It was in the late 80s in Vietnam. My father left our home to pursue his own path in Germany. I therefore grew up in a family where two women, my grandmother and mother, were the breadwinners to raise two little women, me and my sister. I grew up in an environment where I observed first hand women striving to juggle work and life. My grandmother was the owner of a convenience store and my mother had two shifts and a night class. I grew up in a home where my grandmother’s wish, “If only I could go to school,” echoed through my childhood and where my mother’s constant struggles to make ends meet imprinted in my young brain.
“Your mom rejected a very good job offer that they only gave to a summa cum laude like her. She should like the job I believe,” my grandmother told me one day, her voice filled with regrets for her daughter.
“I had to go back to work shortly after giving birth to you so when you were hungry at home, grandma had to feed you with condensed milk while I had to throw all the milk away,” my mother kept telling me about this period again and again, each time her eyes welled with lots of guilt.
So as a child, I saw women power through by excelling at studying, managing a small business, having a career while raising kids, but I also noticed women have to keep their talents, passion and values sideway.
Could mom have a career she truly wanted and a life she deserved? I wondered.
Smart as she was, who could my grandmother have become if she could have had her thirst for knowledge quenched? I was obsessed.
Who do I want to become? I pondered.
As much as I wished someone could give me all the answers, I clung onto the one that was obvious: I’d make my grandmother and mother proud. So as a girl, I worked hard to be recognized, and as a young woman, I constantly tried hard for excellence in anything I did. My heart beat in the rhythm of striving.
At 33, I was everything my grandmother and my mother could have wished for themselves: a great education, a great career, and a great family with beautiful healthy children, and a loving husband. At least, I had thought so until one beautiful sunny Sunday morning.
I was the Head of Employee Happiness at an e-commerce unicorn company and while the employees’ Happiness Index increased, my personal Happiness Index took a deep plunge. I worked long hours. 7 months pregnant with my 2nd child, I woke up at 4am to catch an early flight, had all-day investigation meetings and landed back at 12am. I worked till 11.30pm on a Friday and 3am on a Sunday. Yet I was benchmarked against the 24 x 7 standard and was kept being asked to take on more demands.
While I championed for women advancement through various initiatives, I myself was penalized as a mom of young kids. While I set up mothers’ rooms across all geographies, my own use for 10 minutes before the lunch break was questioned. I loved my job and the mission I was on so much that I kept fighting till that Sunday. Not being able to suppress the emotional pain I’d been holding any longer, I burst crying. Right in front of my family, as I could hardly run to the bedroom.
“You couldn’t fight against a rock,” I remembered what my mentor said. “This place was not ready for this,” I remembered what my colleagues said.
“Would I want this life I have now for my own grandmother and mother?” I asked myself. The answer was a clear no. Then came my aha moment that my talents and passion could have been better used somewhere else. At this place where the C-levels were all young white men, my mission was overly accomplished.
The next few months were spent on dating with my little daughter, connecting with my son, having laughter with my husband, getting to know about my mother in law more, attending painting workshops, and joining writing classes. I felt alive. I felt love. I felt respect. I felt everything that I didn’t feel for quite some time.
“Hey, I believe you would make a great coach and you should definitely sign up for this class that I’ve just been through,” an ex-colleague and a good friend told me. I took it on. No questions asked. No research done. No second thought. My mind and my soul were opened to fill the world in.
As part of the program, I had to coach two women for practice and this experience started to shift my perspective. I came to the training with the pure intention of learning something new, something that could solidify my existing skill set and make me unique in the job market when I went back later on even though I had no idea what I would go back for. Coming out of it, I found myself already change lives. The women I worked with became happier and more confident with meaningful transformation. “My ex-colleague is right,” I thought.
I still applied for jobs though. It didn’t take me long to acquire a few great opportunities in companies where I wouldn’t have to choose between the company’s Happiness Index and that of my own.
But something felt wrong.
That was also the time when my mother in law was going through breast cancer treatment. Seeing her willing her way through the life-threating disease and weeping through her stories, that question from childhood came back, with some expansion this time: Who do I want to become, as a woman and as a mom?
I was forced to connect with my story, the story that I owned but became rustic under the fabric of a busy life. Who was I? Who am I? Who do I want to become? Who do I want to help? Which space do I belong? In what way I can best make the world a better place with my unique superpowers? My brain was first hijacked with all these should-be-familiar-yet-so-unfamiliar thoughts to later make infinite connections.
I travelled back in time.
I started to see the little girl who, over 20 years ago, was obsessed with how her grandmother and mother could have had a better life. While she loved them, she also found them strangers. She wanted to know more about them. She wanted to know their biggest dreams. She wanted to know their deepest yearning. She wanted to know what they wanted most out of life beyond the pay check, beyond daily messiness, and beyond being a mom.
I started to see another girl who was then a bit bigger. She was standing in a schoolyard and looking at the blue summer sky sending her dream to the universe, “I wanted to be a writer to tell people’s deep stories that could change others’ lives.”
I started to see the woman who my husband got married to over 10 years ago. “I want you to be my wife also because I see that you are similar to my mom,” he said while she dimly figured that his mother had a very fulfilling career and a happy family.
I also started to see the young woman who, throughout her 10-year career, always searched for opportunities to empower and develop other women, either through her jobs or her community involvement.
I started to see a courageous woman who, right then, challenged me, “You wanted to know more about your grandmother and mother for who they truly are, but do you know enough about yourself?”
“No,” I quietly answered.
“So go and do what you need to do,” she gave me the mission.
And that was the start of my journey to search within. While I talked to many people, the person I talked most with was myself. Hour by hour. Day by day. Week by week. Till one day I met with this woman. She had been in me for all that long and finally decided to speak up. Her world had arrived. Her mission got unclouded. And her purpose was clear: To uplevel women’s careers and lives to happiness infinity.
Through her, I then came to know my grandmother and mother for who they were. Deep down in them were the desires to unleash their unique gifts and live a fullest life while being loving moms.
Through her, I learnt to forgive the man who penalized me for being a working mom. Behind an incomprehensible tyranny was just another human being dreaded with insecurities.
Through her, I knew I had to make the support that my grandmother and my mother didn’t have access to during their time real. In front of me were the many women waiting for this support.
Since that moment, everything felt right.
Life felt right.
Career felt right.
Happiness Index felt right.
“Women must advance” felt right.
“Everyone deserves her best life” felt right.
And for the many women who don’t want to choose between a great mom and an accomplished professional I will have the opportunity to help, everything will have to feel right.
And for the many husbands who honor mutual support and equal partnership in marriage, everything will have to feel right.
And for many other children who are inspired by their own parents, everything will have to feel right.
I no longer find myself a stranger.