And I… Am. Why Working On Our Character Is Enough by Cal Heath

My name is Cal Heath, and I… am.

In 2018, I pressed pause on my 15-year career as a research scientist to focus on family. Within twelve months, the question from strangers I had come to fear most was, ‘So, what do you do?’

‘No, no, no!’, my inner voice would scream.  How do I answer? My muscles would tighten, my breath catch in my throat. Fighting to remain composed, I would begin the pre-rehearsed spiel – the one about once being a scientist, but currently taking some time off to be with my children… Instantly, I would be seized by an impression that my interrogator’s eyes had glazed over; I was boring. We would smile awkwardly and look around the room for an escape. I would resume staring into my glass, he or she to seeking stimulating conversation.

And thus, for the period between 2018 and 2021, when I finally stumbled upon Stoicism, I would allow new conversations to end before they had had the chance to begin, because in my mind, I had nothing interesting to say. My first thought each time this happened; ‘I really must work on my Story’. It seemed that every LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter account I visited had some beautifully crafted paragraph trumpeting its owner’s accolades. This is fine, I would tell myself, you have a few accolades too that you can roll out… the only problem was, what should I write in the LinkedIn box for ‘Current Employment’ now that I had waved farewell to paid employment? Leaving it empty wasn’t an option, and inserting anything non-scientific messed up the tidiness of the Story. Furthermore, what could I enter in the ‘Company’ box when completing Eventbrite’s online registration forms, now I didn’t belong to any company? Come to think of it, could I even attend online science seminars, call myself a scientist, now I was unaffiliated?

No matter how I tried to craft it, my Story wouldn’t fit nicely into any of the boxes or forms. This was terrible! What WAS my Story? I didn’t have one. Because I did Nothing. I was no longer anything.

I was… nothing.

A desperately empty feeling would spread over me. I’d been gifted one precious life on this earth, and here I was, frittering it away among laundry baskets and toys. I did some volunteering for community projects, but that did little to ease the turmoil of my mind.

In those years, it was hard for me to comprehend the immeasurable contribution of homemakers to society. I felt worthless, unexploited, left behind in the professional race. I puzzled: how had I reached my fifth decade, gathering a few posh-sounding job titles along the way, only to end up in this vast Land of Nothingness? A frightening, barren landscape void of frantic work emails, work phone calls, work meetings – things that confirmed to me I was visible, important, needed. Try as I might, I could summon up no Story for LinkedIn, no catchy tagline to insert after my name on Instagram or Twitter. Cal Heath. Stay-home-mum. Move along; nothing to see here.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of swinging between utter emptiness, and panic-inducing fear at stepping off what I perceived was the Conveyer Belt to Success. After all, I’d been riding it safely up and up for over 20 years. The thought caused a knot in my stomach, and made me shake at random times during the day when I wasn’t expecting it.

I want to delve deeper into why homemakers and caregivers might feel they are ‘nothing’ in society. From primary school, I was conditioned to believe that the path to Who You Are was paved with the stepping stones of increasing academic achievements. Out of the other end would pop my Successful Self, honoured, respected, needed, important, indispensable in society. Worryingly, this imposter would go on to form the core of my identity. My typical school report card would read, ‘She’s very bright, she’s got potential’. Because the compliment routinely accompanied a commendable grade or achievement, it rooted in my mind that success lay in academic output and ultimately job performance. How often on a report card do we see anything like, ‘So-and-so is kind, thoughtful, sensible and shows self-control. They’ve got amazing potential’?

And so, in the months of 2018 after I moved on from my paid job to be present for my family, I began to believe I was a prime example of ‘potential unfulfilled’. I imagined sad headshakes from my high school teachers, my university professor, the CEOs I’d worked with: ‘She had such promise. What a waste.’

I really believed I was letting everyone down; I was even letting down the brigade of women who fought for equal workplace rights and equal pay! And I believed I was doing a pretty rubbish job of parenting to boot. The depression crept slowly upon me, until I was so in the thick of it by 2019 I could barely think clearly. A couple of years passed and I felt hopeless and without direction.

I wonder if everyone remembers the ‘Day They Found Stoicism’, as clearly as I do. It was early 2021. I had been on another visit to the Midlands where I helped care alongside my sister for our aging father. I was driving down the M50 motorway, back to the home I shared in South Wales with my partner and two young children. It was a journey I had been making for several years, following the illnesses of both my parents at precisely the same time that my sister and I had had our first babies. As a scientist, I had had the privilege of working in some fabulous institutes in the U.K and South Africa but as I juggled working, homemaking and caregiving, I had noticed the warning signs of burn out and in 2018 made the decision to stop working.

To stop my mind from ruminating as I drove, I had lined up a couple of new podcasts that I’d been recommended by a friend. The first one described a new online course in the science of wellbeing by a popular Yale professor, and detailed ways to engineer happy practises into one’s routine. The second was a podcast discussing Stoicism.

Something clicked. Here was my tribe. And it was at precisely that moment, on an empty motorway somewhere between Gloucester and Ross-on-Wye, that my journey to a new mindset began.

