How this mama of two learnt to value herself as a mother and partner, and how that was the beginning of the biggest change of all.
No-one ever spoke to me about being a mother when I grew up.
I heard conversations about taking on the world, of doing anything I set my mind to, even talk of best-selling books and travelling the world.
Nope. Not one single word.
Interestingly, I still imagined I would be a mama one day. I didn’t exactly have the clearest picture in my mind of what that looked like, but there were kids there, somewhere. Probably along side me as I travelled the world and wrote that best-seller. But they were a side note, really. An add on. A bonus.
And this is the problem:
How can we value motherhood, and embrace the reality of what it does to our career, our bodies, our place in the world, when we’ve never been taught how important and integral it really is?
How? We have to un-learn so much of that stereotype, and find our own true meaning of happiness and success.
Alex O’Callaghan is one such mama. I have been a part of her journey to find a place of peace with her life – to change her focus from climbing the ladder, independence and freedom, to raising her beautiful family – and it is a journey of true inspiration.
Her story, outlined in our very intimate chat below, is what I believe we’re all trying to find: that illusive balance between who we thought we were and who we think we might be.
The real definition of success.
I remember the words I always told myself were, ‘I just want to be successful. I just want to be somebody. I want people to take me seriously.’ It was all based on how other people saw me. It was very masculine, and based on those images of success that we were taught.
I was fixated on money, and climbing the ladder as quickly as I could. I had a lot of potential and motivation, and I didn’t want to waste any of that. The pressure was like a ticking time bomb, and if I didn’t do things at the right pace I was a failure. I was always comparing myself to other women in the workforce who I thought were so far ahead of me.
I went to Uni knowing that I wasn’t studying something I was passionate about. I was making the ‘clever’ choice of doing something that would lead to a job, and money, later. I pushed myself all the time, and no achievement or milestone was ever really enough. It didn’t come from a place of passion, it just came from a place of competition and gain.
Did you feel that money, and being at the top of the ladder, would bring you happiness and success and security? Is that how you control an uncontrollable world?
The security factor was huge, and the need to control. I was always planning ten steps ahead. I was always the kid at Uni who had their assignment done two weeks in advance, just in case something came up. I could never just enjoy the moment.
I still find it hard to not be that way, but now I can step back and say, ‘You’re doing that again. You don’t really want to go there.’ Before, I didn’t have any awareness of how I was living my life. I was living on autopilot, not actually thinking about what I wanted and what was important to me, and what happiness actually was.
I was living according to this vision of success. If I’ve got a good job, I’ve got status and I’ve got lots of money, I will definitely be happy. It didn’t even occur to me that the work I was doing wasn’t lighting me up. I always knew it wasn’t really what I wanted to do, but it was getting me up that ladder.
Was it a gradual process of figuring that this wasn’t going to work for you, or was it one of those big, beautiful moments of cracking open?
The choice was made for me when I went on maternity leave, when I was thinking about returning to work and my boss told me the role I did before no longer existed. It was always at the back of my mind that the work I did was soul-destroying, but when I became a mother I realised pursuing that vision of success was not worth it. The thought of missing all of the special, tiny, daily little moments with my kids was too painful.
That’s when I cracked open, because I had to give up my identity. The person I had attached myself to was gone, and that’s when I fell apart. Without a career, just being a mum, it was like everything I valued about myself had been taken away. I didn’t value my role as a mum, I just thought it was something I had to do at that stage of my life. I really struggled to accept the new person that I was.
Alex: I fought it for a long time, until I didn’t want to fight it any more. I wanted to enjoy being a mum, and enjoy being at home with my kids. When you open that door and you walk into that world of self-discovery and soul-searching, it all just comes at you. I started looking around at information that could help me be in a better place.
I really discovered spirituality and soulful leaders, and people who talk about energy and the universe and manifestation. I started reading and listening to everything that I could – and I still do it. If I’m not feeling good, I’ll just listen to a podcast. It was a slow journey, but I kept feeding myself chicken soup for the soul. My podcasts, my self-help books, I just kept feeding it to my soul, and I knew that it would make a difference at some point.
