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Friday, October 28, 2011

Core Meltdown

Earlier this year, I was having big issues with rage.

Anger, of the incandescent variety.

I would wake up in the morning feeling sluggish and scratchy after a bad night with my then-almost-two year old. Things would go quickly downhill from there.

My big girl (then aged 5) would be awake already, perky and full of cheerful enthusiasm, ready to chat, looking forward to the day ahead at preschool. We would enjoy 15 or 20 minutes of quiet chat, or craft, or reading – until our happy reverie was disturbed by the distant sound of crying. Big Sister’s face would fall at the ominous sound of her little sister waking up, and she would instantly become quiet and withdrawn.

Back then, Little Sister was not a morning person. Once she had shrieked to be liberated from her cot, the always-memorable first part of her day would be spent whining, crying, shouting, throwing things, refusing to eat, refusing to have clothes put on her… you get the picture. Big Sister would quickly start sulking due to lack of attention - Mummy had her hands full with Little Sister’s antics and Daddy was still in bed, resolutely refusing to let parenthood get in the way of 9 hours’ sleep. Big Sister’s sulks would quickly turn into disobedience, and suddenly I would have a second child sullenly refusing to get out of her pyjamas, stubbornly stalled at the breakfast table, answering my requests with naughtiness or aggression.

I would keep ploughing ahead, but could feel my inner capacity to handle all this being slowly but surely eroded. At first I would manage to be patient, generous in spirit, even kind. But as the minutes ticked by, it was as though all those warm and comfortingly soft qualities inside me were slowly but surely being squeezed to nothing by a giant, leaden hand of anger, frustration and hopelessness.

At this point, with the clock ticking and Big Sister’s preschool day about to start, I would typically lose the will to stay in control. A spectacular core meltdown would ensue. Declaring, “That’s IT!” I would randomly start screaming at the kids for the slightest infraction of rules I had suddenly decided to over-enforce. Little Sister would refuse to have her teeth brushed; I would hold her down and forcibly get the brush into her mouth. Big Sister would complain about having to wear so many layers of clothes; I would shriek that I was fed up with having exactly the same argument with her every day when she knew it was minus 10 degrees outside and freezing cold, and would start yanking her clothes onto her. Little Sister, incensed at not getting her own way about anything, would release one of her tornado specials, fists and kicks flying at the nearest person, and I would practically throw her into the Naughty Corner. I would continue to yell and rant at both children, outdoing Gordon Ramsay at his best, until they were fully dressed and ready (and frequently both in floods of tears). At some point, my husband would finally emerge from the bedroom, unable to ignore the high-decibel yelling any longer, and would silently help me get the girls through the rest of their morning routine.     

One morning, in the midst of a Mummy Meltdown, the girls decided to fight about who got to open the front door. One of them pushed past and yanked it open. The other one started to scream. I had had enough. I pulled them both roughly back from the door, and I slammed the door shut – violently, with as much angry force as I possibly could. The door crashed shut. The whole wall shook. The noise was deafening. The children were instantly silent with surprise and fright.

And then, slowly and gently, the door swung open again.

I had slammed it so hard that I had actually broken the lock.

I would like to be able to say, “And from that day forth, I realized how frightening and damaging rage can be, and never lost my temper again.” Of course it didn’t happen that easily. However, that slamming incident was the high point (or, more accurately, the low point) of my anger. I had let myself get so enraged and out of control that I had managed to break an industrial-grade lock, and that frightened the hell out of me. What next? Blinded by rage, would I rip into a person? One of my babies, even? I realized that I would have to take big steps to make sure this never happened again.

It has been a long road, and I can’t honestly say I have reached my desired destination – a calm, rational place where I discipline my children without yelling at them, and never lose my temper. I have worked on changing a lot of things about myself – I try to remember the huge benefits of remaining patient and calm with people; I remind myself that parents who shout generally breed children who shout; I force myself to acknowledge that sometimes I shout when what I’d really like to do is hit someone, and that this is dangerous territory. I try to stop and let these ideas wash over me when I feel like losing it with my children, and I often find that it really is possible to redirect my reaction into something calmer and more constructive. Then, in quieter moments, I try to ask myself why the situation made me feel angry, whether it mattered enough to merit getting that worked up, and if so, what I can do to stop the trigger situation from happening again?

In asking myself, "Why?", I have taken a good look at where my anger came from in the first place. Fundamentally, my fury had very little to do with the irritation I felt at my kids' challenging behaviour (which was just a trigger). My bigger issues were unhappiness, depression, anxiety about not being in control, and being just plain worn out and feeling put-upon from trying to do too much without asking for help.   

I feel a whole lot better now that I have carved out some time for myself from our daily routine. At first it felt self-indulgent; now I realize that free time and headspace are necessities I've forced myself to do without for too long - only through time with our own thoughts can we get a grip on them and sort through them.

I have also learned to ask for help when I need it - sometimes even at the expense of hubby's precious beauty rest :) 

And I've worked to understand and overcome my subconscious need to win at all costs, and to refuse to relinquish control over situations. Winning - especially when it comes to arguments with the hubby or the kids - is rarely the key to getting the end result you are seeking. More often, progress is made by consciously allowing another person to take control and feel like a winner.   

Oh, and I’ve also come to the earth-shattering realization that going to bed earlier works honest-to-God miracles inside my head.


It also helps that the kids have grown up a lot more since then. Little Sister in particular has really made progress. She is no longer a powerless and highly frustrated infant, but a communicative and engaging little girl. Her mum is also trying hard to grow up.

We will both get there.


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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Defeating the skinny bitch

I saw a really skinny woman the other day. Not “wow-she’s-gorgeous” skinny – think more along the lines of matchsticks connected with Blu-Tack, and lank, colourless hair.

When I see people who are painfully thin, my heart goes out to them, because chances are they are seriously ill – physically or mentally. I feel especially sorry for those who are anorexic. I have never experienced full-blown anorexia myself, but I've had a taste of what it might be like.

The year I turned 18, I went to live in Japan for half a year. It was not a “proper” student exchange – something that my parents had actively discouraged – but somehow I’d managed to win a trip to Japan in a national Japanese Speech Contest, and this convinced my parents that I had earned the right to my coveted exchange. Teachers at my high school were kind enough to liaise with teachers at our Japanese sister school. I would be allowed to attend classes there and live with students’ families.

