I learned early on that painful experiences can be creatively generative. They force you to find innovative ways to free yourself of suffering and with a little bit of hope and perseverance, they can even create a ripple effect that frees others from suffering, too.
In 2013, I began the journey of healing myself through the simple act of helping others. It was a direction that came to me out of necessity and chance, after decades of running from childhood trauma, enduring infertility and suffering a life threatening brain injury. Instead of running from my pain, I realized that I could run toward something with meaning and purpose.
Instead of running from my pain, I realized that I could run toward something with meaning and purpose.
Now, as a mother behind two give-back brands, I’ve learned that one of the truest ways to heal ourselves is through pure acts of kindness; not just for others, but for ourselves, too.
mini + meep and The Tote Project were both born out of a need to lessen the suffering in our world. It wasn’t just driven by a feeling of connection to all of humanity, but also by the discovery that lifting others up brought me inexplicable joy. I learned the value in finding the good in even the ugliest of circumstances; how every terrible thing we learn or experience gives us the knowledge we need to make life better for someone else.
When I first learned about sex trafficking, I was beside myself. It was a trigger for me. I could empathize with the feeling of being trapped in a painful situation you’re so desperate to be freed of. I wanted to do something, but felt helpless. I was struggling with my own abuse-related trauma, and despite years of therapy, I didn’t know how to cope with my loss of faith in humanity.
I started sewing totes and pouches out of upcycled and vintage fabrics, and I donated a portion of the proceeds to nonprofits fighting human trafficking. This was the beginning of The Tote Project, a company I started with my best friend to end human trafficking.
Since those beginning stages nearly eight years ago, we’ve donated more than $30K to empower survivors as they pursue their dream jobs through our fair trade totes sales. We also fund programs like art therapy, foster youth outreach and awareness campaigns to end the cycle of trafficking. I hand paint every design you see on our products, and each one is a celebration of freedom and empowerment. I had finally found a way to funnel my creative coping skills into something that felt meaningful.
Every terrible thing we learn or experience gives us the knowledge we need to make life better for someone else.
A year after starting The Tote Project, my husband and I struggled to conceive. I remember the anxiety and heartbreak. It was a difficult period of endless disappointment and countless tears. During that time, I continued to paint things I hoped would one day adorn our nursery. My wall art eventually turned into punny designs for sustainably-made organic snappies and bibs. The next thing I knew I had another brand, but this time with a mission to help children in need.
mini + meep was born. It may not have been the child that I so desperately hoped for, but it brought me joy nonetheless. It was the perfect distraction, using my creativity to further my impact. I had absolutely no idea that this new phase of my healing journey would lead to 40K meals (and counting) donated to children facing food insecurity in my local community. I’m happy to say that our Emmalyn joined us in 2016 and made my dreams come true: I became a mother.
In the time that followed, life was wonderful. My businesses thrived, and I cherished every moment with my baby. I thought my hardest years were behind me, but nothing in life is certain.
A year into motherhood, I suffered a brain hemorrhage. I had just started to get the hang of being a mother; breastfeeding, the sleepless nights, the cuddles you wish will never end. What were once the daily challenges and delights of motherhood became physically impossible for me. The year following was agony: the debilitating headaches, the depression, the inability to hold or carry my daughter, the overflowing neurological problems that followed. But most of all, what was difficult to bear was the grief I felt over the moments I missed with my daughter during recovery and the guilt I felt for not being the perfect mother I’d set out to be.
During those years I learned the importance of finding a balance between taking care of others and taking care of myself. This is something I find many mothers struggle with: the unrealistic expectations we set for ourselves and the guilt that follows when we fail to do the impossible.
This is something I find many mothers struggle with: the unrealistic expectations we set for ourselves.
Life is unpredictable and painful, but it is also overflowing with beauty and endless opportunities for growth. Our heartbreak has the ability to positively shape us and gives us the empathy we need to bring more light into this world.
I hope that my story inspires even one person to align their empathy, creativity and determination in a way that empowers them and others to prosper. I hope that it will remind people to never underestimate the healing power of the arts. But most importantly, I hope my journey will instill in others that we are all worthy of compassion and grace—and yes, that means you, too.
Have you ever struggled with the unrealistic expectations that society has set for mothers? Have you also set unrealistic expectations for yourself as a mother?
Image via Raisa Zwart Photography