At the start of this journey, you began to create a business that was your passion. But the old patterns of overachieving, and trying to control, and working a lot, and having that attachment to outcome are not easy to undo. How has your mindset had to change in building your business?
I started my business because I was still in the mindset that motherhood was not enough, I need something else. But looking back, creating is what I have always done to light myself up. As far back as I can remember, I loved to paint, to be creative, work on something tangible. I was always in my room creating some kind of new artwork.
So, I knew that I still needed that on my life, but motherhood gave me the chance to do it on my own terms and to create it for myself. I didn’t want to go out and leave the house to look for a job, so I needed to create a job for myself.
That was when the floodgates opened in terms of my spiritual journey. A lot of business owners will say it has been less about business, and more about self-discovery, and the dark night of the soul, and totally breaking yourself open and picking the pieces up again.
I wanted my business to succeed, so I knew I needed to get myself on the right track. There was a journey that I needed to go on, bringing myself back to be aligned to my true self. But at the start, I did fall back into setting goals, and telling myself I had to achieve them in order to be a success. It had a lot to do with my self-worth and how I saw myself.
That first year or two of business, I was so unkind to myself. I worked so hard, I never allowed myself to have any time to play, to meet up with friends. Every spare minute was on my business, trying to make it work. I pushed myself to my limit. It was insanely hard work, and it was because I still hadn’t built that awareness or ability to pull back.
One morning I was cleaning up my daughter’s room, and I was so tired and wired that when I stood up from picking something up off the floor, I banged the side of my head on her door handle. I dropped to the floor, my head was bleeding, and I just thought to myself, ‘I could have knocked myself out with two really young children in the house.’
I sat on the floor and I cried and cried, and thought, ‘What am I doing to myself? I have just almost knocked myself out in the process of pursuing this version of success.’ I think little moments like that were my wakeup calls from the universe, and luckily I listened.
Most of us fear that when we step back from that old model of success and hard work, it means that we’re not going to succeed. I have loved seeing that when you have surrendered all of that, the business has still thrived.
When I started to become more aware of the behaviours I was falling back into, I was able to implement strategies to help me pull back. One of my favourite things was putting these notes around the house – I still find them now. They say things like, ‘Happiness comes from the act of doing, with no attachment to the outcome.’ I keep reminding myself that if you do things from a place of joy and creativity, for the love of doing it, you’ve got to trust that the rest will be taken care of.
In my business I started doing these really beautiful photoshoots, and the imagery I used on my website and marketing became so much better. Because I was finding so much joy and love in doing it, that just naturally drew people to my business, and helped it to succeed. I learned that it’s all about enjoying the moment, and doing something you love, that you can put all of your joy and gorgeousness into.
It isn’t about pushing, and hard work, and achievement, and trying so hard all the time. It’s just naturally doing what you find joyful, and that lights you up. Even if it doesn’t work you still really liked doing it, so that’s success, isn’t it? Because you had fun. I realised that I can actually have fun doing this.
But I’ve come to a point where my son is at Kindy, he’s still home with me part-time. This is the last year where I can really embrace my role as a mum with my little boy, and go out and do things with him during the day. This year is all about embracing my role as a mum and a wife, and stop fighting it. Because I used to think to myself, ‘I’m not a Stepford housewife. I don’t want to be in the kitchen cooking my husband meals and serving them to him.’
When I’m 60 years old and you look back at this time, I am not going to regret embracing my role as a mum and a wife, and serving the people that I love. It’s all about nourishing my loved ones, and serving them with joy. I also have my business, but it’s not who I am any more. Who I am is a mum and a wife. Five years ago I would have said that was selling myself short, not living up to my full potential.
That’s the message that we were given growing up, that you are so much more than a mother. You’ve been given this opportunity, what are you going to do with it? But then we don’t value who we are as a mother, sister, friend, daughter.
It’s such a better place to be, and to have time for my children, to nourish my husband. Everybody’s happier, and it makes me happier, having time for my friends and relationships. I’ve feel like I’m coming out of that dark tunnel, and leaving my old self behind was such a relief. It was such a heavy burden to continually put that pressure on myself.
Alex O’Callaghan is the creator of and mamma behind MammaBelle, a gorgeous maternity and breastfeeding clothing label for fashion loving mammas.