leaning out

This essay was first published on January 19, 2017.  It is worth a repeat because Dr. Yona Lunsky recently asked me for a few words about having a kid with a disability for a talk she did this weekend for the Down Syndrome Research Foundation conference.  I scratched out a few thoughts for her and will follow up with another post, specifically about moms’ mental health.   But first, this… 

Leaning Out

…or the work-life balance and how I’m totally faking it all the time.

I’ve never struggled this much to prepare a presentation.  I was asked to speak to the Rare Disease Foundation‘s parent support group in Vancouver on the topic of work-life balance.  I pulled some quotes.  Wrote speaking notes.  Created some questions.  The presentation was last night and still I floundered.  I have no definitive solution to how to achieve work-life balance, especially if you have a kid with a disability, like I do.

How do you balance work and life?  I have no freakin’ idea.  I didn’t know how to do it when I had two typically-developing kids in the 1990’s, and I most certainly don’t know how to do it now, with my remaining complicated kid in my nest.

I called my talk Leaning Out to temper Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Leaning In.  Her book is described as ‘compelling women to reach their full potential at work.’ Well, in November, I had to resign from my job because I couldn’t figure out how to be available to my kid and to keep working in a staff position.  So I’ve leaned out.  Way out.

I used to believe that you can have it all, but not all at the same time.  My youngest son has taught me that having it all is overrated – what is this ‘all’ anyhow?  A big house, full-time job, annual tropical vacations?  I think we’ve been sold a big fat lie about what’s really important in life.

My talk was a jumble of what I’ve learned over the past 23 years of motherhood.  In the paid work world, I’ve worked full-time, part-time, on contract and as a freelancer.  Other times I’ve immersed myself in unpaid work.  Some days I fill with grocery shopping and sitting on a log, watching the dogs at Kitsilano dog beach.  In leaning out, I’ve been humbled about how much I don’t know.  It was so easy to adopt an identity when I had a job – it was handed to me in a position description. Now, I’m making it up as I go along.

Here is some inspiration that I lean on instead to find my way.  As Ian Brown says, having a kid with a disability means recalibrating all the time.   Most of this is not in your control. In redefining my own identity, these three philosophies help.

life is amazing.jpg
1. Reject the Perfect
Brene Brown describes this best in her TEDTalk, The Power of Vulnerability. She says, “imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we’re all in this together.” We must stop pretending everything is okay all the time and allow ourselves to be vulnerable.  To do this, we have to find safe places to let our guards down to stop being ‘special needs mom’ cheerleaders – like with other moms over coffee or Facebook and in support groups like one I spoke to last night.  It is so important to find people who demonstrate that they’ve got your back, no matter what.  (That, and never clean your house before another mom comes over – this sets a really bad precedent).


2.  Embrace the Slow 
Having a kid with a difference forces you to get off the ‘regular person’ treadmill of life.  Life is busy, yes, but in a different way.  You get transported to a different planet that you never bought a ticket to – one with great frustrations with hospitals, society, social services and education systems.  There are times of great slowness – while helping a child get dressed, or waiting for a whole sentence to come out, or summoning all your patience for a kid to finish their meal.  In these slow times, it is so important to embrace the small joy, as Lisa Bonchek Adams gently reminded us.

I’m also fond of this New York Times Essay by Tim Kreider called The Busy Trap.  In it, he says, “busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day”.  Carl Honore’s In Praise of Slow book and movement also offers similar sage guidance.


3.  Remember that unpaid work is work too.
Finally, I suggested banning the words ‘just a mom’ and ‘volunteering’ from your vocabulary.  Work is work is work.  We focus so much on what we do and how we do it, we forget about the why, as Simon Sinek reminds us.  Caring for another vulnerable human being is the most important work there is.  It is what makes our world go round. Our society doesn’t value unpaid work, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t value work that doesn’t come with a paycheque.  Think about writing a Mom Resume that outlines all the skills you’ve acquired since your child was born.  Writing it down gives it power and makes it real.

But sadly for last night’s audience, I had no real wisdom, no solutions, no fixes, no way to achieve this elusive work-life balance. I mostly talked out of my butt, and used other people’s words as inspiration.  I was pleased to spark conversation, and it was heartening that others felt safe enough to open up about their own struggles.

