I instantly knew Michelle Stephens would become a dear friend of mine when I learned during our first conversation that we both shared the same zest for travel. At 34 years old Michelle has visited over 20 countries, including Colombia, Israel, Jordan, and the UAE. Her 5-year wedding anniversary travels to India with her husband Ryan sparked the creation of The Mahaan Aasha (Great Hope) Foundation, which serves destitute Indian children and was founded by Michelle in 2017. (How Mahaan Aasha came to be is such an inspiring story in itself, it deserves its own profile – click here to read it!) From finding unsuspecting beauty to the jarring changes with becoming a stay-at-home mom to not letting a disease define your life, here’s what I learned from Michelle.
[Quoted words are Michelle’s, edited slightly for context.]
Open Your Heart And Mind To Bring More Richness To Your Life.
“One of the things I am most proud of in my life is that I have travelled fearlessly with an open heart and mind. This has given me outstanding experiences, exposure to many different cultures, a lot to learn and take in. I am proud to have a very diverse group of friends. While some people may not be ok with someone being Muslim or gay, I love and accept all and treasure my friends and what makes them unique and who they are. I find solace in our friendships.”
Keep Your Eyes Wide Open To Find Beauty In Unsuspecting Places.
“In India there is a lot of poverty and pollution and sights that are hard to see. If you don’t let that get you down or suppress you, then your eyes will be open to some pretty cool things. India is crazy, tons of people everywhere, a lot going on. By chance with one of my drivers, I found myself turning down the street into a beautiful flower market. It was amazing to walk down the busy street with bucket after bucket after bucket of bright colors and perfume-like smells to delight your senses. Here is the beauty and culture, I thought. There was something really special about it I’ll never forget. I had a similar experience in Thailand.”
When You Are Headed In The Right Direction With Your Life, You Will Feel It.
“When I was going to the first orphanage we visited in India for my nonprofit, I was very anxious. I had no idea what it was going to be like or how we’d be received. When we turned the corner and pulled into the walls of the orphanage, all the kids came running out in colorful dress and greeted us warmly. They called me sister and wanted to take me around and show me everything. Instantly, I felt at peace and that I was home, that this is what I was meant to do. I felt clarity. It was a spiritual moment.”
Looking For Passion Or Inspiration? Try These Things:
“Have an open heart and mind. Find beauty in life; that is where you are going to find inspiration. Keep learning, be creative, embrace humanity. You will be inspired. You will figure out what touches and moves you.”
Hold Tight To Who You Are When Faced With Resistance.
“One thing I have been hit with since starting my nonprofit is, “Why India?” Why help another country rather than children here? If you have ever been to India you know its poverty level doesn’t even compare to that of the U.S. It bothers me when I hear this but I hold tight to who I am. I look at the Earth and know we are part of the same family of human beings. I don’t see borders. I am confident in my decision. When I see the progress that I’ve made with the Mahaan Aasha Foundation already, it grounds me and brings me home. When I saw the recent photos of the happy faces of the kids in the rural villages that were a result of the schools supplies we donated, it made me know that what I am doing is right.”
You Can Bring Creativity Or Artistic Inspiration To Your Life No Matter What Career You Have.
“I was studying engineering while working a full-time job in engineering. I love math and science, but the field was devoid of any chance for creativity or artistic inspiration and was male dominated. So I decided to study flamenco dancing. I heard this heartfelt music as I walked through the door. It’s a pure expression of women and beauty as you go through the dance. It was exactly what I needed.”
The Early Years Of Motherhood Are Especially Challenging. Know Its Ok To Be Exhausted, But Don’t Lose Sight Of The Reward.
“Becoming a mother was the most challenging – and most rewarding – thing in my life. How do you balance that sheer exhaustion with the responsibilities of your household, career (I worked the first year of Sophie’s life), and loving and teaching your child? But watching her grow into this warm, loving person… its so rewarding. It’s just a tough time period to get through.”
Its OK To Grieve The Loss Of Your Former Life, But Embrace The Birth Of Your New One. Plus, All Mommies Need Mommy Friends!
“When I quit my engineering job to stay home with Sophie when she was one year old, it was definitely a struggle. Especially because I’d had a job since I was 16 years old and was from a work-driven family. It wasn’t at all the way I was raised. My mother is incredible – she’s the breadwinner of our family and very successful in her career. So I was basically doing the complete opposite of that. I felt a sense of losing who I was – it took time to grieve the loss. But I found solace in the friendships I made. On the playground with new moms, it’s kind of like dating life all over again, though we instantly became friends. We had a shared life experience and desire for human connection. The friendships helped offset the struggle, and of course the time with my child was wonderful. I got to be there for every one of the new moments in her life. It was a sacrifice for my family’s needs, but now that she’s 5 years old and going into kindergarten, I can focus on me more. I’m finding new fulfillment in my Mahaan Aasha Foundation work.”
We’ve All Heard It. Moms Need To Carve Out Time For Themselves. Here’s Why:
“The biggest thing I’ve learned about being a mom is to take time for myself. It sounds a little selfish. But I needed to take time to recharge and be by myself. Whatever that looks like for you – watching a movie, working out, whatever you want to focus on – take the time. Whether you schedule a nanny or do it during nap time, it’s important. When I come back, I am recharged and able to give 100% to my family.”
Don’t Let Your Challenges Define You. Rise Above Them.
“It happened on the eve of my 30th birthday while holding my 5-month-old baby. When I heard the words, “you have thyroid cancer,” I decided right then and there that I would not let those words define me. Then I experienced a botched surgery that will forever change my life, requiring daily injections and regular blood work and doctor visits. But I wasn’t going to let that hold me down. One of the reasons I rose above it is because I had to – I have a child, I’m accountable to her. I have to be there for her every need. For whatever time I have on this planet, I’m going to make the most use of that time. I want to teach her as much as I can. I want Sophie to learn that when life throws you a challenge, you rise above it. I want nothing to hold her back.”
[I can attest to Michelle not letting this define her life. I’ve known her for 2.5 years and this interview was the first I had heard of her thyroid cancer and surgery complications.]
Michelle’s Women Role Models:
What Joy Means To Michelle:
“When I think of joy, I think of simplicity. Sometimes we try to put too much effort into trying to find happiness. If you pay attention to the little things surrounding you in life, you can find a lot joy.”
What has Michelle taught you? How will you act differently? Share in the comments below!
P.S. Michelle’s Mahaan Aasha Foundation is accepting donations to support orphanages, rural village schools, and slum girl empowerment schools in Hyderabad and Mumbai, India. Click here now to donate. A little goes such a long way!
Jennifer Beach, 38, is a mom of two girls, Alaina and Rianna, ages 8 and…31 July, 2017