Cake of Life

My mum used to roll her eyes whenever one of her seven children professed a desire to bake. She was able to whip up several slices and batches of biscuits in what seemed like moments, so one of her progeny overtaking her culinary domain for 5 hours, only to produce a dessert of questionable structural integrity, while leaving behind a sticky, oily mass of pans and utensils was… well… probably not her idea of a relaxed Saturday.

I remember my older brother, when he was in his early teens, deciding to bake a cake. He spent hours labouring over it. Creaming the butter. Sifting the flours (through a tea strainer, we didn’t have a sifter). Mixing and folding. Greasing and lining. The day progressed, all offers of help were politely but firmly declined. Nobody was allowed into the kitchen to make lunch. Finally, the masterpiece was placed in the oven. My brother, exhausted, closed the oven door and turned to the kitchen bench. There, behind a mixing bowl and a half-empty bottle of vanilla essence, were the eggs. Smooth and whole. Unbroken. Not lightly beaten. Not in the cake.

That moment has gone down in family lore. Not because of my brother’s reaction, nor because of my poor mum’s desperate attempts to console him. But because that cake was the best bloody cake any of us had ever eaten.

I’ve been stressed out a lot this year. I know that this is in part due to my work environment, my personal circumstances, factors beyond my control. And I know that it is also partly due to the expectations I have of myself. I’m sure I’ve written about this before – it’s an ongoing learning curve. I expect an awful lot of myself. I do a lot of things, I love all the things I do, and I want to do my best at all of them. But it’s pretty impossible to be at my best for all things, all people, all the time.

I was chatting to a colleague the other day about my daughter, who lately has been struggling with some big feelings related to her dad and I splitting up. I was telling some amusing anecdote about my little one acting out, when my colleague glanced sideways at me and muttered ‘maybe she just needs some attention from mum’. That stung. I am painfully aware of the times when I am not at my parenting best. I hate the fact that work and study this semester have meant I can only collect my darling from her classroom once a week (she loves after school care, by the way – but that doesn’t make me feel any less rubbish). I hate getting home late and rushing through dinner and getting unfairly grumpy because I’m tired and have other things on my mind. I hate the way I compare myself to other parents and find myself lacking. But I do my best. I refuse to get to work before 10am on weeks I have my daughter, so I can take her to school in the mornings and catch up with her teacher. I usually lock in a full day of our weekend where we can stay at home and make pancakes and snuggle. I don’t allow screens at meal time, so we can laugh and rant together as we eat. I am by no means perfect, but don’t think my girl is lacking attention.

So, actually, maybe my ‘best’ needs re-defining. Sometimes it isn’t that super-incredible-peak-of-achievement-I-know-I-can-reach-given-the-ideal-circumstances. Sometimes my best is kind of average. Sometimes it’s actually pretty shit. But if it’s all I can do at that moment, it’s still my best. And I’m constantly trying to do better. I figure, when you’re genuinely trying, it’s ok to leave out the eggs. Sometimes, it’s for the best. I lost a highly important document at work the other week; I’ve skipped my readings for class and lied about it; I’m not 100% attentive to my child whenever she is in my presence. And yet, so far, the cake of my life is rising nicely.

Pizza: one of my one true loves; or Diets can go die

I saw a post on a certain social media site this morning. It was a photograph of a delicious looking breakfast – egg, hollandaise, avocado, toast. Probably bacon. The caption was something along the lines of “Cheat’s breakfast before diet week”.

That got me thinking.

About a year ago, one of my besties and I were cuddled up on an outdoor couch at a party. We were toasting our toes, having a giggle and talking about how we’d been making a series of unhealthy and irresponsible life decisions. We happened to be tipsy and mildly stoned at the time, which explains the ridiculous idea we came up with: we would ditch our heady, wild lifestyles and start training for a marathon. After the hangover, we spoke again and both decided that, actually, it wasn’t such a bad idea to have that goal to work towards. We looked at routes and distances and motivational training apps. Well, I did. My friend just started jogging regularly.

