At the age of twenty-four, I left my parents at the Ottawa airport with a promise that I would be back in eight months after completing my masters’ coursework at the University of Helsinki. Ten years onward, I completed my masters, got married, had two children, and published a PhD which I will defend this coming November. When people ask me, ‘why did you choose Finland?’, I now simply reply ‘it seems Finland chose me’.
Last October, I travelled to Winchester, a small town 50 kilometers south of Ottawa, for the first time in three years. I knew before leaving Helsinki and when I arrived in Winchester that something inside of me had drastically shifted. I wasn’t as restless and anxious as I was before I left ten years ago or when I came home over three years ago. I was more comfortable with who I chose to be, and I could watch contently as my children played in my parents’ backyard and fields where I spent so much of my childhood. I also felt that I could see my parents for the first time as more than just my parents but as their own people with dreams, aspirations, and worries. Before, I was so caught up in my own need to prove myself to my family that my visions were set on the future rather than reflecting on the present and past.
Finland, where the cultural motto is ‘silence is golden’, gave me a space to reflect on my internal narrative. The culture of ‘continuous education’ for life also gave legitimacy to my desires to ask questions, learn more, investigate, and write.
But, if I am to be deeply honest, it was establishing roots abroad, away from family, that pushed me to meet the ‘uncomfortable’ aspects of my identity and really get to know myself. My husband and I call these uncomfortable shifts ‘growing pains’ because they are emotional and physical. When I had my daughter in 2011, thousands of kilometers away from my culture and family, I knew I would not get through the present or future if I didn’t get to know myself better and embrace not only my strengths but also my weaknesses.
Since a very early age, I have had anxiety especially around sleep. Mostly, it has been about performing in school such as tests or presentations. Sometimes, the anxiety was so bad that I would take a sick day and miss the test. Then, the anxiety was manageable and short term. Later, I would write the test or present and continue on with a positive, easygoing disposition. I was lucky as I always had friends and a very supportive, loving family.
During my first semester of university in Ottawa, I was living alone and when writing exams, the anxiety of performing well was overwhelming. I didn’t sleep for days, and I am surprised that the exams were written and that I continued on to successfully complete the four-year degree. To get through these trying periods, I had many long conversations on the phone with my mom and friends, and this was probably a saving grace.
After my bachelor, I moved to Helsinki to start a masters. I remember my mom recalling after I got on the plane that I never looked back. At this point in my life, I was ready for change, but I could have never imagined how big the change would be.
Four months after moving, I met my husband and fell madly in love. And, as many of my friends and family know, he was the main reason I stayed in Finland. We wanted to make the relationship strong as we found many commonalities and support in each other. A few years later, we got married and that same year, I became pregnant with our first child.
Now, this is where the growing pains began! For many of you who have children, I am guessing that the first few months or even year was upside down. And, for a person, who has anxiety around sleeping, my mind and body went into havoc. Our baby exposed us to our rawest selves, and if we wanted this pain to subside, both my husband and I had to act. I would have never guessed that it would be a newborn that would force me to stop and get to know myself and my husband better. This self-reflection, coupled with being away from my culture and family, slowly began to ground our family unit in Helsinki, an unfamiliar environment from both our childhoods.
At this time, I started therapy and trying to change my internal narrative away from the external audience that I was so eager please and perform in front of. I had to refocus my goals of academic achievement and milestones (such as ‘before I am 30 years old, I should be….) and consider more about sustainable self-growth, compassion, and love.
My daughter is now five and a half, and I am constantly working on self-love and compassion. I still lose sleep before a big event or when I am out of my comfort zone. Many times, I have taken sleep medication because of this fear of the unknown or the loss of control. Now, with my public defense looming, my old friend anxiety peeks his worrisome head. Things that I worry about are ‘will people come to my public examination?’ ‘how will I perform on the day of the examination?’ ‘Will I sleep the night before?’.
All of these questions are uncomfortable and there is no quick, easy fix. But, what I have learned is by being candid and sincere about my limitations as well as compassionate to myself and others, the personal space and support of raising children and finishing my PhD abroad became possible. These are my dreams materializing. And, although we don’t want to admit to it, a lot of the times, it is ourselves that gets between us and our authentic needs and aspirations. Through the pressures of tomorrow, we need to reflect and listen to our internal narrative of the past and present by embracing the story for what it truly can be.
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