My first host family was one of 5 host families in 6 months—planned this way by the school, so that no one would be unfairly burdened with a foreign student visitor. The K family was kind and welcoming, but they spoke almost no English.  

I was immediately in over my head.

Every single aspect of life was suddenly a struggle. I had studied Japanese throughout high school—I had won a national Japanese speech contest, for God’s sake—and suddenly I found I knew almost nothing of any practical use, especially in a rural part of the Kansai region where the local dialect was nothing like “textbook” Japanese. I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying, and they could barely understand me. Sometimes we spend a long time with dictionaries and pen and paper and sign language trying to establish what time breakfast would be, or what I should do with my dirty laundry; sometimes we just mutually called it quits and I allowed myself to be led (almost by the hand) through the day.

The middle sister of the family, who was my classmate, was always in an impatient hurry, and I soon started to feel as though I was an unwanted piece of baggage that she’d been instructed to carry.  I remember the first school day of my stay there. It was 7am, and apparently we were running late.

Yuki: “Now [incomprehensible]. Have [nope, didn’t catch this either]?”
Me: [blank look]
Yuki: [impatiently] “Now go. You have keiki?”
Me: [do I have cake? what cake? is she asking me if I want to eat cake? we just had breakfast! or is she asking me if I have cake with me? where would I have gotten cake, and why would I need to take it to school with me?] “Cake?”
Yuki: [pulls open my bag and looks around; finds my purse and opens it; sighs theatrically when she sees my train pass there]
“TEIKI-KEN!”
[Aha. “teiki”. Not “keiki”.]
Yuki urged me out of the house, and we sprinted down the road together to the train station.

The lack of comprehension, and uncertainty of what life would bring from one moment to the next, became a source of huge anxiety. Every time communication was difficult, I felt that I was inconveniencing people and making their lives harder than necessary, and all this when they’d been kind enough to take me on as an exchange student. As well as that, because I couldn’t understand what people were saying, I frequently imagined that they were talking about me, and not in a positive way. If two girls looked at me and said something, giggling, I guessed they were laughing at my acne. When people repeatedly commented on how “big” I was, I assumed they meant “fat” (turns out that Japanese say “big” when they mean “tall”, though to be fair, at 173 cm and 68 kg I was probably also “fat” by Japanese standards). Most of all, I felt so inadequate academically. I had been an A-student in Australia. Now, by failing to communicate effectively, I looked like a dumbass, and felt like I was letting down my teachers in Australia, who had advocated and supported my coming here.

I became miserable, though I never allowed my smile to slip in public, and saved my tears for my bedroom at night. I had brought different kinds of Australian candy to share with my classmates at some point; now I broke into the packages and comfort-ate at night in bed. I gained a few kilos, which of course made me all the more miserable. I didn’t know how I could keep going when it all felt so hard. The worst part was knowing that this was what I had asked and begged for. Pride (and stubbornness) stopped me throwing in the towel and leaving.

And then one day it dawned on me. Maybe I couldn’t control my language ability (at least, not in the short-term) but I could certainly control other parts of my life. In particular, I didn’t need to be “big”. This would be the perfect time to start a diet and lose some weight. I could understand enough about lunchtime conversations among my classmates to realize that diets and weight loss were a big deal here. A diet could help me fit in, in more ways than one.

And so it began.

At first I just cut out high calorie foods, and started exercising (I got myself a skipping rope and jumped around in my host family’s tiny garden). By the time I moved to my next scheduled host family a month later, I had lost a little bit of weight — not much, but enough to encourage me. I started cutting out more foods — meat, eggs, anything relatively dense in fat or calories. I told people I was on a diet, and no one seemed to mind.

After another month, when I moved to my fourth host family, I was making great progress, and had already lost some 8 kg. This host family already had three children and both parents worked, so everyone essentially made their own breakfast and lunch from ingredients that Mum provided every morning. Perfect! I took tiny amounts of food for both meals, and even at dinner I ate the smallest amount I could get away with [not] eating. I drank hot water spiked with pepper in the hope that it would boost my digestion somehow, or at the very least suppress my hunger in a zero-calorie manner. I claimed that I was vegetarian so that I could cut out an entire (high-calorie) food group. We all rode bicycles to school every day, and as it was quite a long way, this helped my weight loss efforts no end.

At this point, I went to visit the older sister of an Australian friend, who lived in a nearby city. She was shocked at the amount of weight I’d lost— at least two dress sizes. I assured her that I was fine, and just dieting, but I’m sure she realized something was wrong. I barely ate, and even refused cake she had bought for my birthday. I weighed myself constantly—several times a day. I could tell that her flatmate thought my behaviour was odd and rude. I didn’t care. I weighed less than 60 kg – a weight I hadn’t been since primary school.


This should have been enough for me, but my now I was on a roll. It was so easy to keep going. And so I did.


I remember going shopping with my host sister during the summer holidays, and for the first time ever being able to fit into Japanese women’s sizes without having to look for XXXXXL. It was such a rush.

Counter-intuitively, though, losing weight actually made me more anxious — anxious about losing control over food and gaining all that weight back again. I became even more obsessive about calories and exercise. My body started to rebel. I found myself sneaking downstairs in the middle of the night to scoff low-fat yoghurt, because I was literally starving.

At the end of 6 months, I had lost something like 17kg and was down to 53 kg – my all-time low. I thought I had conquered the world, but found that unless I ate almost nothing, exercised like a fiend, and indulged my cravings strictly on caffeine-free diet coke, I could not help but gain weight.

My arrival home was a shock to everyone. Family and friends thought I looked skeletal, and the horror showed clearly in their faces. I was devastated – I was so thrilled about being thin, and their disgust was a disappointment beyond words.

With no one supporting my efforts to stay thin, I felt lonely, and as though the world was united in a conspiracy against me. It made me sad, but it also made me tough. I ignored all kindly-meant advice and pleas. I lapped up the admiration of unknown men who whistled at me on the street.


It took a very long time to break out of this mindset. Meanwhile, my body continued to rebel. One morning I woke up with two delicious, high-calorie biscuits beside my bed. In my state of crazed hunger I had craved them so badly that I had apparently sleep-walked to the kitchen, retrieved them, and placed them comfortingly beside my pillow. I remembered nothing of this when I woke up, but I do recall feeling, for the first time, that perhaps I had a problem.

