Finding my inner wise woman: Emily's journey back to joy after motherhood burnout
Guest post by my dear friend, Emily, on tapping into her inner wisdom to balance professional fulfillment with early motherhood, and her courageous march back to joy after burnout.
Last December I was a train wreck. I'd returned to work three months after giving birth to my second baby and my business partners were struggling.
Covid meant juggling uncertainty, cash flow, technical development, clients, remote working and childcare. I was breastfeeding around the clock. Kyles, our CEO, was juggling home schooling, and our CTO, Michaela, was at max-capacity with her full-time gig. It was fucking hard.
I started getting sick. A lot. Screaming at the kids. I had very low empathy and tolerance for others, which I knew was a big, fat red flag for burnout. My basic needs for sleep and safety weren't being met and my relationships were fracturing.
I attended an event with renowned psychotherapist and coach of coaches, Jackie Fury. Jackie is the ultimate work wise woman. She's been in enough boardrooms and counselled enough CEO's to tell you the hard truths. With expletives if necessary.
At the event, she shared her hierarchy for making hard decisions. First she started with logic. Second, she moved to her heart. How did the options feel in her heart? Third, she consulted the inner wise woman at the very top of the hierarchy of her decision making.
Driving home, I reached down and touched my heart. I was so damn exhausted. My wise woman? She was underwater struggling for air. I had to find her.
I realised I needed the big guns. I reached out to psychologist Kate Day, a Brisbane-based specialist in behaviour change. Kate explained two things:
I was experiencing cognitive dissonance, a mental state that occurs when what we believe doesn't align with the way we behave. It explained why I was feeling super sad and tense. I strongly believed in Ahisma, the Sanskrit word for non-violence to all beings, including ourselves. This self-constructed exhaustion felt like violence.
Elite performers have an imaginary backpack of energy, and a spare for emergencies. Every time one of my kids got sick or we had an intense sprint at work, it would drain my energy backpack. This period of increased demand meant I had no time to fill my backpacks with energy like I once had.
I needed to push my car to the fuel station and refuel. This was mid-life. It wasn't supposed to be shit life.
Kate had me make a list of things that gave me energy and drained my energy, then rate those things out of 10, with 1/10 being energy-draining, and 10/10 energy-giving. The list gave my conscious and subconscious mind a clear picture of what was helping and what wasn't. Sleep gave me energy, whereas boot camp at 5am was draining me.
Then Kate asked me to define what I had capacity for. At first I had no idea what she meant. How could I decide? Wasn't my capacity infinite? Kate had me reflect on the energy-draining list, which offered hints at where my priorities needed to be.
I realised I didn't have the capacity for:
Managing clients when my 12-month-old and 3-year-old were home
Getting up too early, even for exercise, when I didn't sleep well the night before
My partner working 60 hour weeks (I had a career too - why weren't we viewing them equally?)
Meeting unrealistic goals - Covid meant that some of the things we set out to do just couldn't happen in the original time frame
I also realised I didn't have capacity for being an overworked, overstretched human anymore. I was drawing a line in the sand.
Kate then encouraged me to do the scariest thing of all. Establish my rock bottom, or in her words, my baseline. An example could be “if my boss continues to behave this way I am leaving this job" or "if my partner continues to behave this way I will leave this relationship".
It turns out that my baseline was "If I keep feeling this way I will walk away from our business".
Ugh, that was tough. And then she wanted me to communicate this? Was she nuts? I'd be letting everyone down. I couldn't get my head around it, so I rallied against it.
One morning a few weeks after my conversation with Kate I reached out to Jackie Fury again and filled her in. She asked me a question that jolted me awake.
"Who taught you that your joy wasn't important?"
With that, Jackie had hit on one of my biggest values and goals - joy. This is what I had felt during mornings with my baby on maternity leave. What I felt marrying my husband and moving to the beach. What I felt when I realised I wanted to pursue wellbeing and change my career.
This is what we can't forget about change. After the logistical and practical information is presented, we need authentic emotion through a meaningful vision to really hook us in.
Jackie explained she'd learnt that her joy wasn't important from her Mum. I reflected and realised I had also learnt it from an old acquaintance.
We can learn that our joy isn't important simply by being told so from well-meaning people in our lives - from parents who went through hardship and trauma to well-meaning friends or bosses - and we suffer because we believe these stories.
The story I was believing was that it was better to disappoint myself than others. That working myself to the point of self-destruction was actually what a servant leader should do.
As Owen Eastwood so brilliantly explores in Belonging, the Ancient code of Togetherness, our ancestors actually understood that a leader’s primary purpose is to look after the wellbeing of the group. Groups, after all, demonstrate an instinctive tendency to give power to individuals who bring the greatest benefit and least harm to individuals.
How was I supposed to best serve the needs of my work tribe and customers when I was low on empathy? How could I actually serve the business and our team if I had to quit?
Much has been written on the ROI of wellbeing, and the data is now clear that a business’ ability to meet its goals is highly correlated with the wellbeing of its employees. It's just clear: healthy happy employees are better for business and crucial for success in work 4.0.
Ultimately I decided, just like our ancestors did, that the fiercest way to ensure our business would be around in five years was to protect the tribe's wellbeing, starting with my own.
I also had to confront a level of risk. If I did have to walk away, would I be okay? I am fortunate that my partner also has a profitable business. But even so, I decided that if all four of us ended up living in a tent, happy and healthy, it would be better than being unhappy, divorced, and in acute care with chronic fatigue.
So then of course I had to communicate the change. The idea of approaching my business partners with this information was vomit-inducing. They were struggling, too, and the idea of leaving threatened my sense of belonging to my work tribe. I'd be cast out and eaten by dinosaurs!
When communicating change, often it's the lack of language that trips us up. Kate helped me develop some key messages to practice before our conversation:
I don't have the capacity to work after 3pm on Fridays, Mr Client, so I can't meet with you until Tuesday morning
I don't have the capacity to manage clients on days when my kids are at home
I understand this news may be really concerning for you and I'm really curious to understand more about those concerns
If nothing changes, I will need to walk away
Could we brainstorm together to find an outcome that works for all of us?
Would you like to take some time and come back to me with your thoughts?
I know you're both busy, so what if I investigate this possible solution and came back to you?
I have a career too, husband, we need to work towards an equal work day arrangement
The conversations were awkward. It was messy and tough. But losing my business, friendships, or marriage would have been tougher.
I'm happy to say that six months on, things have shifted. We've made some new hires, reconnected as a team, and our customer experience and shared vision is even stronger. Yay for change.
I'm back, but it's taken months. I'm practicing yoga again, and I'm starting to expand my capacity as I replenish my backpacks.
Finding my work wise woman was not a polite, pleasing pathway for the fainthearted. It's been a radical, rebellious march to joy.
So, meet my inner wise woman. She's stronger, clearer, calmer. And she is living and breathing her purpose. She's keeping her tribe well.
The path to your wise woman is utterly unique. You decide what's important and what you value. You decide your capacity and define your baseline. But whatever you do, find her. Because your joy - and you - are absolutely fucking worth it.
Emily Walker is the Co-founder of Change Republic: Australia’s talent marketplace dedicated to Learning & Development. She lives on the beautiful Sunshine Coast of Queensland, Australia with her husband, two small children, and beloved dog, Occy.