I was crying over potatoes.
It was November 3rd. I was standing, shoulders slumped and shaking in the veg section of a large supermarket getting the jacket potatoes for our fireworks night. The one thing I was sure of at that moment was that the future of these potatoes was not what was causing the big shopping aisle display of emotions, but what was?
I didn't have the skillset to listen to myself, I felt silly wasn't able, I couldn't hear myself and the veg aisle was where I expressed it.
Six years earlier my wife, two kids (soon to be three) and I had moved to an outer London housing estate to start a faith community that was aimed at supporting the vulnerable in our new community. The local authority was in real need-actually they were desperate - for people to run their parenting courses and, with a background in youth and community work, this seemed like an ideal way for me to serve the community.
Over those six years, I ran parenting courses for those who were referred by social services and the courts. Parents whose children were on child in need and child protection plans. Sometimes, for parents who had had their children removed, and, in an extreme case, for a parent who had killed one of their children in a fit of rage.
It is safe to say that these parent's stories were at the sharp and ugly end of the safeguarding spectrum and I LOVED this work. I was good at it and we were making an impact. With the huge turnover of social workers, being able to offer consistent support made a real difference. As a church minister, my professional boundaries are different from those of other professions and this meant that I could offer community-based support at points of need that others couldn't reach.
For those families, the cruel reality was that their family life was often defined by a crippling intergenerational cycle of crisis and conflict. Conflict within the families themselves and with the professionals supporting them. Mediating between conflicting parties and families became commonplace, and soon I was lecturing local social workers how to support families in crisis. Most importantly we were, in partnership with other agencies, seeing improved outcomes for young people and children.
But there were those potatoes!
The cruel reality of crisis and conflict is that it eats at you. Even if you are not the person in crisis and conflict, it still finds a way to dig into who you are. My experience of it was small compared to what the children in the cases I was supporting were having to live with However, the sheer number of cases meant I was experiencing a hollowing out that, like a rotting tooth, went unnoticed until I stood in that veg aisle.
Looking back, now I can see that it was a case of not enough boundaries and not enough self-care, but it was more than that... It was also about not being honest about my needs or having the wisdom to see the long-term effects of shallow self-care and boundaries on my own soul.
What followed was a humbling process of getting deep support. Support that got past the surface and helped me face the hollowing out which had happened under my nose. If I was crying over potatoes, you can imagine what sort of parent and husband I'd unknowingly become over those years.
Self-care is not what social media memes portray it to be. For me, it came with an acceptance of what I could and couldn't do - a right-sizing of myself. I couldn't 'fix' those wonderful families I worked with, I couldn't fix an overstretched social care system and I couldn't fix' the amazing young people and children I supported. I could influence, but that influence was hindered by my trying to "fix' mentality. Self-care was about having an honest perspective of who I was.
Self-care was saying no and often this was very painful. In the face of overwhelming need saying no was, and still is, the most painful part of good self-care, especially as our community faced the pandemic.
Self-care became learning to not take other people's behaviour personally. Their sweary rants, not turning up, not putting the action plans we'd spent hours working on together into place, slamming their door in the social workers' face even though we'd agreed that meeting with them was the best thing for their kids: it was never about me. When a social worker complained about me because I'd challenged them, it wasn't personal. I'm not excusing any of these bad behaviours, but for most - if not all - it was a response to protect themselves. For me, self-care became about addressing the behaviour and their self-protection needs, not about taking their behaviour as an attack on me. As a dad of three teens, I now take this approach with my own children.
Turning off my voice and turning on my ears became the biggest act of self-care. I am great at talking, but learning to listen more became the key to my own self-care and support. When people are given the chance to be honest and be heard, it made it easier to create boundaries about what I was hearing, because as they spoke they truly heard themselves. They were better able to influence themselves, and the outcome was more freeing for me. The other big change that came from getting better at listening was that I got better at listening to myself.
I'm far from perfect at self-care, but I've learned a better way to hear myself speak about myself and my needs.
We stayed living on that estate for another six years and learning to be better at self-care in the midst of crisis and conflict was key. I never thought that my journey would end up with me shutting up more and learning to be better at hearing what people were saying. I'm known for being a good public speaker, but I'd rather be known for being a good listener of others and myself.
I don't mind crying, especially at the ending of Disney films, but hopefully potatoes will never set me off again.
Parenting Coach and Baptist Minister
A dad of three children who leads workshops and coaches parents to be courageously honest. With over 20 years experience of working with families, Richard asks the questions that helps people discover solutions to their problems and grow in self-confidence and self-belief. He has worked in many settings, including elite sports, state and independent schools, and for the local authority.