Daring to lead

I’m reading a leadership book by Brené Brown, Dare to Lead. It’s the book we’re discussing at work in a book club I’ve started.

The sub-title for the book, to give you an idea of it, is:

  • Brave Work
  • Tough Conversations
  • Whole Hearts

It’s about daring to step into discomfort and lead wholeheartedly in work.

And it’s brilliant.

I read it a while ago when it first came out but reading it again and making notes to guide what I want to get out of the conversation with other leaders at work has been really helpful.

Here are my thoughts from what I’ve learnt so far:

What gets in the way of daring leadership

I’ve nodded a resounding ‘yes’ when reading what gets in the way of developing potential in others and in the work we do:

  1. Avoiding tough conversations – choosing comfort instead
  2. Not addressing fears and feelings
  3. Lack of empathy
  4. Fear of failure and perfectionism, which stunts creativity and risk
  5. Getting stuck and defined by failure, setbacks and disappointment
  6. Too much shame and blame, not enough accountability and learning
  7. Moving to fix stuff instead of staying with the problem to really learn about it

Whose opinion matters

Through what I’ve read to date, I’ve considered whose opinion of me matters in my work and have been reminded of how often I’ve been swayed by naysayers who sit back and criticise whilst avoiding involvement in imperfect, messy work that has the risk of failure. I feel lucky to have people in my organisation who I respect and trust – who will stand alongside me and give me honest feedback to help me on my path.

What quotes have resonated with me?

I’ve loved so much of what I’ve read – the book is now littered with underlines and highlights. Some of the words I’ve especially loved are below:

“Vulnerability isn’t winning or losing. It’s having the courage to show up when you can’t control the outcome.”

“Great leaders make tough ‘people decisions’ and are tender in implementing them, giving people a way out with dignity.” 

I’ve wondered whether the processes organisations have in place to ensure a consistent approach to how people are treated takes away the humanity in things such as the management of poor performance or how redundancies take place.

“If you believe people are doing their best, you sometimes can no longer know how to lead them. The strategies of pushing and grinding the same issues must give way to the difficult tasks of teaching the team, reassessing their skills gaps, reassigning them or letting them go.”

Shame

A whole chapter of the book is dedicated to how shame manifests at work.

Many of the areas where shame manifests – not getting a promotion, being demoted, public belittling by a superior at work – aren’t experiences I’ve had. But I did spot one source of shame that I think is particularly rife at the moment and that I’ve had experience of during this period of pandemic:

“Shame is seeing things change so quickly and not knowing how and where I can contribute. The fear of being irrelevant can be a huge shame trigger.” 

I’ve been thinking where this shame shows up in me – a lot of self-talk about not being a ‘good enough’ leader or not knowing how to contribute in a meaningful way to make things better – and I’m sure this is showing up in others right now.

So if you feel this way, you’re not alone. And you don’t have to hustle for worthiness, trying to be more than you are. Yes, strive for being helpful, but your innate worthiness as a human being isn’t solely down to you being the most helpful or saving the world through covid-19.

Values

One part of the book that I’m struggling with a bit is around values.

I’ve had my share of working with values over the years – at most, I’ve seen them as something used as a measurement (i.e. you get to go on this leadership development programme because you’ve shown that you are accountable and you challenge the status quo!) and at worst they are words used that get put on marketing packs and are miles away from the experience of people working within the organisation.

If I’m honest, I don’t like them.

But this isn’t what I’m struggling with – the book is in agreement with my dislike for these measurements and Brené says that only 10% of companies she’s worked with have measurable values that are used to train employees and hold them accountable. And without this, they’re really just empty words that serve no purpose and can actually do more harm than good.

I like, instead, the concept of getting clear about individual values – what are important values that can guide us as individuals in becoming brave leaders.

In the book, there’s a list of values (I got this sheet from the Dare to Lead Resource Hub in case you’d like to use it) and you’re guided to select the two values that are the most important to you. 

Not the values you’ve been taught you should have or the values that others have taught, but the ones that define you and who you are at your best.

Mine are faithfulness – to myself, the parts of myself that I value, the issues I hold as important, to those I love – and growth – ever deepening my knowledge and experiences, like a tree reaching high and taking root low.

It’s taken me so long to find these words – it was so hard to do, because for years my natural inclination was to self-protect and so I took decisions based on what I thought others would want of me. And I channeled my growth into what I thought I should become, not what made my heart sing.

But these feel right, they feel like my words.

