My youngest son, Kai, went back to school today. He is an eighth grader at the Field School in Washington, D.C. His twin big brothers, seniors Sam and Eli, started back at Whitman High School this past week. Next year at this time they will be gone, off to college, likely on different coasts. My bustling, boy-filled nest of seventeen years is dwindling. Soon I will be down to one.
September is always a reflective time for me, a time of renewal, new beginnings and fresh starts. It’s the start of a new school year, the Jewish New Year, and a change of seasons, all at the same time. Bright orange pumpkins and colorful mums front my neighborhood grocery store heralding the official end of summer. We aren’t ready. We never are. There is never enough time.
Historically fall is my busiest time at work. Colleagues return from their summer vacations refreshed and eager to reengage; overflowing in-boxes are finally cleared. There is usually a trip to the field, often to Africa, that coincides with multiple back to school functions, cross country and soccer season openers. I’m in Rwanda now for the next week. I’ve already missed my last back to school night at Whitman, ever, and won’t be there for Kai’s soccer match on Friday. More milestones come and gone.
As an international development professional for almost thirty years, I’ve been working to make the world a better place, especially for women. Travel, of course, is part of the job. Conflict-affected settings, like Afghanistan, South Sudan and Congo, are my arena – places where women are commonly treated as slaves in their own homes or used and discarded as weapons of war. Earlier this year, I happily joined as Executive Director of the Akilah Institute for Women – the only college for women in East Africa.
I’m often asked whether I find it depressing to do “this kind of work.” Actually, it’s quite the opposite. When I think of the bright young women who graduated from Akilah this past month, women who never dreamed of a college education now with promising futures ahead, I realize, yet again, that one has to be an optimist. To believe that change is possible in the unlikeliest of places. To believe, sometimes foolishly, in the essential goodness and rightness of humanity, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary.
I love my family and I love my work. I consider myself very fortunate to have meaningful work. And a meaningful life. I can’t pretend that it’s been easy, that there haven’t been trade-offs, some more painful than others. At times, I’ve had to sacrifice my work for my kids and my kids for my work. I understand there are no do-overs here. But for me, the trade-offs, however messy, have been worth it. I truly do love my labor.
It is an honor and privilege to support my sisters around the world, to help them gain voice and choice, many for the first time in their lives. In helping them, they have, in so much greater measure, helped me. I am a better woman, wife and mother because of it.
I am one of the lucky ones. A woman with choices. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Karen Sherman is the Executive Director at Akilah Institute for Women