Updated: Nov 3, 2021
The pandemic saved my life. I don’t mean in the literal way where someone grabs you out of the street before you’re run down by a speeding bus. It was more like, the pandemic ripped me out of mainstream life, threw me inside my house and locked the door from the outside. No, that’s too normal. Here’s what happened- the wheel I’d been running on for 40 years suddenly jarred 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! 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, overachievers- we hear ‘you can do it all!’ and our brains say ‘you HAVE to do it all!’.
The ideals we hold as overachieving women don’t allow for time to take a break. We’re breaking down walls, smashing glass ceilings and ripping apart stereotypes. I held down 4 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.
Leading up to 2020 I had been running for two decades. Undergrad completed
while holding down full-time employment. Married and babies before 30, including two first-trimester miscarriages with little time to process them (needed to focus on the wheel). Made investments, bought things, gained wealth, got promoted- moved onto new jobs and more responsibility. Team mom, team manager, PTA executive- classroom helper and mother of the year. Completed grad school in 2020 while raising kids, caring for ageing parents, working full time and baking gluten-free cookies to fuel my wheel-running. Everywhere I turned was another opportunity to do more as a mother. I was being taunted with new ways to earn my stripes as a mother and a woman...it was never enough. 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 while they’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 Cosmopolitan balcony watching the Bellagio fountains dance, I tried to blank out my mind. What would it feel like to just stop moving for a day?
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 realized- this is it! I’ve dreamt of this! I’m home with my kids AND still a contributing member of my workplace - win-win! Parenting has been one of the most satisfying roles of my life. Every day you watch these little humans learn, grow and sprout before your 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 a vacation and when I needed to be present for another priority project. I had arrived.
Week 1: we were off to a great start, I made hot breakfasts, we cuddled between my meetings and everything is novel Week 2: the house is starting to get messy, my carefully organized pantry is starting to look cluttered. It’s okay (no it’s not). Week 3: homelife 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 realize 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 9 am 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 wobbly knees, looking in directions I hadn’t looked before. You face forward when you run, not backwards, or 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? I’d fallen out of that wheel, and here I lay in the fetal position soaked in the stink of my anxiety, insecurity and paralyzed by fear. What happens outside the wheel (is this where you go when you stop colouring 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 move on my wobbly legs, 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 the cloak of whiteness was a deep-seated inferiority complex and wounds from my childhood experiences of racism. 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 I allowed myself to unravel.
No one was more irrelevant in 2020’s pandemic than fathers. We read about mothers’ bearing the weight of homeschooling, 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 holding 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 realized 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, 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 got a COVID puppy (Lucy my shadow!), I quit a job, launched a passion project and lost 20lbs as I was no longer fueling emotions, but eating what I loved. I bought new bookshelves and filled them with books, running my finger down colourful 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, drink coffee in my garden and take deep breaths that filled my heart. My home became a reflection of my soul- art, books, messy little tables and pieces of our story scattered on every surface. Life outside the wheel was whole.
Reality check, 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 Ph.D. in 2022 (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. The world stopped long enough for me to realize
that punching down walls, ripping down glass ceilings and tearing apart stereotypes is not the only way to live my life. Here outside the wheel, I approach those walls, ceilings and stereotypes strategically, with intention and solid on my feet.