What the book then guides you to do is to define three or four behaviours that define these values and some slippery behaviours we’re tempted to do even though they go against our values. So here is my starter for 10:

Behaviour 1: Faithfulness

Three behaviours that support this value:

  1. Choose courage – putting myself out there – over comfort
  2. Lean into conflict and stay curious
  3. It don’t make it my job to make others more comfortable or be liked by everyone

Three slippery behaviours I find myself doing:

  1. Taking decision out of shame – thinking that I’m not enough (and trying to make up for it) or am too much (so trying to not show myself as I truly am)
  2. Choosing a shallow belonging – “you agree with me, I accept you” over the possibility of a deeper belonging “I see you and accept you for all you are”
  3. Unkind self-talk

Behaviour 2: Growth

Three behaviours that support this value:

  1. Healthy striving – wanting to explore up, down and out over following a set path
  2. Knowing this is my journey to take at my own pace – honouring my individual path instead of comparing it to others
  3. Lean into my growing edge

Three slippery behaviours I find myself doing:

  1. Fear of not belonging closes of avenues of exploration or deviant views I might hold
  2. Wanting to ‘be right’ instead of ‘get it right’ means I don’t ask beginners questions or stay curious
  3. Avoiding the discomfort of not knowing or not having an answer

It’s been really interesting to consider my values and to think more about what they might mean for me.

By being really clear about what they look like, I feel better equipped to live by them.

It was useful to hear Brené’s thoughts about how it feels to be living into her values – it’s less of an exciting flash of brilliance of living an epic life totally aligned to the values, but more like “quiet moments when I feel strong and solid.” 

I can relate to that.


So there are my thoughts of what I’ve currently read – I’ve really enjoyed and got a lot out of it and I hope you’ve learnt a thing or two from what I’ve shared.

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It’s a marathon

Over the past three weeks while we’ve been in a covid-19 lockdown, I’ve seen incredible reactions from organisations and individuals, helping those most in need to get through this period of time.

Informal groups have formed on streets to look out for each other, people have stepped into new roles where needed to fill gaps, people have stayed indoors during this glorious period of sunshine to protect others and individuals have burned the midnight oil, working well into the night and into weekends to sort out the logistics of changes to services and the volume of work that needs to be done.

I’ve started working shifts at a crematorium that is part of my organisation because they need to increase capacity (a sad but necessary task so we can support people to say goodbye to their loved ones in a dignified and meaningful way) and have been working to support the work being done to link up volunteers with those in the community who are vulnerable and in need of help.

And I’m working on some resilience support for people within my organisation.

And am at home with a two year old a lot more than I have been in the past.

It seems to me that we need to shift from ‘sprint’ mode to getting into a marathon stride. One that is slower paced, but necessary to not burn out.

It’s needed if we’re to accept that we’ll probably be living this altered reality for some time yet to come in order to protect our health system from being inundated with sick people and to protect ourselves and our communities from covid-19.

So here is what I’m doing to keep my marathon stride:

Keep some sort of routine

Life seems more manageable if I’ve got some sort of routine in it. And that’s fairly easy to do because of childcare and work…but it’s been a bit challenging around the Easter weekend when we would usually be going out with friends or having lots of plans for how we’ll use our time.

So we’ve had discussions each day about what the bank holiday would have in store for us.

Usually some form of exercise outside – a hike or bike ride, a film in the afternoon, the games or activities planned for the day (I’d highly recommend playdough pictionary!) and an idea about dinner, whether that was a BBQ in the back garden or a pizza night, which we’re looking forward to this evening.

With a toddler who has the need for attention, routine has been helpful to not go crazy and to feel like we could carry on with this, even if it was for a few more weeks, months or longer.

Take care of the basics

I’ve been making sure to take care of the basic things that make me function well. The boring stuff, like getting enough sleep, exercising, not just eating trash (Easter Eggs aside), meditating, blogging…

Someone in my team sent this around in our team Whatsapp and it sums up how I’m trying to live through this time – remembering that it’s the normal self-care practices that enable me to make the difference and not go into meltdown.

WhatsApp Image 2020-04-09 at 08.40.05

Find ways to get my ‘time out’

If you know me well, you’ll know that there’s nothing more that I like to do than go to a cafe and spend hours there – reading, writing, eating cake and drinking coffee.

And while it’s an easy sacrifice to no longer get this time outside, I still have the need for space by myself – the main reason for my cafe addiction.

And so I’ve created my own comfy space, where all my trinkets are now stored and where I can keep all the books I want to read. I’m currently sat in this little cosy corner – tap, tap, tapping away on my laptop in happy solitude.

And I’m keeping my ‘alone time’ routine – spending the Thursday evenings I’d usually be by myself off parenting duty – in my chair in happy solitude. WhatsApp Image 2020-04-04 at 18.10.36

Acknowledge what I am doing

At the start of lockdown, I felt hopeless. ‘I’m not doing enough’ was the story I was telling myself. ‘I should be taking more of a leadership role at work’ was another of the stories floating around in my head.

But I was doing all I could – in work and outside of work.

I wasn’t perfect, I could have perhaps done more, but I did what I could.

So I want to say the same thing to you –

  • If you’re a key worker, going out still, you are doing your bit.
  • If you are staying inside and socially distancing when you’d really love to go out, you are also doing your bit.
  • If you are phoning up friends and family to make sure they’re ok, you are doing your bit.

Now is not the time to be unkind to yourself about your shortcomings. Now is the time to acknowledge all that you are doing for yourself and others.

