An unexpected fork in the road

I am not a careful, planning type of person. A recent strengths assessment found that I am simultaneously strong in curiosity and weak in self-regulation. As a result, I’m a bit like that dog, Doug, in the movie Up, who was constantly chasing after squirrels and other shiny things. I relish the excitement of the new and the thrill of the chase.

On the other hand, I am also not very brave. In fact, bravery is at the very bottom of my list of strengths. It is a true weakness of mine. I would rather poke my eyes out with sticks than jump out of a plane. I am terrified of getting something wrong, getting injured, losing loved ones, going broke, becoming homeless and many other myriad, visceral fears. As you can imagine, this creates significant tension between the part of me that wants to go exploring new pathways and the part of me that would rather hide under my doona with a book and a nice cup of tea.

Now picture this: you have a 7 month old baby. Motherhood is not the blissful bubble you thought it would be. You’ve been diagnosed with postnatal depression and generalised anxiety disorder. You’re living in your mother’s small house with your husband, who’s in his first year of teaching. You go to a therapist and start to work your way through the maelstrom in your head and feel like you’re seeing progress. And then, suddenly, you find out you’re pregnant again.

On the list of unexpected things, an unplanned pregnancy is pretty epic. Especially when you’re already struggling.

Fast forward 9 months, and the baby is a non-stop screamer. She’s tiny and miserably unhappy and she doesn’t sleep for more than 45 minutes at a time, day or night. Chronic sleep deprivation becomes your new normal. You enter yet another extremely steep learning curve on this motherhood journey; one filled with medical diagnoses, gastroenterologists, elimination diets and a very supportive reflux community.

Unexpected events can be terrifying when you feel like you have no control, and it’s all too easy to feel overwhelmed by circumstance. Sometimes, everywhere you look there’s evidence piling up that life is shit and going downhill fast. In these moments you have to try to remember that you always have choices, even when you think you have none.

I returned to work when reflux babe was 10 months old, to a role where I had previously been valued as a hard worker and strategic thinker and given exciting projects to undertake. I hadn’t changed (apart from aging exponentially and growing and birthing two babies), but the way I was treated was dramatically different. Exciting projects were withheld from me because I was ‘only three days’. I was left out of meetings, and left to my own devices. I was bored shitless.

It was around this time I found out that an organisation like mine had something called a ‘Women’s Network’, to advocate for, empower and celebrate the women who worked there. I thought it sounded amazing, and I wanted one where I worked. So I started one myself, with the help of some fearless friends and colleagues. It wasn’t easy and we experienced almost constant pushback, but we kept building connections and gathering momentum until we had a network of nearly 300 women, divided into four activity streams, with a full 12 month calendar of events and initiatives, and two senior executive champions.

Once the network was up and running, I started to notice my mental health declining again, which seems to happen when I feel like I’m in a psychological cul-de-sac. And those rhetorical questions start going around and around: ‘What does it all mean? What’s my purpose? What do I really want out of life?’

I was lucky enough to get some pro-bono life coaching through a friend. While we were discussing the things that were most important to me, I mentioned that singing brings me huge amounts of joy. We explored some of the ways I might be able to indulge my singing and I said that I wished there was a choir where we all just sang indie pop songs in three part harmony. She said, ‘Why don’t you start one?’ and I laughed and laughed! How could someone like me start a choir? I have no formal training, no credentials and absolutely zero capital to invest.

The idea really got under my skin though, and started to percolate. I had already proved to myself that I could start something where nothing previously existed and that I was good at bringing people together for a common cause. I started researching and talking to people. I found a co-conspirator. I held an info night to test my town’s appetite for an indie pop choir and it was clear that this was something people wanted. So together with my lovely friend and co-founder, we wrote and sourced some arrangements of good indie pop songs, and we ran our first term of Mixtape Chorus. It was fun, and it worked and we continued to build it up until we had between 70 and 100 singers turning up every week, and several gigs organised.

