No, that’s too normal. Here’s what really happened: the wheel I’d been running on for 40 years suddenly jolted to a stop and I went flying out the side, landing ungracefully in the fetal position, out of breath, and out of sorts. I found myself laying in a pool of my overachieving, anxiety-ridden life, all by myself (well, almost by myself).
We place a significant burden on women when we say, “Women can have it all!”. We’re told that women can raise children, pursue academic dreams, hold down a professional career, volunteer on the school PTA, and still have time to tame their curls and wax unruly upper lips. We can do it all, but do we need to do it all? Women, like me, who are perfectionists and go-getters, we hear, “You can do it all!” and our brains say, “You have to do it all!”. But do we?
The ideals we hold as overachieving women don’t allow for time for us to take a break. We’re breaking down walls, smashing glass ceilings, and ripping apart stereotypes. I held down four jobs and a 4.0 GPA in my first year of university. Twenty years later, I still wear that garbage with pride. Look how I almost broke myself! Can I get some recognition–no, can I take a break now? Nope! There are no breaks when you climb into the wheel. You’re trying to outrun each other, egged on by “boss babe” tea towels and “hustle hard” coffee mugs. Women have embraced vulnerabilty, given candid feedback, leaned in to every bloody moment, and ultimately hoped to be lifted to new heights (thanks Brené, Sheryl, Kim, and Melinda!). Is anyone noticing that we’re all falling over the guardrails? Who has our backs?
Leading up to 2020, I had been running for two decades. I completed my undergrad while holding down full-time employment. I married and had babies before I turned 30, including two first-trimester miscarriages with little time to process them (I needed to focus on the wheel). I made investments, bought things, gained wealth, got promoted, and moved onto new jobs with even more responsibility. Team Mom, team manager, PTA executive, classroom helper, and mother of the year. I completed grad school in 2020 while raising kids, caring for aging parents, working full time, and baking gluten-free cookies to fuel my wheel-running. Everywhere I turned was another opportunity to do more. I was being taunted with new ways to earn my stripes as a mother and a woman. It was never enough. In January 2020, my husband and I joined two other couples in Las Vegas to celebrate my 40th birthday. It was supposed to be a relaxing trip–but who can relax when you’re running on a bloody wheel? My legs were wobbly, my brain was groggy, and all I wanted to do was sleep. As I stood on the balcony of the Cosmopolitan hotel, watching the Bellagio fountains dance, I tried to blank out my mind. What would it feel like to just stop moving for a day?
In March 2020, the universe delivered. The world slowed to a halt.
That month, the kids came home for Spring Break and would remain home until June 2020. My home office became my new workspace, and I realised, this was it–I’ve dreamt of this! I’m home with my kids and still a contributing member at my workplace–a win-win! Parenting has been one of the most satisfying roles of my life. Every day, I watch these little humans learn, grow, and sprout before my eyes. The more I baked and cooked, nurtured, listened, and loved, the stronger these humans became. As a working mother, I longed to spend more time with these little people and less time commuting, sitting through mundane meetings, and being restricted to when I could take vacation and when I needed to be present for another priority project. I had arrived.
Week 1: We are off to a great start. I make hot breakfasts, we cuddle between my meetings, and everything is novel. Week 2: The house is starting to get messy and my carefully organized pantry is looking cluttered. It’s okay (no it’s not). Week 3: Home life and work life are a giant, blended mess. Kids appear in the background (or on my lap) for work calls, I have more candy wrappers on my desk than pens, and no one wants to do homework. I’m frazzled, tired, and realise that I’m still not enough. The pandemic had shut down schools, governments, and the NHL! I mean, sports were cancelled, but I still had to attend 9am meetings, do math with my kids, and clean this house? Week 4: I wake up with a single thought: I’ve fallen out of the wheel.
Life on the wheel was organized, planned, and predictable, albeit uninspiring, restricting, and suffocating. I stood now on unsteady feet, looking in directions I hadn’t looked before. You face forward when you run, not backwards, nor upwards or side-to-side. I had been running on this wheel for my immigrant parents who instilled perfection as the foundation to seeking acceptance in a world where I didn’t look like others. I ran on that wheel to keep up with other women, pitted against each other–who would achieve more? But I’d also fallen out of that wheel, and here I was in the fetal position, soaked in the stink of my anxiety and insecurity, paralyzed by fear. What happens outside the wheel (is this where you go when you stop coloring your hair and shaving your legs?)?
Here’s what I found. Outside the wheel are opportunities to live your life with intention. As I began to explore, I found things buried under degrees and promotions. I found a spade and some seeds that formed the luscious garden outside my back door. Buried deep beneath my cloak of “whiteness” was a deep-seated inferiority complex and wounds from my childhood experiences of racism. I had spent my life working so hard to sound white, dress white, eat white, and live white and suddenly, the brown was breaking through the cracks, seeping into my carefully orchestrated life. And finally, laying in the open, high on the pile of my exhaustion, was a pillow and blanket calling me to slumber. So I gardened, slept, explored my traumas, and allowed myself to unravel.
No one was more irrelevant in the 2020 pandemic than fathers. We read about mothers bearing the weight of home-schooling, working, and holding up the household, but what about the homes like mine, where I fell apart and my husband gently held our family together? My husband continued to not only work outside the home, but he was the one risking his life to grocery shop, slap together dinners, and hold me while I sobbed. He’d drop bags of chocolate bars, chips, and pies through the crack of my office door. I was shedding some heavy stuff, and chocolate was keeping me alive. At one point, I looked down at my hands and realised I had left a chocolate bar to melt on my keyboard and it was now smeared all over me. I rubbed it into my hands feeling euphoric. I was done fueling with chocolate–it was time to let go. I packed up my graduate work and threw it in a box. I wrote a resignation letter and saved it as a draft. I was making changes.
2021 launched, yet we were riding another wave of the pandemic, and I was finally strong on my feet again. The kids went back to school, we bought a new house, and even got a COVID puppy (Lucy, my shadow!). I quit a job, launched a passion project, and lost twenty pounds because I was no longer fueling emotions, but eating what I loved. I bought new bookshelves and filled them with books, running my finger down colorful spines, eyes closed as I savoured the knowledge within as only an avid reader can do. I replaced hot breakfasts with cold cereal that my kids ate with pleasure. I started taking the extra time each morning to read in bed, to drink coffee in my garden, and to take deep breaths that filled my heart. My home became a reflection of my soul: art, books, messy little tables with pieces of our story scattered on every surface. Life outside the wheel was whole.
Here’s the thing: I’m still an overachiever. But now my goals are self-fueled. I’m still going to work a lot, parent like a boss, and pursue a PhD in this decade (yup!). But, I’m not running on a wheel anymore. I used that wheel as a garden bed to grow my future on, and as a memory of where I was pre-pandemic. The pandemic saved my life and brought me back to myself, and for that I am grateful. I came out of it with boundaries. My favourite new question for myself is, Is this what YOU want?. Many cookies have gone back into the box since I started asking myself this question. I’ve also turned down job offers, contracts, and opportunities to work on projects that just weren’t what I wanted. In 2020, the world stopped long enough for me to realise that punching down walls, breaking glass ceilings, and tearing apart stereotypes is not the only way to live my life. Outside the wheel lies the opportunity to live my life with intention and hope. I am propelled forward by dreams so big I can barely contain them. Ladies, one day you’ll step out of your daze and find yourself longing for the life that passed you by. Take it from a crash survivor–jump out of the wheel and fall in love with your life all over again.
Photography by: Mina Sahota