Finding gratitude

For all the fear and uncertainty that covid-19 is bringing, there are also things to be grateful for. Finding them has been key to keeping my mental health as well as it is.

I feel grateful that I’ve kept my health and that most of those around me have stayed healthy and well too.

I’ve also felt grateful for the simple things that are having so much more meaning to me now, exercise outside once a day – a jog has never been more of a treat than it is now – the sunshine we’ve had this weekend, time saved not commuting to work that I can spend having a longer lunch break to do said jogging or to spend time reading.

Before covid-19, my time was mostly allocated – weekends had things booked in, evenings were busy for two months ahead. And I’ve been grateful that this has stopped and I’ve had time to breathe and be still. To live a simpler life co-parenting and enjoying less plans and more living in the present moment.


So here are some of my thoughts about staying sane during this time and getting into the stride of a longer period of isolation.

I hope some of my words have been useful to you and give you inspiration of what you can do to look after yourself.

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This moment

I never really understood mindfulness before. I just didn’t have the patience for it and couldn’t see the benefits of just ‘being’ in the moment.

It seemed like I’d be taking myself into a vacuum (and one I didn’t particularly enjoy for that matter) to purposely separate myself from the past and the future. It was far away from the adrenaline rush I could trigger and enjoy by keeping myself in action.

But I heard it was a useful thing, something that others had got a lot out of and so I attended some mindfulness training about five  years ago. I was aware of being often overcome by anxiety and I hoped it might be the silver bullet to help me cope better, the key to finding more calm in my life.

But to be honest it just really annoyed me and I didn’t stick it out. 

The pace of it was just too…mindful. A slow wander through understanding how my body reacts to stress and learning body scanning meditations that I’d then feel bad about not completing during the week because of being too busy but, most important, not enjoying being trapped watching my worries and anxiety unfurl around me.

But recently I was given to book by a friend.

A book about the power I’ve being quiet and still and connecting to what’s going on in this very moment (it’s called ‘silence‘ if you’re interested).

And I started to see the benefit of being more present in the moment. The benefit of not getting dragged into stories that I tell myself about the past or worrying about the future. 

Perhaps it’s made bearable because I’ve changed – I’m kinder to myself, I put less pressure on myself to attain some arbitrary, inhuman standard of perfection. And perhaps it’s because all I can do is surrender to and find peace in the moment in this world full of chaos, a world where things are absolutely outside of my control.

I think, looking back, pre-covid-19, I felt like everything was in my control.

If I just tried damn hard enough pretty much anything was possible.

But living through a pandemic where lives are being lost to such a serious illness has made me aware that all we have is this moment.

It sounds trite, but it was actually a revelation to realise and to keep on discovering the solidity that comes from being aware that all I have is this moment.

And this moment here with me now.

And this moment.

And so I started to practice my own cobbled together version of mindfulness, focusing on my breath as I lie next to my son at night when he was going to sleep.

Practicing not ruminating on past events or projecting into the future but instead just breathing in and paying attention to my senses. What I could hear in the moment, what I could feel physically in this moment, what I could hear, what I could smell.

Or sometimes I imagine myself as little girl Amy, sat on the same bench as the current version of myself. Just watching the moments go by, the thought patterns circle around like waves on the shore.

Knowing that I only have this moment shores me up against the batterings of anxiety and worry. 

This afternoon, just before coming to a late work shift, I was sat in a nook I’ve created for myself at home, meditating and having a moment of peace. 

In the middle of the meditation, I found myself feeling a weight of sadness and worry. It’s not something I can attribute to a particular thing, but it is a mix of anxiety about the future we’re facing and worries that I’m not doing enough. 

I could have cried or got sucked into the story of how I wasn’t enough and my impending future of being found out to be a fraud and ruining the world with my lack of ‘correct’ and ‘perfect’ action. 

But instead, I found myself being reminded by something greater than me to ask how I was in the moment I had. And I found the weight of anxiety and sadness lift from me when I realised in that moment that I was well. 

I was in a safe space, physically well, in a moment of peace and without the burden of any responsibility on me. 

What power, what grace, to be reminded that I only have this very moment in time. 

We only have this moment. 


I’ve been toying with recording my own meditations, here is a quick 4 minute mindfulness meditation in case you’d like to give stillness a go:

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Covid-19

I’m home alone! My husband has gone to Derbyshire with my son to spend time with his parents. He’s enjoying time with them and getting support so we can work during this coronavirus turbulence.

It feels so lovely to have space and time by myself and also a bit strange.

Like I experience the time alone is more enjoyable when they’re close by and when the experience of being alone is so fleeting. A week to myself, I hardly know what to do with it. But I’m sat here on this Friday evening with a cup of tonic (I’m avoiding the gin whilst this crisis is in progress) and reflecting on what I’m learning, feeling, experiencing through this moment of uncertainty and volatility.

So, what am I learning?

Here are some thoughts I’d like to share with you.

My face

I touch my face all the damn time!