In both of these situations, however, I reached a tipping point where I’d had enough. I became mentally and physically exhausted with the huge and ever-expanding operational requirements of both of these creations, and they brought me correspondingly less joy.

I felt terribly guilty for handing over and stepping down in both cases, but what I have since come to terms with is that I’m a maker, not an operator. It’s actually better for me to hand over my creations because once I’ve got them up and off the ground there are people out there who can take them and run them far more efficiently and effectively than me. And that is okay.

I’ve learned many lessons along the way, and I’d like to share three of them with you.

1. Know your strengths and use them. I am very good at enthusiastically convincing people to get on board my bus, but I am completely awful at navigating or planning the trip. I’m also not at all brave, but gosh I’m curious! When I find something challenging that requires me to work from a place of weakness, I now try to leverage my strengths. I use my curiosity to help me be brave.

2. Find your people. Following on from my previous tip, there will always be people who have strengths that you lack. And there will always be people who believe in you and want to help you bring your dream to life. Find those people to tread the unexpected paths with you. Find the people who can help you navigate and drive your projects. It’s much more fun with company and you’re more likely to reach the end in one piece.

3.Take the leap but don’t jump off the building. If you take the unexpected path, just take it one step at a time. It’s like following the breadcrumbs in Hansel and Gretel (but hopefully you’re rewarded with a giant gingerbread house at the end of the trail instead of a child-eating witch). It’s much easier to step outside your comfort zone if you’re doing it little by little. Before you know it you will have done something you previously thought was not possible.

How about you? Have you ever taken a small leap and just followed the breadcrumbs to something awesome?


Take the leap and grow, even if you fail

leap_net‘Leap and the net will appear’ – John Burroughs

Do you ever feel like you’re standing on the edge of something great but you can’t for the life of you just jump in and go for it? You’re filled with the spark of inspiration, you know it’s a cool idea; every fibre of your being is humming in tune and when you think or speak about this idea your eyes light up, your heart beats faster and your passion is clear.

But. You. Just. Can’t. Leap.

You can’t afford it. You don’t have time. You’ve already got too much on your plate. What if you fail? What if people don’t like it? You’re not good enough at it. Someone else would do it better. Someone else has already done it better. It’s not clever enough. It’s not exciting enough. No one else cares about it. It’s too big a risk. People will laugh.

Everyone has these anxieties, except maybe sociopaths. It’s completely normal, because it’s so commonplace. What’s happening here is our amygdala, a tiny but crucial part of our brain, is sensing our anxiety and sending us signals to RUN AWAY FAST, while the left side of our brain is articulately describing our fears to us in full technicolour (‘I will fail!’ – ‘I’m not good enough!’ – ‘People will judge me!’).

So we don’t leap, and we certainly don’t strain our eyes looking for a seemingly invisible net to catch us. Inspiration and motivation fade, and we never quite get around to doing that really amazing thing.

Why on earth would our brains do this to us? It’s not like we’re about to jump in front of a train – we’re talking about potentially starting a new creative project, or leaving a soul-sucking job, or moving cities, right? These aren’t life-ending decisions.

The problem is that even just thinking about doing something new arouses feelings of uncertainty and this is what triggers the amygdala. Back when we were cave people, uncertainty was something to avoid at all costs. Uncertainty meant potentially being eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger, or squashed by a woolly mammoth. So our amygdala developed this clever, highly sensitive radar for uncertainty and as soon as it sensed it – BAM – anxiety attack!

Back then we retreated to our safe places: the well-trodden paths, the warm caves. We stepped back, away from the edge, and our anxieties settled down. Crisis averted.

The problem with this pattern is that the more you do it, the stronger those neural pathways become. When you focus on something, such as how anxious you feel, or how badly you’re going to fail, that activates neural firing. This then creates neural pathways that determine how we respond to and interact with our world. The more we strengthen these pathways, the more automatic and entrenched those responses and reactions become. We go around fearing the proverbial woolly mammoth for most of our lives.

