Q: Twenty years ago, I moved to Australia to "leave my past behind and start a new life." I was a single parent at the time, serving in the U.S. Army and had just returned to the United States after a three-year tour in Italy. Two children (ages 16 and 18) and a divorce later, my oldest son (the one whom I parented on my own since his birth until my marriage to the Australian man) died in an accident (December 2007).
One of gifts of this loss (there are always gifts) is my family asking me if I'd like to come home (back to the United States). So I am temporarily leaving my public service job (secure and well paid) in Australia to spend a year back in the United States (a year at least initially). I will bring my 18-year-old son with me, and my daughter will remain in Australia at boarding school (with her father two hours away). While couched in security (going home, a job to come back to, living with my family, etc.), it feels like a bold move and I recognize I have a rare opportunity to really think about living my life differently. How do I make use of this year? This opportunity? What is the journey I can commence that will help to find joy and fulfillment?I want to reconcile my past, my present and my future. I want to integrate my experiences. I want to take meaning and purpose from the loss of my son. I want the courage to live differently and create my life—not keep doing what I've done because it is safe and familiar. I took the Strong Life Test for Women, and I am a creator. It is a good fit. Thanks!
— Suzanne, age 49
A: Suzanne, first let me say how much I admire the spirit you show in looking for the gifts and opportunities in your situation. You're right to view this time as an opportunity. I love your thought about reconciling your past, present and future. The best way I know to do that is to pay serious attention to all three of them. Dive into your past and understand what drove you, what made you passionate, what made you feel strong. Look for those same currents in your present situation. What have been the constant strengths that have stayed with you throughout your life? Although we do change and grow and develop new abilities and knowledge throughout our lives, our strengths and our core personalities remain remarkably consistent from a very young age. Once you have a good sense of what your strengths are, you know what to build on. Take the time to learn about what you want to do. Can you read books or articles related to your strengths? Can you take courses and learn new skills to help further them? As a creator, you most likely love to read and take stock of your own mind and record the insights that come to you. Take full advantage of those traits to help yourself build the future you want.
One last thing: You mention so many people in your family and clearly have a wonderful network to support you. Make sure to include that network in your deliberations. Involving family, friends and colleagues in the attempt to think things through is often beneficial for creators because it can keep them from going around and around in circles in their own minds.
Q: I wonder if I am happy. I didn't even give it a serious thought until I saw the question. Now writing this, I'm close to tears. What is keeping me from happiness? I'm a married mother of four. I love my kids so very much, but cannot give them most of the things I know they need. Is that the problem? My marriage is so terrible and yet I know I love my husband. Could that be the problem? I wish I had finished college. Is that it? My friends love me and I them, I enjoy people's company, but I feel a sadness very deep inside and I know that nobody knows about it. In my mind I feel something great is in my future, not sure what it is, but I feel it. So what is holding me back?
— Rhonda, age 42
A: Rhonda, I think that what's holding you back may be a simple three-letter word: "but." If you count its sneaky double "and yet," that word appears four times in your short paragraph. It seems to attach itself to every positive thought you have. The problem with "but" is that it’s an obstacle. What would happen if you replaced all the "buts" in your thoughts with "ands"? Where "but" is an impediment, an invitation to stop acting on your own behalf, "and" is "what else am I going to do?" What would happen if you could shift your focus so that you can say, "I love my kids AND... I want to spend more time with them"; "I love my husband AND... we are going to work on reminding each other why we fell in love in the first place"; "I enjoy people's company AND... I am going to find a way to truly relax with my friends this holiday season?" You might be surprised at the results you can get from a simple shift in perspective.
This is not to imply that you can solve all your problems by ignoring them. But (that pesky word again) remember that change follows the direction of your focus. If you keep focusing on the negatives and asking what's wrong, you will get more of what’s wrong. Instead, difficult though it may be at times, try to concentrate and focus on what "right" looks like, because that is a far more effective way to solve problems. Focus on what’s right, and ask yourself how you can get more of it into your life. Going Back to Work
Q: I formerly worked as a social worker and have three children. I chose to stay home with my children after my second son was born. I enjoyed staying home and felt it was the right choice for my family. As my children got older, I was active as a volunteer in the community and with PTA. Now my youngest son is 11, and I'm ready to go back to work, but I am unsure of what to do. I don't think I want to return to social work—it is very stressful and it's a job that is never done. I really don't know how to find my strengths and then also find a job that matches those strengths. I have become depressed and lonely staying home and really want to figure this out. How do I find a new career after staying home with kids for 14 years?
— Nicola, age 43
A: Nicola, start with a simple definition of what your strengths are: Your strengths are activities that make you feel strong. Easy, right? The challenge is to make sure that you pay attention to how it makes you feel to do various activities. You can make a point of paying close attention as you go through your normal day: Keep a notepad nearby at all times, and make an entry any time you find yourself feeling inquisitive, focused, invigorated by what you're doing.
You can also play archeologist with your own past. Think back to those times when you truly felt a sense of accomplishment, when you actually felt eager to tackle an item on your to-do list or when you were hungry to learn more about what you were doing. These activities are the starting point. It certainly sounds as though you have a wide range of experience to draw from, and while your future occupation may not be exactly what you have done in the past, you will probably find that some of the things you've done in the past are things you want to do more of in the future. If you feel that what you want to do may lie in a completely different direction, that's fine too. But you can't stop in defeat at the thought that you don't have the experience or education to do what you love. If you truly love doing something, then you have to act to make it a reality. No Time for Happiness
Q: I am taking care of both of my parents. I have two daughters, one in college and one a senior in high school. I feel like I am always waiting for the other shoe to drop. I often make plans only to have them dissolve due to my caretaking responsibilities. I would love to be able to travel and have a part-time job, let alone have some time to do quilting and relax. I find that I can't shut my mind off when I lay down to sleep. I constantly wake up thinking about all the day-to-day stuff. I would love to find peace and serenity and happiness! The other concern I have is the lack of energy I have for my husband. I often fall into bed exhausted. I would love to find my roadblocks, and I look for any way to find pure joy and happiness!
— Eileen, age 53
A: Eileen, you are doing noble work in taking care of so many who depend on you. It's one of the most important things that any of us can do. And it may seem to you that devoting yourself to your family has caused you to do too much. But I would argue that you're actually doing too little. Too little, that is, of what gives you strength. You drop some hints about what your strengthening activities may be—traveling, quilting, working at a part-time job. Take the time to really examine what you love to do and what gives you energy. When you know what your strong-moments are, then you can start planning how to experience more of them.
Of course, when you have so many responsibilities, it can be hard to make time for yourself. But know that if you don't make that time, if you don't have portions of every day and every week that invigorate you and give you energy, you are going to end up shortchanging the very people you're dedicated to helping. Because when you are depleted, exhausted and drained, you can't give the best of yourself to anyone. Be willing to ask for help and to get creative in how you use your time. You mention needing more time with your husband. Having him help you care for your parents might give you that time together even as you meet your responsibilities. Or, since your daughters are grown, enlisting their help for even an hour or two would give you time to pursue other interests while allowing them to become closer to their grandparents. However you approach your situation, know that you simply have to make time for doing what you love. That's not selfish; it's giving yourself the strength you need to continue helping those to whom you're most dedicated.