I didn’t realise this until I’ve started to follow the guidance of not touching my face and realising every other second that my fingers are on it.

On my cheek because of resting against my hands while I think, on my lips as I consider what I’m going to do next, on my eyes as I rub them with tiredness.

My hands are always on my face and it’s such a difficult thing to change this habit so I’m not passing on any infections to myself or other people.

My fear

I get it, I truly understand the fear of people who are rushing to the shop to stock up on things that they don’t really need.

More rice, more pasta, more bread, more, more, more that isn’t needed.

Whether it’s the remnants of my anorexia which means that I’m fearful of being hungry or just the panic of feeling helpless and fearing for the worst so wanting to protect myself with a fully stocked larder.

I feel the fear and want to get swept up in the pandemonium.

I don’t do anything beyond perhaps buying a tiny bit more here and there – making sure we’ve got some pasta, some rice.

But I get it.

I also feel sadness and anger at shelves being swept clean at the shops and those on low income or working too many hours to care for people being left with nothing.

But I get it.

I also can imagine myself in a different life, being someone who buys things and sells them at at incredibly ridiculous over inflated cost. I hope I wouldn’t be like them, but if I had been born into their life, suffered their hardships, took a few hard turns…I can imagine a reality where I was in their shoes.

I still feel angry at them and despairing at what they’ve done and are doing.

But it just seems like we are dividing at a time that we should be coming together,

Our chance

I see this moment in time as one that could shift us fundamentally.

We could look back on this time and, despite the hardships and the unbearable pain of loved ones dying, find a cause for celebration.

This time could be one where we did a hard life audit and saw that we were on the path to wreck and ruin. We could turn to ways that are more sustainable for both us and the planet.

Who would’ve thought a few days ago that the aviation industry would come to a standstill? That the government would be paying people unable to work to keep roofs over their head? That neighbours would reconnect to support each other in solidarity.

We’re living through unimaginable difficult but with the ripest opportunity to completely re-imagine our society.

The German Prime Minister was talking about the need for a universal salary for people, countless lives will saved through the reduction in pollution across the world. We’re seeing the value of those who are caring for us – NHS workers, charities and supermarket staff working their upmost to protect and serve us.

I see this is the moment where we could pivot – where businesses could be given grants to get back on their feet but with terms around environmental growth. Where people, used to having less for a while, stop buying so much. 

If only this would come true. 

I can’t quite believe it possible though.

I also feel helpless, because I don’t know what me – one person – can do to bring this change into being.

Sure I can petition, leaflet, protest.

But what power do I have?

I have the power with you, dear friend, sharing my thoughts and maybe impacting you in some small way – and you, in turn, influencing others.

But I’m unsure of what impact this can ultimately have.

I don’t know if this is all just too little, too late.

I saw a picture of how long we’ve been on this planet in the whole history of the world in a great book I read called ‘Active Hope‘ – if the history of the world was made to fit into a 24 period, humans exist in the last 5 seconds. And if the history of human life was made to fit into a 24 period, the industrial revolution would feature in the final 20 seconds of the day. 

Humanity as we know it is a short-term blip on this planet Earth.

That part fills me with hope – we can change, our way of being isn’t written in stone – but I also feel that we might just be a blip on this earth. A race who will disappear.

And it makes me sad for Jenson. It’s not what I want, but it’s sometimes hard to see a way forward. 

My community

I’ve started a mutual aid group on my street – you might have one near to you. It’s where residents come together – obviously not physically together – to support each other.

It started through me feeling hopeless and useless, but wanting to do something. And so I put a little note through everybody’s door on my street to say that they can contact me in an emergency – I was willing to walk dogs, pick up shopping or have a phone call for those who are isolated.

And from that has sprung out WhatsApp groups, messages of kindness, group donations as people request clothes for emergency foster care children and share things like books, DVDs and laptop chargers with each other.

I’ve learnt there are a surprising number of animals living on my road, someone who sings beautifully, a plumber, nurse and several teachers…

People who have never spoken to each other have started connecting and planning street parties (post coronavirus), coffee mornings are you come out into your front garden and wave at each other, who knows…we may have a singalong at some point.

But it feels lovely to connect.

Great to get to know each other.

Hopeful to think about what we could be if we knew more people, connected more, used a social resources in a different way.

I’ve seen what could happen if we stopped living just as individuals or a small families and instead got to know people on the street. Helping out each other, trading things, sharing gestures of good will and random acts of kindness.

We’re strong when we stand in solidarity with each other. Regardless of beliefs, political views or backgrounds. We’re all sorts of people living side-by-side, more connected now than ever before. 

Memes

And it wouldn’t be a coronavirus post without the amazing memes I’ve discovered through my far more digitally connected friends. 

They are incredible! 

https://www.instagram.com/p/B92TgybBlGQ/?utm_source=ig_web_button_share_sheet

View this post on Instagram

💀💀

A post shared by Daquan (@daquan) on


So from the darkness of my hopes for humanity to the lols of coronavirus memes, I’m sending you wishes that you and your loved ones stay healthy and well during this time. 

