Seeking deeper fulfillment

My mother was someone that I admired greatly. All mothers should be admired because they are mothers. They are the clock that keeps the beat of the household while holding down their job, knowing where everything is and where you’ve been. It is uncanny how disproportional the genders’ capabilities are at juggling this world but when it comes to mothers, there are none like them.

My mother was a principled and driven woman. Aside from raising four kids — including one of us who was profoundly deaf — she managed to find causes she could fight for and influence. I didn’t realize it until much later in life of course, that her drive to make change was there all the time. She was always involved in our neighbourhood associations when we were kids, even running our local activities group for years while we were in grade school. She was there trying to make our hood safer.

She was a closet activist and one of the most well-read people I’ve ever met. She studied Russian History and, aside from her family, her great love was Southeast Asia. Her parents were diplomats from Europe and is the only relative that has ever had a sweet sixteen debutante ball. But you wouldn’t know that of her because that was who she was. I think she was a person that was put here to shake things up a little. Her parenting was demure but you didn’t want to have her wrath upon you and that was her style. She was never really angry but you didn’t want to disappoint her. That was worse.

My mother worked for the greater good. When all her kids were in school she started working at CIDA, the Canadian International Development Agency, as a project lead. CIDA was at one point the steward of much of the Government of Canada’s international development budget. The organization would run projects to help developing nations build a sustainable economic and social path for themselves. These projects were specific, challenging, all-consuming and impactful. The programs my mother ran were at the community level and on the ground in countries that were not very hospitable to women in positions of authority. Her first posting was to Dacca, Bangladesh for 3 years. Her second was Islamabad, Pakistan for the better part of 4 years arriving a few months before a coup and a few years before 9/11. Not easy but she was there for the greater good.

She was unique in that she wouldn’t live on the Canadian compound in these countries. She would find a home in a neighbourhood and live around people she was working to help. Her friends were not other Canadians she was working with, they were her neighbours, local coworkers and people she was working to help. She was there to understand, to move things in the right direction. She was there for purpose and could only do it if she was in it, not on the periphery.

My mother retired on principle while she was working on her last program in Northern Africa on de-mining Sudan and surrounding countries. She said it was the toughest thing she’d worked on and that says a lot for a woman who was teaching Muslim women their rights inside Muslim countries. But that wasn’t the thing that made her leave her mission. The Canadian Government was cutting our committed contribution to foreign aide such that she couldn’t stand around and be a part of it. She retired early on principle and is the only person that I know that really meant it.

Like so many of us as we age and reflect we start to search for meaning in our lives and tend to look to our accomplishments as a way to judge the book we’ve written. My mother was never that person. Her life was reflected in the outcomes and impact she had on those around her. She probably knew that she wouldn’t live long enough to see her efforts have an impact but she must have been at peace with that because she continued to try to make her little part of the world a better place by helping those in need. Her life gave meaning to others and I think that gave meaning to hers — although she never really verbalized it that way. She found great joy in her job because she was slowly, meticulously, building layer upon layer upon layer of impact that have had a cumulative effect on thousands or maybe tens of thousands of people around the world.

This is what I think of when I try to model what I do with work and what fulfillment looks like to me. It is the standard I hold myself to when I reflect on my short life and where I would like it to go and the impact my efforts could contribute. How and where can I find a deeper and greater reason for being other than for success on a spreadsheet? My mother set the bar very high, her quest was to reshape her part of the world one person at a time and if I judge myself against her example I am not there yet.

It’s taken me most of my adult life to figure out that the hole in the work that I’ve done is because of the example my mother has set for me. I didn’t quite understand that in order to really be fulfilled, to be satiated with the role I play and the place I hold in this world, I need to be a part of something bigger — something that makes us better. I hope to make the community I live in a better place for my kids to grow in to. I hope to shape my kids is a way that makes them hold dear the lessons that my mother implanted in me and do it by example.

Anne Woodbridge made an impact here, one that will never get recognized beyond those who knew her. She did it because she loved doing it. She loved the people, the places, the challenges and most of all she loved doing the good work because it meant she was moving forward. Moving forward in the right way always brings fulfillment.