Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice: I don’t much care where.
The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.
– Lewis Carroll, Alice In Wonderland –
It wasn’t until that moment standing at the cash register with my screaming 4-week-old baby and government food stamps in hand at our dingy, old grocery store that I came to the question, “How the heck did I get here?”
The year was 2008. I just graduated from my Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counselling, held a prestigious role as Director of Multicultural Affairs at a college in Florida, and I found out I was pregnant with my first child. How exciting! What a gift! I felt blessed. It was a moment of pure joy and bliss, knowing that this moment that took us almost a year of trying to conceive led us to finally getting pregnant.
It didn’t matter that I had just reached a level of success in my field that most don’t get at the age of 26 while still obtaining a Master’s degree, nor did it matter that I was getting recognition for the innovative work I was helping build at the college. For goodness sake, I was going to be a mom! I wanted to shout it from the rooftops! I wanted to sing and dance throughout the streets! I wanted to do this…until I was stopped by a colleague who reminded me that while it was “nice” to have baby, they really hoped I would be able to get back to work around one month after my due date.
I was shocked. Really? What I realized was to that person I was speaking to, motherhood wasn’t valued. In fact, since that time in my life and in sharing my story with others, I’ve met with many other women who also felt the tug to choose between motherhood and their careers…because the reality in all of this was that as “nice” as it was to consider being able to be a career-focused person in my line of work, motherhood would need to fall in line with my career. My career didn’t care much about the quality of mothering I wanted to give my child.
I grew up in a home led by women. I had some amazing male role models as well, don’t get me wrong. However, I saw my mom, my grandmother, and my many aunts show me the power we women have in BOTH the home and the office. My mother left her beloved country of the Philippines to raise her children and remove us from a war-torn nation in the 80’s. She left the Philippines as part of a well-known entertainment family and started from scratch in the United States as an assistant to a magazine publisher. Her determination to raise her children with more opportunities as well as her passion for writing and publishing led her just 4 years later to becoming the publishing editor for that magazine.
She did it again after she had my youngest brother in the United States, and stayed home with him. When she went back to work, she again started as a Marketing Assistant and left a few years later at Vice President of Marketing for that architectural firm. I saw her do it. Hustle for her career, while also loving us well. My mom would do anything to be with the family. She’s still that driven, believe it or not.
There was a moment in my career in 2008 that made me stop and remember what I envisioned for myself once I became a mother. I wanted to be available to my child. I wanted to choose our schedule and create a bond with my child that let her know that if she needed to talk, I was there. I wanted this, but with my career…I couldn’t see how that was going to be possible. In fact, when I saw that my days were spent working and date nights with my husband were at student events, it became quite clear that my ideal version of motherhood was just a dream.
It was in that moment I realized that this career wasn’t right for me anymore and that I knew it was time to quit. So… I quit. The problem was that my husband was also unemployed. He was in the mortgage industry and in 2007-2008, the entire industry collapsed, and he was caught in this mess.
“No problem!” I’d ensure him, “This is just an opportunity for you to figure out what you’ve really wanted to do with your life!” And it was true! I was ready for him to try out a new path in something he was passionate about, but the problem was that he was looking for it through the typical venues – sending out resumes to hundreds of companies, hoping and wishing that someone somewhere near our home would give him a chance. The problem was… the word “mortgage” on his resume was basically like having a scarlet letter taped to your forehead. No one was hiring anyone who was in the real estate space for fear that they’d return once the market picked back up. Therefore, 400 resumes later, he was still without a job.
This started one of the darkest times we had as a couple and it also sparked one of the most amazing opportunities we had to turn around our lives and actually start living fully.
You see, what happened next was FANTASTIC. It was fantastic – but not because it was all flowers and sunshine. It was fantastic because we had to lean into our fears, face them, get close to our truth of who we were and what we wanted, and then choose to make it happen.
What happened next was that we were closer than ever to losing our home, depleting our savings account, while getting close to our due date with our first child, and then realizing that all the hard work we were doing still amounted to very little in return financially.
In fact, I will still remember the day I had to go in to the Department of Health – WIC (Women, Infants and Children) Office… That depressing office with dull blue walls and lines and lines of chairs and exhausted people sitting there waiting to be seen and approved for their WIC Food Check. I remember feeling like there was a heaviness to the space. I walked in looking for hope, and I left with a check to buy milk, cheese, beans, peanut butter, baby formula and rice. I left feeling like this was all because of the economy, my husband losing his job, and it was the only thing we could do. This was my only option in life.
I remember getting into the routine of heading to the food bank to grab a few cans of food and whatever was left of the meats that didn’t sell at the main grocery store and then taking our weekly food allowance check from the Women, Infants, and Children office to our local grocery store to gather our weekly goods starting when my daughter was one week old.