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A day without point

Last weekend I had a day by myself with my son.

It was the first time I had taken Jenson out for a substantial part of the day without his buggy and I spent a bit of last week mulling over the experience of moving at his pace.

These reflections come as I read some books on quieting myself – Silence by Thich Nhat Hanh (a buddist monk) who writes about mindfulness, and Active Hope by Joanne Macy about how to face the anxieties around climate change and biodiversity loss without completely feeling overwhelmed and paralysed or feel that we’re all doomed.

The principle tenants of what I have read in them so far (I haven’t read them both completely yet) is to be aware of what is happening in the moment, of reconnecting with the truth that we are all interconnected instead of being trapped in the story that we are alone.

This involves stopping and appreciating wonder of the beauty of this world to:

  1. appreciate what beauty there is outside of the story we’ve bought into that the only richness in this world is financial, when there is so much other richness available – love, community, beauty, appreciation, generosity.
  2. quiet my mind which is constantly pulled to the past and into the future instead of appreciating this present moment and the wonders within it

I shared about a year ago in a previous post that my son is like my little mindfulness guru – he is so in the present that I can’t help but appreciate the beauty of this world when I allow myself to see it through his eyes.

For example, he’s taken to saying ‘what’s that noise’? Listening out for birdsong, a car going by, the hush of the dehumidifier fan.

And he doesn’t need for the latest thing, the coolest product – he just wants to be with me and his father. Content to spend hours playing with cars.

He is aware of what is going on moment-by-moment and so, when I allow myself to concentrate on him, he brings me into the present moment.

So the Saturday that I spent with him without the usual buggy to strap him into and charge about, lost in myself whilst looking after him, I was swept away in mindfulness.

yYet, I achieved ‘nothing’ on that day.

Don’t get me wrong, I got so much from my time going at the pace of my son.

I walked among the trees and touched them along with Jenson who’d say ‘knock, knock, knock – hello?’ to see if they would answer him.

I ran along the street to hide from Jenson – both to hurry him along and also to delight in his squeal as he shouted ‘Boo!’ at me in my poorly conceived hidey-hole.

I sat and smiled in a cafe as Jenson terrorised an older child, shouting ‘tada!’ when he had finished drawing and rubbing out squiggles on the chalk board available in the children’s corner.

I exchanged words with strangers that Jenson interacted with, waved at a little girl in a restaurant that Jenson approached and smiled at.

But what did I do for eight hours of my life? Nothing I could tick off a list or say I’ve achieved.

I was going to say that it was nothing that added to my life…but that’s wrong. I smiled, I slowed down, I appreciated the time without purpose (to a certain extent), I surrendered to the present, I allowed myself to be. I smiled, I sang, I interacted with more people than usual, I felt my chest puff with pride at who Jenson is.

And yet I’m exhausted from a day on the go, a day where nothing much was achieved.

I’m writing this because I’m not sure what to make of the day.

A certain part of me is aware that I need more time to just ‘be’. Journeys to the station that don’t see me plugged into my phone – listening to something – and instead just enjoying the silence. More lunchtimes with a proper break, getting out of my head and into my body to calm my nervous system, less time trying to multitask, more time with my phone off so I can focus without distraction.

More time that isn’t ruled by outcomes, progress, development.

I can see that this is the way that memories will get made with my son too – by going on adventures, having no fixed purpose but to see what unfolds of the day, to unravel back to childhood as the day gets shaped and shifted by a young child.

And I can see that this is what might build a strong mother and son bond – not fancy holidays, the latest stuff or full-on extra-curricular activities – but being there. Available and willing to get swept away in the ordinary moment.

As I’m writing these words, I can see the benefit of having a shift in my life. At present, life feels like 65% of my awake time is focusing on accomplishing (working hard, organising life, writing/coaching/creating with purpose, parenting – reading books, engaging in activities to be ‘a good parent’), 10% is resting (personal time that I fill with reading, writing, doing), 15% is relational and 10% (if that) is ‘without point’ – not needing an outcome or productivity, just go with the flow.

But I can see the benefit of reshaping this. Not necessarily moving things around or changing the make-up of my life, but shifting my expectations and how I approach things.

In writing this and thinking about it, I’m feeling less terrified about the prospect of being more in the moment.

I see what today has brought me – building the foundations of my relationship with Jenson, interacting with people with more presence (I’m smiling thinking about the cashier who saw Jenson’s beam and said ‘he’s got the best smile, he’s incredible’ – my heart is bigger just thinking of this interaction), allowing myself wild moments of retreat back into my childhood as I surrendered to play and imagination.

And I can see that appreciating this mindfulness in the moment doesn’t have to be black or white – drop my job and be nothing but present in the here-and-now.

But I can see how richer my life might be through allowing myself to be more in the moment, if only a little bit more

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Allowed to feel

I’m looking after Jenson, my son, as my husband goes to London to spend the day with his mum. The morning started off a little sketchy, with Jenson calling out for his daddy and the slightest thing setting off tears.

