It was my near breakdown that brought me to this moment, in this room being interviewed for a job that I had no idea would change my life.
I had been working two jobs while also trying to build a coaching business supporting families in the revolutionary way I knew that new families needed to be supported. I was alone, with my 5-year-old daughter, overwhelmed with the reality of being a sole provider, parent, friend, cleaner, cook, creative entrepreneur, and employee. There were dirty dishes all over the kitchen, clutter and toys all over our tiny living room/my office and stuffed animals were littering the floor of our shared basement bedroom. I called my mom in desperation after judging myself harshly for the mess all around. I shouted to her like a wounded animal that clearly, I was not capable of being a good mother, not capable of providing enough for us in order for me to let a little stress go. I wasn’t sure if I could pay my rent and my motivation to promote my business felt like a flame growing smaller and dimmer every day. I wailed that I never got a break, I had been my daughter's sole caregiver her whole life, and I never got any time to myself. She needed me to be grounded for her, why did I repeatedly fail miserably with that seemingly simple task? All the little stressors that had built up in me for months exploded like a volcano as I shouted and cried over the phone to my mom how horrible life was, how I didn’t have enough hours at the hospital teaching childbirth classes, my marketing job hours had been cut, I felt like I couldn’t survive, and worst of all, I shouted, my daughter didn't help me. No matter how hard I tried to encourage my child to help me clean up the toys, she didn’t.
My daughter was in the other room but had heard it all. I was angry, overwhelmed and scared, my feelings about our life at that moment were not permanent. I needed to release them so I could find a way to pick myself up and keep moving. She didn't know that. At the time, neither did I.
Not many days after that, during our bedtime routine, my sweet 5-year-old girl insisted we call an ambulance. Her heart felt funny, she felt like she couldn’t breathe. Her breaths were shaky and rushed. As she peered up at me I still remember the look in her eyes, she was scared, and so was I. After waiting in the emergency room for hours, the EKG was finally back. It turned out she was “fine.” No heart problems, not of the physical kind anyway. But that night was the first of many months of anxiety-ridden bedtimes and my search for something that could cure my baby. Our routine of brushing teeth, reading stories, and singing songs would inevitably be interrupted by her intrusive thoughts. They were so vivid, they were beyond her years, beyond anything she’d been exposed to, and always about death. My heart was breaking. I researched day and night to find ways to combat her anxiety. I knew I was stressed, but I didn’t make the connection from my stress to her fear until we sought out the help of an energy healer whom my sister found and arranged for me. This healer was able to uncover the cause of my daughter’s anxiety in a few well-posed child-friendly questions. To my complete horror, her answers revealed that she had internalized my meltdown that night and now carried the belief and worry that she was useless and unwanted.
I was the cause of my baby’s suffering. My toxic stress. My fear for our own survival. My fear that I would get sick and not be able to take care of her because I couldn’t afford health insurance. My fear that I couldn’t keep paying the rent, that I would have to move our lives, again. My meltdown had left the ground under her unstable and changed the world into a scary place. Worst of all, she felt like it was all her fault and I didn’t love her or want her.
Fast forward to this interview room. I’m on one side of the table in this dimly lit, tight room with two Parent Educators and the Supervisor of the program on the other side. Supportive people in my life like my sister had encouraged me to look for employment and a regular 9-5 so I could relieve the stress that was destroying me and my family. While I felt like a warrior retreating from her most heartfelt cause, I looked for full-time employment and started to share with my friends what I was dreaming of. A place where I could still feel like I was somehow working towards my dreams, a place that was family-friendly and understanding of single parents, and my desire to be there for my child when she needed me. Like a little miracle, my friend Joy told me about an organization she thought I’d love to work for. At first, they did not have a position I was qualified for, but months later I went back to their website and saw a job posting that gave my soul a glimmer of hope. When I read the description and looked up the curriculum that the Parent Educators used, I couldn’t believe it. It was so similar to what I was trying to create in my struggling coaching business. And it was a guaranteed paycheck, with benefits. I was thrilled to make it to the second interview. There was a benefit listed on the posting that I wanted to know more about, so in that interview, I mustered the courage to ask: “What does the benefit, “self-care” mean?” To which my future supervisor answered, “Unlimited, unaccrued, paid time off.” My eyes must have opened wider with a confused look on my face because she went on to explain, “Basically, we believe that people who work for this organization do so because they care about what they do. We know that everyone wants to do their best to serve our community and so we respect the needs of the employee to take time off when they need it, whether that is to prevent burn-out or to support your family, it doesn’t matter.” She went on to explain that the ‘unaccrued’ part meant that the benefit started right away.
I tried to hide my emotions, I tried to hide that nearly 6 years of stress was ready to start melting off my weary body with this revolutionary concept of unwavering support and trust of an employee to know when they needed to take care of themselves and the golden permission to do so. I am sure I teared up as I said my final word in that interview of just how passionate I was about providing parents support in the way that I could as a Parent Educator with their organization and how much I wanted to be a part of such an incredible place. Internally I was shouting, “Hire me! Please hire me!!”
