As part of our Bubble for Work ‘Working Parents’ sessions we spoke to Emma Gage who works in Leadership Strategy and has her own coaching business that focuses on supporting senior women by helping to re-define what success looks like. We talked specifically about self-care, how we have a fairly superficial understanding of what that means and how, as working parents, there is a need to re-define it so that we can rethink our attitudes to work and what success at work looks like.
What did we learn about self care for working parents?
It’s important to think about how you define success and whether this needs to change
As we progress in our careers and become more senior it’s important to interrogate whether we are still stuck in old, unhelpful ways of defining what success means to us. Emma gave more detail on this point: ‘We are all trained to believe that we achieve success through action so to be more we have to do more. The idea being that if you want to be more senior, and make more money, then you need to do more work. So a lot of senior women feel stuck and can’t get any further in their career. They can’t continue to keep working at the same pace and take on more responsibilities and perhaps they can’t make anymore money because they’ve reached the top and now they feel like they don’t have any joy in their life either.’ So what we wanted to achieve when we started our career may no longer hold true and we need to look at how our objectives and needs have changed.
It’s easy to buy into a model of success that isn’t sustainable, especially as working parents
Working at the same intensity when we have more responsibilities and a need for greater flexibility isn’t necessarily possible. Emma elaborated on this point: ‘My point of view is a strategy of inaction and inner work. I believe we are already the biggest, baddest versions of ourselves and we have everything we need if we strip away all of the expectations about where we think we should be and get to the bottom of limiting beliefs that aren’t serving us.’ So importantly this is about not buying into what we think we want. This in essence is ‘radical self-care’. It’s about taking the time to think about our values rather than following a path that has been shaped by society.
The way we work when we start our careers is not going to be the same as we get older
Part of the reason we continue to push ourselves rather than taking the time to think about what we want from work is because we’re repeating patterns we set up at the start of our careers. When we kicked off our work lives we ‘hustled’ and for many of us this relentless pushing is something that continues. It’s also lauded by society, and we celebrate people who are busy and productive. Emma talked about this in more detail and why it doesn’t work when we progress in our careers. ‘Women leaders have a ton more expectations than they did when they started their career- you have more responsibilities and more things and people that you have to take care of. You can’t work in the same relentless pattern at everything because there is simply too much. You will get physically and emotionally burnt out. It’s not sustainable.’ Radical self-care is about thinking about how your attitude to work changes as you get older and how being caught in a trap of ‘hustling’ isn’t helpful. What pattern of work is more achievable instead?
Radical self-care is different to self-care
Advertising and the media are full of examples of self-care. So images of women who are soaking themselves in hot baths or attending yoga sessions or meditating. These things are helpful but they are not the cure for overworking and pushing yourself too hard. So many of us run to self-care when our batteries are seriously depleted rather than doing the inner work that is required to stop that sense of burn out happening in the first place. Emma explained the difference: ‘Self-care has become a salve so we continue in these over functioning loops. We think the over functioning is who we are and believe we should do more and work harder. We think we have to forgo parenting to be successful and self-care is something you do when you are burnt out so ‘I have a bubble bath.’ Or I take an hour on Friday to do yoga and it’s not a bad thing and it’s better than nothing but it’s not anything that will change the game long term. We get burn out, then take care of ourselves and we power ourselves up to keep going. Ultimately it’s not changing the dynamic.’
So what can we do to start thinking more about radical self-care and having more agency as working parents?
One practical exercise that Emma suggests is creating a mind map – so writing down a description or using images that bring to life where you see yourself ideally in 5 years. This will help you clarify your values and what you really want versus what society has told you you ‘should’ want. Emma gave more details on this exercise: ‘Think of you in 5 years time and build out a rich and detailed picture. Who are you with? Where are you? Ask yourself the question – How am I living my life? Build a picture and add some colour into it. Don’t think so much about how you get there. Think of the values and what you really care about. It’s not the specifics about how many friends you’ve got. This exercise will help you realise what is important to you and what isn’t.’ Radical self-care is about thinking about what you really want from your work life, how you define success and how you want to work. It is about pushing away the idea that if you just work harder you’ll be more successful and achieving greater clarity in terms of your values.