There’s also another kind of fear that prevents us from leaping: the fear of success. It is strange to be afraid of winning, but it actually masquerades as a fear of failure. It’s the voice that whispers to us, ‘What if it’s really good and takes up all your spare time? What if it’s really popular and suddenly you can’t keep doing things the way you have been? How will you fit it all in!?’ Oh, the horror.

The Jonah Complex is the name given to this fear of success, which prevents you from realising your dreams. Interestingly, the fear of success can be triggered by exactly the same challenges that trigger the fear of failure: big decisions that result in change. And it’s this change that we really fear, because we fear the losses that potentially come with change – loss of freedom, of reputation, of the status quo. Regardless of whether you believe you’ll succeed or fail, when you start to consider change the fears that crop up are endless.

You can project into the future as much as you want, but you can’t get a clear picture of what’s truly going to unfold unless you take that leap. You might be wildly successful and have to revisit your core values and priorities again and again, constantly refining your idea of what’s most important in your life and shedding things that are not. Or you might fail, in the sense that what you try doesn’t work out and you either go back to what you were doing before or you try something new.

Either way, the not knowing is scary! But have faith in this: if you do leap, the net will appear. It may not be the net you were expecting, but it will still be there to catch you if you fall. You will emerge from your leap a different person, changed by the experience of having tried something new and of stepping outside your comfort zone. This will be a good thing!

You will be able to say with authority, ‘I tried that, and it didn’t quite work, but now I’ve thought of a better way.’ Or you might even exclaim with relish, ‘Eureka! I tried it, and it worked!’ Don’t let your fears about what might happen in the future stop you from creating that future. It’s much more satisfying to be able to say you actually tried something than to regret never giving it a go.

Each time you try something new you learn fresh lessons and grow from the experience, whether you win or lose. You forge new neural pathways and strengthen old ones that will enable you to do even better next time.

So harness your enthusiasm, follow your current passion, and take that leap! Try the new thing and learn from the experience regardless of the outcome. Know that by doing so you are growing and evolving, and becoming a deeper, more multi-faceted and interesting person in the process.

Finding the light in the tunnel


People always talk about the light at the end of the tunnel, as if the destination is all that matters. Get through this dark place, focus on coming out the other side, and everything will be okay. Don’t think about the tunnel – just get through it!

What I’ve come to realise though, is that the ‘tunnel’ is a fundamental key to growth and resilience. In other words, my struggle helped me to find my strength.

For mothers there is so much emotion and guilt bound up in our decision-making. Particularly when facing adversity we feel as if every choice we make is wrong! We convince ourselves that we’re screwing it up somehow and keep reinforcing our belief that it’s all too hard and we’re not good enough.

Learning how to let go of negative beliefs and accepting all of my feelings (even the bad ones), helped me to realise that the hardest, darkest periods in life can teach you so much about your ability to cope, to problem solve and to bounce back.

But these difficult times also have the potential to change you, often fundamentally, and make you question some of the values and norms you once held. If you can go with the flow, accept change and evolve, you’ll find that you come out the other side a better person.

Of course as with anything worth doing in life, ‘practice makes perfect’. I’m certainly not yet at a point where I can serenely sail through setbacks, but I no longer wallow in misery and self-pity.

Horrible things do happen in life. Some of these things are indescribably awful and require targeted, professional help to resolve and heal. Generally speaking however, I believe you can choose to let difficult situations destroy you, or you can find the light in the tunnel that allows you to see and appreciate how strong and resilient you really are. You’ll be able to say to yourself: ‘I can figure this out. I’ve been through this tunnel before!’ Accept that what you’re going through is hard right now, but know that it is ultimately going to make you stronger.

Everyone’s hard is hard


Quite often when I was in the depths of hell with my reflux baby, people would make helpful remarks, like ‘you’re lucky your baby doesn’t have [insert terminal illness]’ or ‘just think of those poor mothers in [insert war-torn/famine-stricken country]’. I understand the sentiment. People were trying to reassure me that it could be worse. First world problems aren’t really that bad, right?

