The feeling is the same. Heart racing. Butterflies in my stomach. Hair standing up on the back of my neck. Anxiety. Lots of anxiety. Whether flying a C-130 tactical combat mission under fire into Iraq or Afghanistan with an aircraft malfunction in the middle of a thunderstorm, or just juggling school drop-off during peak traffic time with two cantankerous kids in the backseat while trying to get to work on time, the sensations were the same.
And most of the time. So was my response. Push it down. Hold it in. Don’t explode. I don’thave time for this sh** – I mean stress… I’ll deal with it later. On the outside – cool, calm, and collected. On the inside, I was screaming “SHUT UP. SHUT UP. SHUT UP. Let me focus!!!” I’d complete the difficult task and then lose it when I was alone. What is happening? Why does life have to be so hard?
I did not have time for a breakdown. I was a military leader, pilot, wife, and mother of two. I was the woman who leaned in and had it all figured out. I wasn’t supposed to lose my marbles, whether it was carpool or combat. On the outside I made it look easy. On the inside, I struggled with finding balance. The more I leaned in, the more I burned out. At one point I even found myself thinking, what exactly am I leaning into?
My endless search for balance left me feeling constantly overwhelmed. Leaning in aimlessly, left me professionally successful, but personally empty. I had forgotten how to laugh, lost sight of the love in my life, and had become obsessed with being perfect.
Like most mothers today, I wanted to be a badass – both as a mom and as a professional – yet my preoccupation with capturing that equilibrium kept me in an endless cycle of worrying about my family when I was at work, and then worrying about my work when I was with my family. I was never fully present in either space, and I felt trapped by my circumstances.
My epiphany came amid the monotonous evening routine of bath time. All of a sudden my 3- year old son looked up at me, put his little hands on my cheeks, stared straight into my eyes and said, “Mommy, why are you so sad? I love you Mommy.” He noticed I was catastrophizing, worrying, and distant because he was present, intuitive, and compassionate. I felt sick to my stomach, as I realized instead of being present with him, laughing, loving, and learning, I was distracted and unhappy. I was with one of the most important people in my life, and I was mentally checked out. This is not what motherhood should be about!
I needed a new skill-set, one that could help me to lean into the moment – not into the work. To be my best self, I just needed to be present. But, how could I learn to do that? How could I reinvigorate a skill I once had as a child back into my stressful life as an adult?
I was relentless in my quest for answers. Finally, my doctoral research led me to mindfulness – definitely an unconventional tool for a military operator…but, it became my oxygen mask and my pathway to embracing the present moment.
I then committed to slowing down, taking deep breaths, practicing being present, and bringing awareness into my life. I started routines to transition from work to home and home to work, and embraced the concept of harmony instead of balance, which is an unrealistic expectation. Instead, I harmonize my life using the 4 L’s – Labor. Laugh. Learn. Love. Everyday I labor, but I also lean out of my work so I can lean into the moments in between – the ones where I experience laughter, love, and learning.
Along my journey, I’ve realized I’m not alone. We all struggle to let go of balanced perfection and embrace presence and to achieve harmony. As a military commander, I was compelled to share mindfulness with the 400 airmen, sailors, soldiers, and civilians I led. Despite skepticism, I led authentically and by example. After successfully integrating mindfulness into our unit culture, I found members reconnecting with their families, improving their work performance, and the unit was recognized as the Operations Support Squadron and Airfield of the Year for 2016. Recognition is fantastic, but it’s the impact that matters. One of the greatest compliments I re- ceived was when an airman told me, “Ma’am, the things I am learning here, I’m using and sharing at home. It’s changing my family. It’s changing my life.”
Inside a stressful environment like the military, it was a challenge getting a unit of warfighters to embrace the concept of mindfulness and deeper human connection. We used innovative ideas like mindful minutes, yoga classes, professional development brown-bag lunches, and a policy we called, “No Email Friday.” These initiatives created opportunities for more face-to-face engagement and enabling the recognition of special moments in each individual’s career. For example, we also called parents or special family members when unit members earned accolades at work.
One particular phone call was life-changing for me as a leader. One of our airmen received an early promotion to the rank of Senior Airman. In response, I offered to call someone special, and so the airman chose his dad. We put his dad on speaker phone, and I was able to brag about the airman’s accomplishments and offer a glimpse into his child’s life in adulthood. At the end of the call, and I remember it like it was yesterday, the father ended by saying, “I’m so proud of you son. I love you.” As I looked up at the airman, he had tears streaming down his face. He looked up at me and said, “Ma’am, my dad has never said that to me before.” This one example summarizes the power of leaning into the moment and being present. Instead of racing to the next task or answering the next email, what if we slowed down a bit and connected with those right in front of us?
Sounds easy, right? Unfortunately, we live in a world of competitive stress; a world where we are so busy and overwhelmed, we cannot imagine having bandwidth for our ourselves, let alone anyone else. In most of those scenarios, our stress manifests as unproductive thoughts, which prevent us from being our best. Yet, what sets high performers apart in moments of stress is the ability to quiet the mind. It’s a skill we are born with and in tune with at a young age…. but somehow we lost it along the way. Luckily for me, my son was there to realign my path.
We can learn a lot from our kids. Their minds operate in the present. They see the butterflies while we are out for a walk or notice when their parents are sad and distracted. Being in the present moment allows them to be intuitive and aware because somehow we lose that skill as we get older. We let our minds take us to places that we don’t want to go, sometimes in situations where the consequences are significant.
All we have is this moment. When I lean into the moment I find my badass, superwoman self! That person is inside all of us – a person who is capable, strong, and a role model for others. Once I realized what I was leaning into – blissful harmony instead of an unattainable balance – I found her… I found me. The best version of me because I now live where my feet are planted. I embrace harmony instead of balance, and see the laughter, the love, and the learning whether it’s on the battlefield as a warfighter, in the boardroom as a leader, or during bath time as a parent.