(and how to pick up the pieces)
It had been building for a while. The tension. The tears. The yelling. The sleeplessness. Uncertainty in the present and angst about the future. Work hell during the holidays met an unfortunately rough hormonal cycle and I found myself awake all night on December 26th googling symptoms for “nervous breakdown.” By my own self-diagnosis, I was four-for-seven and headed downhill.
I am a so-called expert on and lifelong student of work-life integration and I was losing my shit. I mean, I’m writing a book on this topic and I couldn’t calm my brain enough at night to sleep more than a few hours at a time. I hate the nickname “wonder woman” but found a lot of my identity in my ability to do it all, even when things got tough. I can usually handle work when there is strife on the home front, and can likewise weather professional storms when everything at home is going smoothly. When both are coming off the rails? Apparently, that’s when Wonder Woman falls apart.
This has been a very tough work year for a lot of people, including me. The normal political tension that all Americans feel hits home directly when the bulk of your business is in the Federal sector. I led a very large, long-shot proposal and -gulp- we won. But what was great news for the firm was not great news for me personally. A new role (and not one I particularly wanted) plus my regular day job duties and one helluva lot of uncertainty caused me to have heart palpitations while on the metro platform on my morning commute, tears on my way out of the office most days and complete mental and physical exhaustion when I arrived home each night. The kicker? Feedback from my bosses at my year-end review that “I look angry and frustrated all the time.” Nevermind the vaguely sexist undertone, they were right; I was angry and frustrated all the time.
At home, despite my best holiday management strategies, it was much of the normal chaos of a household with three boys and two full-time working parents. But add in two teenagers that can’t seem to manage their way out of a wet paper bag, whose grades were failing and limits were being tested and the tension factor was high. Kid #3, content to hide out from the fray, was spending way too much time in virtual worlds. There was yelling. A lot of yelling.
And through all of this, I was painfully missing my best friend, who passed away two years ago. The one with the twins a day younger than mine, who was my boss during my MBA internship all those years ago and knew me so well she could call me on my BS and right my ship with one phone call. But she was gone, and I was going to have to figure this out on my own.
And while I wouldn’t say I am in the clear yet, things are looking up. I have given myself permission to fall apart and the space to put myself back together. How did I do this? By going back to the basics. None of these ideas is earth-shattering, but if you are teetering on the edge, one or two of these things might work for you:
Move the Body/Calm the Mind
For the last year, I have resisted the mat. I don’t want to go to yoga or sit still for meditation, but I’ve made myself do it. I switched meditation apps for a new voice and made a daily challenge with a friend for accountability. I switched out long, time-consuming runs for shorter sprint workouts or heavy weights to make me feel strong. I never want to do it, but always feel better after.
After trying all of the normal things (lavender in the diffuser, “sleep stories” on Calm app, etc.) I finally called a family meeting and said that mom was going to need more sleep or life was going to suck for everyone. No teenagers banging around at midnight, no errant 3AM alarms, no TV shows with my husband or the boys. Sleep above all else. I think that my behavior had been so crazy the week before they actually complied.
Do whatever you have in your control to change your surroundings. Play mood-changing music. Hang out with positive, supportive people. Rearrange your workspace. When you’re feeling the downward pull of the vortex you need to change what you can so that you don’t get sucked in.
I have never been able to keep an Oprah-style Gratitude Journal or any journal for that matter, but when I would lie awake at night and worry about all things I would say to myself, out loud: Warm bed. Dry roof. Healthy family. Loving friends. Sometimes you just need to remind yourself that these are first-world problems, you are blessed beyond belief, and stronger than you know.
I had been working on my book project for nearly two years but could never get past the proposal phase. I never even sent out agent query letters. Despite a strong time management game, I couldn’t find even 30 minutes a day to pursue this passion project. And even if I had, there wasn’t an ounce of creativity left in me. I was emotionally and physically exhausted. I never took maternity leaves, as my twins were born when I was in graduate school and my third when I ran a start-up. So I put in for and was granted a four-month leave of absence so that I could dig into the book project, spend the time with my family we all needed, and hit the professional reset button. Within a week my blood pressure was down and I was sleeping through the night again. Not working isn’t an option personally or financially for me so I will look to lessons learned during this sabbatical to find a new way forward.
So stay tuned. I’m doing research, interviews, analysis and introspection to figure out what works for working mothers. And I can’t wait to figure out how to lighten the load for you.