When I was in my second year of university (still determined to stay super-thin) I took a very challenging Japanese language class. I realized almost immediately that it was way beyond my ability, but I refused to give up. I spend more time preparing and studying for that class than for any other class before or since – literally hours and hours looking up and memorizing kanji characters, and committing to memory obscure Japanese phrases.  The stress and the time investment were so demanding that I found I had to divert my dieting energy to studying. I no longer had the mental fortitude or the physical energy to resist my cravings, and I started binge-eating. It was fairly horrific. I found myself eating so much at a single sitting that I felt physically ill and as though I might burst. I gained weight at a rate of knots. It was horrible, and my self-esteem hit an all-time low. I could not believe how fat I was getting – the kilos were literally piling themselves on my body before my very eyes.

However, a few of my course-mates and I, united in our struggle to conquer Japanese From Hell no matter what, became lifelong friends. And somehow, I had also managed to find and hang onto a boyfriend who was fiercely and blindly and utterly loyal (almost to a fault). If these people noticed what I looked like or how quickly I gained weight that year, they didn’t say a word, and I love them all the more for that.

That year, two major victories were mine - I scored an A+ in that super-challenging Japanese language course, and I beat my eating disorder.

The first victory was incredibly important to me at the time. I was overjoyed; elated; proud of myself.

The second felt like anything but a win – at the time, I felt like I had lost a long and hard-fought battle – but looking back now, I believe it was one of the great victories of my life.

The path of an anorexic (or would-be anorexic) is lonely and hard, and victory over bodyweight comes at the price of obsessive thoughts and behaviour, socially-odd eating habits, and constant anxiety. Some people can't give it up; don't want to give it up; cannot see that their need to be anorexic ultimately has nothing to do with food or thinness.

I am sad that I spent such a long period of my life wasting energy on an eating disorder. I am sad that I spiralled so far down into self-hatred and negativity that I ended up in that dark place in the first place. I am exhilarated, though, that I found my way out and have never again fallen that far.

 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Apples and passion - one man's legacy

Steve Jobs will be remembered for many things –for Apple and Pixar, for his remarkable
intellect, for his brilliance at innovative thinking, and for his clear passion for what he did.

He will also be remembered because his high-flying, passionate brilliance was abruptly cut short. He died young, aged only 56. In his Stanford Commencement address back in 2005, perhaps one of his most famous pieces of public speaking, Steve talked about his realization that life is finite, and urges his audience to stop and think about whether they are spending our days doing something they really love. It seems that he himself did, and thank goodness, since it turned out that death came sooner for him than for most.

Already, when I think of Steve Jobs, my first thought is not “Apple”, but “passion” – the importance of making every minute count, and chasing your dreams, and not wasting your one, precious chance at life doing something that is not enjoyable or important to you. 


Steve Jobs changed the world of technology.
What if he has also managed to change the way we think about life itself?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Seeing the light and launching a rescue mission


I have been feeling pretty good lately. After years of doing things that I believed I was required to do, or things that I thought would be good for me to do, I finally woke up to the fact that much of my daily life was spent doing stuff I wasn’t enjoying.  I loved being a lawyer but, as noted in a previous rant, I did not relish the endlessly stressful, hour-crunching, bad-tempered, sleep-deprived, daily grind. I loved being a mother, but I eventually admitted to myself that 24/7 parenting, though a privilege and often a joy, felt overwhelming and soul-destroying.

And so, for the past several weeks, with the financial and moral support of my worth-his-weight-in-gold husband, and some help with childcare (thank God for this country and its wonderfully affordable daycare), I have been spending my weekday mornings deep in thought. Trying to figure out who I really am. Trying to determine what it is that I really want to do.

The simple act of taking time to think and reflect, and write at length about what is on my mind, has been therapeutic in the extreme. It feels self-indulgent; however, somehow I already know it will have been time well spent. As one of my heroes Sara Perring astutely points out, on the subject of pursuing personal/professional goals, “If you want to get ahead, and by that I mean continue to move forward, progress, develop, be happier, be more successful…then you first need to decide what it is you want to get ahead in.”  And I can’t believe how much happier I am suddenly feeling, just because I have finally allowed myself to really think, for a moment, about what I might really want out of life.

The fact that I have finally found the light and extricated myself from at least one dark tunnel was abundantly clear to me last night, when I got this email from a former colleague:

“I have just been given 2 very sizeable agreements to draft. [Pointy-Haired Boss] promised these to the client in 2 days (of course, over the weekend). Yet, I have been stuck working on other stuff with [PHB] obsessing for 2 hours over a 1 page letter.  When is he expecting me to work on the draft?  From midnight to 8 am? I'm so sick and tired of this.  I'm sick and tired of the weekend deadlines, unrealistic timeframes and everything!  I'm not even sure how to describe this feeling of despair and disgust.”

She is still very much in the darkness. For a very long time now she has talked about her impossible workload and PHB’s expectations (which are darkly hilarious in their absurdity) with a sense of misery and despair. Yet, she can’t quite bring herself to cut and run. By now she is so senior (not to mention so talented) that a Big Firm partnership is within her grasp. She has worked so long and so hard that to quit now would surely be madness - wouldn’t it? She feels depended upon, not only by PHB, but by several long-standing clients who are big fans of her work, and by the several junior associates to whom she is a mentor and a role-model. She feels compelled to go on, hoping that at some future time, by means she cannot envisage, things will get better, because they just have to, right?

It is only now that I am standing in the light that I can see her situation for what it is. It is not going to get any better. Quitting now would not be madness – in fact, quite the contrary – voluntarily staying even one more day in a job which makes you feel miserable and depressed and desperate would be madness. The people who pay you to be dependable will find other people to pay to be dependable. And I know how much she earns and how little time she has had to spend any of that money, so I know she wouldn’t starve even if she didn’t work again for years and years.

I have tried to tell her. THIS IS YOUR LIFE. You don’t deserve to spend it in misery, and you don’t have to, despite what anyone else might tell you. You can put all this behind you. It is your choice. DO IT!

But she is still in the darkness. She cannot see what I see – yet.

But she will. I have decided to make it my mission to show her the light, and yell encouragement as she makes her way towards it, and congratulate her with all my heart when she finally reaches its calming warmth.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Learn a new language, get a new soul

I am reading a fascinating book called Raising a Bilingual Child by Barbara Zurer Pearson. I bought it because I have bilingual children, and was hoping to get advice on how to ensure that they learn at least one language (and hopefully both) thoroughly. Our children are“accidentally” bilingual – they have one Australian and one Finnish parent (who speak English to each other), and we live in Finland. By default, they will grow up with both languages.
 
