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I recently met a new employee who had just come back from her Peace Corps service and was quickly jumping into the American work force.  I asked her, “How are you doing?  Do you need anything?”  I was also trying to read her body language for any clues.  I was in the Peace Corps in Senegal, West Africa nearly 12 years ago, and it was both amazing and crazy hard.  

On my way home, I started to laugh about how “hard and rewarding” Peace Corps really was.  One of the Peace Corps tag lines is “The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love.”  I used to believe that with every bone in my body… until I became a mom.  Now, I think these two jobs are neck and neck in my life’s history as being “hard and rewarding,” and they are also incredibly similar.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized that these two crazy role-shifting positions run parallel.  Hear me out.

The days are long, but the years are short

You want to know a long day?  Spend 18 waking hours with a group of people that speak to you in a language you have never heard, while bent over a field of peanuts or bucket of your laundry in 120 degree heat with nothing but the little voice in your head to keep you company. Yeah…. those were LONG days.  Sometimes I thought they would never end, and resorted to “X-ing” them off a calendar at one point.  I’ll never forget having a total mental breakdown after three months thinking, “This is going to be my life for almost 2 more YEARS??”

Another long day you might recognize:  Jumping Bean woke up at 5:15am, is now on having tantrum #7, Lebowski is teething and freaks out if you don’t hold him every second, you just need to brush your teeth to feel human … and you are thinking, “It’s ok… breathe.  It’s probably about about 11, and then it’s lunch and NAP!  Woohoo!”  You check the clock, … and?  You find that it’s only 8:00 am, and you cry a little bit on the inside.  

Both of these types of days have driven me to partake in a vice of some sort… usually a stiff drink.  (I will say motherhood has one up on Peace Corps due to my not having access to any sort of alcohol in my mud hut.)  But the second part is also true:  The years are short.  I felt like I had barely started my work when it was time to leave Senegal, and I look at my little Jumping Bean and think, “3 years old?  Really?  How did that just fly by?”

Learning a new culture

Immersing yourself in an entirely new culture is such a fun, yet exhausting, experience.  Arriving in Senegal, I had to learn a new spoken language (or two), different body language, new foods, new customs, and norms that were very different than my own.  It took time, and I was always going to be an “outsider”… no matter how many late night drum circles I joined or women’s farming groups I participated in.

But don’t we nearly have to do the same thing with kids?  From day one, you are thinking, “Um…. ok… you are crying and clearly upset, but I have no idea what you want!  I just fed you, your diaper is clean… what is going on?”  And then you get that piece down, and they walk… then they talk… then they are toddlers…, and on and on. Often you are both staring at each other thinking, “How in the world can we ever understand each other?”  So you read books, and you talk to friends, and you get on some websites to figure out how to hear and speak this new language.  And the “customs?”  Jumping Bean refuses to wear shorts when it’s 95 degrees outside, but she will request short sleeves and flip flops when the snow is coming down.  Honestly, not matter what ages your kids are, I think we are constantly having to learn their language while shifting our communication “norms” to interact with them productively, and it’s hard!  It takes energy to speak and act in a way that is not naturally your style.  And we do it ALL DAY LONG when we are with them.

What’s really important to my life

Both experiences provide you with some unexpected clarity, I believe.  In Senegal, I spent so much time in my head and heart while being extremely far from the things I loved most.  It became clear to me how important my family was, how lucky I was to be healthy, and how grateful I needed to be for my blessed life.  When I became a mother, I had to go through another sort of identity crisis to realize who this “new person” was, and what really mattered.  At that time, it’s clear you cannot live life as you did before, nor keep the same things on your plate.  You suddenly shift into a mode of “What really matters now?”…. and for me those thoughts have been quite similar to the thoughts I had in Africa.  Family matters so much, my kids will always come first, and I need to be grateful for my health and happiness.

And laughter.  Laughter has continued to feel like a very important piece of my life, and I’m continually reminded how a good belly laugh can bring me back those valuable perspectives.  Mostly for sanity’s sake… but no need to focus on the real reason.

Becoming a better version of “Me”

I really do believe that the hard times teach us the most about ourselves. It’s during those periods in our lives when we are forced to ask some truly difficult questions and dig down deep in our souls to find the true answers.  Those times take us outside of our comfort zone and can be painful, but we come out with sometime beautiful on the other side:  A stronger and truer version of ourselves.

At the closing of my Peace Corps service, I can honestly say I sunk my teeth into a few standards that I still hold dear:  I will always be grateful internally and to others, I was incredibly lucky to have been born into such an amazing family and life as a free woman, Most TV really is stupid, I adore working with people, All children are equally fun and excited about life from the get-go,  and everyone should travel to somewhere in the developing world some day to see another reality.

Since being a mom, I believe my hubby and kids have helped me develop in a few more areas, including:  Learning how to set better boundaries with work and my social life, accepting my faults or shortcomings with more grace, appreciating how individual and special we each are, gaining a new level of respect and love for my own mother, accepting others more and judging less, how it will be just fine if we don’t eat perfectly healthy meals or workout all the time, and that most of the time you have to “let it go.”  And I’m sure I have much more to learn as I go.

Here’s to each of us becoming the best versions of ourselves as we navigate life’s adventures.  And hey- indulge in a stiff drink if need be.  You’ve earned it.