12 or so months later, that wonderful and inspiring human has just signed up to run a marathon. I have not. This has also got me thinking.

I have had a few minor health issues lately. Nothing serious, just the odd twinge in my back, lower energy levels, increased susceptibility to colds – all things that come from not caring for my body. I’ve become pretty good at mental and emotional health management over the last couple of years, but I have allowed my corporeal health to fall a little by the wayside. Until very recently. I had an epiphany of sorts a few months ago: I am never going to be a health freak. I like food and alcohol too much, and I lack the discipline to exercise every day. However, I realised, I don’t have to become Jane Fonda in order to improve my overall health and fitness (although, I admit, my hair is showing some eagerness to take that path…). The real lightening bolt came when the thought occurred to me that the tiniest change – going for a run once a fortnight – would be an improvement. It would be manageable, realistic, and maintainable. And it would be difficult to not find time for. So I went home and downloaded Zombies, Run! and then faffed around for a few more weeks, and THEN… went for a run. It was awful. I thought I was going to have an actual heart attack – and I hadn’t even run the whole way, I had walked substantial chunks of it. I was horrified at how hard it was, and how shit I felt after. And that’s what made me realise I had to keep doing it. I’ve kept at it, running the same 3km loop a few times a fortnight, and it’s slowly getting easier. I actually ran the whole way last time. My goal at the moment is to run on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday on the weeks my daughter is at her dad’s house.

Today is Saturday. My daughter is at her dad’s house. I did not go for a run.

I slept in this morning and woke around 11. I stayed in bed for another hour, just being comfy and thinking about things. I thought about going for a run. I thought about stuff that’s been going on at work. I thought about uni. I thought about the leftover pizza in my fridge. I decided to make the healthy choice – by not going for a run, and staying home to eat cold pizza instead.

Now, this is not the obviously healthy choice. But I like to see health holistically. Today I chose to stay home and treat myself – to eat and do whatever I felt like eating and doing. Totally guilt-free. Totally wonderful. Totally good for me. So when I saw the post about a “cheat’s breakfast”, I felt really sad for that person. It’s not cheating to enjoy yourself. It’s not cheating to indulge in ‘unhealthy’ stuff now and again. Healthy living is about making choices that give your life balance, and that fill you with joy. Jogging does not fill me with joy – but you know what does? The knowledge that I will soon be able to keep up with my daughter as she races along on her scooter; the feeling that I am finally caring for this poor old body that (for the most part) uncomplainingly carries me through life; and the understanding that I don’t have to feel bad when I take the unhealthy option. But the thing that brought me the most joy today was noticing that my marathon-running friend spent her Saturday at home baking choc-chip cookies. Now THAT’s what I call balance.

I don’t like it… I’ve had enough!

I grew up hearing the phrase ‘You don’t have to like it, you just have to eat it’ – despite which, mum often ended up making meals to cater to three or four different tastes at a time. When I had my daughter, I decided that cooking one meal a day was plenty (some days it was too much!), and there was no way I could cope with making individual dinners for multiple family members. I chose not to make or buy special baby food. Instead, baby ate what her dad and I ate. Due (I like to tell myself) at least in part to this decision, my nearly-six-year-old daughter has never been a fussy eater. As a toddler she happily munched on steamed broccoli. As a pre-schooler she took delight in olives and blue cheese. However, she has been pushing the boundaries recently by tasting a meal and declaring “I don’t like it.” When I respond with “Well, that’s all there is,” she replies, “Then I’ve had enough.” Ten minutes later she will ask for a slice of bread and butter or a piece of fruit, and is generally unimpressed when she is presented with the aforementioned unfinished dinner.**

Lately I have been thinking about these phrases – “I don’t like it” and “I’ve had enough” – and how they relate to each other and my broader experiences. There are some things in life I don’t like but I have to do, for convenience, health, or whatever else. Folding laundry is one. Making salad, oddly enough, is another. Grocery shopping is fairly high on the list. There are other things I haven’t liked, so I’ve stopped doing. Certain half-read novels spring to mind. As does ironing and watching commercial tv.

