“I simply cannot get sick. If I’m out even for a few days, our whole household literally falls apart,” expresses Michelle, tired and exasperated with no end in sight. Michelle is an educational consultant with a husband and two kids. She makes more money than her husband so is responsible for the mortgage payment and when she’s between big contracts that’s one of only a number of worries that wakes her at 4:00 a.m. She juggles the lion’s share of the household chores – cooking, cleaning, laundry and also, volunteers regularly at her children’s school knowing how important it is for her to be involved. Michelle has aging parents who often require her attention since they have physical issues but are attempting to live independently.
Michelle’s husband Mike is an educator too and coaches a soccer team for their children’s school. Michelle and Mike used to “date” but now there is no time or opportunity. The kids are not old enough to leave on their own and the weekends are packed with responsibilities and soccer games. I ask her, “when did you feel happy last?” She struggles to respond as she winces, straining her memory. She has gained weight and is experiencing back pain and occasional migraines so the physical toll of her lifestyle is beginning to show.
She is deeply committed to being a loving parent to her two kids, spending time with them daily supporting their homework and reading to them in the evenings. Her daughter Ivy, age 6, has been slow to learn to read and fights her when it’s time to practice. She wonders if this is typical or whether there’s a more serious problem involved. The thought of a dyslexia or other mental diagnosis is more than she can deal with at the moment so she sets those ponderings away for another day. Her son Jonah, age 10, is getting bullied at school since he’s not athletic like his classmates. At home, he’s quiet and sinks into his device scrolling through TikTok videos choosing to tune out the world. She worries he won’t have friends or develop social skills. So she presses him to play soccer yet again to be social.
Michelle’s husband, Mike, is an exceptional high school teacher, one of those rare individuals who infuses passion into the subject matter and gets even jaded high school students excited about learning. He’s being asked to step up his involvement in work by joining committees, chairing his department and it seems, ultimately, he’s being groomed to take over a leadership role at the district level – away from students, away from the classroom. Michelle is torn between the pain of not spending time with her husband (dinners are often her and the kids on their own) and wanting that promotion so that they can afford a bigger house and take some of the pressure off of her work as the primary source of income.
Maybe this is the story of you or someone in your intimate circle? How does she find herself in the fog of expectations? The questions that underpin Michelle’s running, her inability to get sick, to slow down, are:
- What if I am not enough as a parent and my kids fail in school and in life?
- What if I am not enough at work and I lose opportunities or worse, never generate new opportunities?
- What if I am not enough for my incredible husband who I love and respect?
- What if I fail in all of my roles because I don’t have the strength or knowledge or whatever it takes to make it?
More than anything else, she requires courage. In fact, we require courage. The courage to live the life we’ve chosen with our full presence – not hooked on the past, not finding ways to escape, and not tied to some imagined future. And certainly not someone else’s view of a good life. But our own, here and now. Deciding to face fears of not-enoughness requires a revision of old stories – of the Pinterest-perfect home and the bright, brilliant and award-winning career, and the Instagram-worthy family. These images are never about authenticity, heart, and integrity. And they are often not about true connection with others either. They are about show. And if Michelle is putting on a show in the midst of living her daily life online or in-person, that’s a whole lotta energy she could be channeling into authenticity. She is clearly allowing others’ expectations of her to dominate her days.
Where’s the essence of the true Michelle in that? Her marriage might find a crisis since she’s not being the best part of who she is but only living who others want her to be. Her children are missing out on learning from who she truly is. If she had “it” before – before the complications of mid-life, that perfect balance between her career and life, things were different and seemed simpler. And her context has changed. It’s time for reinvention.
So where does she go from here? How does she find herself through the fog of fears and expectations? She can begin to find clarity, to dissipate the fog when she stops, breathes and begins to listen. Below the ping on her phone, under the leaf blower roaring down the street, beneath the din of her child’s demands, she needs to listen within. And as she does, she can ask herself one key question.
What do I most need to learn?