But the fact is for me, then and there, it couldn’t be worse. What I was going through was harder than anything I’d ever been through. There were days where I literally wanted to throw myself under a bus rather than continue dealing with it. The psychological distress I was experiencing was acute, and trivialising it by putting it lower on a scale of 1 – 10 in comparison to others simply made me feel guilty about my struggle.

Everyone’s hard is hard and every struggle is contextually unique. Comparing your struggle to another person’s does nothing to make the situation easier. It is not a practical way of approaching the problem. Whilst it may give you some perspective in the short-term, at the end of the day you won’t move through your struggle until you can acknowledge and accept it for what it is. Once you accept that you are struggling and that this is simply a normal part of the swings and roundabouts of life then you’ll find it much easier to start looking for solutions. If you waste your time and energy convincing yourself that it’s not as bad as what others are going through then ultimately you will just wear yourself down and find yourself going around in circles.

If you are currently struggling with a difficult situation – stop, take a deep breath and allow yourself to feel all the feelings. Accept that what you’re going through is hard. It won’t last forever but while you’re in the middle of it you need to be kind to yourself. If someone assures you it could be worse tell them what you’re going through is very hard for you right now and you need support to get through it. This is nicely summed up by one of my favourite quotes: ‘be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle’ (Ian MacLaren). To this I would add, ‘…that you know nothing about’.

The best you can is good enough


Although it’s hard to see it in the moment, doing the best you can really is good enough. So many of us struggle with the universal fear that we’re not good enough or that we’re not trying hard enough to overcome our difficulties. We compare ourselves to others and set our standards in line with their achievements. We form beliefs about ourselves and then set about finding proof that these beliefs are true, whilst ignoring or distorting information to the contrary.

Take, for example, my struggle to breastfeed N. The standard and expectation I had set myself was that I would be able to breastfeed my baby. I had researched it thoroughly and knew beyond doubt that it would provide her with the optimal start in life, not to mention being free, convenient and natural. So when things didn’t go to plan I firmly believed that I had failed as a mother. I continually sought to confirm this belief by finding examples of women who’d gone to greater lengths than I had to breastfeed and comparing their experience to mine. If anyone tried to tell me that I had done my best or tried harder than others I ignored (‘they don’t know what they’re talking about!’) or distorted (‘but that woman is nothing like me!’) this information because it didn’t suit the purpose of confirming my belief.

Every time I gave N formula I felt like I was poisoning her. I lurked on hardcore breastfeeding forums where other mamas raved on threads about exclusive pumping and how they would rather die than let a drop of formula pass their baby’s lips. I called the Australian Breastfeeding Association, who were kind and supportive but also firm in their approbation of ‘artificial baby milk’. I ignored my doctor who suggested that ‘breast is best, except when it isn’t’ and also reassured me that the most important thing a baby needs is a happy mama. I looked for a breastmilk donor, despite feeling extremely squeamish about the idea. I read story after story about women who had overcome latching issues and weight gain problems and went on to breastfeed exclusively and I completely ignored the fact that every woman and baby is unique and there is no single solution.

This kind of behaviour is unrealistic and unfair but worst of all it’s counterproductive. In trying my hardest to do the best by N, I sacrificed myself in the process and ended up with postnatal depression. It wasn’t because I couldn’t breastfeed her – it was my belief that I hadn’t tried hard enough.

The people you compare yourself to when you’re setting your standards are comparing themselves to others. Everyone you meet is fighting their own inner battle that you know nothing about, so it’s foolish to assume that someone else is better than you or tries harder.

Focusing on confirming the belief that you’re not good enough leaves you with less time and energy to enjoy the things you’re actually good at and that make you happy. Lori Deschene, founder of the amazing Tiny Buddha, says ‘we can’t hate ourselves into a version of ourselves we can love.’

It’s important to realise that you can actually change your beliefs (thank you, Jess Lowe!) and you don’t have to believe your negative thoughts about yourself. The first and most crucial step is awareness. Once you’re able to identify the beliefs you hold you’re more than halfway towards changing them. The next step is to shift your perspective, without judgement. It’s not so easy to do this because so many of our core beliefs about ourselves have been deeply ingrained since childhood. It requires a fair amount of unpacking and a lot of practise with defusing negative thoughts.

