Where Did the Spark Start?

Has anyone ever asked you what makes you come alive? I’ve been thinking lately about vocation. Many people are able to look back and see clues from their childhood pointing to their eventual profession. Sometimes it’s an easy connection to make. My sister, for example, was always getting in trouble for making a mural on her bedroom wall with crayons or taking Mom’s lipstick and “decorating” the bathroom. She went on to study art in college and is now a very talented graphic designer. For me, it wasn’t immediately apparent.

Early in my senior year of college, I was busily applying to grad programs when I heard a lecture on this idea. If we really reflect, the speaker said, we can all point to moments in our past that reveal our true passions and gifts. I was an English major, and yes–I had been geeking out over library books ever since I could remember. Writing was my best subject in school, sure, but I didn’t want to be a teacher. I had started as a psychology major freshman year, but I missed English so much that I tested out of Major British Writers I in order to take Major British Writers II, which covered my favorite era of literature at the time. Here’s the kicker—I didn’t need either class for my psychology degree. I wanted to take it as an elective…I know.

Not long after this, I found myself sitting in Physiological Psychology memorizing the cranial nerves, and I came to a decision. Psychology was not for me. University policy was to meet with the head of the department you were considering, and it was in this meeting with the wonderful and wise chair of the English department that I first heard about social work. She was an impressive person but managed to put me at ease as she told me that social work involved a lot of writing and research, and graduate programs offered different concentrations. I could choose not to go down the clinical path, which was the part of psychology I didn’t really appreciate. An English degree would be a great foundation for a Masters in social work, she said.

So, I majored in English and loved almost every minute of it. I minored in psychology and started learning more about social work. If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t change a thing. This was the perfect academic path for me—a different means to the same end. I initially chose psychology because I wanted to help people. I’d always been told I was a good listener. I hadn’t thought to trace my interest back to childhood until this lecture my senior year of college. And when I considered the idea of vocation, it wasn’t clear to me exactly how I’d gotten here—applying to social work programs. It felt right, but when did this become my calling?

It hit me weeks later, cleaning out my closet. At the bottom of a pile of t-shirts, I found one that I had kept since 8th grade. They didn’t have anything but a size large, and I remember rolling up the sleeves when I wore it that year. The guidance counselor at my junior high had a program called “peer mediation”. Junior high kids have a lot of hormones and some get into a lot of fights. When this happened at school, the culprits could choose to meet with the vice principal or participate in peer mediation. I was chosen to be a peer mediator, along with several other students. There was an even number of boys and girls, and we were a mix of nerds and cool kids who made decent grades. I think by now you know which side I fell on. We were trained in conflict resolution and given a notebook of prompts to use in mediations. I loved it. I didn’t love much in junior high. It’s not a great time for most of us, I guess. But peer mediation was something I looked forward to, and not only because they paired me with the tallest boy as my co-mediator. I was able to talk calmly with students in a crisis of sorts and listen empathetically as each explained their side of the conflict. Then we collaborated to come up with a solution that would result in them avoiding detention and, hopefully, preventing future fights. I felt empowered and natural in this role. It energized me. It made me come alive.

This must be why I still had this shirt, though I never thought about it before. I can’t explain why it gave me so much satisfaction to make the connection between my middle school peer mediator career and my choice of graduate degree, but it was truly meaningful for me to remember where the spark started. Now, as a stay-at-home mom in my early thirties, I still rock my peer mediation shirt at the park now and then. I think most of us have more than one thing that makes us come alive, and this is just one of mine. I’m not working in social work right now, but you better believe I use those skills with my toddler. And here I am writing, practicing another one of my passions.

I want to encourage you to reflect back. Think about a what you’ve loved doing over the years. What are some things you have always been willing to work hard at because they bring you joy? Have you ever traced that path? You might be using your gifts in an unconventional way, but if you look closely, I hope you’ll see it.

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The back says “It’s a WIN/WIN thing.” 🙂 

Oh Hey!

Over the past year, I have been humbled, surprised and honestly downright flabbergasted to see this blog continue to accumulate followers in spite of the radio silence. I’m thrilled if anything I’ve written here has resonated with you, and I appreciate you taking the time to read. I am admittedly not great at being disciplined and organized. I manage my life sufficiently well most of the time, but I look at bloggers who are churning out new posts several times a week with awe and amazement. I’m not sure how they accomplish that. I like a sporadic but steady rhythm of writing—as inspiration comes to me, and it feels really good to be writing here again after my long hiatus. I have a lot of ideas (always), but today I thought I’d share about what I’ve been doing this past year. I wrote this about two weeks ago when it was fresh on my mind…

This morning, I did the token walk out of an office building carrying a single box of picture frames and notebooks—the walk that indicates to passersby that your job has just ended. In this case, it was amicable, but I still felt a little sad. I left my full-time social work practice when my son was born. When he turned one, I started casually looking around for something part-time and remote. This job fell into my lap, and I am truly grateful for the almost year I was able to contribute to an organization I believe in AND be a stay-at-home mom.