But there are more serious applications of these phrases.

Late last year, my husband and I had a very difficult series of conversations where we decided we had both had enough. We realised that if we kept forcing our relationship along the path it was taking, that we would end up disliking each other, and setting the wrong kind of example for our daughter. We decided to separate. Over the 7 or so months since then, we have definitely had our ups and downs. But we have remained respectful and caring towards each other (not something that happens in many break-ups, particularly with a child involved). I believe that honestly telling each other when enough was enough laid the groundwork for us to move forward, not as a couple, but together.

Since the beginning of this year, my load and responsibilities at work have steadily increased while my pay grade has stayed the same. I noticed myself on repeat to friends, family, colleagues, and anyone else who would listen: “I don’t like it. I don’t like it. I. Just. Don’t. Like. It.” The pressure I was under began impacting on my studies, my relationships and my health. Finally, very recently, I realised I’d had enough. I went to my boss and told her that the situation wasn’t sustainable, and that if things didn’t change I would have to look for work elsewhere. I had booked leave for the following week, and went on holidays resigned to the fact that when I returned I would start job hunting (another thing I don’t like). While I was away I got an email from my boss saying that our department head had approved not only a pay-rise, but a month of back-pay. Needless to say, I was (and am) over the moon. However, the relief I felt when I read that email was significantly less than what I felt when I admitted to myself that enough was enough, when I acknowledged internally that I needed to make a change. It took quite an effort overcome the little voice in the back of my mind suggesting I didn’t have to like it, I should just eat it. But the effort was definitely worthwhile.

It has taken me a long time to realise this: not liking the circumstances you find yourself in can be enough of a reason to change those circumstances. Still, there is an important distinction to make between things we don’t like but stick with anyway, and things we don’t like and choose to stop doing or change.

The first group we carry on with because they get us somewhere. These things are stepping stones – keeping on doing them puts us in a better position than not doing them. Pushing myself to keep making salads means that I keep eating salad – which I love, and which is good for me.

The second group we are better placed to not do any more. Keeping on doing these things puts us in a worse position than not doing them. They can be pits of quicksand that are very difficult to climb out of, but the difficulty is worth it when we find ourselves in a better situation. A crumbling relationship or overly stressful job do nothing to contribute to our happiness and fulfilment. Deciding to take ownership of changing these things is terrifying, but it is also empowering. There is no reason to carry on stoically enduring something that is detrimental to you.

The decision to change is something we each have to make on our own, but the practicalities of applying change often depends on the support of those around us. I am incredibly lucky to have people in my life who have been open to change alongside me, and who have trusted me to change alongside them.

So when next I present my darling daughter with a meal that a popular tv cooking show host would be proud of (or, you know, a weeknight stir-fry I slapped together and allowed to congeal while I started on yesterday’s washing up), and I am met with “I don’t like it,” I will take a deep breath. I will remind myself that there is immense value in speaking out when faced with something you don’t like. I will tell myself that it is wonderful that at the ripe old age of nearly-six my child is able to articulate when she has an issue with something.

Then I will smile and hug her and tell her to eat it anyway.

Hey, nobody’s perfect 😉

**Let me just qualify this – I don’t force her to eat something she genuinely doesn’t like, but I do expect her to taste things more than once, to have a decent try before she makes up her mind, and to eat a meal even if it isn’t her absolute favourite thing. I realised last year that the lesson may have been too-well learned when I (accidentally) gave her spoiled milk and she bravely drank most of it. A few weeks after that, her father gently asked me if I was trying to poison her when I made her a sandwich with less-than-fresh ham, and told her to stop fussing when she said it tasted funny (She wasn’t ill either time – I’m not a monster!). Since those two occasions, when my girl says she doesn’t like something, I generally believe her.

Play with your food!

