Thursday, January 3, 2019

My love of travel

This article gave me all the feels today. It speaks to the courage of one woman but really speaks about all women because we have each taken a bold leap of faith at some point in our lives. I also happen to read it on the day the 116th Congress swore in a record breaking 127 women in to office which is a monumental milestone.

Me somewhere in Cappadocia
It is of no surprise that travel is my first love. I say that often and with pride. But I don't think anyone has ever asked my why. Reading this article brought up all the reasons in one sitting over dinner and I couldn't stop beaming as I glanced over at my husband and son. You see travel is the best life lesson I have ever had. I have learned more about myself on trips than I have living the day to day. 

Jada Yuan won the trip of a lifetime courtesy of the New York Times. They sent her to all of the 52 places to visit in 2018 and she got to cover them. After traveling for a year she had seven lessons to share. As I read her lessons, I couldn't help but think back to my earlier travel days and the lessons I learned as a result.

Lesson No. 1: A year is short
I remember when I decided to take six months off and move to Cambodia to volunteer. I knew the time would fly by but many around me were worried. Wasn't I scared to leave my life behind for six months? To be without my husband? To quit my job? Six months came and went much quicker than I could have ever anticipated. Technology allowed me to stay in touch with my loved ones on a daily basis. The hardest part was not being able to hug or kiss my husband and I am so grateful that he understood why I needed to do this for me. 

My apt in Birmingham, England
Lesson No. 2: Know thy logistical self
When I was moving to England, it was the first time I would ever be living by myself in a place of my own. I was a little too ambitious and being Pakistani I had to be extra prepared. My mom helped me pack dishes, pots, cutlery, along with clothes and other essentials. Two suitcases and a carryon later I was off! Well my thrifty self did not purchase a direct ticket and had a layover in Amsterdam. This layover was also where I needed to grab ALL my bags and recheck them for Birmingham. Navigating this was not as easy as I thought it would be. One of my bags rolled down the escalator and I was at the mercy of a complete kind stranger who brought up my tumbling bag to me. He didn't have to. I now only travel with a carryon or pieces I can carry with my two hands. 

Lesson No. 3: Develop your superpower
Like Jada, I used to be able to sleep anywhere, under any condition. My best friend hated me for it. It allowed me to wake up refreshed and ready to go no matter the conditions of the journey. This was always helpful when there were only a limited number of hours/days in any given city. 

Lesson No. 4: Try it
I won't try fruit but I tried a whole lot more during my travels. Couchsurfing. Being vulnerable with complete strangers. Bunjee jumping. Crash landing in a hot air balloon. Riding in a scooter and crashing but still managing to see a beautiful sunset. Taking a train alone in India. Eating all the street food. I have not regretted a single one of these decisions. 

Lesson No. 5: Learn what safe means to you
My gut is something I adamantly listen to even if it is annoying at times. As a solo female traveler, I may have erred on the side of over precautious at times but I always went with safe rather than sorry. Everyone has different barometers and that is ok so long as you listen because you know you best.

Strangers who became friends
Lesson No. 6: Still, talk to strangers
A stranger let me live with her for a whole week! While I had couch surfed plenty of times, I had never moved in with a complete stranger. That's exactly what happened in Cambodia on my first day at work. I had an apartment lined up but after arriving discovered that my landlord decided to gift it to his newly married son. And so I was homeless. I shared this with my new co-workers and one of them, Anjana, offered her bed to me while I looked for another place. So for seven days I shared a bed with a girl I had just met and it reaffirmed that the world is an inherently kind place. Many strangers, like Anjana, have become some of my closest friends and I would have never met them had I not talked to a stranger. 

Lesson No. 7: Alone does not mean lonely
Many people I know are afraid to travel alone. Traveling alone for me has been one of the greatest discoveries of life. Through it I learned about me. When else can you be with yourself and really get to know who you are? It is an experience that allows you to learn your comforts, your boundaries and your greatest fears. But after doing it you also realize your strengths. And with todays technology you are always connected to your loved ones. 

