So I said this weeks blog would be about the benefits of art for children. In the week before my first classes that would be a really important topic to cover but having realised this morning that today was International Women’s Day I have decide to deviate from my original plan. Why, because IWD makes me think about my choices as a woman and the journey I have been on over this last year which has brought me to the place where I have a website and I am writing a blog.
So I am going to skim over some elements of this, not because they aren’t important, but because they are probably worthy of their own blog at another time. Today I want to talk about choices.
I have worked hard my whole life. I would always put more in than was required. I learnt at a fairly young age that I had some natural leadership ability and combining that with a desire to learn I progressed through different roles and different corporate organisations. I didn’t just love my job, I actually think I was my job. Or my job was me. Which way around that works I’m not entirely sure but it was the major focus of my life for many years and I would go as far as to say my job defined me. I never imagined a different life. It was hard work, fast paced and never ending and for many many years I loved it. I felt like my job gave me a better life in lots of ways. The ultimate buzz of fixing problems or delivering a good result, amazing friendships, travel to places I never thought I would see, a nice new car every few years etc. Yes the perks were amazing and I loved them all at the time but as the years progressed I would also feel other, less positive feelings. I would feel increasingly tired and worn down. Not just in a ‘I could use an extra few hours in bed’ tired but really exhausted. The buzz was maybe not as big and the travel became less and less appealing. I realised my life outside work had moved on and it would be nice to have more time for that but I was pretty resigned to the fact that I would work at that pace until I retired. That was me, that was who I was and what I knew.
So clearly I am writing this blog as a self-employed woman who paints with kids for a living so obviously something did change. Yes it definitely did change
It started in the years leading up to having my son, I think. We had decided to try for a baby and I didn’t know how much I wanted a baby until I was pregnant and before you know it I have built a new world in my mind with this perfect bundle of joy at the centre of it. When that pregnancy ended in miscarriage I was devastated. To cut a very long story short after a mixture of failed pregnancies and long periods of no pregnancy I hit 40 and decided it was time to stop trying. And as you hear so often within months of giving up we found ourselves pregnant! The joy was immense but also shadowed by a very real fear. I never really believed my son would make it out ok until he was there in my arms. We had done it and I was immediately and wholeheartedly in love. My maternity leave was amazing. I had thought I would struggle being off, that I would miss work and all the excitement of it. But I didn’t.
I thought I would try baby classes not really expecting to enjoy them. I thought they would be full of immaculate mums all so much more organised and better at ‘mumming’ than I was. But they weren’t. I met a group of brilliant mums who were so just so perfect in a perfectly normal way, it was amazing! We chatted and we became friends. We had coffee or lunch after classes and would go for a rare and precious nights out every now and then. It was an existence I had never known and it was a blissful time. I would get up and play with my son. We would tidy the house and go do the shopping. I would head to class to see our mummy and baby friends and go for a walk afterwards. I wasn’t bored, I was in heaven. I slept (when Brody slept) without the constant turning over of a million conflicting thoughts flying around my brain. I was truly happy. It was a year out of my busy, stressful life and I loved every second of it.
But as the time the return to work came closer the nervousness grew. So much so that it became a fear and I started to feel unwell. I knew in my heart that my job and Craig’s job plus a baby didn’t work. I needed to be everywhere apart from Scotland in my job so I had to try and do all the travelling around Craig’s shifts. I had always just prioritised being where I needed to be in my job so I quickly developed some very unhealthy ways of working in a attempt to make it fit. I would leave home as Craig came home from a night shift at 6am and drive 3 or 4 hours to see my teams or attend meetings and do the return journey the same day so I could be home in time for Craig to head back onto his night shift. I sometimes did this 2 or 3 days in a row. I was shattered but at least I wasn’t letting anyone down…yet.
But it was a yet, because then Brody started getting ill. Not just an odd cold but catching everything and badly. We were in and out of hospital, I had to cancel work trips and sometimes missed days work altogether. I probably wasn’t coping at this point but I kept going. But then the really big one hit and Bam! My sister got sick. We had been hit with the big C and that was the start of a huge turning point in my life. At first I made it all work still by taking Brody with me to stay at my mums so I could work from home or go to a more local office whilst visiting my sister in hospital and being with my family. I would do emails through the night to catch up on time lost in the day trying to juggle visits and Brody. I now know that throughout this period I was on the edge and just holding it together. I felt devastated that my sister had got this awful disease. I felt guilty that it was her and not me. I felt guilty about being half-hearted in my work focus. I felt like a dreadful mother having Brody so far away from his dad and brother and when I went home for a while I would feel dreadful about leaving my sister and family. I wasn’t doing anything right. I was beyond any level of tiredness I had ever experienced and I felt like I had to keep going. I had no other choice.
