When the Shoe Doesn't Fit…

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My children happened upon the cartoon Cinderella last week. My mother and I were commenting about how darling it was…until the shoe fitting part. You know, the part where Cinderella’s foot glides into the shoe held by the prince. We women, who grew up in the US, have always celebrated Cinderella because she was the one chosen by the prince. We celebrated how she was saved by the “knight in shining armor”. As I watched that ending, I became increasingly perplexed by this concept that so many of us have bought into — the concept that we are worthy if and when we fit into somebody else’s model.  For women, especially for those of us who are working outside the home, I wonder if we are really walking in our shoes, contoured to the shape of our lives?  Or, are we still walking professionally, in ill-fitted shoes that haven’t truly formed to the female life. Is this making sense to the women reading this?
After my last child started kindergarten, I decided to really ramp up my professional work.  But unlike my pre-children life, I’ve committed to an integrated life, with children, husband, parental care and work, all at front and center. This integration reflects my core life values. However, the choice comes with a price.  Living this integrated life has created torment, and conflict with my Harvard Business School upbringing and the “shoulds” that come with that identity –am I maximizing the top and bottom line?  Am I living up to the expectations of an HBS entrepreneur who tends to heroically “give up all” on behalf of the business? Am I really serious about my business, if it hasn’t consumed my life?  I am certain that it’s not a lack of confidence or direction that makes me feel this way (trust me, I’ve explored this). I know I feel this way, in part, because the societal “shoe” about entrepreneurs (and serious female leaders) surely doesn’t look like me.  Just look at Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean in “ concept or the “Having It All” article by Anne Marie Slaughter or the initial questioning of Marissa Mayer’s commitment to her CEO job because she was pregnant. An integrated life does not = a committed person of true import.
For me, the “prince’s shoe” is about current standards of “true” leadership and professional commitment that don’t fit with my life choices. I’ve discerned where the shoe doesn’t fit for me. But, what is your “prince’s shoe”? What is that for you?  Are you feeling a need to “fit in”, yet every fiber of you says it just doesn’t feel right? The professional you believe you should be?  The marriage you think you should stay with? The parent you feel you should be? The look you think you should have?
This question of the fitted shoe is not just for women.  It is a question for every individual who seeks to live her or his best life.
Why do I go on about the need to define the shoe that truly fits your contours for comfort? Because when you live comfortably in your shoes, you will walk and run to places you never imagined possible. Imagine the comfort and happiness of walking in shoes that feel just right for you! It may not be the shoes others expect you to wear, but why live your whole life with your foot (and spirit) aching and hurting? Yet unknowingly, so many of us do it. Because we want to please someone else.  Because we’re afraid that we might “fail”. Because it means taking risks that may jeopardize material comforts.
Abundant research proves the longevity of satisfaction and success when people do work they love. Spiritual texts connote the idea of a spirit within us that yearns to create and be in joy. Stories of those in their deathbeds always speak to the importance of living a “real” life and the importance of relationships with loved ones.
Living your life based on what you really care about is easier said than done. I’m living proof of that. I’ve had to consciously create a system that works for me. I recognize its imperfections and tradeoffs. I still feel pulled to fit into an existing model that would be easily understood and applauded by others. I still struggle with making it all fit. But when push comes to shove, I am grateful for having made my choices. With every tweak and every effort, this “shoe of life” of mine has truly contoured to my body and spirit. Thankful am I that this these shoes will take me on my life’s journey. It’s taken some years of deep introspection and experimentation to get to this point. But right now, I revel in my footprints. I know every step is mine. Words can’t fully express the visceral freedom of this life choice.
For most humans, we’ll accept the shoe until it begins to make us limp. It’s just human nature to resist change until we hit some kind of wall. But if your shoe is beginning to feel not like yours, take time out of your overpacked life to listen to yourself. There’s always a part of you waiting to run and leap with joy in the fields of life. But that part of you will wait patiently, and forever, until you choose to welcome it in and take it for a walk. The early walks may be filled with trepidation. But fear not the fear. For you will also feel your heart in glee, thankful to bloom its happiness. Spring is here. When nature bids tree and flower buds to emerge. Perhaps…this is your time as well?