This article is part of a series of articles commemorating Mental Health Awareness Month, in partnership with National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF). We recognize that the stigma around mental health care — in Asian American communities, in particular — often keeps people from seeking help or having transparent conversations about the importance of mental health care. Mochi believes that caring for our mental health is an essential piece of caring for our overall health and well-being. We hope this series will shed light on how mental health care positively impacted these writers.
Are you an Asian American who believes that working hard makes you more worthy and deserving of attention, praise and love from others? I, too, used to believe that being a workaholic was a virtue. Nobody ever said those exact words to me; I came to that conclusion based on what I experienced growing up as part of a Taiwanese family.
In the 1970s, my parents immigrated to America with virtually nothing. I didn’t see them much because they worked long hours at their restaurant, but I saw how they sacrificed and endured hardships. Under their influence, I felt a personal responsibility to work hard — for instance, getting perfect scores on tests in school. Likewise, if I had failed to emulate their work ethic, I felt that I would be letting them down.
I definitely inherited my parents’ strong work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit. I followed their advice to study hard, get into a respectable college, and get a good job. When I became a mother, I wanted to be home to raise my kids while also contributing to our family’s finances (because “being a mom” somehow wasn’t enough in my mind), so I started my own business. I’m a self-taught graphic designer who owns an Etsy shop that ranks in the top 1% in the world. And since the workaholic in me feels the compulsive need to always do more, I also run a health coaching practice where I lead an autoimmune support group on Facebook with over 50k members.
My work gives me a great sense of accomplishment. This is one of the reasons why psychologist Bryan Robinson called workaholism “the best-dressed mental health problem.” It wasn’t until the middle of a pandemic that I realized there was a negative side to being a workaholic. Though I started my businesses to stay home with my kids, I was getting so wrapped up with work that it was taking priority over them! I found myself telling my kids that I couldn’t play with them because I had an order to fill. Instead of being present during family time, my mind was thinking about the work I wanted to get done.
Flashback to 2018: I was set free — my children were finally at the age where both had full days of school. It was the first time in years that I had a good block of time to work on my businesses. I got to enjoy uninterrupted conversations with friends, quiet breakfasts with my hubby, and yoga without a child trying to sit on my head during savasana.
Then, the pandemic hit and everything changed. While the quarantine was challenging for everyone, working mothers had an especially hard time. For me in particular, there was no virtual option at my children’s schools, so I had to take on the role of teacher along with all the other hats I already wore. In addition to the stress of living through a pandemic, I was worried that I wasn’t teaching my daughter enough for her to be successful when she entered first grade, all while trying to entertain my younger son and pivot my businesses during uncertain times. I was caught in a vicious cycle of mom guilt and feeling stressed and overwhelmed.
Pre-pandemic, I was at least able to get support from close friends. Although I was not accustomed to asking for help, it was still nice to have others to talk to. With social distancing and restrictions, gatherings ground to a halt. Though I felt lonely and isolated, I put on a happy face and trudged along. Instead of getting help, I threw myself into my work. My work started to come before my health, sleep and time with family.
Thankfully, I saw the signs that I was getting burned out. It took some serious self-reflection to admit that I was becoming easily irritable and less patient with my kids, and that the work that I used to love started to feel like a chore. I had difficulty focusing, constantly felt stressed out, and seemed to be spinning my wheels. I had to make changes to avoid a full mental breakdown.
I assessed my needs and took small steps to improve my emotional wellbeing. One of the best things I did for myself was to start a gratitude journal. Beginning each morning off with this daily practice was like taking a mini mental vacation that set a positive tone for my day. I would take a few minutes to breathe, work through my feelings and reflect on all the goodness in my life. It made me realize that I had my priorities all wrong. Yes, it’s great that I love my job, but I love my family more. I started taking notice of all the little blessings that made my life so full, such as drawings from the kids, snuggles at bedtime and the sound of little voices singing.
Although I was exhausted from momming all day and then working long hours, I still had a hard time falling and staying asleep because my mind was racing with ideas. As a health coach, I teach others about the importance of quality sleep because it plays a huge role in a person’s mood and mental health. Well, I can only hope that they do as I say, not as I do, because I was chronically sleep deprived! A few changes I made included using blue light-blocking glasses when I worked at night, taking natural supplements at bedtime to help my brain wind down at night, and setting an alarm so that I went to bed at a decent hour. Getting proper sleep helped me wake up refreshed, plus I was less cranky and more productive.
Experience and research have taught me that physical activity produces a release of endorphins that also provides mental health benefits. So my family started going on regular bike rides and long walks together. We also incorporated other mood-boosting activities like listening to uplifting music as well as actually making music. My daughter and I took up the ukulele and watched YouTube videos to learn simple tunes like “Happy Birthday,” “Twinkle Twinkle” and “You Are My Sunshine.” We created a new family tradition of enjoying pizza and a movie on Friday nights, and of course popcorn too! During all this, I made a conscious effort to be present and engaged, and to give my kids my complete attention so that they feel heard, acknowledged and loved. Plus, when it came time for me to do work, the kids were more understanding because their love tanks were full.
Before having kids, I spent a lot of time on crafty endeavors like crocheting, sewing, card making, painting, beading, etc., but I gave up crafting when kids took over my life. It took a pandemic and face mask shortage for me to pull out my sewing machine again. I loved that my kids were able to help me sew face masks to donate to front line workers. It was a great teaching experience for the kids to learn about sewing as well as giving back to our community. For me, it helped get my creative juices flowing and the repetitive sewing tasks really helped me to relax and de-stress! It also felt really good to be able to help others in a time when I felt helpless.
Summer break is just around the corner, so my kids will be home full time again. Instead of stressing about the loss of productivity and working hours like in the past, I am looking forward to slowing down and enjoying the simple pleasures of summer. It’s so tempting for this recovering workaholic mama to try to jampack our schedule with camps and lessons, but this year, for a change, we just have loose plans to make popsicles, hang out at the pool with cousins and play in the sandbox in the backyard.
NAPAWF is the only organization focused on building power with AAPI women and girls to influence critical decisions that affect our lives, our families and our communities. Using a reproductive justice framework, NAPAWF elevates AAPI women and girls to impact policy and drive systemic change in the United States.
This article is part of Mochi’s Amplify, Align, Activate initiative. At Mochi, we are partnering with local and national nonprofits that serve our community of AAPI women and non-binary individuals to uplift and promote causes that matter to us and affect our everyday lives. For more information, see the Amplify, Align, Activate homepage. If you are interested in partnering with us, please email Giannina Ong (Activism Editor) at email@example.com.
Photo credit: Firmbee.com//Unsplash