However, it was interesting to find that Dr. Pearson’s book is aimed more at selling the idea of bilingualism to parents who would not otherwise have considered a bilingual upbringing for their kids - parents who are monolingual themselves, or are bilingual but hesitant about using their native language with their children (for example, because they are immigrants and their native language is not widely spoken in their new home country).
 
Dr. Pearson asserts that“Bilinguals…have shown themselves to be more flexible, divergent thinkers and superior problem solvers” and that “Bilingualism builds a better world, as well as a better mind.” These are lofty claims, but by God, what if she is right?



I have always believed that knowing more than one language broadens a person’s knowledge and perspective. For a start, you have learned an entire new set of words and grammatical patterns. More importantly, you have acquired the ability to speak with a whole new group of people, whose cultural background is different from your own. This opens up the possibility for a whole new understanding of who these people are and how their perspectives differ from your own. I found this out for myself after studying Japanese as a teenager, and going on to study and work in Japan for many years. What I now understand about Japanese people – their culture, their approach to life, the meaning behind certain expressions and gestures – is something I don’t think I could have fully gleaned from second-hand accounts.


Dr. Pearson quotes Francois Grosjean, a Swiss psycholinguist, in summing up these benefits: “[Bilingualism] broadens your scope. It means you have two worlds instead of one.” She also mentions a Czech proverb: “Learn a new language: get a new soul.”


What I did not know was that bilingualism, in and of itself, has been found to have tremendous benefits on the human mind and its functioning. Here are a couple of striking examples that Dr. Pearson gives (based on the results of scientific studies):


  1. Bilingual children acquire “metalinguistic awareness” (“knowledge about language”) at an early age. Every time they hear something, they must determine which language it is in before they interpret it. This gives them an earlier understanding than monolingual children of the concept that words are arbitrary symbols, and (putting aside onomatopoeic words like “meow” and “roar”) there is no link between the sound of a word and its meaning - the word and the thing it stands for are separate. For example, “dog” can mean dog, but so can “chien” (French) or “koira” (Finnish) or “inu” (Japanese). They also tend to develop greater awareness of the abstract connection between letters and sounds. Studies have shown that this early ability to think abstractly about language tends to make children better thinkers overall: they are more able to verbalize their own thought processes, plan how to solve problems, keep track of successful strategies, and avoid previously unsuccessful strategies in similar future situations.
  2. One study of 184 monolingual and bilingual patients with dementia found that the onset of dementia was delayed by an average of 4 years in people who had spoken two languages throughout their lives (onset at age 71 for monolinguals versus age 75 for bilinguals).
Wow.

I was thrilled to hear of these potential benefits. I have sometimes worried that bilingualism puts extra pressure on children; it seems, though, that the extra effort is more than worthwhile. I also suspect (and possibly Dr. Pearson will address this in the latter part of her book, which I haven’t yet finished!) that young children don’t even feel that one or more extra languages in their life are a “burden” - like all other new information, they just soak it up and thrive on it.

My 6 year old daughter was born in Japan. For the first two years of her life, at home she was exposed mostly to English (and occasionally Finnish, though my husband was not yet on the bilingualism bandwagon at that point, and usually spoke English to her). When she was two and a half, we sent her to a local Japanese daycare centre. I worried a lot about whether this was a good decision, considering that she knew almost no Japanese when she started there. Would she be over-burdened and overwhelmed?

Initially, she had absolutely no idea what was being said to her. Interestingly, this did not seem to bother her. She repeated Japanese words and phrases verbatim. She listened intently. She copied what the other kids did in response to a teacher’s instructions. And one day (possibly only weeks after starting daycare) she started to speak in Japanese. Naturally, her first attempts were just single words and very short sentences, but she used them contextually correctly, clearly understanding what they meant.

Within a year, she was speaking and understanding at a level where, in the words of one of her teachers, “she has no problem with daily life here at daycare”. Within two years, her language ability was solid – even equal to that of some of her friends. I recently found a story she had dictated to me in Japanese at age 4. I was stunned at the richness and complexity of the language she had used: words like “battled”, grammatical patterns like “was swallowed up by”.

When we first came to Finland, she was four and a half. You’d think I would have realized by now that language learning was a breeze for small children, but still I worried that throwing her into the deep end with Finnish would be unfair, given that she had already had English and Japanese thrown at her. And so we found an English-speaking preschool. What I did not expect was how much Finnish she would learn at preschool – most of her classmates were native Finnish speakers, so naturally they spoke in Finnish in the playground, at lunch-time, and whenever else they were not “required” to speak English. After several months, one of her teachers mentioned to me that my daughter had started speaking Finnish “surprisingly well”. She started addressing her father in Finnish (to his surprise, and considerable pleasure). She started voluntarily watching Finnish kids’ TV shows, even when she could have chosen one of her many English-language DVDs. She tells me that when she dreams at night, it is almost always in Finnish.

Time will tell whether or not she has developed superior cognitive skills, or whether her brain will fight off dementia longer than a monolingual person's brain. Already, though, I believe that being able to talk to Japanese friends in Japanese, and Finnish friends in Finnish, has given her a broader cultural perspective than many adults. I also think it’s fair to say that she has advanced social skills for a child her age, and has a real sense of empathy when it comes to other people’s feelings. She has never been heard making judgmental comments about others based on their race or their ability to speak a particular language. In fact, even when I speak Finnish, poorly and imperfectly, she listens respectfully, and will tell me quietly and gently if she thinks I have made a mistake.

And what I do know is that when I hear her chatting and laughing with her Finnish friends, or watch her saying a cheerful hello to her Japanese teacher, I feel incredibly happy and proud of my passionate little linguist. She doesn’t care about metalinguistic awareness. She is just enjoying herself.



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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Alexandra and me

In the 1920s, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, my great-grandmother Alexandra emigrated from Russia to Australia, with her husband and 5-year-old daughter Zinaida (Zina). 

Her first home in Australia was in Chippendale, Sydney. These days, Chippendale is a hot-property inner-city suburb, where young investors pay small fortunes for tiny, pristine townhouses. In those days it was a slum.