So why am I telling you all of this? Well I hope it convinces you to take that trip you always wanted to but found a million excuses not to or to go somewhere where everyone else thinks you are crazy for doing so. I guarantee the trip will change you for the better. The bigger issue is you'll never want to stop.  

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Back at work and figuring it all out

I went back to work on May 7th. The past four weeks have felt like an out of body experience. I don’t feel like myself for many reasons. For starters, my life revolves around my kid’s schedule. For a tiny person, there is a lot that is required. There is a schedule for pumping, a schedule for feeding, a schedule for sleeping, and a schedule for napping. Somewhere between all that I need to insert working, meetings, eating, getting dressed, errands and sleeping. Needless to say, it has been messy.

I am a fairly structured person but this has been challenging. Despite the required schedules, no two days are the same. I have left the house in mismatched shoes, with half my makeup on, without work documents, without pump parts and have basically had to make a u-turn for home many times in these first few weeks. When I used to see women put makeup on while driving, I just figured they were running late. Now I know they are probably mothers who took care of everyone else and ran out of time for themselves.

Speaking of, this has consequences. I was making it all work but becoming really angry and resentful towards my husband along the way. It’s tough to communicate this when there really isn’t a clean cut solution for the problem. And so I learned to be kinder to myself and ask for a lot of help. Asghar and I are trying to figure out the new balance every day.

I have also been running on discombobulated sleep cycles. Sometimes there are sets of three full hours, sometimes two and sometimes four. But hardly a full six or seven. After a week of very little sleep, I was a hot mess exhibiting symptoms like shaking, forgetfulness, exhaustion and headaches. I literally had to sleep in one morning to feel human again. I know this will pass but it is still painful. And more reason why maternity leave should be at least four or five months.

Then there is the physical aspect. I might have lost all the baby weight but I certainly don't look the same. I basically need to rebuild my core muscles again. Which means this will happen sometime in 2019!  In all seriousness, I still get random pangs by the incision and my waist is not what it used to be. Getting dressed in the morning is driven by comfort and what is most convenient for pumping which means most of my closet is useless right now.

I am also discovering the world of daycare. The first day did not go as I thought it would. But I did bring all the items on the checklist! Only to find out the list was recently changed by DCF and no one bothered to tell the parents?! Why isn’t anything clearly written? I want to volunteer to fix the orientation documents just so another mom doesn’t feel like a failure because of unclear directions. And then there is this etiquette dance. You want to be nice since they are taking care of your child but you also don’t want to feel pressured to do everything. Do I have to donate to a family I have never met? Do I need to stop and make small talk with everyone every day? I always leave with a guilty feeling; I have no idea why!

I am lucky that I make my own hours and can work from anywhere at any time. This flexibility has been immensely helpful in this time of chaos. But when 5:30pm rolls around, you will find me babbling and playing with my little guy and that will always be the best part of my day.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Motherhood: the good, the bad and the ugly

On Feb, 14 my life changed forever. My husband and I welcomed our beautiful son, Raza Ashraf Syed. 

Becoming a mom is an indescribable feeling. It is one of most selfless things women undertake. The love I feel for him is unlike any other love I have ever felt before. The first time I heard him cry, I cried. My heart literally feels like it is walking outside of my body. I want to do everything humanly possible to protect this little person while also making sure I am doing everything the right way for his future success. This comes with a lot of cheek cuddles and lots and lots horrible singing and baby talk. Nothing can top the first time Raza looked right at me and smiled.

But the first two weeks are hard. Really hard. I called them the zombie phase. They are such a test. The constant cycle of feed, burp, and diaper change make you realize why sleep deprivation is a form of torture. But once I came out of this phase I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. And really started believing that I could be a mom, maybe even a good one.