When I found a job working fifteen hours a week, mostly from home, at a nonprofit (working in my field?!), I thought it was too good to be true. Social work doesn’t lend itself to remote work where I could log on during my toddler’s nap each day. I was literally going from MOPS, story time and playdates in yoga pants in the morning to serious, professional woman in the afternoon. I was living the dream, until they asked if I could increase my hours significantly. Turns out it was too good to be true, after all.

This is complicated road for women to navigate, and I think we each have to figure out what works best for our family dynamic, individual personalities, etc. I’ve known families with almost every possible combination of work and childcare divisions, and I’m glad to be parenting in this era when we are able to think outside of the box. What a gift to have choices! This is not something that I take for granted. For my little family, my very supportive husband and I both wanted me to be the primary care giver for our kids while they are small. Part of what makes this work for us is that we have a team mentality—when he gets home from work he changes diapers and entertains the child while I cook. We share household chores. He also works in the tech industry and has a lot of flexibility with his job.

I have loved getting to be there for my son. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It was a big adjustment to become a mom and leave my job at the same time, and I was glad to have the opportunity to process all my big feelings about this at home like the introvert that I am. However, when we hit the one year mark, and my little angel was consistently napping three hours a day, I began to wonder if there might be a way for me to use my professional skills during this time. It sounded way more appealing than cleaning, and I could contribute financially to our household and feel good about that, too.

I had only just started looking when I got this job through some accidental networking, and I found myself swept up in a pleasantly busy rhythm of putting the baby down for his nap and opening my work laptop to correspond with volunteers, write grant applications and post agency happenings on various social media channels. One afternoon a week, I would meet my dad, who is semi-retired, for lunch, and he would transfer my son’s carseat to his car. Off they would go to play together until dinner. I would go to an office in professional clothes and fill my water bottle in the break room. I had meetings and planning sessions with my supervisor. I wrote the newsletter and negotiated for advertising and donations for events. In direct opposition to my mothering job, I felt productive and appreciated in concrete ways. When you accomplish something in your house, it’s likely that your toddler will soon destroy it. Also, they don’t give you performance reviews, no matter how much you nailed it this quarter. At my job, I conversed with adults and had a fancy title on my business cards. I had the opportunity to learn new skills and make some friends along the way.

I learned a lot about motherhood and about myself by dipping my toe back into the fast-flowing waters of the working world. Based on my experience and many, many conversations with friends, I’ve realized that becoming a mother instigates an identity crisis of sorts for most of us. This job lifted my professional confidence and got me out of that aimless funk. That is not to say that I have it all figured out. Oh, no, no…no. But I needed to be reminded that I can still be a professional woman. Working part-time suited me, and I relished the challenge of learning new skills—dusting off a part of my brain that hadn’t been used as much recently. I know myself well enough to know that three days in the office would have been too much, but I will look for something else. Being with my son brings me more joy than I can describe, but I like knowing that there are still other parts of me, too. After all, he won’t be this small forever.

Day Fourteen: Commiserating

When I think about grad school, I remember long hours in the library.  I remember doing some tough self-reflection and stretching myself thin trying to balance internships and research.  I remember sleepless nights thinking about client situations that made me feel helpless and eating toast for dinner while I survived on a stipend.  It was challenging.  Once you finish something like that, you’re always glad you did it.  Now I have that degree, and I always will.  But that’s not the only reason I’m glad I did it.

Reflecting on that season of life, I think about conversations and experiences shared with friends that encouraged me along the way.  My colleagues from the program are scattered far and wide now living out their callings in a wide variety of ways.  We listened to each others frustrations—empathizing, validating, blowing off steam together.  The commiserating was crucial.  It was the passionate, intelligent fellow future social workers I studied alongside that made my grad school experience so rich and memorable.  I’m thankful for them and the work they’re doing now to make the world a better place.

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Cambio

I like the Spanish word for change.  Cambio.  Given the meaning, it seems like a word that should have more than one syllable.  One syllable is so final.  I prefer to ease into it.  C.a.m.b.i.o. 

In my social work studies, I learned that any major life event can be defined as a “crisis”.  We typically assign this word a negative connotation, but it is defined as “a stage in a sequence of events at which the trend of all future events, especially for better or for worse, is determined; turning point.” (dictionary.com)  One professor had us take a stress test of sorts.  It was a long list of potential crises that one could experience–job change, move, relationship change, graduation, etc.–positive and negative intermingled.  At the end, we were instructed to add up the number of crises we had experienced in the past year.  The higher the score, the higher your risk for unhealthy stress and anxiety.

Many people experience several other crises alongside getting married.  A marriage is often accompanied by a move to a new city (or even a new state or country) and/or a graduation.  I am thankful that this was not the case for us.  When we got married, we moved into our little casita in the same city where we had both been living for a year and a half.  I stayed at my job, and Bryan continued on as a student.  We have been given the gift of time to focus on adjusting to marriage.  Let’s face it.  Change is hard even when it’s exciting and joyful.  Now we are anticipating another new chapter; a turning point.  I look forward to my husband’s graduation for a myriad of reasons, but I am admittedly nervous, too.  It’s human nature, isn’t it?

