new compassion for other people and for myself. Seeing my own child struggle in every possible way and trying for many years to help without seeing much success also made me a more empathetic person with a capacity for holding space for heaviness, discomfort, and loss.
This very thing I resisted, the ability to sit with the most challenging of emotions without changing or avoiding or shoving them behind the curtain, is the exact thing I bring to the women I work with in my business. It’s what I am teaching them to do with their own stories; look at the darkest of times square in the face and see the beauty in what you’ve become because you found your way through.