I understand everything and it terrifies me: An open letter to my mother

Dear Mom,

I have so many memories of your career while I was growing up. Memories of sitting in the back of your office watching Yellow Submarine while you sat in a late staff meeting. Memories of you running back and forth during Healthy Kids Day at the local Y where you worked. Memories of the dreaded work cell phone ringing during family weekends away. Memories of you sitting at poolside during my synchronized swimming practices with the proofs for the annual report on your lap, scrutinizing the page for typos.

My whole life, I looked up to you as an example of what it meant to be good at your job. And oh, you were good. You won awards, got stellar performance reviews, rose through the ranks to the YMCA of the USA. I idolized your work ethic, even though I always knew on some level that it was hurting you deeply.

We’ve talked on many occasions about how your perfectionism led to poor mental health. And in dealing with my own mental health problems, I’ve dissected what growing up with two workaholics for parents did for my own worldview.

I’ve always had serious issues with work . I either spend too much time trying to make things perfect or too little time because I just want it out of my face. I start out with a rosy view of my supervisors, but with a few notable exceptions, I end up resenting them. For me, work has invariably been an exercise in procrastination alternating with abject terror.

Then I started my new job. It’s like no other job I’ve ever had. For once, the mission isn’t to make some shareholders a lot of money — the mission is something I actually care about. And for the first time in my life, I find myself staying late because I’ve lost track of time and I just want to get that one more thing done before I go.

This week has been especially hectic. We’re coming into the busiest time of the year. With each item I tick off my to-do list, I feel a rush of pride, and I want to do more and give more of myself.

And on Friday, as I walked to the train station, late again, I thought, “Oh Momma. I understand now. I understand everything.”

And I was terrified.

Today I woke up at 6:30am to head out and help set up our booth for Fair Day. Through my grogginess, I forgot to be afraid of what the day would bring.

When I got to Victoria Park, I found our booth. It was wet from the rain that hit us overnight, and I cursed myself for not thinking to bring a towel. Then the rest of the crew showed up, and we made do with what we had, covering the nasty tabletop with colorful cloth, stopping the rain from leaking through with an extra t-shirt. I took photos for social media (now there’s a wrinkle you didn’t have to deal with back then) and set up the tablet. I was on a roll, and the end of my shift crept up on me.

But here’s the thing — I was comfortable to leave the booth when the time came. I knew I didn’t need to hover around and fix everything because I trusted that my colleagues had it all under control. I left the booth, did a lap to check out the Fair Day stalls, and then was more than happy to head home.

Part of this is that my boss is the sort of person who will call me out for working out of hours. But another massive part is that your example has helped me once again.

When we spoke on the phone yesterday, you said, “Find balance. That’s something I didn’t do well.” From watching you stand up for what you needed to maintain your mental health, I have learned to advocate for my needs. That’s meant pushing back on freelance work for the next couple of weeks to give myself space. That’s meant giving myself permission to sit back and relax when I need to.

When I was a kid, I always had this view that once I was an adult, that would be it — no more need to learn. In the 15 years I’ve allegedly been an adult, I’ve realized that that is nowhere near true. We are forever learning. You taught me that, too.

Only time will tell if I’ve managed to strike the balance correctly. I will learn what works best for me and my work. Thanks to you, I know what balance looks like now.

All my love,