A few years ago, my personal and professional lives were at a crossroads. I was balancing being a mom and a wife with founding a company on the other side of the globe. 

Having grown up in the Middle East, society expected me to abide by certain cultural norms. It was OK to have a job, and my plan had always been to become faculty at a university in Egypt. My family supported that; however, over time my own thinking evolved, and I jumped on the opportunity to start a company out of MIT, on the other side of the world.

That's when I became a misfit, and the voice of doubt in my head got louder. For years, I was my own worst critic. It's taken a divorce, a cross-continental move, and a lot of missteps to learn to co-exist with the voice in my head, and to turn it into an empowering force.

Here's my path.

From an Egyptian Family to an American Single Mom

In 2013, I was living in Egypt with my then-husband and our two children, who were 10 and 4 at the time. I was commuting to Boston where my startup, MIT spin-out Affectiva, is headquartered. I found myself traveling almost every other week between Cairo and Boston, as Affectiva was experiencing a period of immense change and growth. We had raised over $20 million of venture and strategic funding and were beginning to generate revenue -- but as we grew, I worried we were deviating from our mission to humanize technology. I had to ensure we were successful commercially, without losing sight of our destination. The company needed me.

While I tried to keep the company on track, things back home were deteriorating. Even though my husband had always been supportive of my pursuing Affectiva, he and I were growing apart, and the distance was taking its toll on our marriage. Our families, however, insisted that we had to make it work. As a woman, the expectation was that I would de-prioritize the company to fix my family issues.

I remember one day I was in Boston for investor meetings when I got a call from my dad. He told me I should quit Affectiva and come home for good. As hard as that was for me to hear, I understand where my dad was coming from: a place of love. He wanted what was best for me and my family.

I started to realize that I'd never be able to completely mesh what was expected of me back home while pursuing Affectiva. So despite our best efforts to make it work, my husband and I decided to get a divorce. Even though it was tough on both of our families, they realized that the marriage was beyond repair. I'm grateful that, even though it was hard, our families continued to be supportive of me and my kids.

Having made that decision, it made sense for me to relocate to Boston, where the company is. So I packed up my life and moved to the U.S. with two young children in tow. Suddenly I found myself a single mom in a foreign country, with a high-pressure career and my entire support system thousands of miles away.

Flipping the Script in My Head

During that time, there were a lot of voices telling me I was making a mistake, but the loudest was my own. I remember writing in my journal about all my fears: Would my kids adjust? What if they were miserable? Can I handle it all? Would Affectiva succeed?

The turning point came when I realized that the voice in my head -- which had been filling me with doubt -- was actually the key to getting through this. I always come back to advice that I was given by a former Affectiva employee who had been through a divorce and had two children. She told me that I was the deciding factor: If I was happy with myself, my kids and the company would follow suit. Emotions are contagious, after all.

It wasn't easy to make time for myself--I was in constant "mom-mode," whether caring for my kids or the company. But I made self-care a priority in simple ways, like exercising, eating healthy, or watching movies that made me laugh. I tried to focus on the future instead of dwelling in uncertainty. And I didn't do it alone -- I'm lucky to have had the support of my family (who traveled to Boston to help us adjust, and supported us from abroad) and from others at Affectiva who welcomed me and my kids with open arms.

I made sure that my mindset transferred to my kids, too. They were initially anxious about our move to Boston, and about leaving their dad and our family behind in Egypt. But I drew from my experience at Affectiva to keep us looking forward.

For example, at my company we played a game called "start, stop, continue," during which we reflected on things we should do more (or less) of to move forward as a business. I started doing that with my little kids at home. Right after our move to Boston, the three of us decided to "start" traveling more and exploring the United States, as it was a new country for us. We also made it a goal to "continue" hosting friends at our new home in Boston, something we did a lot of in Cairo. (As for our "stop" goal, we decided fried food had to go.) Doing these exercises together as a family helped break our big life change into smaller, more actionable things we could control, and kept our focus on moving forward.

Finding My Voice and a New Normal

People talk about balancing work and family, but the idea of "balance" is a misnomer. As a single mom, I had no choice but to blend the two. If I didn't have child care, my kids would come to work with me. In fact, my son's clearest memory of Affectiva as a kid was spending a few days over the summer in the office, binge-watching Harry Potter and spinning around in a chair until he threw up. It wasn't glamorous, and I definitely wouldn't say I'd achieved a "balance," but I found a way to bring both sides of me together. The Affectiva team truly became a second family to us.

That being the case, I wasn't shy about mentioning my kids when I was in "entrepreneur-mode." Some time after we'd moved to Boston, I was invited to give a TED Talk on Affectiva's technology. I spoke not only about our company and our vision, but I shared freely about my kids. That resonated with people, and I began to hear from other young women and entrepreneurs about what my story meant to them.

For so long, I thought the best thing to do was stay quiet and not make waves. But I realized that I had a platform and a voice to inspire others. It was a total 360 from how I'd felt during my divorce: I was empowered.

I want to believe that this experience is shaping my kids for the better. They've seen how passionate I am about Affectiva and I hope it inspires them to find something that they're truly passionate about as well. They've also seen the importance of teamwork, and that success takes a village--it's clear to them that I would not be where I am today (professionally or personally) without the support system that I have. And finally, my kids have seen the value of perseverance. They've seen me in tears, they've watched me pitch investors and be turned down. But they've watched me get back up each time, and that's the most important part.

This Mother's Day, I am especially grateful for my own mom, who has been both a role model and incredibly supportive throughout this entire journey. She came to Boston when we moved and stayed with us for several months to ease the transition. Most recently, last fall she flew in from Egypt to stay with the kids while I was traveling and pitching investors and raising our new round of funding. I couldn't have done any of it without her.

Published on: May 11, 2019
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