For the past six years, I’ve been experiencing the most challenging period of my life, marked by illness after illness. It started immediately after my first child was born.
I was recovering from an unplanned cesarean delivery. I felt betrayed by my body. I couldn’t even produce enough milk to breastfeed. When I could break away from my hungry baby long enough to shower, I’d spend that time crumpled on the shower floor, sobbing as the water sprayed on me. Every time my baby cried, it was like nails on a chalkboard. Instead of basking in the quiet, cozy maternal cocoon of my child’s newborn days, I was wracked in physical and emotional agony.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Putting a name to my pain
When I was finally diagnosed with postpartum mood disorder (PPMD) and eventually chronic depression and generalized anxiety disorder, it was a relief. My pain had a name. And with that diagnosis came guidelines on how to adapt my life so I could reduce the chances of acute episodes: get at least six hours of uninterrupted sleep, eat healthy foods, take vitamin supplements and antidepressants, schedule time away from the baby, connect with other moms with PPMD, let my husband know when I felt the physical and emotional symptoms coming on so he could help out.
Two years later, I had my second child, again by unplanned cesarean. Again I was overcome with depression and anxiety. Again I was unable to breastfeed. My baby lost a dangerous amount of weight and was seriously dehydrated within days of his birth.
This time, we had a plan of action when it came to the PPMD. We consulted a lactation consultant about the breastfeeding. She took one look at the shape of my breasts and told me I had insufficient glandular tissue–my breasts had never fully developed the mechanisms for producing breast milk.
Again came the wave of relief at the diagnosis. I felt so much guilt over not having tried hard enough to breastfeed with my first child. Every breastfeeding support group I looked to for guidance urged me to try supplements, try aggressive round-the-clock pumping schedules, try this, try that. Now this lactation expert assured me that no matter how hard I tried, my body was incapable of creating enough breastmilk to sustain my babies. But with practice, my baby and I could create a routine that involved a combination of breastfeeding and bottlefeeding so we could find quiet moments of connection.
Seeing limits as answers instead of excuses
For many people, getting diagnosed with a mental or physical illness–even chronic disease–is a moment of relief. It offers an answer after months, perhaps years, of knowing that something isn’t right or that something is different about you. It also often provides a clear roadmap on how to best navigate life alongside your limitations.
There’s another aspect of getting a diagnosis we don’t talk much about: it provides answers to the people around you. It helps you clearly communicate your boundaries to them. And it gives you clarity on who is willing to support and embrace and respect you as you are.
Unfortunately, we live in a world that sees limits as liabilities.
“It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”
–Martin Luther King, Jr.
Our “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” society sends a well-meaning but potentially harmful message: “push past your limits.” The intrinsic meaning is that we are capable of more than we think we are. That our physical limitations are all a matter of mindset. That our mental limitations are just a matter of attitude. That if we just try hard enough in this world, we can do anything.
This message assumes that we are all able-bodied, all mental disorder-free, all living in economic security, all living without the added hurdles of systemic racism and sexism and homophobia. This message treats very real, concrete limitations as figments of our imagination or worse–excuses to not do what is expected of us in order to succeed.
The “Push Past Your Limits” mentality reinforces systems of oppression
It also sends the message that if we don’t fit the white, able-bodied cis male norm, we must ignore our identities and adapt ourselves to closely imitate it.
Not being heard in important meetings due to your femaleness? Lean in, adopt more masculine behaviors so you can grab the attention of the men in charge.
Can’t feel safe to walk in a white neighborhood due to your blackness? Act white and be as “non-threatening” as possible. Don’t put your hands in your pockets.
Want to serve your country but you’ve just come out as transgender? Sorry–you’ll have to go back in the closet and act like your assigned gender because taking care of your medical needs for your gender affirmation is just too much of a burden.
Don’t be yourself, because our world is built for someone else. You’ll just have to adapt.
We internalize this message to a point where many of us do ourselves more harm by trying to imitate the success of people with very different bodies, minds, and life histories than ours, rather than finding our own path and demanding that our society evolve to embrace the diversity of the human experience.
“The hustle” is a lie.
We never feel good enough in comparison to others. We may even feel like we’re disappointments to our loved ones or our friends if we can’t live up to artificial standards of success. Instead of living lives in which we feel fulfilled by the things we love, in which we find beauty in our imperfections and gratitude for what we have, we are always striving for an unobtainable model of perfection created by people who happen to fit that model.
After my kids were both old enough to sleep through the night, I started my own business as a freelance copywriter for tech startups. Nearly every guide to entrepreneurial success in the world of tech urges the hustle mentality: hours upon hours devoted to growing your business, every waking minute spent on achieving your goals.
“So the question remains — are you willing to hustle to make it happen? Are you willing to work 15+ hours a day to get it done? Can you biz dev? Can you do what it takes to take your business to the top while also providing value? In today’s world, there’s so much room and opportunity to bring value to somebody, but it’s never going to happen if all you care about is yourself. Stop being romantic. Put out great work and hustle. Wake up before everybody else and work those long hours. Emotionally and executionally, make the commitment to yourself and to your legacy that you’re willing and ready to go ALL-IN.”
