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Ash-8-Months

I promise this isn’t some kind of mummy blog rant. I’ve never had the urge to write publicly on the topic of pregnancy and parenthood, but recently some friends have encouraged me to share my experiences. They said it would be helpful for women “like us” to read, so I’ve jotted down some observations and thoughts – I hope some of you find some of it useful.

Last week Ash turned nine months old, and in exactly a week from today I will be on my way home from my first official day at work in almost a year. Lots of people have been asking me how I feel about it, and while I will undoubtedly miss Ash, I am  looking forward to it (it helps when you enjoy what you do for a living).

It will be great to get back to contributing to positive social change, being inspired by my talented colleagues, and exercising the professional part of my brain. Importantly for me, the work aspect of my life hasn’t been completely on hold while on parental leave. I’ve been chipping away at developing a start-up social enterprise with a good friend of mine who happened to also be on parental leave at the same time.

Over the past nine months we’ve spent many days pushing prams together while brainstorming, feeding our babies while planning, and writing to-do lists while cleaning up vomit. It’s been so much fun!

I also decided to do a bit of tutoring at uni to bring in a few extra dollars, and have a break from full-time parenting duties. Fortunately I was able to teach classes in between Ash’s feed times, and feel relaxed about leaving him, knowing that he was with his wonderful grandmother.

Interestingly, when I tell people about working while on leave, most of the time they respond with something like “How do you manage all that? Aren’t you too exhausted to think about work? I can’t believe you can handle a newborn baby and work at the same time!”.

I guess I could take it as a complement, but these comments are usually promptly followed up by more generalised advice such as “don’t think about work while you’re on leave, enjoy your time with your baby”, or “you should really forget about doing the housework, you need to sleep when the baby sleeps”, and “don’t worry about exercising, your first priority is looking after the baby”. Sigh.

Clearly it never occurs to them that my way of coping, managing, and mothering may be different to theirs, or social norms.

Some days all I want to do is clean while Ash sleeps, so that when he wakes up I can enjoy the environment around us. Sometimes I am physically exhausted, but have lots of ideas that I just have to get out of my head and onto a google doc before Ash wakes up. Other days I sleep when he sleeps.

I think it’s really important to do what makes you happy, especially when you’re sleep deprived, a little isolated, and going through a lot of physical and psychological change.

For me, having professional projects and “work” to focus on has really helped keep me grounded, intellectually challenged, and feeling like I hadn’t had a complete identity change the minute Ash came into the world.

There is no single, better, or right way of spending your time. This clearly isn’t rocket science, but then why hadn’t anyone, any blog, or any book suggested it to me before?

In light of this, I thought I’d share some of the things that I found really helpful when I was pregnant, and in the early days when Ash was born.

But before you read on there is one very large caveat to all this – I am extremely fortunate to have a fantastic husband, an amazing mother, a caring father, a supportive workplace, and good mental and physical health. Without these things, the list below would undoubtedly look very different.

Seeing a kick arse GP

A visit to a GP is typically where your pregnancy journey will begin, so having a good rapport with them is pretty important. They’ll likely influence your decision making and set the tone for your pregnancy early on. One of the most helpful things my GP did was to firmly tell me not to read too many pregnancy or parenting blogs, and under no circumstances play Dr Google when it came to health-related issues. After that appointment I promptly unsubscribed from a bunch of sites that were doing little more than causing me mild anxiety about all the things that could go wrong with me, my baby and my relationship while I was pregnant.

Listening to the experiences of like-minded women

I’m fortunate that most of my closest girlfriends already had babies, or were well on their way by the time I fell pregnant. They have been an invaluable source of information and ideas for me, and a great sounding board.

I should stress though that I chose pretty early on in my pregnancy who I would listen to and who I would politely smile and nod at, while disregarding everything that was coming out of their mouth. There’s no shortage of opinions and views about pregnancy and parenting out there, and most people don’t hold back before telling you what you should and shouldn’t do. That’s why I think it’s really important to stick to a few trusted sources, and ignore the rest!