Alexandra and her husband had very little money, and almost no English between them. In fact, Alexandra had had no formal education at all. What they did have was a roof over their heads, and the chance to better their lot in a country that welcomed their immigration. They also had Zina, who proved to be an invaluable asset. With the uncanny ability young children have at foreign languages, in a couple of months Zina had mastered enough English to help her parents navigate life in a foreign country. She helped them buy groceries, negotiate with the landlord, and attend an enrolment interview at the local primary school (kudos to Zina, who at age 6 was astute enough to see the downside of being "Zinaida" at an Australian school, and told the principal that her name was "Jean"). 

Their life never became easy and carefree, but over time they struggled less. Zina completed her compulsory schooling with flying colours. A generation later her two daughters both graduated from university.

Alexandra was already an old lady when I knew her. She had outlived her husband by many years, and had moved to Brisbane, to the Russian enclave of Woolloongabba. Her small flat was run-down and smelt of rancid cooking oil, cat pee, and Non-Specific Old Lady Smell. Despite her steady government pension (which more than covered her modest expenses) she never stopped worrying about money. She would hide her pension money here and there around her flat, ironically increasing her anxiety, because she could never remember the hiding spots. It was hard to communicate with her, as her broken English was heavily accented, and I didn’t speak any Russian. She often giggled nervously when she couldn’t find the right words, or couldn’t understand us. Other times she would sigh heavily.

Still, I have very happy memories of visiting her. She was a lovely round Babushka of a person, who always greeted us with a joyful “Hello hello hello!” and gave us big warm hugs. She was endlessly kind and giving – to her family, to her neighbours, and to anyone else she saw who was in need. I loved and admired this about her – that she came from having so little, and yet everything she now had she shared with others. 

She adored cats, and at any given time had at least 4 (often 6 or more). She spoilt them rotten. She bought high-quality minced beef at great expense, and mixed it with warm water until it was the perfect temperature for her babies. Those cats had the complete run of her flat. Sometimes you could open bureau drawers to find a kitten curled up in her underwear. A quick peek under the sofa would reveal multiple pairs of green eyes glinting wickedly at you. Those cats were incorrigible and irresistible. 

Alexandra was also a wonderful cook. She prepared us Russian delicacies like piroshki, pilmeni and “pasha” Easter cheesecake. She cooked us potato chips from scratch. Our extended family would crowd into her flat on Russian holidays, enjoying what was always a great party with lots of chatter and laughter.

I think about Alexandra a lot lately, and I feel a kind of affinity with her. Like her, I am a long way from the country where I grew up (though, ironically, only a few hundred kilometres from the country where she grew up). I, too, have small children. I, too, know very little of the local language and sometimes have to rely on my 6-year-old to interpret. When I converse, in broken, imperfect sentences, I frequently giggle or sigh, trying to keep my spirits up, and trying not to let myself feel ashamed that my efforts sound childish and clumsy.  

However, in almost every other way our lives couldn’t be more different. Alexandra endured poverty and hardship. She worked hard and smart to make a new life out of nothing. She managed to raise a smart and conscientious daughter whose children and grandchildren had opportunities beyond her wildest dreams. She is one of life’s unsung heroes.

To compare myself with her is to give myself laudable qualities that I will never have, because I’ve never had to struggle as she did.

I do give myself credit for working hard and putting to good use the resources given to me, but the fact remains that I had so much to start with. I’ve never had to live in poverty. I have had almost 20 years of formal education. And because this is 2011 and not 1925, I have at my disposal infinite resources to aid me in my daily battle with a new foreign language - dictionaries, textbooks, Google Translate. In any case, my new home country is so committed to foreign language education that the vast majority of people speak English. 

More to the point, I am not living here in Finland because I was forced to flee my homeland and seek a country – any country - that would take me in. I didn’t have to say goodbye to my hometown with 100% certainty that I would never return. I didn’t arrive here with little else than the clothes I stood up in and nowhere to live or work. On the contrary, this is the life I chose, with my eyes open, from a whole host of possible choices.

If Alexandra could see me now, I know she would be proud of me for who I am and what I’ve achieved to this point. There would also be times when she would surely want to remind me how much I have, how relatively easy I have it, and that any time I feel like whining I should shut my mouth and count my blessings.


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Being My Own BFF (seriously??)

Recently, someone close to me commented that I try so hard to be kind to others, but am unkind, even brutal, towards myself. That comment (which was spot on) has been on my mind ever since.

If a mum friend is upset about her 2 year old’s behavioural issues, I am quick to sympathize and reassure – ah, the terrible twos; it’s so hard, isn’t it?; don’t worry, it’s just a phase and it will pass soon; you’re a great mum and are doing everything right; don’t beat yourself up.

If my own 2 year old is throwing epic tantrums, deliberately breaking and spilling and throwing things, biting her sister, and generally pushing more boundaries than I knew existed, do I treat myself as I would a mum friend? – take a deep breath and reassure myself that this is perfectly normal and no cause for real concern?

Hell no!

I review my parenting and find every instance of poor performance, curse myself for not being more consistent/patient/effective as a mother, and wonder in all seriousness whether going back to working 12 hour days outside the home, and substituting my parenting with that of a full-time nanny, would be far better for their development.

If I am trying to speak Finnish (the language spoken here in Finland, where I’ve lived for 18 months now), and I hear myself screwing up basic grammatical structures and grasping for words that should be more than familiar to me by now, do I cut myself some slack, thinking “Come on, it’s not an easy language, and at least you’re trying”, or do my thoughts sound something more like, “Oh, you’re pathetic! You know you aren’t putting enough time into learning this language, and you are humiliating yourself and your family with your half-arsed efforts.”

I have always believed in self-discipline and tough self-love, and that I should be my own harshest critic. If I am not there to keep myself in line and administer swift kicks up the backside when necessary, who will be? Without harsh self-criticism, surely I would quickly sink into a big pool of laziness and over-confidence.

The thing about “tough love”, though, is that ultimately it is supposed to be about love. I think about the way I talk to myself, and I realize, I don’t hear any undertones of love here (or even like, for that matter!) I am my own personal Gordon Ramsay. My own Horrible Boss. A person I would never be friends with.

Yikes.

So, how is it supposed to work? How do I keep myself disciplined and efficient and able to see and correct my own faults, yet not be so hard on myself that I am constantly disappointed in my own life performance? How do I learn to be a kinder and better friend to myself?


