One day in October 1991, I was standing at the kitchen sink, blankly staring out the window and I was crying. Because of math. We had just finished another boring meal in what had become a string of boring meals. My oldest child was just four years old and still in love with macaroni and cheese at every meal — boring. For some reason, I began to calculate how many meals lay ahead of me. Let’s see ... three meals a day, 365 days a year for oh, I don’t know — 30 years. ... And that’s when I started to cry because the answer is 32,850.
And that’s before I knew teenagers eat 4 or 5 meals a day!
Excuse me, universe — where’s the off-ramp? I don’t remember signing up for this part of adulting.
A few years later, I remember having a hard parenting day. I was overwhelmed by the demands of being the mother of a large family, of having children with disabilities, of trying to keep the house clean — which Erma Bombeck once said was trying to shovel the sidewalk while it was still snowing — and how real life wasn’t matching with the fairytale I had imagined parenting would be. I know, I know. How cute, Holly.
Trying to find 5 seconds to myself, I barricaded myself in the bathroom and called my mom. She listened to me complain about how hard everything was and then reminded me:
“Well, sweetheart, you chose this.”
Doggone it. She was right. I HAD chosen to become a parent. I HAD chosen to adopt children from orphanages. I HAD chosen to follow my heart. And I’m not sure why, but right along with choosing to follow my heart, I think I had an unspoken expectation that because I had, life would then be easy.
It’s OK. You can laugh.
But let’s think about it for a minute. How often have you heard a version of the following?
Follow your heart! Pursue your passions! Live your dreams! Only do work you love!
Yes? Me too.
I’m not knocking that. In fact, I’m all about big goals, vision boards, affirmations and passion projects. I’ve followed my heart and chosen to adopt. I’ve followed my passion and chosen to volunteer in developing countries. I’ve lived my dream of pursuing formal education by choosing into a challenging academic path and now, at age 55, I am a second-year PhD student.
But. Just because we choose a path — or even part of a path — doesn’t mean that we glide straight into bliss.
What those pithy quotes don’t tell you is what happens in the trenches. The real stuff that might not be so pretty. That following your heart can be hard. That it can be messy and painful and make you wonder what you’re doing wrong because surely, everyone else has it figured out. That sometimes following your passion first lights you up, then burns you out.
And what almost no one talks about or even considers is what happens when there is no off-ramp. What about those circumstances, chosen or thrust upon you when you simply can’t take time off? Parenting. Entrepreneurship. Marriage. Working two entry-level jobs just to keep a roof over your head.
Here’s the thing: Even when we are able to “follow our hearts and live our dreams” we can follow them right into the trenches of burnout. It can sap our mental, physical and emotional energy and suck the joy right out of living. We are left listless, exhausted and cynical. We get sick more often, we can’t sleep or we sleep all the time and we start to have trouble with even the most mundane tasks. And, perhaps most importantly, burnout causes us to lose our ability to care.
Life is full of paradoxes. Following your heart can lead to burnout. Pursuing a big goal can be discouraging and really hard. Pouring yourself into caregiving can cause you not to care. So yes, follow your heart — but protect it too.
Holly Richardson has chosen to do many hard things — some knowingly and some unaware. Math still makes her cry.