Everyone struggles at some point during their lives, but often women’s struggles or experience of struggle are unique. In honour of International Women’s Day on March 8, we asked women to share their stories of both trials and triumphs. Women’s stories and experiences are valid and important. Women’s wisdom is profound and deep. Let’s honour, support, and hold each other up. Let’s celebrate women and demand gender equity.

I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting over the past year, trying to figure out who I am and what I want to do. This is a common thing for people in mid-life, but it’s even more common for women as our children become adults. I spent the last two decades putting the best interests of my children first. I was a stay-at-home mom who homeschooled for a number of years. I felt guilty when I sent my kids to school and wasn’t very involved in their education or school. But I was already giving so much of my time to my community. 

I have enjoyed my community work, both volunteer and paid. I developed many valuable skills over the years. Yet, I always put myself last: work, family, friends; they all came first. Someone always needed something, or I had a long to-do list. Personal things like exercising and reading rarely made it to the top of the list. Days off or vacations without work were few and far between.

Since divorcing and becoming a single parent 11 years ago, I’ve lived under the poverty line. Another thing many women have in common, sadly. Despite being financially poor, I feel I’ve had a rich life. My children are now adults, and I’ve finally decided to start putting myself first. I want to travel. I want to pay off my mortgage before I’m 65. I want time to read, to exercise, and to hang with friends.

I stopped working for free. I started applying for jobs with salaries two to three times of what I earn now, the ones that I should be doing with my master’s degree and 20 years of community development experience. I don’t have any big career aspirations. I don’t even know if I’d be happy working such jobs. But that’s where I should be…right?

It’s where I would have been had I put career and work ahead of family and community. But the sad truth now is that my seven years of university are getting me nowhere, job wise. I have applied for dozens of career jobs and even just basic administrative jobs with little success. I have good self-esteem and I know I’m very skilled; however, it’s still hard on the ego. The career path not taken is likely not open to me anymore. And do I even want it? 

It’s hard to find your true self under all the familial, cultural, and societal expectations. Even when I know what I want, I often battle the “shoulds”. I should want a career. I should be excited to be a grandma. I should help that person in need. I recently realized I have an underlying worldview of “I don’t matter” that’s colouring everything. 

I take care of people and I do things that need to be done. These are admirable qualities, aren’t they? They’re certainly qualities that our society wants women to take on. Women are socialized to be caregivers. This impacts the careers they choose and the careers they don’t have because they choose to provide care. The impact this has on all aspects of their health—financial, physical, mental, and emotional—cannot be overstated.

Note to myself and all women: we need to take flight attendant safety instructions to heart. “Put your oxygen mask on first, before helping others.” 

Take care of yourselves first, because you matter, damn it!