Fast forward to today. It’s been 2 and a half years. With the help of my colleagues, I’ve made it through my daughter adjusting to a new school and town and slowly but surely kicking anxiety’s butt, and even harder events like my father getting leukemia and dying less than a year later. And of course, wading through the altered realities of a global pandemic, as we all are... While sometimes I feel like I am going crazy working from home while my daughter does school online, barely getting out of the house for nearly the past year, I am unendingly grateful for the heartfelt, revolutionary leadership and support of an organization that has changed my life. When the pandemic hit, our organization’s focus was not only on the communities we serve but equally important, the humans who are behind the service. To ensure that we could continue serving families AND that as few employee lives would be disrupted as possible, leadership decided to sell one of our office buildings and use the money to retain our workforce, no matter how diminished our caseloads might become. Each week when our team gets together via zoom for a weekly meeting, and every other week when I have reflective supervision with my supervisor, I feel supported and held, seen and heard, no matter where I am at or what I am going through. I am always guided to grow and learn while respecting my needs and allowing for the nourishment of my soul. I couldn’t have dreamt up a better place to be a part of and it is my dream to one day share these world-changing concepts and values with other organizations and schools.
Can you imagine what the world would be like if every person was held and supported to grow into the best version of themselves by their employers?
Imagine your organization embodying these values and practices:
Relationship-based: Building relationships is at the core of the organization’s operations and is the lens through which all actions are filtered.
Reflective practice: The ability to reflect on one's actions so as to engage in a process of continuous learning. (Source)
Strengths-Based Coaching: Identifying strengths and the innate knowledge of the employee and helping them build upon those strengths to reach their full potential in their work and in life.
Intent-Based Leadership: Every employee contributing to and taking responsibility for the organization’s success and how the mission is accomplished (through activities such as Continuous Quality Improvement teams and an Annual Empowerment Survey where the vision of all employees for the organization is asked for and valued).
Creative Democracy: Creative Democracy brings people together to build stronger communities by combining artistic vision, effective planning, and broad and inclusive public participation. It clears the way for many viewpoints to be heard and allows the community to build on the best ideas by imagining new solutions that are good for the whole community. When we bring people together like this, they come up with solutions that effective, durable, and build long-lasting connection.
Trauma-Informed: “Trauma-Informed Care is a strengths-based framework that is grounded in an understanding of and responsiveness to the impact of trauma…that emphasizes physical, psychological, and emotional safety for both providers and survivors…and, that creates opportunities for survivors to rebuild a sense of control and empowerment.” (Hopper, Bassuk & Olivet, 2010, pg. 82)
Reflective Supervision: The regular collaborative reflection between a service provider (clinical or other) and supervisor that builds on the superviser's use of her thoughts, feelings, and values within a service encounter. (source)
Restorative Practice: a paradigm in which the attention is put on relationships, constructive communication, self-regulation and repairing harm. It is a way of thinking and being focused on creating safe spaces for real conversations that deepen relationships and build stronger more connected communities. The fundamental hypothesis of restorative practice is that human beings are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes in their behavior when those positions of authority do things with them, rather than to or for them. (IIRP & Mark Vander Vennen)
Self-Care: An employee benefit that allows for the employee to know when they need to take time off, doing so in a responsible way to ensure program requirements are still met. Also, the ability to take longer periods of time to care for a family member, to grieve a death, or recover from an illness with absolute support to take the time each individual needs.
Can you imagine if these were the philosophies of every American organization when the COVID-19 pandemic hit?
I imagine if they were, we could have more easily focused on helping ensure the safety of vulnerable populations through job security and community support. We could have also ensured that people who felt like they might be getting sick would stay home knowing that they could trust that they would still be supported by their employer and not be penalized. Imagine if most of the collateral damage our whole planet has suffered from widespread shutdowns did not happen (small businesses lost forever, increased youth suicide and increased intimate partner violence, developing countries diving deeper into poverty with the loss of tourism and trade, decades of girls and youth education progress reversed and possibly halted for generations to come)? Imagine instead that our children were able to go to school this whole time with increased safety measures to prevent the spread of COVID like mask-wearing and hand washing, instead of being filled with anxiety and stuck at home for a whole year (and counting) wondering when the life they loved will ever return to them?
I know that my dream may sound like a Utopia. And that what I propose is only one part of a very complex puzzle. I also know that now is the perfect time to fight for systemic change that values all people’s lives and well-being.
I am grateful for my work and that I can be a supportive presence in the lives of the families I serve, who without this support, this year more than ever, would be in a very different place. And I am eager for more people to know and understand how powerful these concepts are. I see the butterfly effect it would have on every aspect of our culture and communities when implemented into our workplaces. Dream with me. The better future we seek is attainable with small courageous actions taken by people just like you. Share this article with your employer to get the conversation started. Let’s make this world a more loving, caring place by adopting values that honor the humanity of each individual, making this world a better place for all.