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COVID, Motherhood and Work: Finding Freedom In The Narrow Place

The following story has sat with me for months and now I know why.


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Jen Patterson

3 years ago | 7 min read

We are well over a month into sheltering in place. I keep thinking about the nature of constriction — we can’t go anywhere. A lot of us who aren’t Jeff Bezos are concerned about our finances. My two and a half year-old is “mad” and “sad” that “no one is coming over to visit” and is protest peeing on the floor. Sound familiar?

All this constriction has created a yearning within all of us — 2 ½ year-olds and fully-grown adults alike — for space and freedom. But how can we find it within our current confines?

The following story has sat with me for months and now I know why. The Jews were enslaved for 400 years by the Egyptians. The word for Egypt in Hebrew, Mitzrayim, means “The Narrow Place.” In this time they lost who they were — their culture, their beliefs. Finally, they cried out for divine intervention. The answer God gave them was not to free them, but to give spaciousness.

It was about setting them into the wilderness, midbar — also meaning the place of conversation and action.

I love this story because of the metaphor: It is about the enslavement — or constriction — of our own minds. And the cure.

In the months before COVID, I was in my own narrow place. After almost two years off getting to know my adopted son, I started back to work with some freelance strategy projects. But as the summer ended and the leaves changed, I felt my buoyancy slowly fading. The phone stopped ringing. I wondered if I should give up my freelance life and get a full-time job again.

The thought had limited appeal. In my head I kept thinking about a client on my last project. She had been spiky. Then one day at a break she revealed she’d been up all night with a colicky baby. At another meeting, she told me, “I have a hard stop at 12, I have to go pump before my next meeting.”

I had a surge of empathy for her and a revulsion towards the culture we had created that leaves only a tiny window for a body to do what it urgently requires and where a mom who’s up all night doesn’t feel permission to sleep rather than plow through a day of meetings.

\As a single parent of a toddler, I knew this was not how I wanted to live my life.

My way back started with a mom. A friend called me for some coaching. She had recently gone back to work after 6 months on maternity leave. She wanted to bow out of a big meeting with her client CEO to give her seat to the woman on her team who had been running the project in her absence. Her boss was pushing for her to be there, at the expense of her coworker.

As the words came out of my mouth, I realized I was really talking to myself. “You are not less because you’ve been on maternity leave,” I told her. “Your attendance at this meeting isn’t about who is most fluent in the project. It is about leaders meeting leaders.”

There is such irony that motherhood can be a narrow place. For most of us, parenthood is the most rewarding experience of our lives. Yet we are a society that does not value women’s work, and mothering is the ultimate woman’s work. Yes, we love our children and want to spend time with them.

But culturally, we don’t see that time — the growth and learning we go through as mothers — as equal to making a paycheck. As one client recounted, “I went to a party when my kids were young. Everyone there was a doctor or lawyer. When we did introductions, I said I was home with my kids and there was a professional pause. I was gutted when I got home.” Later, a friend of hers cornered her and said, “If you don’t value it, who will?”

It’s not just moms. It’s any of us who are hooked by the idea that there is no other way. It’s any of us who feel our true selves compromised by the needs of the office. It’s any of us who think living heart-led is too risky proposition. As a client of mine once said, “I can’t do what my heart says because people who love trees don’t make any money.”

Like my friend, I had fallen into my own narrow place as a result of being on “leave” from the corporate world. I could see how I defined being a “contributing” member of society as only through paid work. I too wanted to shirk off the big meeting, the big job, the big contract — not because I didn’t want it, but because I did not feel worthy of it.

This perilous belief system went beyond work — indeed, the whole idea of being a self-employed single parent and is precarious by the dominant standard. The fear is ultimately that outside the known paradigm, the “wildnerness” is a scary, inhospitable place.

And, as the story goes, the wilderness is also a place of reinvention.

My 95 year-old grandmother died on a day I had old friends in town from LA. They had flown in from their sizeable ranch in Eastern Oregon. We caught up on their now-finished modern palace they built at the beach in LA. Let’s just say, by most societal metrics, they are undeniably successful. He asked what I was doing for work, and I started to answer that I’d been doing some coaching and some freelance strategy. But then I caught myself.

“You know what I’m doing for work? I am my own social experiment.” I told him.

I went on to relay a conversation I’d had with my brother, a successful finance executive, about the Amazon campus that fell through in New York. When I asked my brother what he thought about it, he said they were dumb for turning down all those jobs and all that money. “I actually like that they said no,” I countered. “Because I don’t want my child to grow up in a world where taking big corporate money is the only option to success.”

“So this is what I’m doing,” I finished with my friend. “I am trying to unlearn 20 years of corporate values and thinking. I am trying to see the world in a different way so that my child has a choice. This is what I’m doing for work.”

A few hours later, my grandmother passed. She had been a stubborn survivor, an Athabascan Indian orphaned at 7 and raised in Indian boarding school. Then, in her adult life single parent to three kids. Somewhere in my closet I had a box of the $15 checks she sent my dad as his college money, earned from her hours behind the cash register at Safeway.

I couldn’t help thinking that she gave me her last bit of declarative energy as she transitioned. A birth to her death.

After my declaration, I realized that I had been hiding from my own truth. Yes, I took the time off to be with my son. But the whole truth was that I needed the time for me. I needed to detox from the corporate world. I needed to find out who I was both as a new mom and as a new business owner. I needed to get back to myself in a different way that how I existed before.

Shortly after, I put a post up asking for work. The Jews prayed to God, I posted on LinkedIn. If I’m honest, this felt like a vulnerable thing to do. In the negative space of the ask is the stark need. But perhaps that is exactly the point, the embrace of vulnerability. Within two weeks I had several projects afloat.

So what does this have to do with where we are now? We are in the Narrow Place. Within a few short weeks, all of the systems that we had relied on as a society were in mortal jeopardy. Even the traffic noise has been stripped away. With no real end in sight, we don’t know what the world will really look like or require of us in the coming months.

But if we can pull away from our Zoom calls, we can see that with death comes a birth.

COVID, by forcing us to work at home, has reminded us that we have the opportunity to have a work day that allows for walks and breaks to pump breastmilk for babies. It’s put kids in our laps in the middle of our meetings. It’s made it loud and clear we are mothers and underlined that who we are, that what we do at home matters to our work.

If we can value this visibility (if we don’t value it, who will?), there is power in it. Then, the real question becomes not whether or not we want to keep working at home. It’s can we imagine — as mothers, as a culture — a more spacious relationship to have with our work.

That’s what real freedom looks like.

This article was originally published by jen patterson on medium

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Jen Patterson

Worklife coach, adoptive parent, aspiring gardener. Writer on coaching and work for The Fold Mag.


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