I tried to distract him and get this day going by suggesting a trip to the park. But I realised his trousers and his coat were soaked from playing in the garden earlier on.

I couldn’t leave him like that. I had to change him before we could set off to have a bit of fun and adventure for the morning.

He wasn’t keen on getting changed, and so I tried the parenting advice of offering him alternatives to give him some sense of choice.

“Do you want me to dry your clothes with the hairdryer? Or do you want to change into something dry?” I asked him. And after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing – tears and tantrums he said that he wanted to change his clothes.

So off we pattered into the bedroom to get him changed and ready.

But as I tried to undress him and put him in something more appropriate, he lost his cool. He was screaming, clutching his clothes, almost throwing up with the effort of crying. Furiously resisting me taking off his damp clothes.

Sometimes I’d think “ok, you can stay in your wet clothes” – for example, he hates having the rain cover put over his buggy, so quite often he ends up getting wet as I push him around. The screaming and tantruming is often not worth the price of him getting slightly damp in the rain.

But this was different, I couldn’t let him stay in something so wet with the cold weather outside.

It wasn’t a choice to just go with the flow this time.

And so I continued onwards in my wrestling to take off his clothes. Cajoling and begging and pursuing the removal of his clothes regardless of how he reacted.

It just kept getting worse.

Until he was almost naked, screaming and red-faced.

And so I did with my friend Laura Grove had suggested when he was a newborn, stripping down on top myself and hold him in a skin to skin embrace to calm him down.

I held him as he cried and went through cycles of sniffling and then wailing and then calming and then crying, finding peace, then going back to some more crying.

And eventually, he fell asleep, deep asleep, in my embrace.

I kept on humming deeply all through this, not ‘shushing’ him but instead making a sound which I hope expresses to him I hear you, I’m sad with you, I understand.

I thought about all the other times that I have tried to work through similar situations. Usually this involves getting us out of the house ASAP to provide Jenson with some distraction of the outside world.

But this situation today is revealing something deep inside me, the belief that it’s important for him to learn that it is safe to feel.

In a world where masculinity so often involves the denial of feelings in the pursuit of toughness, being constantly strong and capable, focusing on nothing but logic, thinking and reason, I need him to know that it’s okay to feel.

Is it okay to feel sad, frustrated and to express that whatever way is appropriate, even in tears.

Part of me worries about how he will fit if he grows up sensitive when the world doesn’t show kindness to delicate boys.

How can he be someone who feels when his friends and peers might mock him for this?

And how can I parent consistently in this way – encouraging Jenson to feel – when my husband has a different approach of distraction, himself actively avoiding feeling any negative feelings? 

How do we co-parent consistently and with compassion to him and with our different styles?

I don’t know.

But what I intuitively feel is that it’s important to allow Jenson to feel so that I bring forward a future with more space for the full spectrum of human feeling in him and for men of future generations – joy, suffering, wonder, anger, peace, frustration.

I want Jenson – and other children around him – to know it’s okay to express their feelings instead of bottling them up.

Because I know all too well what bottling things up results in – looking for distractions, afraid to be with the discomfort, paralysis in not knowing how to feel, discomfort with others feeling the emotions that you’ve deprived yourself the ability to feel.

It’s hard to stay in the feelings with Jenson, to not not try to make everything okay. Especially when I can’t always put things down to just focus on him.

But I think this is important and I feel that the foundations I’m building now – of him knowing it’s safe to feel – will be helpful for him in the future. 

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Catharsis

I’ve just finished reading a book about parenting that my mum gave me, parenting forward by Cindy Wang Brandt.

She warned me in passing it to me that it was written by a Christian but said she didn’t think it would be too heavily about Jesus or God that I, a ‘spiritual being’ who doesn’t believe in a God of any religion, would find offence with it.

Far from that, it’s been an eye-opening read.

It’s affirming in how I’m choosing to parent my son – allowing him to have a voice and opinion even at such an early age – and has also served as catharsis for the unspoken feelings and thoughts about my upbringing in fundamentalist religion.

The fundamental Christianity of my youth – by no means ‘fundamental’ compared to other types of churches – left its mark on me.

But I didn’t have a way to voice this until I heard my story told in that of Cindy’s.

Fundamentalism taught me to accept what was taught to me – believing was about unconditional acceptance of what I was told instead of a grappling of what was spoken about. A tidy faith, a believing faith with limited room for disagreement and only belonging, support and community if I could agree with what was taught.

Fundamentalism showed me a white, middle class faith that didn’t challenge the racial prejudices in the system. Jesus was white, he looked like me and our congregation was mostly white. We didn’t use our privilege to challenge the dominant culture, we kept safe in it. Race wasn’t discussed.

Fundamentalism taught me that women weren’t equal to men and that the feelings that so keenly came up inside me – anger, frustration, rage – were not acceptable to God or to the community I belonged to.

