I love how Women’s History Month gives us a chance, collectively, to celebrate the impact that women have had on our lives, whether they are famous historical figures, unsung heroes, or our own family members. In the little over a year since my mother passed away, I’ve taken solace in the stories of many strong women. They’ve helped me to move through my period of grieving and reflect on my purpose in life, knowing now in a deeper way how finite our precious time on this earth is.
I’ve been inspired by so many women, including Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Sonia Sotomayor, Nancy Pelosi, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I’ve been listening to their biographies and watching their documentaries, seeking their guidance and soaking up their words of inspiration. They have provided so much wisdom about how to persist, and that has given me strength.
I’ve needed their strength to help carry me through. The journey through elder caregiving and loss has been intense, and at times, utterly exhausting. There have been surprisingly beautiful moments that help mitigate the sadness. But it’s still a lot. It has reminded me once again of the heavy load that women carry when we try to make it in the professional world, while also handling the caregiving responsibilities that still fall disproportionately on our shoulders.
This can be draining. And often the full extent of the burden is unrecognized, even by us. Through my years of long-distance caregiving for my parents, I kept powering through. My level of involvement increased as their conditions worsened. I did what needed to be done: arranged for in-home caregivers, dealt with banks and insurance companies, filled out forms, made countless appointments, and handled thousands of details and unexpected circumstances, all while trying to dodge Covid.
I then faced the grief of losing my father, followed by my mother, in the space of one year. I continued powering through: planning memorial services and emptying out my childhood home, full of 50 years’ worth of accumulated memorabilia. Selling my parents’ house last spring brought another level of intense emotions as I processed all of the memories. It also brought the sadness of yet another loss, the kind that comes with the end of an era.
It was too much. I hit a wall. I had no idea how heavy the caregiving responsibility was – it had grown so incrementally. It built up over years, as each new need emerged for my parents. And when they passed away, the “relief” was replaced by grief, which took its own toll.
With the help of friends and a great therapist, I realized that I had to silence the workaholic in me and finally stop and rest. For only the second time in the 3+ decades of my working life, I took a month off. Miraculously, I was able to unplug for two of those weeks at the end of last summer. I was no longer on-call for emergencies. With that, I was finally able to decompress, and rest. I got full nights of sleep, ate more healthily, and exercised more regularly. I cleared my head and regained my strength. Rebuilding my physical strength helped me to regain my mental and emotional strength. So did reconnecting with friends and journaling. And reading. I read some frivolous fiction, moved on to some meaningful fiction, and finished with some deeply impactful nonfiction. I worried that a month wouldn’t be enough time (and how could I possibly take more time off?), but thankfully, it was.
Over the course of last fall, I ramped back up my regular work and civic involvement. By Thanksgiving, I started to feel much better. My energy and mental clarity returned and I felt more like my “old” self. I was incredibly relieved.
But in other ways, I wasn’t my old self. I was profoundly changed. I had never experienced the death of a parent, and the finality of that. Moreover, my previous caregiving experience was focused on my own children, all of whom were on a growth trajectory, not an end-of-life trajectory. This had been so different.
I gained some insight into where this left me, thanks to the reading I did last year, and several inspiring women authors. I am in between “the kingdom of the well” and “the kingdom of the sick.”* I am grateful to Suleika Jaouad who made this the focus of her beautiful book, “Between Two Kingdoms.” Like Suleika (though for different reasons), I can never fully go back to the “kingdom of the well” — I’ve experienced too much.
With this realization, I had to ask myself: how should I live now? I’m still exploring the answers. My friends and therapist continue to help tremendously, as does reading and journaling. I’ve learned a great deal about how to “be present” and savor the beautiful moments, while trying to make them more plentiful.
Through it all, I am stronger. I’m more empathetic. And I’m learning to be less hard on myself.
Thankfully, my energy is back. I’m ready for whatever is next! I’m recommitting to my sense of purpose. I’m giving talks and finding new ways to serve the public good. I’m nurturing my company and promoting our emerging leaders. I’m exploring ideas for a second book. Through it all, I know that I want to honor my parents with how I spend my remaining time on this earth. They gave me so much. I particularly want to honor my mother, who devoted decades of unpaid labor to her family and community, and didn’t get the recognition she deserved.
I’m on a growth journey, inspired by so many women who came before me. Below are some books and documentaries that helped me – I look forward to sharing more of it with you as I go.
- What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton
- My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor
- Pelosi by Molly Ball
- Dinners with Ruth: A Memoir on the Power of Friendships by Nina Totenberg
- Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted by Suleika Jaouad
- Becoming, directed by Nadia Hallgren about the former First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama
- Pelosi in the House, a documentary by Nancy Pelosi’s daughter, Alexandra, which depicts her mother’s career from the 1987 election through the January 6th insurrection
- Hillary, directed by Nanette Burstein, a four-part series featuring exclusive interviews with Hillary Rodham Clinton, her family, and friends
- RBG, directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, capturing Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life on film
Happy Women’s History month!
* “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” Susan Sontag, “Illness as a Metaphor”