Accept that recalibrating is okay and to be expected.  Talk about your imperfect life in safe spaces.  And value the work you do, even if others don’t.  As I seek acceptance of my current messy life so I can find peace in my heart, I hope you can too – in your own way and in your own time. xo.

my why

Today I excitedly opened an email from a conference that I really really wanted to attend.  I had submitted an abstract called The Art of Storytelling:  how to craft stories to change the health care world.  I am pretty good at writing abstracts, had a solid creative presentation to pitch and have a decent acceptance rate for abstract submissions.  This was a conference I admired, in a city close to my eldest son, so I was crossing my fingers that I’d be accepted for a variety of reasons.  I clicked on the email in my inbox, holding my breath:

We regret to inform you that your submission was not chosen…

Well, damn.  I know Wayne Gretzky says, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. As a writer, I get rejected a lot (which tends to be radio silence in this digital age, not mailed rejection letters), but damn.  It always stings.

I’ve been floating around as of late.  I resigned from my paid staff position last month.  I’ve had two kids grow up. My youngest son hit puberty last year and is in a push for independence, which of course results in the slow rejection of the mother.  I miss hanging out with my daughter and doing girl things. I pine for my mom friends in Edmonton. Everybody here seems so busy – I’ve discovered that the laid-back west coast mentality is only an urban myth. I cannot even occupy myself with shopping for stuff and cleaning my big house – we’ve downsized by half and I have no more big house, no yard and no room (or desire) for more stuff.  This week we are in the midst of an odd blizzard and have been stranded up on our mountain.  I have time now to think, which is a terrifying concept in a world where we get caught up in the Busy Trap just so we don’t have a moment to ourselves.  The whole world is zooming around me so fast and here I am, just quietly sitting on a bench watching it go by.

Before I left my position, I had two wise colleagues separately recommend Simon Sinek’s TEDTalk to me.  It is called How Great Leaders Inspire Action, and while by title I’m no great leader, I do have a little sphere of influence, with my family, my company and myself.  I’d suggest it is worth 17 minutes and 57 seconds of your time.

If you don’t have the time to spare to watch it, consider this diagram:


(saved from:  varchannelmarketing.com)

If you are feeling a bit lost and lonely like me, or if you have the nagging feeling that what you do in life is not in alignment with your values, this approach can give you direction.  Sinek’s point (in business, and I’m extracting his message to apply to life) is that the why matters.  Why do you do what you do?  And that’s not what your position title is, or your quest to make money to buy more and more stuff – I challenge you to dig deeper than that.  Why are you on this Earth?  If we can all can answer our why, then the how and the what will soon become clear.

So I’ve had the time to think about this a lot (and won’t be wasting time preparing to present to that conference that rejected me, ha) and feel confident in stating:

“I share stories – and create opportunities for others to share their stories – to rekindle compassion in the world.”  That’s my why. All my meaningful work has been born from that why. Now I just have to trust that my why is the light I need to shine my own way.

‘only’ part time


I will admit to having a sore spot for folks who say to me:  “Oh, you ONLY work part-time?  Aren’t you lucky to have that extra time off.”  (I received similar comments when I was a mom at home with my kids).

At this point I give them a tight little smile, nod & my teeth start grinding together. I’m not wanting to sound defensive or to counter their full-time paid work existence, so I keep my mouth shut.  Here’s yet another version of the Mommy Wars.  The part-time v. full-time thing.  Why does life have to be a big war analogy?

I can tell you that most people who work ‘only’ part-time also work at other jobs ‘only’ part-time.  And if you add this up, this can lead to ‘more’ than full-time.  This is really what is called life.

I know a number of (usually) moms in the disability world who have ‘only’ part-time jobs.  The rest of the time, they are the CEO of their family’s life, including for a kid who may have many medical appointments, rigidly scheduled school meetings, and frantic calls from the principal to pick up their offspring from school.  Or there are those who have other caregiving duties for other family members.  Many people spend their days ‘off’ taking their elderly mothers for groceries, or their dads to doctor’s appointments, or spend the day on the phone coordinating their care.