During week 4, I remember finally feeling a lift in my step. My body was recovering well from the birth, and I had a burst of energy that I hadn’t had in weeks! I left the house a bit too quickly though and forgot my 2nd form of identification for the food allowance check to be approved by the cashier. “No matter,” I thought to myself, “I’ve seen other women in there with just one form of ID and they’ve been able to get away with it.” I took our 4-week old daughter with me that day, and because I felt great for the first time in awhile, I found myself browsing through the aisles of the grocery store. I couldn’t afford anything but the main staples I was allowed to buy, but it was nice to get out of the house.
I noticed my daughter starting to get hungry, and rushed my way to the register to pay for the groceries. As I’m in the long slow line, my daughter starts crying. I get to the front of the line, and the cashier starts speaking to me slowly and loudly, “I…NEED…ANOTHER…FORM…OF…ID. YOU…CAN’T…HAVE…THIS…FOOD.”
My baby is now screaming…
“Ma’am,” I say, “I’m really sorry but I was rushing out of the house and wanted to grab the few items I could get. I forgot my second form of ID. I saw the woman two people ahead of me only showed you one ID and you let her through. Can you please help me out this time?”
“Are YOU SAYING I’M NOT ABIDING THE RULES? I CAN’T GIVE YOU THIS FOOD WITHOUT YOUR OTHER ID!”
The sweet lady behind me (I call her an angel) offered to pay for my food. I knew she felt sorry for me, saw my embarrassment and wanted to help with my screaming baby.
It was in that moment, I felt like a huge spotlight was on me and the entire store was looking right at me saying, “Well, what are you going to do about it?”
I remember with tears streaming down my face that moment when I realized that I was in this place. I had a Master’s degree, I had accolades to my name, I had done some cool stuff…but here I was being talked down to by the cashier who didn’t think I spoke English, and I became the center of attention and the reason people were huffing and puffing as to why the line was taking too long. I was grateful for my angel, but I was not at a place where I could even take her charity. My ego was getting far in the way.
“Well, what are you going to do about it?”
That question echoed through my mind. Again and again – and many days these many years later – that question echoes and reminds me of this moment. I can still vividly remember that moment and the looks – both of pity that I was in this situation, and annoyance that I was holding up the line.
“Well, what are YOU going to do about it, Maruxa?”
What happened for me in that moment was the realization that I was choosing to settle into our circumstances, call myself a victim to the hardships of life, and choose to live smaller than I know I’m intended to live. It was that moment that I walked out of those doors and into my car, broke down into a puddle of tears as I call my husband to let him know we are done playing small.
I came home, we got on our knees to pray and remember that this was out of our control but that we were able to choose to stand up brighter because of this and make decisions and take action to grow ourselves…instead of being victim to our circumstances.
I started to create options for me that worked for me and my family. We moved to Texas for my husband to start a new career in marketing (his other passion besides whiskey, cigars and family). I learned how to do what I loved (which was helping people connect back to their passions to live a full life!) and do it virtually by starting a great virtual training company. My daughter and I had weekly Mother and Daughter dates and while I worked each week, I chose the way I wanted to work.
I started to work from a place of asking the bigger questions around what brings me joy while serving others with my skill sets? In asking these questions, my answers led me to building a business model that allowed me to stay home with my younger two children for 2 years. Soon after this chapter of being a stay-at-home mom, I decided I wanted to build a bigger company in partnership with someone or for myself again, and that decision led to working with a fantastic company called Freedom Fast Lane as the Director of The Tribe, a community of physical product and e-commerce entrepreneurs, investors and influencers to come together to build businesses faster.
That also led me to understanding how I personally could build my own personal physical products company, a coffee line called Perky Perky. which will launch in Nov. 2016 and aims to invite women back into their power and remember the AWESOME human beings inside the bodies we inhabit. In the midst of life’s transitions, like going from being single to married, married to having kids, decisions of keeping or leaving a career, being a working or stay-at-home mom, or losing a loved one… we all need to remember that powerful person within.
I chose to share this today because I believe the journey isn’t over, and it won’t be until I breathe my last breath. I know that with every moment we have alive and breathing is a moment that can change others and ourselves for the better. We can choose daily to live fully active and moving towards what we want to have in life as well as how to feel in the midst of the crazy moments in front of us. We can choose to find joy right now and opportunity when it feels dismal all around.
As my story (and my choice to push through the mental and circumstantial blocks I had) shows, I believe wholeheartedly that they power of our future is reliant on the choice we make to take a step forward in directions that feel awkward or scary in order for a better outcome and new opportunities. Don’t be like Alice and floating on to the path you’re heading. Instead, choose wisely and choose intentionally. There you’ll land with your eyes wide open.