A question I get with some frequency is: “How do you do it?” It is usually followed by some more specifics: “have a demanding job and raise three kids” “have a two parent working house and be involved in so many activities” or “have a job, a teenager and a toddler.” The honest answer is I don’t really know. There are enablers but it’s a fluid and personal process. For me, what makes it possible continuously changes as my life unfolds and I evolve. One key constant remains the inspiration I draw from people who demonstrate through their lives what is possible.
When I was 39, my dad completed a project he had to wait to retirement to find the time to do. It was the story of his childhood to share with his four daughters and at the time two grandkids. Many of the players within his story inspired me. I was named after my father’s mother (and in a bit of cosmic humor look just like my mother’s side of the family). Her story was of particular interest to me. In my father’s accounting, events that happened to my grandmother when she was 39 are pivotal to the family.
My father is Dutch. His family live in Indonesia, a former Dutch colony, when he was born and during his early years. My grandmother was the same age I was reading it when she was forced to flee Indonesia with her five children. Her children ranged in age from 13 to an infant. She ended up in Australia and had to make a new life for herself as a single parent. She needed to learn a new language and raise her kids, three boys and two small daughters, in a foreign country. And do it all while dealing with the unthinkable.
Her husband, my grandfather, was captured by the Japanese and was likely dead or in a concentration camp. My grandmother lived a rather sheltered life up to that point. She was a stay at home mother. And as was common in that place and time, she had help around the house for the kids, the cooking and the cleaning. In violent series of events, she was thrust into a harsh reality. She lived in a foreign place with no husband and no means of support with five anxious offspring.
I thought about how that compared to my life at 39. I also recently had to move to a new city with my two boys, four and eight, without their father. He stayed behind because of his work for the first year. I had a different job to learn, a home to settle in and kids to adjust into a new place and new school. Their father came out every 10-14 days for a long weekend. I struggled as a single parent to keep it all going when my husband was away. It was often lonely and hard. I found my life was reduced to splitting time between trying to “get it” at my job, which was quite demanding, and parenting my two boys. There was little time for anything else. I felt stressed and stretched most of the time.
When I thought about what it must have been like for my grandmother, I can only see the chasm between what she faced and what I had to manage. I don’t know how I would have found the strength to get up each day and the face the horrors of what might be happening to my husband (if he was alive) and the uncertain future for myself and my kids. I don’t know how I would have provided for my children who needed me to be both parents to them as our lives took this unexpected, terrible turn. But my grandmother did it somehow. Her five children retained a special closeness to her even though she was not always as easy woman. They were willing to go the extra mile for her until she died in her nineties. I believe the bonds she forged by being their rock through what is beyond comprehension left an indelible, lifelong impression. Below is a picture of my grandmother and her five kids.
I am inspired by my “Oma” who set the bar very high for any balancing act I might try to achieve. How do I do it, you might ask? One reason is my grandmother showed me what is possible.