Others who have other jobs, like I do – owning two other companies on the ‘side’ – one called Bird Communications with my partner and husband, Mike Waddingham, and the other my (modest) speaking career.  And yet others spend time volunteering at their child’s school, or for other worthy causes.  This all adds up.

I’m happy with my part-time, part-time, part-time, part-time existence.  I like the variety, and the fact that no two days are never the same.

I think why the ‘only’ part time comment bothers me so much is that those who work ‘only’ part-time at a paid job tend to work their butts off when they are actually at work to make the most of the short time they have there.  And, one can never assume what they are up to on their ‘days off’, but I can pretty much guarantee it is not laying on the sofa, eating bon-bons.

As I like to say, assumptions are a killer.  (Assume only makes an ass out of you & me).  So if you work part-time, or you are a mom at home, promise me that you will never say, ‘I only work part-time’ or ‘I’m just a stay at home mom.’  The work you do is of great value, whether it is paid or unpaid, full-time or part-time.  Never apologize for that – stand up and be proud of the creative way you’ve pieced your life together to do what you have to do.

your mom resume

I am catching up on my stack of newspapers that piled up while we were on holidays.  There was a super essay published last month in the New York Times by Lisen Stromberg called The Not-So-New-Mother: Finding Balance.

I so appreciate any writing about women’s work that isn’t black and white.  The black being:  Go back to work!  Don’t lose your career! And the white being:  Stay at home with your kids!  Look after your house!

Life instead presents us with infinite shades of murky grey.

Lisen Stromberg shares her experience struggling with the paid work question when she had children.

But I was paralyzed, unable to find clarity on what was right for me.

This is the way it is for most of us.  We struggle with our decisions, no matter what they are, but hopefully find peace with them.  Or if we don’t, we creatively adjust our working arrangements.

When I meet a mom, I am careful to ask, not ‘do you work?’ but ‘do you work outside the home?’ I firmly believe that if you are at home, you still work.  It is just not paid. So I’ve always used the terminology: paid work and unpaid work.  This is to value all types of work, whether it is paid or not. Paid work is self-explanatory, but can include regular full-time, part-time, casual, or irregular contract work.  Unpaid work includes caregiving of all types (children and other loved ones), volunteer work, and work tending to the home.

Let us consider our own journeys navigating work after we have had children.  The results may be interesting, and not as linear as we might think.  Yes, there are some women who go back to their full-time position after maternity leave, and others who purely are at home full-time with their children.  But there’s a lot in between.  

Here’s what my Mom Resume looks like:

1993 – Kid #1 is born.  Take 6 months’ maternity, but then quit to stay at home full-time.

1995 – Old boss calls me up and says, “are you ready to go back to work?”  Husband and I switch – he stays home, I go back to work full-time for a year and a half.

1996 – I get pregnant with kid #2.  Husband’s search for work necessitates a move two provinces away.  We move there for his job, and I stay at home for the next 4.5 years.  Unpaid work includes:  being involved with a national group called ‘Feminist Mothers at Home’, building a new community of support in a city where we know nobody, volunteering at school, and becoming a volunteer La Leche Leader.

2000 – Marriage #1 breaks up.  I have no paid job.  I slowly start freelance writing, but $25 per book review for our local paper is not paying my bills.  I take in children for before and after school care in my home to cover my mortgage.

2001 – I move to Norway with my children to live with a family and their three children.  I look after all five kids during the day, and then have the evenings free to write.

2002 – I move back to Canada with my kids, but arrive in the city where their dad has moved where I again have no paid job and no place to live.

2002 – Despite being out of the paid workforce for 6 years, I have kept in touch with paid work contacts, and have volunteer work in my arsenal.  The Job Gods shine down on me, and I secure a full time, well paying government contract.  My kids are now in kindergarten and grade 3.  They go to pre and after-school daycare in their school.

2003 – Marriage #2.  I am pregnant with Kid #3, take an early maternity leave, but still plan to return to my full-time job.  During that time, I decide to pursue more freelance writing, mostly in the world of food.  I also start up a food blog. I get regular writing gigs with a food magazine.

