Learning how to cope when life gives you lemons
Last summer my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I am the only child of immigrant parents. Suddenly there are extra doctor appointments to attend, extra calls and check-ins, long sessions of dementia-related drama, and new unwanted guests in my home: guilt and fear that I am not doing enough to help care for the person who has always cared for me.
Three years ago, my then-husband and I separated. I had to figure out how to live by myself after 16 years of marriage. So many details—mortgage, taxes, school lunch accounts and, worst of all, the cable company. (My name is still spelled wrong on the bill. I have let that go after three valiant but failed attempts at justice.)
Five years ago, my second daughter was born—adding to what felt like an already hectic and crowded schedule of working full time and raising my then-5-year-old, who was adjusting to no longer being the center of the universe.
Life’s challenges go on. Of course, not all are equally tragic. But the hard challenges always seem to throw me off balance and make the task of going to the office for another “normal day” feel like an impossibility.
Sometimes, on the hard days, when I come to the office feeling overwhelmed by the needs of children, parents, boyfriend, water-cooler small talk feels like I am acting in a farcical comedy that doesn’t acknowledge the realities of no sleep, limited time and too many irons in the fire.
On those days, it is hard to concentrate on even trivial conversation, much less work, while my thoughts are drawn elsewhere to more pressing matters demanding my attention and draining my emotions.
On other days, the work of reviewing a brief or counseling a client is a welcome respite from “real life.” I am grateful for the distraction and an opportunity to feel normal. As I work through each of these life events, I find myself yearning to get back to the mundane—to feel the luxury of having my biggest concern be “what shall we eat for dinner” instead of “oh, my mom is calling … again … for the third time in the last half-hour, without remembering that she has called before.”
During the hard times, I want to remember how it feels without the constant knot in my stomach. I yearn for the luxury of spending time, say, painting my nails for the sheer enjoyment of it and not as an enabling mechanism to take a break for escape or avoidance. I want to “get through this part” with the hope that, once this chapter ends, the struggles will be over. Unfortunately, that’s not how life works.
Instead, life continues to bring new and different chapters. In the moments of calm, I can look ahead to the challenges yet to come.
What wisdom would I share for others who are also struggling at “making it work”? I think back to all the things and people that allowed me to do so even when I felt like I was barely functioning.
The thing I appreciate most is kindness. The kindness of others makes some of my most difficult times bearable. Sometimes I feel kindness in those who spend time with me not talking about my problems so I can keep it together during the day.
Other times the opposite is true. Sometimes I need to talk about the hard things with someone kind enough to listen. By opening up about my divorce I discovered a secret club of fellow divorcees I never knew existed: a club with funny jokes (talk of their “was-bands” and “out-laws”) and affirmation and hope. Those conversations with my fellow sisters in the semi-secret divorcee sorority were, at times, a healing salve.
By recognizing my humanity and being open to the kindness of others, I have discovered that I have a tribe of people who care for me. They are willing to drive me home when I am exhausted, pick up my kids if I am running late, or sit with my mom so my dad and I can spend a moment alone.
I am still learning to ask for help and be gracious and accept it when it is offered. I am still learning to let go of things like shame. Too often I cling to the pretense that I can do it all and be everything, and that anything less is shameful.
I am still learning that work-life balance is not a fixed equilibrium but a shifting of priorities. Last week it was working all night and feeding the kids Taco Bell, but next week it may be a shift of priorities to Mom, and only Mom—and that’s OK. That’s real life, and that to me, is the only way we make it work.
Akira Heshiki is a senior attorney with Standard Insurance Co. in Portland, Oregon, where she manages benefits claims litigation. Heshiki represents the Multnomah Bar Association at the ABA House of Delegates and is chair of the ABA Tort Trial & Insurance Practice Section’s diversity and inclusion committee.
Making It Work is a column in partnership with the Working Mother Best Law Firms for Women initiative in which lawyers share how they manage both life’s challenges and work’s demands. Visit workingmother.com for more.
This article was published in the May 2018 issue of the ABA Journal with the title "Life, Lemons and Lemonade"