Physically, I am still recovering from bringing this little human in to the world and am now also responsible for keeping him alive without a manual! Every night I wear a wrist brace on my right arm because it now hurts from carrying the weight of my son. My husband helped me sit up every morning for weeks because I didn’t have the strength to do it on my own after delivering via c-section. I am immensely lucky because I had help. My mom came down for six weeks and my husband stayed home for four weeks. 

As a result, the daunting became manageable and we figured it out together. Single mothers are my heroes. Many women don’t have help or don’t feel comfortable asking. In fact, not only do they do this alone but one in five also suffer from post-partum depression. 

But seventy percent of these moms suffer silently and don’t seek treatment. Why might that be? Well we are a pretty judgmental society. We make women feel like they are lacking something or something is wrong with them if they haven’t  figured out how to handle it all.  I have had plenty of moments where I have cried because my baby wont stop crying or because all I desperately want is a 30 minute nap.  Motherhood isn’t all about cute babies and perfect women.

Sadly, mothers also experience a lot of judgement from other mothers. Did you get a c-section or deliver naturally? Do you breastfeed or use formula? We don’t really take the time to learn why women make the decisions they do. But we critique them for those decisions.

One of these decisions is going back to work. Some of us have the luxury of deciding. Others have no option but to go back. This week was my first full week back at work. I have immense guilt that I reconcile with on a daily basis. I believe a happy woman is a better mom and for me my happiness comes from my son and my work.

Out of all of the 41 OECD countries the US is the only one that does not mandate any paid leave for new parents. Only about 16% of employers offer fully paid maternity leave in the US. And that is for full time employees. I had six weeks paid and six weeks unpaid. We wonder why women are absent at the top of corporate America? I think the answer isn’t really that difficult. You have to value care-giving. When Google increased its paid leave from three to five months, the rate of female turnover after maternity leave reduced by 50%.

Paid family leave is also a good business practice. It increases retention and productivity. While researching examples for this talk, I came across Patagonia’s policies. They are the crown jewel of family leave. They implemented paid family leave 33 years ago and offer a child care facility on site.  For some, the cost of child care alone often leads them to stay at home. Three decades later they proudly celebrate the fact that 100% of their female employees who have had children came back.

Some of you may know Donna Orender, former President of the WNBA. She shared a story with me from her days as a new mother of twins. She was meeting with a Canadian executive on a major tv rights negotiation with Canadian broadcasters. She couldn’t get a sitter so the twins came to the meeting too. The boys were quiet but you could smell their diapers! Donna remained calm and secured the deal, using the smelly diapers as a negotiating ploy. The exec laughed and they have a great photo to commemorate the meeting. They are now great friends because of that meeting! I love that story.

Don’t be embarrassed or afraid. You have to be willing to normalize child rearing and still live your life. Raza has attended meetings with me. I have nursed him in these meetings. I have made it a point to talk about my new reality by being honest and by writing and in the process hopefully removing the stigma that all mothers have it all figured out. This has also been immensely therapeutic for me.

I was recently in Miami for a leadership program and chose to leave Raza behind with my husband. Because I am breastfeeding this meant creating a pumping schedule. Over the course of three days, I would have to disappear for multiple 30 minute chunks. Any time someone asked where I went, I proudly said I had to pump. Most of the men didn’t quite understand the undertaking and were astonished. But they now know. Share the good, bad and the ugly. Not just the baby photos.

Someone recently told me I make motherhood look easy. They implied that I have it all. What does having it all really mean? For me that means always having spit up in my hair, being in a constant state of frazzlement and feeling like I will never catch up. Maybe just maybe, if we stop pretending like everything is perfect, our workplaces will listen and American society will catchup.

No woman truly has it all. They have help. They have a village. They have become comfortable with the uncomfortable and they have figured out what works best for them and their family. So on this Mother’s Day don’t just send your mom a card and flowers, call her and tell her a story because you are her greatest gift and the best reward is seeing that you turned out ok because you know she is always going to worry about you.