Kid #3 is born, and surprise, he has Down syndrome!  The time after his diagnosis is a blur of grief, looking after a newborn who won’t eat, attending tons of medical and therapy appointments, tending to his four young siblings, generally freaking out and having to make a decision about my job.  I decide not to return full-time to the paid position.

2003 – 2012 – Over the next 11 years, I start up a mom’s group for moms who have babies with Down syndrome.  I co-found and coordinate a formal peer support program with our local support society for 9 years.  I present to health professionals about the value of peer support.  I start becoming involved with the patient and family centred care movement – first as a volunteer on a Family Advisory Committee and then in a paid, part-time/contract/work at home position as a Family Centred Care Consultant.  I volunteer a lot when Kid #3 starts school.  I am on the Board of our support society.  I go to Down syndrome conferences, and present at international conferences about peer support.  I continue to write for food magazines, and then move into health writing.  I get a paid gig writing proactive health stories for our health authority.  I have other writing clients on the side.  I start writing and presenting more about patient centred care, and even travel to Australia for a speaking gig.

All this is a jumble of paid and unpaid work.  I never make a full time wage, and have the good fortune to have a financially and emotionally supportive husband.   We engage all sorts of pieced together, part-time childcare for Kid #3 – university students, older siblings, moms from his school, & a part-time twice weekly nanny.  Somehow it all works.

2012-present – My freelance writing business blossoms into a network of 13 communication folks.  I go to school to get a post-grad Professional Communication Management certificate.  I’ve never had an office all these years – working instead in my kitchen, in coffee shops, and now in an office in my home. Kid #1 has long graduated high school. Kid #2 has just graduated, and is working in her gap year.  Kid #3 is now 11, and heading into Grade 6.  We take the majority of the summer off to be with him and fill in with summer camps and babysitters in between.  Every year I have summer work/childcare anxiety, and every year it has somehow works out.

2014 – My nest is emptying out and my identity is currently a work in progress.

Writing this Mom Resume has been an interesting exercise.  If you had asked me before about working and being a mom, I would have said, well, I’ve mostly been at home with my kids, and I did some freelancing on the side.  But you can see that my journey has been more complex and twisty than that.  I bet yours has too.

Lisen’s first child is the same age as my second child – they both have graduated from high school.  As she reflects with her ‘not-so-new-mother’ friends who have children of the same age, she realizes that there they have all taken unique paths in their previous 18 years of motherhood.

You can be a mother and still rise to the top of your industry, and you can take time out to focus on family and still migrate back into rewarding, paid work.

I challenge you to sit down and write out your Mom Resume since you had children.  I bet you will be both impressed and surprised at your inventory of work.  And no matter what work you’ve done paid/unpaid, you have also raised the next generation of human beings – and that’s a pretty significant job, don’t you think?


Sometimes I go to this church.  I always say it isn’t really a church.  It is somewhere people go to feel welcome and exchange ideas.   I like that it makes me think, even on a Sunday morning.  It clears the cobwebs out of my head.

Like this poem, which was rewritten and posted on the wall of Mother Teresa’s orphanage in Calcutta.

The Paradoxical Commandments
by Dr. Kent M. Keith

People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.

If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.
Succeed anyway.

The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.

The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
Think big anyway.

People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
Fight for a few underdogs anyway.

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
Build anyway.

People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
Help people anyway.

Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you have anyway.

© Copyright Kent M. Keith 1968, renewed 2001

yet another interview – bloom blog

Bloorview Kids Rehab has a gorgeous blog and magazine named Bloom.  Back in July, they interviewed me for a post called At a dark time, bringing light about Edmonton Down Syndrome Society’s Visiting Parents Program, which I co-coordinate.  Pictured is Aaron and I, on the beach in Kaua’i. (I wish I was in Kaua’i right now).

I love this program.  Peer support is something very near and dear to my heart.  Associated with this program, we have the opportunity to speak to Perinatologists and Pediatricians about disclosing diagnosis – sharing an unexpected diagnosis with a family. This is kind of a big deal to me too, if you check out this Globe link.