Something it is easy to forget, especially if we’re not around kids much, is that each of us had to learn to eat. And the way small humans learn is through play. Have you ever seen a baby eating? It’s a messy, fun business. Stuff gets smooshed everywhere – it is fondled, mashed, rubbed and slopped. It is tasted, spat out, tasted again, smeared around a bit, licked up and ‘shared’ with anyone/thing nearby. It is generally played with. If you compare the volume of food kids go through with the volume they actually consume, you will see a very big difference. We all have a baby photo of ourselves with a vegemite beard or an upturned bowl of spaghetti as a hat. We all learned to eat by playing with our food.

Sadly, at some point along the way, this behaviour becomes unacceptable. “Don’t play with your food!” becomes a common refrain – we have to sit still and eat up and suddenly become serious at mealtimes. Part of this is practical – when it’s getting towards 8pm on a weeknight and my daughter is walking carrot stick legs around her plate, dancing them in and out of a tomato sauce lake, trying to avoid the broccoli-gator… well, I confess, I have been known to demand she “JUST EAT IT!!” However, another part of this change is the process of ‘growing up’, where the expectation seems to be that the older we get, the less fun things should be.

This unspoken social rule is, I think, just dumb.

I have heaps of fun playing with food, as today’s photo proves, but it occurred to me recently that most of the childish fun I have is when I’m around children. Why should it be that way? What is it about ‘growing up’ that makes us embarrassed to have fun? I don’t have the answer. Luckily enough, I don’t have much shame either. So I decided to start having fun again.

I took myself to the beach a few weeks ago. Usually I would sit on the sand and just let the view and the sound of the waves relax me, but this time I thought “ Bugger it. I’m going to have a swim.” Summer hasn’t quite arrived in Melbourne yet, but I was lucky enough to catch a bright, clear day. The sun and sand were hot. The water was not. It still carried the chill of the Antarctic winter, but I didn’t care. I waded in up to my neck and bobbed around, happy as a clam. After a bit, when my extremities were nicely numbed, I paddled in and sat on the sand in the shallower, slightly warmer, water – still up to my neck – and let the ocean rock me. The beach I was at is categorically not a surf beach. The ‘waves’ – if you could call them that – don’t break, or even crest. The water just swells and dips in wide, restless wrinkles. It is lovely.

So I sat on the sand and swayed with the ocean, letting it wobble me around until – I kid you not – I was laughing out loud. The occasional jogger trotting past probably thought I was a madwoman, cackling at the sea. But it was just so much fun! And had I been 20 years younger, it would have been seen as perfectly normal behaviour.

I didn’t get out for some time, and it wasn’t until I stood up that I realised my teeth were chattering. Actually chattering. So I ran up the sand, wrapped a towel around my shoulders and threw myself down on the blanket. I was going to make a sandcastle, but instead I fell asleep. I guess I’m not as young as I used to be.

Since then I’ve made an effort to enjoy things in a more childlike way. I’ve been in those spinny, twirly machine things in playgrounds, the ones that make kids actually spew (we used to call them ‘sick machines’, I don’t know the official name, but wow… crazy fun!). I’ve had my face painted. I’ve been so engrossed in a game or story that I’ve missed the bus stop. I sing Disney songs out loud to myself and instead of walking, I sometimes skip. The more I relax into these kinds of things, the more natural it becomes. I would highly recommend diving right into your second (or third) childhood. Life is short, it might as well be fun. So grab a kite. Play with lego. Laugh at farts. And above all, PLAY WITH YOUR FOOD!!

Comfort Food

I must confess, I am a comfort eater.

When stressed out or upset, in the throes of PMS, or just plain bored I can eat an inordinate amount of chocolate, doughnuts, or any other delight full of sugar and grease. I have eaten half my weight in peanut m&ms, and not batted an eyelid. I once melted butter, mixed in brown sugar, called it ‘caramel’ and ate it on a slice of bread. I have been known to literally eat a spoonful of sugar to cheer myself up – good ol’ Mary Poppins was not wrong. I have a snickers bar in my pocket right now. True story. I acknowledge that carbohydrates and saturated fat are not a healthy way of dealing with difficult situations. I have also come to accept the fact that this is a coping mechanism I am not ready to relinquish just yet.

