(Editor's Note: Liisa Ogburn, a Raleigh mom, shares the story of how she and two other moms got back on track - professionally).
“What do you mean you can’t do anything?” Helen lowered her glasses. “You’re a great writer.” I cut her off, “Stop.” Helen continued, “It’s me who can’t do anything…” “Bunk!” Virginia jumped in.
Let me back up. Virginia, Helen and I have known each other for four years, but it’s only in the last eight months that we’ve come to really know each other. We met volunteering at the Exploris Middle School dance when our kids were in the sixth grade. We exchanged stories while taking in entrance fees, serving slices of cheese pizza, and later putting up chairs. But the questions were light and our conversation rarely strayed from safe, common ground. That is, until the middle school graduation party three years later.
When the kids went outside, Virginia mentioned that she wanted – she needed -- to find her “second act,” but was completely daunted. “You?” Helen and I said. Then we both admitted that we felt “stuck,” too. That afternoon, for the first time, a few of our more vulnerable stories poured out.
Sure, from the outside, folks might assume that we each had it “together.” At one point, we may have even felt that way ourselves in our respective fields (engineering; creative design; and event planning). But over the last decade, our larger professional lives had slowly conformed to part-time jobs that fit within the constraints of being the primary caregivers in families that contained both children and parents to take care of. We had each learned exactly what to say when our children suffered a skinned knee, a lost friendship, or a big disappointment and when our in-laws suffered a difficult or fatal diagnosis. But did we direct that same compassion towards ourselves when professional setbacks arose? No.
Ironically, as our kids grew into articulate, capable and confident young people, we ourselves grew into the inverse of that. It’s an old story, but one none of us had anticipated for ourselves. But here we were.
At that graduation barbecue, we shared these feelings and some goals we thought would get each of us back on track, professionally and personally. “What if we start an accountability circle?” I suggested. “What’s that?” Helen asked. “Kind of like Weight Watchers,” I said, “except aimed at our professional goals.” They were both game.
And so, last September, with fresh notebooks, we met at Yellow Dog Bakery right after morning kid drop-offs to map out the coming eight months. We each started with one long-term, seemingly impossible goal (starting a new business, completion of a professional training program at Duke, a significant body of writing) and then broke those goals down.
Then each week, for one hour (20 minutes per person), we held each other to task for achieving the sub-goals. That first week (after reading the Japanese book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” at Cameron Village Library), we texted each other pre- and post-pictures of our reorganized home offices.
The next, we tackled technology challenges, revised LinkedIn profiles and updated bios and resumes. Since physical health contributes to mental health, we added weekly goals related to exercise, mindfulness, and diet. To keep the meetings fresh, we changed the venue every two weeks.
After Yellow Dog Bakery, there was Brew, then Boulted Bread, The Night Kitchen, Benelux, Jewel, Lucette Grace... Finally, into the mix, we also threw helpful podcasts (like Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on Body Language; Maria Popova’s “Brainpickings;” Krista Tippett’s “On Being”), books, recipes, personal stories and even poems (like “The Journey,” by Mary Oliver). As winter turned to spring, we had each made significant headway. Our goals were suddenly within sight.
It’s important to say it was not all forward-moving. We’re human and so when in-laws were in the hospital, kids were out of school or one of us became sick, we gave each other some slack (and needed support). While we always did check in on weekly goals (sometimes by text), we allowed a little more play in the agenda. There was time for laughing and crying, encouraging and listening to one another.
And now it’s June and eight months later. School is out and the kids back at home fulltime. And each of us are not far from achieving the goals we set out to do. Now we should no longer need these weekly get-togethers.
But this is real life: messy and imperfect and joyful. And somewhere along the way, we discovered that what we thought we needed most, a renewed sense of professional confidence and competence, paled beside what we got - friendship for a lifetime.
Liisa Ogburn is a Raleigh mom of three, writer and documentarian.