Over the coming weeks, I began hunting hungrily for any information I could find on Stoicism. It was a joy to be researching again, even though I was now investigating an ancient philosophy instead of Microbiology. I came across the Modern Stoicism movement and at first, the principles seemed so simple, I was waiting for more instructions. Is this all I must do? Learn to accept that only my thoughts and behaviour are in my control, all else is out of it and therefore an indifferent? Accept that contentment lies not in what happens to me, but in the way I respond? Train myself to regularly take a view from above – we’re all here for a short time and then we die? Surely I needed more help to sort out my turbulent mind than this? At a bare minimum, hours of counselling surely, to help me reach the elusive answer to ‘What-on-earth-am-I-if-I’m-not-in-paid-employment-with-a-job-title?

The rest of my journey into Stoicism is history and is, I suspect, one common among us. As I grew more Stoic, I was released from forty years of conditioning that happiness lay in external things, and that liberation began within days of forging myself a new routine filled with Stoic practises.

As we progress from education into employment, modern society (and perhaps ancient ones, too) can appear to measure success on how high you have climbed the professional ladder, the salary bracket you reach, the size of your house and so on. But modern Happiness Psychology research has confirmed what the Ancient Stoics already knew – that these things are out of our control, and if we attach to them, we are putting ourselves in a place of discontent. My regular Stoic practices are intrinsically linked to behaviours shown by happiness research to improve our wellbeing; strengthening social connections, spending time with loved ones, feeling time-affluent, savouring small joys, exercising, meditating, spending time in a flow state. Again, things the Ancient Stoics already knew. Nowadays I see life, and the challenges I am presented, through a different lens. Adverse events are opportunities to work on my character, and to build resilience for those to come. And I see my role as a homemaker as one of the most important in society. People say to my sister and me that it must be tough, having to care for our father. We reply that it’s not tough, it’s a privilege if, for a handful of years, we can be of service to a man who has been of service to us for over forty.

I have also learned that I am happiest when I can be curious. Formerly, my scientific research activities satisfied this thirst, but I’ve since discovered I get the same satisfaction from creative writing and so I have begun writing plays with my local theatre company, and I published my first novel this year. With my partner and children, I lead a simple life, minimising debt as far as possible so that we don’t need to work excessive hours to maintain our lifestyle. Happiness for us doesn’t lie in a big house, a shiny car and certainly not in a 60-hour work week. It lies in having that bit of extra time to stop and view the big picture: Are we spending time wisely today? Are we making choices with courage? Are we demonstrating self-control? Yes, we all need an income to cover our expenses, but I think that if we marry our job title to our core identity, we are entering a life satisfaction danger zone. The way you bring in the income should in no way be linked to feeling you are ‘something’. A generation ago, the purpose of a job was to bring in money for shelter and food. Nowadays, we expect to find our ‘calling’ and we pour our energy into seeking it out, sometimes at the expense of everything else life has to offer.

I now visualise my life as a pie chart. We divide up our limited attention to various sections of the pie: our paid profession, our passions, our family, our friends and so on. The make-up of the pie might differ for us all, but a life well lived has a good balance of differing slices, with thoughtful apportioning of our finite attention to each. Throughout the course of our lives, the pie slices might change, both in composition (we add a new slice if we enter parenthood, for example) and in size (we might choose to give more time to young children for a while, and reduce the amount given to our profession) but it is the regular stepping back and viewing the whole pie that helps keep us focused and calm. I expect that the happiest people have their pies both thoughtfully divided and regularly reviewed. And analysing my own pie viewed through my Stoic lens, nowadays it ticks all these boxes and more, where if I’m honest, my professional life ticked few. I was selfish and career-driven at the expense of my character.

Again recently, someone asked me what I do. I had a little un-Stoic moment where I thought about replying, ‘When? You mean after I’ve dropped the kids off at school and returned home to tidy up, wash uniforms and buy new shoes? Or do you mean what do I do on Saturday and Sunday mornings, because those former rest days see me taxiing children to football and swimming coaching? But I reigned in my naughty, un-Stoic Inner Child, and replied calmly, ‘I trained as a scientist, but I’m currently homemaking and writing.’ My husband reminds me that people are just breaking the ice, and I know he’s right. But why is the manner in which we bring money into our homes the first question we ask when we are trying to suss someone out? Why can’t the ice-breaking question be more of an opportunity to share our characters, like ‘Which song would get you dancing at a wedding?’

My Stoic practises are woven into the fabric of my daily routine. It’s more than reading Stoic articles, tapping into the Facebook community or dialing into virtual meetings (although isn’t it wonderful to have such a vibrant global brother- and sisterhood?).  It’s about identifying opportunities in the things I do, however grandiose or simple, to develop my character and set examples to those around me. To make my community a better place for everyone whose life I touch.

I am engaged, I am alive, I am participating in and contributing to society. And I look forward with joy to reading sections of Stoic text at night, before lights out. Stoicism has given me a sense of connection to like-minded people – I have found my tribe. The burgeoning of the modern Stoic movement fills me with hope for the goodness of mankind; so many of us are seeking guidance on improving our attitudes and behaviour for the common good.

So, I sit down to write this essay, and I ponder how to start it. My name is Cal Heath, and I am a former Research Scientist? Nah, I know now that we shouldn’t define ourselves by job titles. My name is Cal Heath, and I am just a stay-home-mum? Oh, come on Cal; that’s so… 2019.

I think I’ll start with My name is Cal Heath, and I Am.

Cal Heath is an author, playwright and audio play producer in South Wales. She previously worked in scientific research in the U.K. and South Africa, before making lifestyle changes for family caregiving. Cal likes to write stories that spread a bit of sunshine. Her recent novel Where They Keep The Sky is a Wales-based tale with a heart-warming message.

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