“How are you?” friends would ask and I’d inevitably answer “busy.” Sorry I’m so late getting back to you, sorry we haven’t made plans for coffee yet. Things are hectic. Ugh, I forgot about whatever theme day it is at school. Yikes, I’m late again! Busy is the new normal right?
This is a story about how I dove headfirst into the perfect storm and in the process saved myself from drowning. It’s a story about how life taught me (and I finally learned) what it means to take care of myself first. I didn’t gracefully fall into self-awareness. I had a big, fat fall into failure (gulp, yup, I said it) and I have slowly put back the pieces to find a stronger version of me.
As a spouse of a soldier, when I learned we were moving from New Brunswick (NB) to Toronto after having only been there for two years, I focussed on how I could continue to achieve my goals despite the upheaval. I’d worked in university student services for the better part of fifteen years, had somehow found myself in my dream job while in NB and I wasn’t ready to let moving derail my career. I applied for a masters. Oh and was pregnant with our second son.
My husband had been offered a spot on a 10-month course that would set him up to be selected to a significant leadership role a few years down the line. This was his dream and what he was working towards. But ten months in one city meant another move at the end of that. And then yet another when and if he was given a command position.
I consider myself a feminist and appreciate all that women have done before me to make it possible for women to experience equality in a number of realms including in work and pursuit of their goals. One of the most difficult parts of being a military spouse is feeling I have very little control over my own life. And in reality, coming second to my partner’s career. As a woman, I find that especially difficult to reconcile with my belief that we should be equals in partnership. How can we be equals if I play second fiddle to the wishes of the Canadian Forces and their plans for my husband?
I’ve always been competitive and driven. Defying the odds to work hard to achieve goals. I love being part of a team and want that team to be the best it can be. I like to make an impact. And by gosh, I wasn’t going to let the Canadian Forces or my husband’s job or five moves in six years get in the way of my goals! I started the masters, I had our beautiful second baby, our then three-year old stopped napping that same day (or at least it felt like it…sleep deprivation, am I right?), and we moved again ten months later. This time to my hometown – Ottawa.
I’d always dreamed of moving home, settling down, reconnecting with my friends and life before being married. Maybe what I was longing for was the hope that I’d reconnect with myself once I got back to my home. We bought a fixer-upper in a neighbourhood we loved and imagined ourselves growing into our “forever house”. I started a big job at one of the Universities (a job I never imagined would be open when we moved back) and continued to work away at my masters, while balancing shuttling two kids to school/daycare and trying to find time to have fun, play, carve out time for relationships with my spouse, friends and family.
Yup. Hindsight being what it is, I think if I had to do it all over again I would do things differently. My baby was just nine months old when I went back to work. My oldest little guy was heading off to kindergarten. And my hubby, bless his soul, took a three month leave as we all settled in (and while we frantically searched for daycare).
Fast forward a year later, I found myself crying most days on my way to work. I wasn’t sure I liked my job. I wasn’t sure I was actually very good at my job. I felt like I was failing the people who mattered to me. And did I mention I was crying every day? I cried listening to a panel discussion on leadership in higher education. Yes, kind of a dark scenario these days, but not worthy of tears!
I was out west presenting my masters research and took the chance to connect with some women mentors. Both mothers and both with great careers. Both of them told me that you never get time with your kids back. Both told me no job is more important than health and family. Both told me of their own search for meaning and balance when they were at a similar stage in life. I felt less alone and I had decided.
While pursuing my goals was one thing, for me, family was the reason I’m here and I needed to play the long game when it came to thinking about career. My mental health was suffering and if I didn’t choose me now when I needed me most, would I ever choose me? Had I ever really chosen me or had I just chosen things I thought I should do?
I chose me (well, actually a doctor told me I had to take time off work, so effectively I was forced to choose me). But I did. And as I unwound from the complex web I had spun myself I began to find joy again. In tiny things. Like being outside at 10:00am, watching the bees gathering pollen from the flowers I’d planted, planting more flowers so I could watch more bees, cooking healthy food, resting, watching my kids play in the park, singing. And making time for those friends and family I’d been too busy to see before.
It was scary (is scary) to decide that I couldn’t go back to that work, that pace of life, without there being sacrifices for our family. But the greatest sacrifice in this pattern of unhealthy striving was to myself. Choosing me meant finding me, remembering how to laugh, play, be silly, practice gratitude, read books, put my phone down, be in community, and realizing I love to watch bees.
We live in Edmonton now. My husband got his command position and we are here for two years. I’m home with my now three-year old (that wee babe from earlier in the story is now three) and my curious and clever six-year old. I’ve been present as we helped them navigate saying goodbye to friends and the fear that comes along with moving and being the new kid.
We have explored new trails and seen animals and birds we have never seen before. We are nestling into long winter nights in a more northern place. I make meals and eat with my kids (for what seems like a lifetime at the table…three year olds, am I right?!), do school drop-offs and pick-ups, go sledding and skating or play board games and referee brother squabbles. I get to do groceries when there are no line-ups. No one needs to navigate who stays home when a kid is sick. And I make and keep plans to reconnect with friends we knew when we lived here before.
I might not be “doing” anything right now and I’m certainly still searching for how this new Shannon can share her gifts with the world. But when someone asks me how I am, I can now happily say that I’m good. And I mean it.
Women’s Stories is going to be an ongoing project that shares true stories written by women who are questioning who they are and the lives they want to live. You can follow along on Instagram @thesearchfor_self