Again skimming a little but it’s doesn’t take a genius to figure out what happened next…I got sick. In retrospect it’s actually hilarious that I didn’t see it coming but I didn’t. I started thinking I had chest pains or that I couldn’t breath. I started not wanting to go out, getting a feeling that something dreadful was going to happen. All the textbook stuff. I avoided social situations. I didn’t even want to go to Tesco in case I bumped into someone. I was properly ill and it was my mental health. Saying this now feels fine but you would be surprised how long it took me to accept this. I actually wanted there to be something physiologically wrong with as the thought of being psychologically ill was unthinkable. I was strong, resilient and beyond mental health issues….apparently not.
I won’t labour on the process I went through between that point of breaking and my decision to change my life. I will just say this. I had to learn about myself in a way I had never done before which made it possible for me to reach a point where I now understand that I had probably been unhappy for a long time. That despite being good at my job it wasn’t necessarily right or healthy for me. If I had been able to stop and say I couldn’t cope, I needed to put my family first then that would have been ok…the people around me at work wanted to help but I didn’t feel able to let them. My workplace was not the problem…basically my need to be invincible was the problem. And so, and this is the single most important point, in absence of being able to work in a healthy way I had a choice to make. I first had to accept that I did have a choice. Maybe a scary or difficult choice to figure out. Maybe one that meant sacrifices in other ways but yes I did have a choice.
I was in my 40’s but finally learning the really important stuff. That my job didn’t define me I was just a person with a job…that’s all. Walking away from a lifetimes career was not a difficult choice in the end. By the time that happened I knew me as a different person to the one I was prior to Brody and cancer and emotional unravellings. I saw myself as something very separate to the job I was a mum, a step-mum, a wife, a sister, a daughter, a friend…I was so much more than a job. Deciding what to do from there became easy. My mum asked me ‘what do you love?’. I didn’t need to think about that one for long. I had loved my maternity leave because I loved spending time with babies, children and their mummies or carers. I also loved spending time with my family and I wanted both. I came across an article talking about our ARTventurers founder Fiona’s own story and that was it. She wanted to build a career which she would love and that would let her do the school run for her kids. It hit me firmly and clearly, it was that simple. That was what I wanted too. And so my ARTVenturers journey began.
It’s early days, I have a long way to go before I can say whether I make a success of this or not but I know one thing for sure. Getting ill, leaving my job and all of this doesn’t make me weak. I feel clearer and stronger than I remember ever feeling. I have learnt what I really needed to know and love about myself were the things I always gave less time or importance too. My family in Scotland and my family in England are the single most important things in my life. They are what counts. They are what make me happy and I am now starting a very different journey of building a career around my family and not the other way around.
Many people can be hugely successful in the environment I was in and not make such extreme sacrifices. It’s about knowing yourself and prioritising yourself. It does come back to boundaries. I was not able to build boundaries to protect my personal life and create the vital work life balance that we all really do need and therefore that was no longer a healthy choice for me. I have eventually realised that you can decide to do something very different. It can seem impossible at first. It can be hugely scary, financially terrifying but those are not insurmountable barriers to making a change. My sister got a hideous, incurable cancer at 45 years of age. This taught me that life is not a given so we have to make it count. If you love what you do I salute you, keep doing it but if you don’t then be brave and change it. Love your precious life as much as you can.
Women are amazing creatures irrespective of career choices, family choices or any other choices we make. We are emotionally complex in a wonderful way. We often have strong intuition, warm hearts and a ridiculous ability to juggle lots without drawing attention to the fact. But we are allowed to be fragile and unsure and a bit broken sometimes too. Embrace those parts of you because they mean your are living as a warm blooded human being and not the wonder-woman machine that so many of us try to be. Put the really important things in life first. My car is not the glossy shining machine I had last year but my heart is definitely brighter, shinier and fuller than ever before! That’s what matters…that’s all that really matters.
Here’s hoping you find your wisdom a little earlier in life than I did. Stay strong and vulnerable and brilliant and be happy!
Happy IWD2020, love Sarah xxx