And I bought into every word.
Instead of getting the 6+ hours of uninterrupted sleep my body and brain demanded, I spent all night hammering out writing assignments while my family slept.
Instead of taking time to play and connect with my kids, I popped them in front of Netflix and put every waking minute into getting new clients. And then out of mommy guilt I’d attempt to establish screen-free time and get frustrated when they weren’t willing to participate. And then I’d go into a shame spiral and seek escape by writing more.
Instead of making room for communication with my husband, the minute he got home from work I scrambled out the door to put in a writing session at a local all-night diner.
Instead of connecting with friends face to face, my entire social sphere existed in Slack and Facebook groups.
Instead of giving myself time to pursue other things I enjoy: exploring nature, gardening, art, reading…if I wasn’t working I was too exhausted to get out of bed.
But that’s what an entrepreneur is supposed to do, right? Set aside everything in your life so you can build your business. Get it to the point where you can hire a few people to run it for you. GO ALL-IN. Then enjoy life.
I realize now that nearly every article about entrepreneurship was written by someone who wasn’t a caregiver of a family–or had enough money that they could hire someone to be a caregiver while they worked uninterrupted.
When your limits push back
I ignored the opportunity presented by my circumstances: my limitations demanded that I be gentle with myself and communicate my boundaries to clients. My limits pleaded with me to let my family in instead of hiding behind a closed office door or in a diner booth. My limitations told me “you are unique and your path will never look like the entrepreneurs in these blog posts.”
No one likes to be ignored–even limitations. When you ignore your limits, they will assert themselves. They’ll plunge you into suicidal depression. They’ll turn your marriage into a battleground rather than a partnership. They’ll show up in the form of a compromised immune system so you catch every germ your kids bring home from kindergarten and preschool.
The sad irony is, I would never expect someone else to shut out their family or ignore their health in the pursuit of business growth. I prided myself in embodying the antithesis of the hustle-at-all-costs mentality within my writing–and yet my life had turned into a frantic hustle to keep up with people like Gary Vee.
Which brings me to today.
Learning to listen to my limits
As I type this, I’m recovering from a nasty case of pneumonia that made it impossible for me to even attempt to stick to the entrepreneurial hustle formula. As I sat in the ER looking at the wedge-shaped shadow on my chest x-ray, I was again washed with relief. Once again, an illness gave me permission to acknowledge a limit instead of demanding that I push past it. I was given permission to stop feeling like I wasn’t trying hard enough. If anything, I was trying too hard.
I pretty much have structured, I’m working 7:00 AM to 11:00 PM Monday through Friday. All in, and then the weekends I’m all in on the family, and I’m vacationing more. And net-net, I’m spending dramatically more time than that helter-skelter trying to make it work, not trying to make it work. So it might work for somebody out there, I hope it does, ’cause this is the one issue that I have the most passion for. Because family is the game.
It shouldn’t have to take a physical collapse to say “I am doing more than enough.”
It shouldn’t take being on the brink of divorce to snap you back to the people who matter in your life.
And I know I’m not the only one out there who has wrestled with the hustle mentality. Even the King of Hustle himself, Gary Vaynerchuk has embraced the limits a family demands of his schedule. Do I have the ability, freedom or desire to work 7:00 am to 11:00 pm during the week? Hell no. And that’s perfectly okay. I have other important things in my life to go all-in on.
I’m now three weeks into my recovery from pneumonia. It’s taking a lot longer to get better than I anticipated. Each day I gain a little more strength. But each day my body reminds me that just because I’m gaining strength doesn’t mean I can just shake off a debilitating illness and dive back into the chaos of my life before. I can only work for an hour or two before needing a break. If I push myself too hard, I am destroyed for the rest of the day.
These are my limits. There’s no ignoring them. There’s no ignoring my depression. There’s no ignoring my female body in a patriarchal society. There’s no ignoring my kids or my husband or my messy house. There’s no ignoring my messy past.
I’m learning to find beauty and opportunity in my limits.
Will you accept them? Better yet, will you embrace them and respect them? Because while my depression means I occasionally need to isolate myself from the world, it also means I have deep compassion for the pain in others.
My female body means I have to work harder to be taken seriously. It means my reproductive freedom is under constant scrutiny by governmental powers and my reproductive health is a source of disgust and shame. It means I am often fearful for my physical safety in seemingly harmless situations like being alone at a bar or sitting next to a strange man on a subway car. It means I risk alienation and abuse for not conforming to a highly restrictive gender role.
But it also means to those who are willing to listen, I have deeper insights to offer about the experience of oppression and how to change the system. It also means that I’m willing to listen to people who live within other systems of oppression I don’t experience so I can help them to change it.
My family may demand more of my time than someone without children, but they also have taught me the power of patience, how to find wonder and joy in the most ordinary of things, and how to accomplish the most work in the least amount of time.
And my messy past has shown me that we are all exceptional–that there is no normal, and when we expect people to fit a mold, we ignore their humanity.
The next time someone tells you that your limits are all in your head and you need to push past them, flip the script: your limits are what makes you human. They’re the reality of your life. And it’s entirely possible–and necessary– to live with and honor your limits while pursuing your dreams.