A few weeks ago, I was asked to write an op-ed piece for an online magazine, in light of International Women's Day. Here is that piece - my story. Some of it you already know. It seems fitting to share it here today, because a year ago exactly, on the second Thursday of March, I was sitting at the very bottom of one of the most difficult days in my life. It was from this day that I've slowly been stumbling forward, learning to not only accept, but celebrate my own vulnerabilities along the way. Happy International Women's Day to us women - I see you.
I once read that life is made bearable by the stories we save and tell.
The years 2020 and 2021 were, in my story, an intense, painful, and especially isolating time. Those years formed one of the lowest episodes in my life but turned out also to be years of incredible growth, out of which my husband’s and my small business Kingyo Kintsugi was born.
I’d started out 2020 wearing several hats, as so many women do – wife, mother, and doctor were my main ones. Joel and I had been married for just over four years, and our little one, Milly, had just turned a year old. I had a full-time job at a bustling public hospital in Melbourne and was also preparing for the Royal Australasian College of Physicians written exam, a challenging hurdle to becoming a medical specialist. This exam takes a year of preparation on average, over what is notoriously described as the most gruelling time of a physician’s training years. It was going to be a demanding year, but I was confident that I’d be able to see it through. Indeed, all was going relatively well…until COVID-19 struck.
Life became no more than a draining repetition of hospital bedlam alternating with studying for the exam. This was pre-vaccination pandemic – I could only watch as my patients died, as my colleagues fell ill one by one, and as, through the study window, my husband taught my daughter to ride her balance bike.
I turned increasingly despondent over time, but it happened so slowly that I didn’t notice until it was too late; until I felt broken beyond repair. It seemed like I had failed at every one of my roles. I couldn’t be a good wife because I was too busy at the hospital, or else studying, to pay my husband much attention or share the load of parenting. I couldn’t be a good mother because I was putting my child at risk of catching the dreaded virus every day, or else missing out on so much of her life to keep her safe from it. I couldn’t be a good doctor because we didn’t know enough about this new disease to keep up with it, and I was so worn out from work that I wasn’t managing to study effectively, either. I couldn’t even be a good daughter, a sister, or a friend – we didn’t know it at the time, but it would be two years before we’d see our loved ones in Singapore again.
In March 2021, almost exactly a year ago to the date I’m now writing this, I decided to step away from clinical medicine. It was no longer safe to suppose I was coping, just because I wanted to be. Friends said I was brave for recognizing my limits and choosing to leave medicine, but…it didn’t feel brave. It felt like a cop-out, like I was abandoning my post in a time when it mattered the most. I had become even more of a failure; it was the most broken I could remember ever being.
It was from this nadir that Kingyo Kintsugi was started.
A part of what I’d felt around failing at my roles was shame. And, as Brené Brown put it, shame loves secrecy. The most dangerous thing to do after a shaming experience is to hide our story; when we bury it, the shame metastasizes. I knew I needed to share my story.
Kingyo Kintsugi was born from that desire to share my story, in recognition of art’s healing strength and of the journey to honouring our scars. I found a great deal of comfort in creating an elegant space for Joel’s art, and in reflecting on kintsugi – the Japanese art of mending broken pottery with gold. The philosophy behind it is that brokenness is not something to be hidden; rather, as part of the history of an object, it makes the item even more exquisite, and becomes something to be celebrated. I may have been completely broken from what I perceived as my failure, but all that I’ve learned from it, and what I’ve chosen to make of it, is the gold that now gilds the strongest and most beautiful parts of who I am.
It is my hope that Kingyo Kintsugi will be more than an online store; that it is, too, a space that inspires us to share our stories. In isolation, grief, and adversity, it is stories that emerge to give us the most hope. Stories about friendship, love, courage, finding strength, overcoming sorrows. Stories that reach us in our homes and our hearts.
With the advent of International Women’s Day, I’ve been pondering about how we celebrate womanhood in an ongoing and meaningful way, instead of just on that one day. I think the answer is that we keep telling one another our stories. My own story is not extraordinary by any means. So many women everywhere wear multiple hats in the sundry roles we fulfil, feeling like we fail more often than not, the shame of that failure making us unable to see just how strong, resilient and adaptable we are.
We are, all of us, more than the hats we wear, and more than the sum of our parts. There is so much we each have to offer as a woman – so many different perspectives, lessons, regrets, and joys, and so much wisdom in our individual stories of who we are. Let us not discount stories, for they are powerful. They stretch across oceans, cross land, culture, and language barriers to encourage, hearten, and uplift. They inspire men, comfort women, and delight our children. Whole nations are built upon stories. If women around the world keep sharing ours, the collective voice will remind each woman of just how valuable she is, perhaps even because of, and not in spite of her scars. Most of all, let us not discount ourselves in the telling of our stories. Let us keep telling them, and speaking our worth, made even more precious because of our kintsugi. Our collective voice will not and cannot be silenced; it becomes loud enough to break the bias, celebrate womanhood, and in so doing, makes life just that bit more bearable.