In my own example, I shifted my point of view and focused on progress rather than perfection and was able to see how far I’d come and how much I’d achieved. When I threw myself into doing things I enjoy (like writing!), I had less time to ruminate on my negative thoughts. Instead of comparing myself to others who might have tried harder I wrote down my story and reflected on how very hard I had tried.

Ultimately, if you’ve tried the best you can, the best you can is good enough. Maybe Thom Yorke meant it to be ironic but it works for me.

Toddler vs duck pond

So it’s finally happened. My toddler has fallen into a duck pond.

I used to be a huge ball of anxiety, so even going near the duck pond would once have been a very stressful outing for me. Unbidden would rise images of my children falling in, contracting some rare, hideous disease and consequently dying slowly and painfully. Lovely!

On this occasion, it was a brilliant idea to wander down to the duck pond with two toddlers who had just been strapped into their car seats for the four hour journey back from Nanny and John Pop’s house. They were desperate for some fresh air and exercise and being spring it was likely there’d be ducklings.

On the way there, N couldn’t contain her excitement at the prospect of seeing baby ducks so she ran ahead. Meanwhile A was enjoying forensically examining every blade of grass and snail shell she encountered. It got to a situation where I was standing half way between a toddler near a large body of water and a toddler near a busy road.

At this point the thought briefly crossed my mind, ‘what would I do if…?’ But I barely had time to dismiss the horrifying thought before my eyes beheld one very excited toddler dashing headlong into the duck pond!

I screamed a very loud expletive, checked to make sure that A wasn’t too close to the road, and then literally flew on my terrified mother wings down to the duck pond to save my little girl.

As I was running, I could see that N had turned herself around in the water and had paddled back to the edge to hold on. It was at this point that I realised that months of swimming lessons had paid for themselves.

I hauled one dripping wet, hysterical toddler out (not forgetting to also retrieve all three of her drenched ‘babies’) and then ran back up the path to collect A. She was furious at the change of plans but as I had to get N back home as quickly as possible I couldn’t afford to put her down to dawdle.

I then stoically walked the 500 metres back to our house clutching one furious toddler howling and slapping in utter indignation while the other sobbed hysterically, festooned with pond weed and duck detritus. A fun day out for all.

A life coach changed my life

I know it sounds hyperbolic and a little clichéd but I’m putting it out there because I want everyone to know about this wonderful catalyst for growth and change.

My life coach is Jess Lowe. In addition to being a gifted listener and facilitator of amazing life changes, she’s also a fertility and wellness coach and a certified hypnobirthing practitioner.

I linked up with Jess through a very inspiring friend, Anna, who has recently become a life coach herself. As part of the course, students are required to source pro-bono clients (ie guinea pigs) to practise their new found skills on. Anna asked me if I would put my name in the pro-bono pool and I thought, ‘why not? Can’t hurt can it?’

To be honest though, I was pretty sceptical. Sure I was stuck in a rut and feeling totally disempowered at work but I’d managed to overcome depression in the past so I figured I didn’t really need a ‘life coach’, and besides… What exactly is a life coach!? It sounded a little bit too self-helpy. Nevertheless, I’m very open-minded and keen to try new things so I dutifully filled out the form and sent it in.

What happened next was amazing. I set up regular phone dates with Jess and over the course of six sessions she proceeded to completely change my perspective on life. Her gift for listening and interpreting is peerless. Jess helped me to take a series of actions that lifted me out of my rut and energised me in a way I’ve not felt for years. Her power lies in her ability to help you see your true, inner self and form new positive beliefs about your ability to be who you really want to be.

To be honest, Jess was the catalyst I’d been needing for years. It wasn’t so much Jess that changed my life but me. I took all the action. I shifted my perspective. I formed new beliefs. Jess just helped me to see that I could do it.