Sunday, October 16, 2011

Enjoying the journey

For most of my life I’ve been a results-focused person. One of those “are we there yet?” types, who is all about the destination, not the journey. Stopping to smell the roses fills me with impatience and makes me worry that I’m wasting time on unproductive self-indulgence. I struggle to embrace the joy of the moment without anxiously wondering if it’s going to advance my career or teach my kids some valuable lesson; whether my investment in this particular activity will build and shape me as a person. I watch people who are pursuing some activity just for fun, and feel a kind of pathetic, wistful envy. Somewhere along the line my strong work ethic raged out of control, strangling my feeble sense of fun, beating into submission my ability to enjoy leisurely pursuits.

You will be relieved to hear that there is hope for me yet. Lately, I have been trying to calm down a bit; to restrain my work ethic long enough to hear what my poor beaten-down impulse for fun and enjoyment has to say for itself. I have – gasp – started allowing myself to do things just because I want to. 

Just the other day I undertook an activity that was voluntary, time-consuming, and without any higher purpose. I turned my daughter into her hero, Ahsoka Tano from Clone Wars.

My 6-year-old had been invited to a friend’s Star Wars birthday party. It was, of course, a costume party. Shops sell any number of Darth Vader/Clone Trooper/Anakin Skywalker costumes, but there was no way Miss 6 was dressing up as a boy. Suddenly, I heard myself say, “Why don’t we try to make you a costume?” Even more surprisingly, I found that I was quite excited about the idea - even when Miss 6 announced, eyes shining, that she wanted to be Ahsoka.

For the uninitiated, this is what Ahsoka Tano looks like:


“Holy crap!” you might say (I know I did). I knew from the outset that my creative skills (not to mention my sewing skills) would be stretched to their limits, and I wasn’t wrong. However, I felt an uncharacteristic lack of panic in the face of this creative challenge. I felt energized. Happy, even! I gave it a bit of thought. I gathered old tights, an old brown t-shirt, felt, pipe cleaners, face paint. I put my almost-forgotten back-stitch into action. Several times I changed my design plan when it became clear that things were headed south.  I spent an inordinately long time on this costume, and in what was a big revelation to me, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole process – much more than I’d expected.

And finally, it was finished:


I know, I know. I’m not about to score any contracts from ToysRUs. The head-dress isn’t quite right, and neither is the belt, and if this photo was a bit bigger you'd be able to see the messy stitching, plain as day.

None of that matters.

Miss 6 was absolutely delighted, and so was I! I had done something I didn’t know I could do, and the result was (I think) at least passable – but here’s what really surprised me most – for once in my life, the quality of the result honestly didn’t matter all that much to me. I had allowed myself to do something just for the joy of doing it.

Finally, I have started to get a glimmer of understanding about enjoying the journey. There may be hope for me yet.



Thursday, October 13, 2011

White Bikinis and Happiness


It was a beautiful summer's day, and I was at the swimming pool with my kids. Actually, we had finished swimming, and had even showered and dressed, but they still wanted to play for a while at the token by-the-pool playground. They were clearly exhausted from their afternoon of energetic splashing, and my own resources of patience and kindness were severely depleted. After two falls from playground equipment, one refusal to leave alone an abandoned half-empty juice box despite my five separate requests (crescendo-ing to all-out yelling and pulling away of small hands), not to mention a whole lot of whining, I snapped, “OK, that is ENOUGH. One more minute and we’re going!”

Then, suddenly, Emily said, “Look, there’s C’s mommy!” (C is a girl in her class at pre-school).

I looked where she was pointing and I saw C’s [single parent] mommy, and I tried not to let my jaw drop too obviously. She was wearing a very small, white bikini, and credit where credit’s due, she looked fantastic in it. She was spreading out her towel on the grass next to a stunningly attractive man – tall, tanned, sun-bleached blonde hair, white teeth… the full stereotype. She looked happy and relaxed and in love, and literally no more than 22 years old. I pictured myself – cheap and fairly unflattering sundress; hair pulled back under an old cap; flip-flops; flushed and sweaty from trailing my kids around the playground and yelling intermittently at them.

A feeling of intense jealousy hit me like a barb.

What I would have given, at that moment, to be feeling that young and loved-up. Out somewhere with a man who had eyes only for me. Out somewhere without my children and able to think of myself as a woman rather than a mom. Out somewhere just kicking back and lying in the sun — not running errands or doing housework and, for that moment, not responsible for any other person except myself. Wearing a WHITE BIKINI, for God’s sake, and not having to worry that my two-year-old might yank at it and give me a public wardrobe malfunction, or that I might distractedly perch my butt on a dirty spot while helping small people with sunscreen/swimsuits/towels/toys/snacks.

I didn’t say hello or try to catch her attention. She didn’t need to be brought back down to reality when she was quite clearly on cloud nine.

I did go home bad-tempered and irritable, feeling low for a couple of reasons. Keenly aware of the fact that, at that moment, I would have gratefully welcomed a break from my kids and all my other usual responsibilities, I felt selfish and guilty. Not only that, though — I felt low because I could see blissful happiness written all over C’s mom’s face, and I could not remember the last time I had felt like that.

Big plans, small children, and airports

In my last post, I talked about the personal crossroads I found myself at a year ago, when I was tossing up whether to be a full-time stay-at-home mom or rejoin the paid workforce. In the end, I decided that I would try staying home with my (then) almost-2-year-old and my 5 year old. This was the right decision for me, and I'm glad that I took the plunge and did it. For years I'd felt that I had been spending too little time with my girls, and I had felt increasingly sorrowful at outsourcing most of my role as their mother. I needed to know what it would really be like to be a SAHM.

My stay-at-home experiment has been, in many ways, a success, in terms of what I've gained from it and what I've learned. I certainly have had plenty of time with my children, and in many ways this has been good for all of us. I've been able to get to know my kids properly for the first time. I am now able to understand anything my younger daughter says, even if it is unintelligible to others. I can instantly identify references they make to things we have done or seen, no matter how obscure they are ("Mommy, 'member - the music was gone at the train station!" or "Can we go back to that park with the spider web?") I have been getting better at the day-to-day challenge of being a mom. We have had some wonderful times playing together - talking, making each other laugh, hugging fiercely. There have been many moments of sudden awareness that I am experiencing one of life's true highlights, and that I would have been denied that joy if I'd been at work.