This week saw ‘R U OK Day’ providing a national reminder to enquire meaningfully as to how the people around us are coping with life. Although geared specifically towards suicide prevention, asking with genuine care how someone is going can open real conversations about mental and emotional health; it can provide a space for people to speak out before things reach crisis point. It’s important to remember that answering ‘no’ to the question ‘are you ok?’ is not a sign of weakness.

This week, I didn’t go out of my way to ask others ‘R U OK?’. I do this in the course of my everyday interactions with people, and my intuition often allows me to know the answer without needing to ask. Instead, I turned the question inward and asked it of myself. And the answer was, quite simply, no.

Lately, despite consuming vast amounts of rum n raisin chocolate, I have not really been ok.

I have been physically, mentally and emotionally stretched, further than at just about any other point in my life. I am a mother-wife-daughter-sister-colleague-student-writer-friend, and I often feel that I fall short of expectations in all of these roles. I can’t seem to manage one without letting the others slide. But let me be very clear – I’m talking about my own expectations here. This is not about how I am seen from the outside, by my wonderful and amazing network of family and friends, with their rather generous opinions of me. Rather, it is about how I perceive myself, what I expect of myself. And I expect a lot.

But don’t worry! Being able to admit (to myself, let alone to you, my adoring public!) to not-ok-ness is a huge step forward. Acknowledging the fact that I often feel overwhelmed, swamped, all at sea, completely scattered and amply less-able than I used to be is, for me, an important step in the road back to sanity. Some days I am not ok. But I always know that I will be. And that is such an important distinction. Because when someone loses their confidence in the future, their conviction that things will get better, that is when we need to worry.

A couple of months ago, I started seeing a psychologist. This is something I haven’t exactly kept a secret, but it’s not something I have broadly advertised, either… until now, I guess! I felt that things around me were spiralling out of control, that I was losing my grip and my ability to cope, and that this had the potential to seriously impact important aspects of my life – my family, study, work and friendships.

I am a firm believer in taking responsibility for my choices. I don’t like to indulge in self-pity or wallow in regret. I realised that in this, as in all things, I had a choice – not about the circumstances I was experiencing, but about how I reacted to them. I could passively watch my life unravel, becoming a victim of circumstance, or I could take steps to understand what was going on, to carefully deconstruct my life and piece it back together in a manageable way. I chose the latter, and booked myself in to see a psychologist. His name is Woolfie – he is a softly spoken German who looks a little like John Malkovich. Whatever stereotype you are imagining, you’re probably not far wrong. Seeing Woolfie isn’t easy. He doesn’t shy away from questions I hesitate to ask myself. We explore the mysteries of my subconscious using a metaphorical landscape – my inner cynic rolls her eyes at how corny it all is, but I know it’s doing me good, so I just give her the finger, placate her with the promise of malteasers, and push on.

So I guess that, after all, I am ok. Not great; not terrible. Ok. I’m firmly on the middle ground where things could go either way, depending on the moment. But actually, I’m more than ok – in the sense that I am on my way to a better way of being. I’m looking after myself (apart from my little sugar addiction… one little step at a time!), and that in turn will allow me to continue looking after those around me. In recent times I have well and truly bitten off more life than I can chew – but that doesn’t mean I’m choking. Instead I’m spitting it all out and starting over. And while I sort through the slimy, semi-masticated, uglyfood mess of my inner self, I take comfort in the delicious, hearty, warm and cosy sustenance afforded by the wonderful people around me… and also the confectionary aisle.

Filling up on potential

Lately I have been pondering potential. This has been triggered, among other things, by my daughter’s recent birthday party – an event that always has lots of potential for both disaster and brilliance. The thing that carries the most potential, for me, is not the party bags, the games, or Melbourne’s notorious weather. It is The Cake – the focal point, the pièce de résistance, the metaphorical rug that ties it all together.

