24: Following My Heart

24: Following My Heart

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman

Following My Heart

One of the most courageous things you can do is identify yourself, know who you are, what you believe in and where you want to go.

~Sheila Murray Bethel

It was midnight, and I was on my knees, cradling my throbbing head in my tear-soaked hands. I struggled to stifle the sobs that threatened to wake my two tiny children.

The call had come just hours before: I had gotten the job. After five interviews, three presentations, and dozens of writing samples, I had received a generous offer. An offer I would have celebrated at a different time in my life, but now caused me gut-wrenching agony.

An offer that needed my answer by tomorrow.

Friends and family were elated. A few years earlier, when my children were born, I had stepped off a prestigious career track. My peers thought I was crazy. Then, when my daughter was three and my son just two months old, my husband left. As that first harrowing year careened by, my financial stability took a precarious turn. My former colleagues viewed the job as a second chance. “You’re back in the saddle!” extolled one. “A perfect excuse to go back to work,” said another.

I was dumbfounded. My carefully cultivated life was coming apart at the seams, and the unanimous advice was not to mend the rips of my mommy wardrobe but to change back into dress-for-success. The peer pressure to accept this high-powered position was palpable. But it didn’t feel right.

In fact, it felt unbearably wrong.

My former career had demanded all my time, energy, creativity, and passion. I still had those in droves, but I was joyfully applying them to my family. While I’d kept one hand in the professional pot, I considered my media work a side dish and nurturing my children the main entrée. Now, faced with an all-or-nothing decision, I visualized putting my children on the back burner where they’d go from two parents to less than one.

That was less than acceptable.

A freedom lover with an independent streak, I had never been content following the crowd. As a result, I had frequently made unpopular decisions. I had defiantly graduated high school in three years, brazenly become a journalist in a family of scientists and, years later, homeschooled my children (the ultimate act of rebellion).

Following my heart had worked in the past, but a wrong move now could seriously jeopardize my children’s wellbeing. To others, the decision was simple: live the dream, with its security and prestige. But to me, the decision gnawed; taking the job would critically compromise my heart.

Exhausted, I rose to my feet, and looked with swollen eyes at two framed photos of my kids. The quiet house felt alive, expectant, like it, too, awaited my decision. And in that breathtaking silence, I heard a voice. It wasn’t timid. It was not compromising.

It was bold and certain.

You already have a job to do.

The words echoed through the room and struck their target — coursing straight through my soul.

Shaken, I made my way upstairs to check on my children, finding each curled up in a blissful sleep. I heard their breathing, soft and even. I became one with the moment. The breathing.

The voice.

You already have a job to do.

It was the dead of night, yet I felt enveloped in light and clarity.

The decision, indeed, was simple. I would decline somebody else’s dream job and joyfully keep my own.

I felt a great weight lift off my shoulders.

What had been a sleepless night from stress turned into a sleepless night from adrenaline. I had a lot to think about now. There were definitely issues to face: I had single-mom status, two small children, no solid income, and zero child support. But all that was secondary. I was ready for action. And ready to shield my resolve from the backlash I knew was coming.

I started to plan.

I wrote and wrote, amassing pages of notes. I pursued my options for working for myself, rekindling every creative goal I’d ever had. Then I strategized how to maximize my income while still being present for my children. By morning, I had compiled steps one to one hundred with plans A, B, and C on hand.

Once again, my peers thought I was crazy. Some wrote me off. You’ll never recover your career this time, they said.

Still, I plowed on.

I decided to fly under the radar for a while to ground myself and build my inner strength. I took on freelance work that allowed me to produce results and parent at the same time. I wrote and edited. I consulted and tutored. I stretched myself and discovered that I could learn anything if I devoted some time to it. Accepting assignments from legal editing to career coaching, I delved into professional areas I never would have as an employee.

It started slowly — really slowly. But the slower pace wasn’t a tragedy; it was a godsend, allowing me to fine-tune my strategy, make better decisions and, most of all, be available to embrace those simple moments with my children.

It would be a lie to imply that the shattered pieces of my life fell beautifully into place. In fact, new challenges arose in quick succession. My estranged husband completely disappeared, I had to sell my home, and my children’s seizures and life-threatening asthma worsened. But I was undeterred. I was on a path, and my heart was leading the way.

The freedom that came from calling my own shots was well worth the effort. Each new day dawned as a glorious invitation to write my own script. I could choose the scene, the setting, and the cast, giving my kids the starring roles. On rainy days, we’d stay home to tackle the to-dos with plenty of time for play. When the sun was full tilt, we’d head to the zoo with my backpack of work projects along for the ride.

From Little League games to theater performances, I made it to every one of my kids’ big moments. My professional projects were the sub-plots, woven into the scenes to support the story of my family — not the other way around. To be sure, I lost a number of business opportunities. But each night, when I tucked my kids into bed, my heart was full. Over time, as my kids grew, my business did, too. My small family thrived.

My former co-workers were right. I never “recovered” my original career. And I have no regrets. I am blessed beyond words and forever grateful for the life that I have, a cherished closeness with my now adult children and a variety of fulfilling, passion-filled work.

I’m glad I trusted my inner voice. I know I’ll face many more tough decisions in the future. And when I do, I’ll remember to muster up my courage and follow my heart.

~Judy O’Kelley

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