And yet, it has remained painfully clear to me that I need to do more with my life than look after my children. I feel like a terrible person for saying that, but it is the truth. I wish I was that nicer and more patient and more resilient person who could have stuck out the SAHM life a bit longer than one short year, but I just don't think I am. Already months ago I started to feel burnt-out and depressed at the endless minutiae that must be carefully completed every day, and often several times per day - feeding, dressing, hand-washing, face-wiping, tooth-brushing, calming, comforting, cajoling, and so on (and on, and on...) My husband has travelled overseas extensively for his work, and consequently I have spent many weeks as (effectively) a single parent. It has become harder and harder to be patient about my 2 year old's inability to remember simple rules and follow them. The whining, the crying, and the epic tantrums have worn me down (and let's not even mention bedtime, except to say that "Go the F*ck To Sleep" was surely based on real-life encounters between my younger daughter and me). Even my 5 year old, who spends most days at preschool, and is anyway pretty well-behaved for her age, has had some memorable moments of defiance.

Many a time I've wished I could just settle down and be fully present in the moment, as they say, but what I have learned about myself in the past year is that I am a better parent when I'm not doing it 24/7.

Last month, my younger daughter started going to daycare for part of each weekday, after my husband and I concluded that it would be better for both of us if someone else looked after her for part of the time. After a tearful start (her and me both), she started doing really well, to my immense relief. My parenting burden has been significantly lightened, I am a better parent during the hours she is at home with me, and - the icing on the cake - I am now free to pursue something else for several hours each day. I have been thinking seriously about getting back into the legal world.

The thought excites me and fills me with dread, in equal measure. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have been having intense and exhausting dreams lately. Last night, I was at an airport, about to leave for a business trip to the US. Many things about the situation were chaotic and stressful. I couldn't figure out where in the vast airport I needed to be for check-in. I wasn’t sure what time the plane took off. The pages of my voluminous itinerary were hopelessly out of order. Finally, with less than half an hour until take-off, I found where I needed to be, checked in, and was waiting for my plane. Suddenly, my name was being called over the PA system, with the message that there was an urgent phone call for me. It was my mother, who was looking after the kids while I was on my trip. She said that she’d let my younger daughter choose whether to have some candy or to have Mommy back instead, and she had chosen Mommy, so please could I come home straight away? “No!” I yelled into the phone, stunned that I was even getting this call, “Absolutely not! I can’t!” “But your work will still get done”, rationalized my mum. “No it won’t! How will it??” I shrieked, furious at the intrusion, devastated at not being there for my child.

Mom pointed out that I hadn’t even said goodbye to my little girl, and had left during her nap, so that she had woken up to find Mommy gone. I was gutted, and couldn’t believe I had done this, but in the dream it felt as though this was in fact the truth - that I had heedlessly put work before family.

Eventually, we somehow agreed that Mom would rush to the airport with my daughter, and that I would take her with me. I made a mad dash to meet them somewhere near the airport - in what turned out to be a desolate wasteland, complete with tumbleweeds - and we rushed back to the terminal.

I breathlessly explained at the airline counter that I was checked in on the flight that was about to leave and that my bags were on the flight, and could I still make it on board?

But in the distance I saw a plane taking off, and my final thought before waking up was "oh no…"


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

One year ago - a crossroads

For several years I worked as a lawyer, and had two little girls along the way. Each time, I took several months' maternity leave, but felt compelled to throw myself back into the fray sooner rather than later. The story I told my older child (once she was old enough to start asking, regularly and in plaintive tones, why Mommy had to go to work) was that Mommy and Daddy had to work to earn money to buy all the things we needed to live our life -- food, clothes, her toys...  This, of course, was only part of the story. The truth was that I was ambitious, and competitive, and hungry for challenge, and I wanted to stay in an environment that fulfilled all these needs in me.


After having my second child, somehow it got harder to muster up the same level of ambition and drive that had come so easily to me before. I felt more guilty and sad than before about leaving my kids with a nanny. I felt more irritated than before at various tough and frustrating aspects of my job. I started to realize that a second income was probably no longer essential to our family's short-term financial security.


It was at this point, a bit over a year ago, that our family relocated overseas for my husband's work. I found myself unemployed, and at a crossroads. I realized, with sudden clarity, that I was completely free to choose whether or not to find another job outside the home, or whether to stay at home full time.


You’d think that any mother, feeling dispirited about paid work and suddenly given the choice to look after her two small children herself,would jump at the chance. No more reliance on daycare or nannies. Endless quality time with her babies, where previously that time had been scarce and longed-for.


To be honest, though, I found myself torn, and unable to decide what to do.


By this time, I had invested so much time and energy into my career — I had studied for years and worked my ass off as a junior associate; I had given up countless evenings and nights and weekends and holidays to my job. It was as though all these years I had been diligently putting pennies into a big piggy bank, and now, just as the piggy was starting to get satisfyingly heavy and full, I was contemplating heaving it into a deep gorge, never to be retrieved.


There were times that my work had, admittedly, been just plain hard and frustrating, and times when the work-life balance issues had seemed insurmountable. However, at other times the work had been challenging and intellectually stimulating, and moments of success had been exhilarating. Fundamentally, I had loved being an attorney. I had even become reasonably proficient at it over the years, and had regularly received confidence-building positive reinforcement from my colleagues and clients.


The thought of taking myself out of the game at this point was hard to swallow, to say the least.
For the first few months after our relocation, by default I was the one at home with the kids. We went to the park together every day, and played and played and played. I prepared all their meals myself. I washed and ironed all their clothes. I bathed them and got to put them to bed myself every night.


It wasn't very long before I found myself thinking wistfully of my office at work - of sitting in complete silence, alone with my thoughts. Without my children.


My office had hardly been a haven of peace and harmony - in fact, almost every day had brought multiple high-stress situations to be dealt with - but it had nevertheless been completely free of situations like: preparing dinner with one hand and holding/trying to calm a screaming infant with the other hand, while being shadowed around the kitchen by a preschooler with a runny nose asking an endless, whining stream of questions and pushing story books under my nose. I discovered that, for stay-at-home moms with small children, each day is full of moments like these, which stretch your multi-tasking skills to their limits, and try your patience to its very ends. I soon learned why so many stay-at-home-moms confessed to drinking quite a lot of wine after their kids were in bed.