Fundamentalism taught me that my purity was the most important thing about me and I didn’t feel I fit once that purity was no longer ‘in tact’. As Cindy says ‘Fundamentalism failed my relationship in that I was taught to hold back even when it was good and appropriate expression of emotional connection‘.

Fundamentalism gave me no option other than a heteronormative view of sexuality and a narrow parameter with which that could be explored. And while happily married with a beautiful son, there is a ‘what if’ that I’ll always carry for the non-binary, more nuanced parts of my sexuality that never had a chance to come out of the closet.

And yet I came off pretty well all things considered – my privilege protected me as a cis-gendered, predominantly straight, white woman.

I didn’t have to suffer racial micro-aggressions or white washing of my culture. I didn’t have to hide all of me to fit in. I was resilient enough to temper myself. I came from an economically well-off family so always had more than enough to eat.

And I recognise that people in the church served me as best they could with what they had. All the above would have been (mostly) true if I hadn’t been brought up in the church – the times in which I was raised were when the inkling of sexual freedom, feminism, awareness of systemic racism and self-awareness were starting to bubble to the surface of our consciousness after being buried for several decades.

But it’s just nice to be able to read something and think ‘so it wasn’t all just me‘ – to have a story told in which I can see myself reflected.

So thank you, mum, for the book. It’s one I’d recommend to anyone who was brought up in the church and wants to be deliberate in the choices they now make, as a parent or just as an adult.

And I want to leave you with a sentence that hit home with me from the last chapter of Cindy’s book:

Children propel us into fighting for a better future because we belong to one another. We can see ourselves in the reflections of each other – our childhood in them, their future in us. 

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Write your own essay question

I was speaking to my coach yesterday about the work that I do, planning out what the next period of time looks for me in my role developing people in Local Government.

As I was speaking to her, I could see how I have developed incredibly over the last two years of working with her – growing more in my ability to use my intuition and emotions to guide me and reading what my body is telling me to inform my actions.

An example of this is when I feel a knot in my throat when I’m talking to someone. This often happens when I am disagreeing with them. Knowing that this knot means something, I have increasingly started to use this information to explore what actions I need to take.

Is it that I need to surface my thinking more?

Is it a sign that I know the person isn’t going to be receptive to my thoughts and I need to take a different approach?

Is there something else my body is telling me about how I need to go about my work?

But when we met yesterday we spoke about my brain and how I can better use my intellect to make progress in my role. We spent 90 minutes looking at what data and information I need to look at, what research I need to do, what facts I need to have clarity on in order to decide my best course of action.

It was hard work – after the time, I felt like I’d had a massive brain workout. It was hard to do, not because I’m lacking in this area but because I haven’t done a lot of this of late.

I’ve got such a lot of emotional and physical awareness but I have less experience looking at what my intellect is telling me. I’ve been less diligent in analysing the facts and gaining expertise doing that.

And she said to me something which resonated so strongly and is continuing to resound in my brain and this is it –

The next years ahead of you are less about responding to what other people tell you to do, being brilliant at answering their questions. This is about setting your own exam question and answering that.

And as she told me that, I got it.

I can see that for so long I have been brilliant at responding to the question other people set me – you tell me to do something, and I will do it well.

But I haven’t gone further than that very often.

But I know how to do this as I’ve set my own exam question with my emotions and my reading of how I am through physical wisdom.

I’ve not being willing to confine myself to what I’m told a woman is meant to be, what a mother is meant to be, what a daughter is meant to be.

Instead of that I have set my own exam question.

II’ve challenged and gone beyond the structures to create my own sense of self.

I am me.

I am angry and wild and gentle and loving and impatient and expansive.

I don’t confine myself to what other people say I should be, because I have set my own exam question.

But I have not done this intellectually yet – looking at data in depth to set out my own course of action, and so I felt scared.

Until I saw the possibility of setting my own exam question. Holding the reigns. Being my own creator.

And so I challenge you, dear friend, to think about what this might mean for you.

Is it a challenge for you to set your own exam question of what a family should be? What a woman or man should be? What a mother or father should be? What a relationship should be?

Is it listening more to what shows up for you in your body and using that to inform your next steps?

Or is it learning – like me – to consider things differently on an intellectual level? Taking data, facts, information – to decide your next course of action?

Because as I think about writing my own exam question for looking at my next steps at work, I see that the possibilities are endless and I feel excited at the level of mastery I will be stepping into!

I can’t deny though, this intimidates me as it’s a new way of being.

And I can’t say that I’m relishing the thought of looking at data and facts and information. Leaning less on my gut and on direction from others all the time and instead gathering and distilling information to firm up a logical next step forward.

But I know it’s for a purpose.

I know this work is to define my own exam question.

And that makes all worthwhile.

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To thine own self

For years and years I pushed my own needs and desires to the background in order to survive in this world.

If others think I’m ok, I’m ok was the unspoken mantra of my life and so I’d peddle, push, placate by following what I thought others needed me to be for them.

Often pushing myself over the edge and having bi-annual breakdowns where I’d cry for hours, releasing the tension and pressure of putting my needs to the back of the line.

