This tree can give no more

I recently made the decision a number of months ago to not write at length about my personal life or family. This decision came after discovering that the number of local folks reading this blog had grown, and while I am a big-mouth in general, being a big-mouth in a small town can be embarrassing. However I am going to break that rule because there is something weighing pretty heavily on me.  

I run a small non-profit agency and it is killing me, literally and figuratively. Five years ago, I agreed to take over a small, fledgling agency with the goal of helping out and leaving after a year. Instead I saw great need  and I stayed on despite the lack of benefits and a salary that is more than 50% below the market average for my industry. I stayed because I felt I could make a difference and I felt it was my calling.  I have made a difference, no need for minute details, my work has mattered but the cost to answer that call has become too high for me. In recent weeks, I have been dealing with some serious health issues where my inability to actually rest is starting to play a large role in my recovery.

This summer I worked 50+ hours weekly so that children and families in need would continue to have a safe space. Single handedly as even my own board of directors has admitted, I raised every single dollar to keep the doors open. There were days when I came home and all I could do was sit and veg out because I was physically, mentally, and emotionally worn out. Times when my one remaining child at home wanted mama but mama had given too much to others and had nothing left to give. Times when my partner needed me to be present with my own family but my head was with the dozens of kids who have no one.  Nights when my partner was polite enough to ignore my copious amounts of wine because I just wanted to forget the hungry kids and have a moment of peace.  Days when my friends continued to call and leave messages despite my never returning their calls; nights when social media became the place I parked myself because it felt better than reality.  My family and loved ones have paid a high price for my calling, an unfair price one might say.

In many ways illness is the greatest gift because it often forces us to sit back and take stock of our lives. When we start pondering the physical demise of our bodies, it makes one realize what is truly important, the work that I have done is important and meaningful. But if I were to die tomorrow, the people who would be impacted the greatest and miss me the most would be my family and what few friends I have. The families I serve and my professional colleagues would miss me, but sooner or later someone else would come along and I would be forgotten. Yet if I were to die tomorrow, my kids would remember a mom who always seemed to care more about other kids than her own kids at times. My husband would remember a wife, who always had a warm smile and time for someone in need but who came home grunting orders, always had a headache and was difficult to live with. I want my legacy to be more than that.

In many ways, I feel like the character from Shel Silverstein’s book, The Giving Tree. We give and others take, eventually there is nothing left but a short stubby trunk and even that someone wants. Like the tree, I have given, I have given from my abundance and from my joy, but the abundance is gone and there is little joy.

In recent days, I have had to draw a line in the sand between my personal life and my professional life. I can no longer pretend that all is well; I am honoring my needs and respecting my limits.  However when people are used to you doing the work of several people, admitting human frailty is not always well received. In fact I received an email today, which implied on a recent project, I had not carried my weight. I suspect the person didn’t think about the weight of their words but considering that I only raised the money to pay the rent and utilities for my agency as well as the money that paid my staff member’s salaries so that I could send my staff in my place, I would say that I did a spot of work.

Once again this summer, I broke my promises to my family. The one thing that my daughter really wanted us to do as a family, I had to put off until the end of summer due to my job. Of course it rained on the days that we had it scheduled and now the place is closed until next summer. I am hoping that next summer; I get a chance to honor her request. I am tired of breaking promises, tired of the vacations we never get to take because I don’t earn enough and we are weighed down with my 6 figure student loan debt and the chronic staffing shortages I face. The call came many years ago and I listened but now I must put the receiver down and move on. I am not sure where the wind will blow me professionally since the writing thing hasn’t quite came together as I had hoped but I know that wherever I land, I cannot and will not be the giving tree.

8 thoughts on “This tree can give no more”

  1. I’ve been in nonprofit for 12 years now and one of the biggest issues that I see is industry using up and burning out the best and the brightest. I’m not sure what the solution is. It’s easy to look at the big picture and say that we have to value our work more and ensure that our staff are well cared for, but another thing entirely when you are dealing with struggling budgets. The organization I work for now has just laid off half the staff and I feel like I should just be grateful that I wasn’t laid off (and I am) but my work load has effectively doubled in the wake of this change.

    Good luck to you. I hope you find something that you can be passionate about and will compensate you appropriately. Cuddle up that little girl and take a deep breath.

    • Jessi, I agree that what I am dealing with is really a larger part of the dysfunction that exists in the non-profit industry. I feel that it is driven by unrealistic expectations on the part of grantmakers and private donors. People want to see that “their” money is being put to good use, the focus is always on the task, the client, demographic, but little thought is given to the actual providers of the service.

      What I am facing is not just my agency, it is the sector as a whole hence why I have been reluctant to leave because I know it will be the same deal at a different agency. I have been in the field long enough to know that. So I am really at a crossroads, I have worked primarily in this one field, what next? Thank you for your comment.

  2. As hard as it is for us to admit sometimes, if we have nothing left in ourselves, we’re no good to anyone else. You want to help and you do; but you have to take time to recharge yourself. If others think that’s selfish, that’s fine. Self-care IS selfish, but vital to being able to continue your work. You and your family deserve your best you. Good luck figuring out your next steps!

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