And another thing - I’d never before felt so inadequate and incompetent at anything as I felt at being a full-time parent. I rarely felt that I’d managed to do something perfectly; I judged myself constantly and felt that I should be able to do better. Small children have a way of moving the goalposts just as you’re kicking the ball, but I felt as though I was the parent and therefore should still be able to predict which way the ball should be aimed. And every time I shouted at my kids for bad behavior, I felt so low -- because I was unable to control my temper, but also because I felt that their bad behavior was surely a direct reflection of sub-par parenting skills -- mine. I wondered if my children would be better off being cared for by someone else -- someone with more skill, more patience, and, quite simply, with more of all those admirable qualities that would help to turn my children into happy, grounded, well-behaved, balanced individuals. I started to think - am I selfish and deluded to think that having Mommy around is the be-all and end-all? Is Mommy-Trying-Her-Best in fact not even close to what they need?


However, spending time with my girls did also bring amazing, priceless moments (on a good day, multiple times), and each time I experienced one of those moments I would think, how on earth could I possible give this up? How could I go back to a life where for most of every day someone else gets to live these moments, not me? Those moments when my toddler climbs into my lap and kisses me fervently, and snuggles up for a long hug. Those times when I'm reading a story with my 4-year-old nestled beside me, and out of the blue she makes an innocent, highly incisive observation that startles me and fills me with loving pride and admiration. Those afternoons when I'm baking cookies with my kids, and their faces are lit up with happiness and total absorption in the task. Those moments when my older child whisks the younger one off to their shared bedroom and dresses them both up in unintendedly hilarious outfits, and they joyfully run out and start dancing around the living room, the 4-year-old confident in her skill as a prima ballerina, the toddler with all the grace of a hip-hopping baby elephant, both of them eagerly demanding applause and praise.


In small, perfect moments like those, I frequently felt their need for their mommy. I never failed to feel my own need for them.


Attorney vs Mother. At this crossroads in my life, I felt as though in choosing one life, I would have to give up the other, and I didn't want to give up either. Making myself available to my kids would make me unavailable to my clients and unavailable to satisfy any burning ambition inside of me, but making myself unavailable to my kids for large parts of the day would surely break my heart.


Put that way, the choice seemed like a total no-brainer. And yet, the decision still felt fraught, anything but easy. I sensed, perhaps accurately, that in choosing the door that in my heart of hearts I felt compelled to choose, I would be allowing the other one to slam shut, perhaps forever.


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Three years ago

It is 7 am, and I feel like I’ve already lived an entire day.

My small daughter woke up tearfully sometime around 4:30 am, and after a frustrating hour coaxing, demanding, and willing her to go back to sleep, we both realized it just wasn’t going to happen. So here we are, sitting on the sofa, picking at a bowl of dry, pre-breakfast cereal. I am trying to read her a story book while my eyes glaze over and I stifle yawn after yawn. Inexplicably, she doesn’t seem to share this state of semi-undead near-hypnotic tiredness. The minute I liberated her from her bedroom, she transformed from over-tired howling monster to sunny, wide-awake little pixie. And so here we are. And in an hour I have to be perfectly groomed and ready to meet clients; mentally sharp and ready to answer questions and defend criticism of my work—everything that I absolutely am not at this present moment.

I work in one of the Asian offices of a Big American Firm, where I’m held up as some kind of poster girl for Diversity With A Capital D. I am female (and blonde at that). I am a mother. I speak the local language. I laugh at being an unwitting poster girl, because I have started to believe that the whole idea of diversity in law firms is an impossible dream. The issue of why more women don't make partner causes much shaking of heads and much expensive workshopping within law firms.

Really, it's all very simple.

Clients paying $500+ per hour in legal fees have absolute discretion when it comes to timetables, work volume, and what time of the day they can call you on your cellphone. It is understood that you will be on-call 24/7, and ready to do whatever it takes to ensure client satisfaction. Clients don't care if you have children, a spouse, a sick dog, or a rare blood disorder. Well, maybe on a personal level they do, but the fact is that if you aren't up to the job, there is always someone else who is. And so it is that when you work for multiple clients simultaneously, you find yourself working long days and irregular hours.

It takes a special kind of commitment to work 12- or 15- or 20-hour days and pull all-nighters on a regular basis. It takes real dedication to prioritize work before children, spouse, ageing family members, childhood friends visiting for the first time in 20 years, Christmas, birthdays, everything. It requires a conscious hardening of the heart to live through weeks where you may not actually see your children for days on end (except perhaps asleep). It takes a special kind of person to be able to do this for years and years on end. Those who manage it are those who, ultimately, attain the Holy Grail of partnership.

I don’t know very many women—especially women who are mothers—who are willing to make that kind of sacrifice for the sake of their career. I am starting to suspect that I am not one of those women. I’ve just stuck it out a bit longer than most in the vain hope that I could do things differently, that somehow I could prove that the rules could be bent and changed into something more human, and because I have worked SO hard to get to this point and cannot bear the thought of throwing in the towel and having it all come to nothing.

And yet only this morning, before dragging myself out of bed at 4:30 to console my sobbing little girl, I had shut down my laptop at 1:30 after completing an urgent re-draft of an agreement and listening to my boss deliver his rambling, stream-of-consciousness comments at me on my cellphone for close to an hour. So much for doing things differently. The only thing I did differently from anyone else in my office was to go home before 9pm. It’s not like I stopped working earlier than everyone else, and then once I got home there was a whole different world of work waiting for me—my other job, as a parent.

I am 32 years old, and I am exhausted to the core of my being.

And yet I stubbornly plough on. I studied and worked so hard to get where I am now. My education and training cost me years of time, not to mention a whole lot of money. For years it was my dream to be good enough to be here—a lawyer at a big firm, among the elite percentage of the population who made it to this point—brainstorming with brilliant legal minds, working for sophisticated clients whose deals make headlines in international financial publications, pursuing excellence. And now that I’m here, I can't help thinking again and again of a story one of my colleagues told me:
Once upon a time there was an ambitious law student. He studied hard and graduated in the top 5% of his class. He secured a position at a top US law firm. He worked his ass off and fast-tracked it to partnership. Within months of being admitted to the partnership, he quit, to everyone's astonishment. When asked why, he said, "I realized that making partner was like winning a pie-eating contest, where the prize was getting to eat even more pie. I am done eating pie."