I have been making and decorating birthday cakes since my teens. My mum – after more than 18 years of making 3 cakes per birthday (one for home, one for school, one for party) for each of her 7 children – was, by the time I was a teenager, more than happy to hand over cake duty to her older progeny. The Womens Weekly Birthday Cake Book trained me in the fine arts of beating and folding, shaping and icing, and how to use licorice and tictacs in all kinds of ungodly ways. One year I decided on something more classy for my older sister’s birthday. She was 22 and officially old, so Miss Muffet just wouldn’t cut it. I baked a beautiful round cake, filled the dent in the middle with chocolate icing (or maybe it was green frosting…) and carefully placed a ’22’ made of smarties on top. I couldn’t work out why mum was trying hard not to laugh until my sister ‘gently’ pointed out that the numbers were backwards. Like she was 55. She thought I’d done it on purpose.
But more often than not, my cakes went down pretty well. I learned early on to hide the weird bits under delicious butter cream and lollies, that the kids would be so excited they wouldn’t notice that Mickey’s ears were different sizes or that the jelly in the pool tasted faintly of dishwater, and that even if the grownups noticed, they were too polite to comment.

Still, the other day as I glanced at the empty mixing bowl and full cake tin featured above, I found myself feeling slightly nervous about how this cake would turn out. Nervous! About a cake!! Tragic. Mind you, there were a number of contributing factors – I was unwell and hadn’t slept much the night before, my broken sleep had been punctuated by dreams of epic cake-mess, and I had been charged with turning what lay before me into a pink pterodactyl by 10am.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure I could pull it off.

I was sorely tempted to hand the whole thing over to my mother-in-law.

But then I realised I was looking at the situation all wrong. As is my wont, I was focusing on what could go wrong and making plans to deal with potential disasters: if it didn’t rise, I could bake another one and sandwich them together with jam and cream; if I cut the shape wrong, I could go buy a sponge cake and draw a pterodactyl in icing on top; if I ran out of time I could convince my daughter that she had really wanted a Woolies’ icecream cake the whole time, she just hadn’t realised it yet. Instead, I reminded myself, I should think about all the positive potential contained in that wonderful blend of butter, sugar, flour, milk & eggs: how much fun I could have sculpting with cake; how happy my daughter would be to get the cake she asked for, even though mummy hadn’t been able to find a picture of it on Google; how it was going to make a blog post no matter how it looked.

And in the end, my cake’s potential was realised. It rose beautifully. It looked, somewhat like a pterodactyl (with a broken wing, but close enough!). It tasted like cake. It was too small to feed everyone at the party, but all the kids got a piece, and some got two. And I got warmly complimented on its awesomeness. I suspect it got quietly made fun of as well, but I’m totally ok with that. In fact, I would be quite disappointed if I found out I was the only one amused by it.

I am by nature a cynic. I instantly notice what could go wrong in any given situation. I tend to think and plan around worst case scenarios. Unlearning these thought cycles is an ongoing process – my life’s work, if I want to get all grandiose about it. I have made progress – I am a diehard optimist, at least (I blame Pollyanna’s “glad game” for that), and I can (and do) laugh heartily at my own dramatising. I am mindful of the way I think and know when to pay it attention and when to let it pass. And I am starting to recognise my own potential. For a long time I largely ignored it due to fear of failure and baulking from others’ perceived expectations. But these days I feel it’s more important to at least try something than to just maintain the status quo – to give myself a chance at fulfillment, and to show my child that failure isn’t a thing, really.

I know from personal experience that sometimes the potential for things to turn out badly is realised in the worst possible way – but I have learned that I have ample capacity to cope with the inevitable curve-balls life likes to hurl in my general direction. And I believe each of us has such capacity. When things turn to shit, we are given an opportunity to learn our own strength, to graciously accept our limitations, to fulfil potentials we didn’t know we had.