The lesson that God is teaching me over and over again is trust and be patient.  It seems that no matter how many times He provides for me, in a time of uncertainty, I forget this truth.  How incredibly blessed we are that God never gives up on us.  When I see change on the horizon and questions fill my head and anxiety starts to rise up inside me, God is there to remind me again that I am his beloved child.  Everything is going to be okay.  I have this sign on a shelf in my office facing the chairs where my clients sit.  Sometimes I need it, too.  Office shelf

The Prayers That Sustain Us

These past few weeks have been stressful, and I have been struggling to not become overwhelmed by it all.  The upside of this is that I’ve been sleeping very well.  I fall into bed completely exhausted each night.  During the waking hours, it’s hard to find peace in the midst of the craziness.  Last night, I allowed myself the luxury of putting away some clean laundry that had been hanging out in the guest room for several days.  I unloaded and loaded the dishwasher.  It felt restful.  That’s how I know I’m too busy.  I normally hate putting away clean laundry.  🙂  Sometimes these simple, mindless tasks are soothing.  I can feel productive while resting my mind for a few minutes.

Obviously, spending time with God is also helpful.  Seeking God should be my first thought, and it all too often isn’t.  This morning, I found this simple prayer on my desk that I wrote on a sticky note during another busy, stressful time at work several months back.  I’m so glad that I found it when I did.  I needed some PERSPECTIVE.  I needed to be reminded that I have so much more to be thankful for than I have to complain about.  God will give me strength and equip me, and this too shall pass.  🙂

Self-care Isn’t Just for Social Workers

When I lived abroad for the first time, I started to see our culture through different eyes.  Now, having married into a family from another culture, I am able to observe the U.S. from the outside looking in on a regular basis.  One thing is for sure.  In the U.S., we work really hard.  I’m all for using our gifts, doing our best, bringing glory to God, etc.  Working hard is not an inherently bad thing.  The problem is that we tend to take it too far.  Hopefully this is a timely post for many of us.  I know that the beginning of the school year does not effect all of us at this point in our lives, but I wanted to share some thoughts on self-care as we prepare for the fall.

In my field, burnout is very common.  Social workers, like other helping professionals, are at risk for secondary/vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue.  I like the term “compassion fatigue” because I think it describes this ailment perfectly.  In social work education, we obviously focus on practice theories, program development, intervention strategies for various client populations, etc.  But you know what?  I happen to believe that self-care, as simple as it may seem, is worth writing into the curriculum.  I’m so thankful for professors who discussed it with us and equipped us for what was inevitably to come.  It is all too common to graduate and join the professional world…and gradually (or abruptly) forget to take care of ourselves.  For some, the problem escalates.  Suddenly we’re not sleeping well almost every night or crying at the drop of a hat or shutting out people who care about us because we just can’t deal with the intensity of what we hear and see working with people in crisis everyday.  When you get right down to it, you can’t effectively help someone if you are not okay.  In this fast-paced world, I think we could all use a lesson in self-care.  Accountants and taxi drivers and veterinarians and soccer moms and everyone who does anything, basically.  So here’s some encouragement from me to you.

1)  Try to work on being really self-aware.  Monitor your anxiety level and know your limits.  Love yourself enough to change something if you are consistently feeling stressed.  You don’t have to say yes to everything.

2)  Find out what is therapeutic and relaxing for you and make time for activities like this on a regular basis–like at LEAST once a week!  For me, it helps to recognize activities that allow me to quiet my mind.  It’s usually going a mile a minute.  Some are easy, non-time consuming things that you can do anytime, anywhere, like taking a few deep breaths or drinking a glass of water very slowly.  Others require setting aside some time.  I’ll give you a few personal examples.  Above all else, time in prayer brings everything into focus.  I love to cook, to watch a sunset or a storm, to hold a baby (or a baby animal), to go for walks outside when the weather is nice, to write letters to God, to read a good book, to watch a favorite movie or TV show, to take an exercise class like yoga or water aerobics.

3)  These things should be done proactively.  Don’t wait until you have a complete breakdown before you try to take care of yourself.  Believe me, life will be easier for you if you listen to that voice inside that says “Don’t do it!” or “Slow down” or whatever your inner voice says.  If you ignore it on a regular basis, it will catch up with you.  And you will wish that you had made better decisions for yourself before it got to this point.

4)  Finally, don’t be so hard on yourself.  It wouldn’t be constructive for someone to read this and then get frustrated when they can’t put it into practice perfectly the first week that they try.  Think about celebrating small victories and taking baby steps.  With any lifestyle change, what will work better for most of us is starting small and slowly progressing.

Thank you for allowing me to get on my soapbox for a few minutes.  I hope and pray that this is a year of much joy for each one of you.  Thanks for reading…and namaste.  🙂