For each person, the answer will be different. Maybe building healthy, meaningful relationships is where she needs to focus. Perhaps setting boundaries and having tough conversations to ensure her sense of agency is intact is the hardest thing for her. The answer – your answer – is the way forward. And typically the answers – if we are honest with ourselves – are inconvenient. They don’t fit with our carefully crafted, tightly woven schedules. So it’s tempting to lie to ourselves even as we attempt to listen. That’s why the only way we can truly reinvent is with courage. The courage to trust our deepest inner guidance. The courage to realize that the obstacle is the way. The courage to accept that we will find meaning and purpose and community too if only we amplify those faint inner voices that show us the way to what we care about the most and what we need to learn in order to be the person we can be. And finally, the courage to live into that life knowing some may not understand, accept or want to connect with you when you’ve found your unique path forward.
And if there are sea changes to be made, it may mean breaking down before rebuilding. Michelle may get sick as she slows. And that sickness is an opportunity – a gift. Through that enforced rest, she can become aware of the fog and actively work to heal through it.
The developmental mindset as a way of viewing our lives is this simple and this complex. And as someone who has studied and worked with parents and caregivers for over a decade, there is a distinct advantage with the context of family life if we take the time to see it. We gain opportunities for deepening, widening and expanding our learning by virtue of the fact that our children challenge us through their development. And our partner, too, challenges us through their own development. As they change and test limits, they push us in ways we would never push ourselves. And each time, we have the chance to ask two important questions:
What are they working on or learning in their development? And how can I be supportive?
How is this an opportunity for my own learning?
When our tween, for example, becomes more self aware as they shape their identity, we may exercise our social awareness and ability to empathize and perspective take. Remember how you wanted to be the one who defined who you were when you were twelve and not accept your parents’ definition of you?
Shifting our focus requires an open mind, an open heart and an open will to follow where these questions lead us. They ask that we drop our need to control everything around us – and for mothers steering the ship – that can be an enormous ask. We fear that all will fall apart and we’ll be the ones left with the consequences picking up the pieces. But this leap of faith is necessary and why courage is the lever that enables our reinvention.
What does that reinvention really look like? Should she quit her job? What about her financial stability? Those practical pressures don’t magically go away. Reinventing from the inside out is a daily practice right where you are. Sometimes your inner wisdom will whisper that major changes are necessary. Sometimes it may not. Often, we need to stay the course and bring the courage of a fresh perspective and experience to our current life.
What I have discovered after years of intentionally asking these essential questions is that the life-giving gains for you and your entire family are well worth the risk. They offer you the opportunity to learn patience with your children — and other intimates or colleagues in your life (if you ask those questions about those relationships too) that you never knew you had. They offer you motivation and energy. And they offer you a sense of meaning and contribution. It offers you the chance to deepen your trust and intimacy with your loved ones. Because you begin to see, feel and experience the ways in which you are directly supporting your children’s learning.
It’s not about math equations… It’s about life learning. It’s the critical, essential social and emotional skills that they may or may not intentionally be taught in schools but you know are absolutely fundamental to a marriage, to a career, to raising kids, to any and all of your most precious roles in life. These are the lessons that will see them through attempted abusers, through bullying in the workplace, through miscarriages and deaths and all the stuff of life. The opportunity to bravely and confidently share who we truly are and use our best gifts, to learn from diverse perspectives and open our minds to new possibilities and others’ hearts, to co-create and collaborate through our relationships and build toward our hopes and dreams together, and make responsible decisions that contribute to our own and other’s well-being and making the world a better place around us. Those are the reasons we get up in the morning.
Do you ever have moments with your children where you look at them and feel overwhelmed simultaneously with love and panic that time is short with them at each age and stage? If we are too busy to notice the time passing, we’ll surely miss so many opportunities that exist for those life lessons to be reflected upon and experienced together. There’s no better time than now to find the courage to reinvent.
*This is part of the “Leading in Life” series co-written by Jennifer and Jason Miller. Jennifer brings her years of working with educators and families on advancing social and emotional development while Jason brings his years of experience in the corporate and health care sectors with a focus on culture change and leadership development.