Life, when viewed from a certain angle, in a certain light, is full of possibility and opportunity. And cake. So much cake

Roll Models

Late 2013, just another day in the office. I was standing at the copier scanning some document or other when S, the most senior staff member in my department, asked if I had a minute. S is a high-powered business executive, respected and feared in courts and boardrooms across the country. Aggressively intelligent and intolerant of fools, she is a classic type-D personality, and not the kind of person you keep waiting while the copier finishes.
I let her wait.
I had been told the previous week that my contract wouldn’t be renewed because, thanks to recent government funding cuts and the uncertainty of an impending restructure, the department couldn’t afford to keep me on. I accepted this fairly graciously – my position was created to cover someone who had gone on maternity leave, so it had always been a temporary arrangement. However, at the staff meeting the day before the copier incident, S had calmly announced that our group wasn’t losing any staff, that the cuts and restructure would have minimal impact, and no-one need be worried about their job security. That made me feel a bit shit. I had worked there for close to 6 years as a casual or on contract and it was the last meeting with the group I would attend. I happened to be sitting right next to S as she spoke. She conspicuously refused to make eye contact with me.
So I was a little bit shirty.
When I had finished with the copier, I knocked on S’s office door. She let me in straight away, sat me down and said, “I’ve been trying to decide whether or not to have this conversation with you, and seeing you at the copier just now made me decide to just go ahead. I hope you don’t mind if I’m quite direct?”. I shook my head – of course I didn’t mind! “Let me ask you something,” S continued, “What are you doing here?”
This, as you may imagine, was not exactly what I had been expecting.
S went on to explain that the REAL reason she had decided not to renew my contract was that I was wasting my talent and my time doing unchallenging work that I was painfully over-qualified for. She empathised with my position as breadwinner and young, working mum, and gently explained that she was trying to help me “leave the nest” so that I might at last fly on my own. I was moved. When S offered to mentor me through the exciting changes that no doubt lay ahead, I was flattered. Fancy, little old me, being offered a mentorship by one of the most influential women in the business… who’da thunk it?!
Over the following weeks, for the first time in my life, I actively sought professional guidance for decisions I was making about my ‘career’. And I had a taste of what S’s son must have faced his whole life – the best intentions, but just not enough time. After several unheeded emails and indefinitely postponed coffees, I understood. Although she may wish well for me, and although her offer of support was probably genuine, S was simply too busy.
At the time, I just rolled my eyes, shrugged and went back to the copier. I doubted I would’ve made much of a mentee, anyway, so it was no biggie.
But in the last little while I’ve thought a lot about that episode and the lessons I can take from it.
You see, my daughter is nearly 5. This is an age where she is open to the influence of her peers like never before – I have noticed that as her friendships have shifted this year, her favourite colour has changed from pink to yellow, her play has become more aggressive, and she talks about superheroes and tv characters I have never heard of. She is stepping out into her own little world of complex friendships, untried boundaries and limitless adventure, and I want her to face that world with confidence – the kind of confidence that I feel I am only just beginning to discover in myself. The kind of confidence that comes from having incredible people, who genuinely value you, to learn from and be inspired by.
Thinking over these things, I came to realise that for a long time S had been somewhat of a hero of mine – but she wasn’t any longer. She had stretched herself too thin, she no longer had the capacity to be there for her underlings, and I mainly felt sorry for her. I still see her around campus occasionally, and my pity deepens every time – she has given her life and her health to a heartless machine, and she is realising too late the things she has missed. This is not the kind of example I want to set.
I also realised that I have a number of mentors in my life already – but not one of them would presume to put that label on our relationship.
There is the gentle lawyer who always has time to be a sounding board, who can be stressed almost to the point of tears but still stop for a chat, who has offered me the most consistent, unassuming and genuine support without ever realising the impact it has had.
There is one of my nearest and dearest friends, whose unfailing patience and generosity are an inspiration to me every day, who works herself to a shadow with no complaint, who always finds a silver lining.
There is a newer friend who, although we are still getting to know each other, has shown himself to be honest and insightful, who is committed to bringing light to others’ lives, who fully embraces life with all its quirks and wonder.
These, among others, are my true mentors.
My mentors are the people who accept and encourage me without any familial obligation. My mentors are people who have met me as an adult and whose acceptance of me exactly as I am, whose unwavering belief in my potential, has lifted me up time and time again. My mentors are the wonderful people I am grateful for every day, and who I will continue to turn to for advice, support, love and laughter.

And I can only hope that they and others like them will shine their influence on my daughter’s life as well.