And then I’d stick a smile back on my face and revert back to this pattern.

There’d be times where I’d get some counselling and feel a freedom as I allowed myself to surface my needs and desires.

And slowly I started to change my way of living, acknowledging my own needs and allowing myself to be a priority in my life.

I stretched, through relationships, into new territory.

Learning I didn’t need to be thin, pretty, demure to be loved. Learning I could voice my needs to my partner and I deserved to have a say in what was going on.

But I feel stuck at the moment.

I really don’t have a clue about how I can be true to myself – my needs, my desires, my introverted nature – where I am.

The nature of life at the moment is stretched and it doesn’t show signs of letting up.

I feel like something has to give.

Work is great, but full on.

Motherhood is a journey that I’m privileged to experience, but comes at a great price and requires constant patience, a tempered nature that isn’t naturally easy.

I am growing, expanding and stretching developmentally and spiritually, but it takes energy and focus. 

My partner has different needs to me, with each of us on opposite sides of intra-extroversion and it feels like we’re running in a different direction to each other at the moment. Needing different things from each other.

It feels like my life is a jigsaw puzzle, one which isn’t fitting together at the moment.

And I asked myself this morning whether it is possible to be true to myself in all this – to prioritise myself while still keeping the world spinning.

And the phrase ‘to thine own self be true’ came to mind.

So I turned to Shakespeare to see what ‘to thine own self be true’ actually means. What was he talking about?

I learnt there are several interpretations – firstly, it could be a call to do ‘the right thing’ (whatever this means). It could also mean that you should be honest in your actions. Finally, it could be advice to put yourself first.

So the literary father isn’t as clear in his directions as I first thought…and I’m just as lost as I was before about what I should do.

One thing is sure though, my puzzle pieces of life aren’t fitting together and I need to do something about it.

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Hands in the earth

I’m someone who always used to think of gardening as boring and for the middle-aged.

I’d wonder why people would spend so much time working on something that I felt so little for. I didn’t see the point of pretty flowers or growing things you could get so easily in a supermarket.

It pretty much reflected my relationship with nature. I didn’t have one.

But things have shifted this year and I’m having to swallow my pride (or acknowledge that I’m entering an early middle age!) as I start to spend time gardening.

That’s what I did last weekend and I want to share with you here the things I noticed from my experience:

Noticing

I have never been one for paying attention to detail.

It’s just not that important to me.

A friends birthday party? Great, yes I’ll accept but only have a cursory think about how I’ll get there the moment I have to leave the house, which often leads to me being late!

But I found a real beauty in slowing down and noticing what was going on around me. The garden bed which I considered to be mostly empty was actually full of clever bind weeds that had tentacles spanning over the whole of the bed.

I suddenly saw how prolific they were – a lesson from Mother Nature that things are not always as they seem and how slowing down and paying attention can be worth it.

The web

Oh my gosh, the amount of roots I discovered as I dug around the patch of earth!

It was like the earth was webbed together with roots. The flowers woven with the honeysuckle, the weeds and the vine we have growing in there.

Little thread veins were EVERYWHERE and I loved the living metaphor for how much we too are connected. With each other, with nature and with something beyond us.

It was beautiful. And so comforting to think about the world beneath our feet. The wildness under our pavement and roads of tree roots and plant roots which network and co-exist together.

As I stare at the Level Park nearby where I’m writing this, I imagine the trees that have been here for hundreds of years and must have a web of interconnected life beneath us. A source of power and strength that we can’t see with our bare eyes but very much is there.

Shifting problems

As I attempted to clear the weeds from the bed, I soon realised why a gardening fork is needed for this work. Because attacking a weed front on – attempting to pull it straight up from the earth – doesn’t work.

The leaves snap off and the weed will soon grow back.

So instead you need to first loosen the weed’s hold on the earth. Wiggling and jiggling the earth around it until it is loose enough to pull out.

There again, another cup full of wisdom from the earth!

How often do we try to solve our problems face on and fail? Try to get healthier by dieting until we fall off the wagon as we haven’t addressed all the things around it –

  • The comfort we get from food
  • How we associate it with a past we haven’t been able to let go of
  • Our disassociation from the raw ingredients that make up our food in this fast-consumption society.
  • Our life that is too busy to take time for real self-care
  • The numbing that foods high in sugar, fat and salt gives us

But start to wiggle and jiggle these things and we might be able to let go of what binds us.

Being physical

My back ached at the end of my weeding session but I adored the focus on being physical. It’s not something I often get in my office job.

In the garden, I used the power in my arms to chop back the blackberry plant. I felt the wind against my skin as it whipped around me. My senses were heightened as I heard the birds calling in the skies.

It was a pleasure to get into my skin and just be there instead of living inside my head – being hijacked by the galloping pace of my thoughts and my emotions.

Being physical brought me peace.


So there you are – a few reflections from my time in the wonderful world of plants.

I’m sure there’ll be many more musings to come.