Heather is part of the small team who are developing the Inspire, Challenge, Excel Programme. As we continue explore the challenges women face in their day to day lives, Heather reflects on her own experiences and where that has lead her.
I recently attended the first ICE-P Workshop (with Jo Wimble-Groves) and was intrigued by some of the conversations people were engaged in afterwards. There was a lot of talk about confidence (or lack thereof) and some about the guilt we face if we are not living up to the expectations we set ourselves or that society sets for us. This got me thinking about my personal experiences, some of which I share below.
I am a 31 year old woman who eats too much cake, goes to the gym a lot (to counter-act the cake eating) and loves her cat. I left school with reasonable GCSE results but disliked college, so I started work in a Day Nursery aged 17. I had never even held a baby and here I was helping to look after 50 children under the age of 5. I feel like I had always heard a societal message that women should be maternal, so the fact that these skills didn’t come automatically to me was a shock. To make matters worse, having to deal with colleagues and parents was equally as tough for me. These were ‘real grown-ups’ with jobs, houses and responsibilities and I didn’t even know how to make a cup of tea (genuinely).
Uncomfortable though it was, I forced myself to go back to this place every day and pretend to be an adult myself. Each day I pretended I was also a grown up and knew what I was doing and before too long I settled in, made a few work friends and really did know what I was doing (thankfully)!
It turns out I am good at looking after children and I started to enjoy it too. I undertook an apprenticeship with some evening studying at a local college and an Assessor came to observe my practise. The first time she visited I was feeling nervous at the thought of her observing me for an entire 2 hours. I was so anxious I didn’t even speak to the Assessor but I flourished in my work with the children. My Supervisor supported this, sitting back to let me take the reins and get lots of practical elements ticked off. Or so we thought…
At the end of the two hours my Assessor looked at my Supervisor and said “shall we go and discuss how that went?” and the penny dropped that the Assessor had spent the past two hours observing her instead of me. My heart was broken. Was all that work for nothing? I blamed myself and my lack of self-confidence for not speaking up – why is it that we are often so quick to do this? It was clearly the Assessors fault and yet here I was thinking about what I could have done differently.
Thankfully there were no further hiccups from then on, I finished the NVQ Level 3 and was left with a thirst for knowledge.
Looking back I identify this as the turning point for me. This was the first time in my life that I had chosen to do something for myself and had succeeded at it. This wasn’t education I had been forced into or a job someone told me I had to do. I chose this and I was empowered to make more decisions like this and begin to live the life I wanted to.
To cut an extremely long story short, a series of events from then on led to me obtaining a Master’s Degree and eventually becoming a Nursery Manager. During the decade I spent in childcare I spoke at conferences, aided research at some Universities, co-wrote educational magazine articles and was published in a handful of academic books. I had begun to refer to myself as “an academic”.
Who would have thought that a frightened 17 year old child could have achieved so much?
The Turning Point
I managed 15 people for two and a half years. I grew the business to its full capacity and then realised I didn’t know what to do next. One day I woke up and I was fed up of being in charge. I didn’t want to act like I knew what I was doing any more: because even though achieving that MA was the proudest moment of my life and I had over a decade of experience in the sector, sometimes I still felt as though I was playing at it (a classic case of imposter syndrome).
Realising that I didn’t want to continue in that job was a concern for me. I had so many questions: Why have I worked so hard just to throw it away? What would people think of me for deciding (like a flippant 5 year old) that “I just don’t want to do that anymore”? What if I give up but then change my mind later?
Then one day it dawned on me that there was no point worrying about this and asking all these questions because that would help in no way whatsoever. It didn’t matter that I was 29 and had no direction in life. It didn’t matter that I don’t want children of my own or that I don’t like beach holidays, that I am habitually anti-social and that my opinions often differ from the ‘social norm’. This was finally the point in my life that I fully gained self-confidence.
I left my secure job for a risky maternity-cover post in an office. It was entirely different and mostly desk based, which I wasn’t used to but I loved it. I enjoyed that there was less responsibility; that the hours were shorter and that it was ‘just a job’ to me. I’m not a lazy person by any means, I was just exhausted by my work/life balance being skewed in a way I was no longer comfortable with.
I had finally gained the confidence to be honest with myself and others, to do what made me happy, rather than trying to please anyone else. My only regret is that I didn’t realise this sooner.
Please excuse the sweeping generalisation coming next but in my opinion, men tend to gain self-confidence earlier than women and I believe that this is because, historically, we have brought them up to be more robust: to brush it off when things go wrong, to be strong and to be the ‘hero’. Thankfully this is changing, we’ve recognised that men need to express their feelings more and that women are resilient and powerful too (e.g. campaigns like This Girl Can), but we can always strive to do even more.
I openly admit that I am addicted to social media but I now spend less time looking at posts from other people (that seem to only be demonstrating how perfect their lives are) and more time posting things that interest me. I have given up on ‘the ideal selfie’ or the need for approval from others. I don’t waste my time wishing I had done anything differently or trying to be anyone else.
To go back to the conversations at the workshop, for me, I became confident when I fully accepted who I am. Life is a journey and I’m just attempting to enjoy it as best I can, which is all the pressure I ever want to put on myself.
Does all this make me selfish? All I know is, I’m doing what makes me happy and I am never going to apologise for being myself.