Writing up my birth preferences

I was hesitant about birth plans, but I really liked the idea of Simon and I both knowing my birth preferences. For me it was about understanding some of the decisions that I might need to make during labour, and discussing them with Simon and our midwife in advance. For example, what pain relief options I would like to try during labour, whether I wanted to have vaginal exams during labour (and whether I wanted to be told how dilated I was), preference for skin-to-skin contact with the baby immediately after birth, how I wanted to birth the placenta (and what to do with it afterwards), the list goes on!

One of the most useful sources of information I found in preparing my birth preferences were the prenatal yoga classes I attended with Vedanta Nicholson. Not only were these classes a fantastic way to relax and learn essential active birth skills, but Vedanta gives you really practical, evidence-based information about labour and birth in each class. I also found the following books incredibly useful – they all helped to inform my birth preferences:

One of the things I learnt about birth preferences, is that they can be helped or hindered by hospital policies. For example, some hospitals in the ACT don’t allow water births, and they all have various standards when it comes to medical intervention during labour.

A couple of my girlfriends had gone through the Birth Centre at Calvary, and highly recommended it. After chatting with them I thought it would probably suit me, because I was keen to have a vaginal birth with little or no intervention if possible. I must say that I received amazing care from the midwives, nurses and doctors at Calvary – and I saw quite a few after a 30 hour labour that ended in an emergency cesarean section!

Even though my labour didn’t end as I would’ve liked, I found the entire experience absolutely empowering and mind-blowing! Anyway, that’s another blog post

Once Ash was finally born, there were a few key things that I found helpful, particularly in the early days:

Focusing on the positives – there are lots!

While I spent the first few months post-partum feeling frustrated about being so physically inactive while my body recovered from the Cesarean Section, and adjusted to keeping another human alive (outside my body this time), I kept focusing on the fact that we had a gorgeous and healthy little boy in our lives. This simple mantra gave me a clear reference point when I was thoroughly sleep deprived, full of raging hormones, feeling fat and lethargic, and at times, completely unsure if Simon and I were “doing it right”.

Forming a parental brains trust

Simon and I are really lucky that the group of parents we did our hospital classes with started a really supportive and candid closed Facebook group so we could stay in touch. While I’ve never been big on the concept of “mother’s groups” or discussing difficult and personal issues with perfect strangers, this crew was (and still is) a great support for Simon and I. It’s been so interesting to chat with other parents about everything from sleep, to teething, nappy options, health issues, weaning, first foods, childcare experiences, and everything in between.

Finding my new training routine

Having gone from doing functional fitness, Capoeira, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu regularly pre-pregnancy, to being restricted to “just walking” for 6 months post-partum, I had to rethink and reimagine my ideal training routine. It went something like this:

When Ash was about four months, I started to do some one-on-one personal training sessions with my man Simon. My focus for these sessions is mobility and light strength work. When I am super tired we run through a series of stretches, focusing on unlocking all my tight and tangled spots (there were lots).

At six months I felt I could add some more dynamic, whole body movements into my training. So I was super excited when I returned to FuncFitness to train once a week, it’s one of the friendliest gym communities in Canberra. The culture of where you train is always important, but even moreso when you’re getting back to training after a break, and are feeling super unfit.

Most recently I’ve started doing some one-on-one Muay Thai sessions with my friend Mitch Langman. Some days we work on the psychological aspects of my training, sometimes we spar, sometimes we run drills on the focus pads. One of the things I love about training with Mitch is that regardless of what we’ve done during that hour, I always leave with a smile on my face, feeling a billion times better than when I first walked in.

So what’s next? I’m absolutely itching to get back into some Capoeira and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu at Elements – I’ll find some time somehow!

Earlier this year I was invited to participate in a live panel discussion, exploring content marketing for not-for-profit organisations at Gungahlin Library. My fellow panellists were Mike Zissler, former CEO of Lifeline Canberra, and Chris Barry, Director of Communications and Fundraising at Communities at Work. A big thanks to David Pembroke, Gavin Tapp, and the Content Group crew for creating a space for us to have this discussion!

Me-Ruth

Ruth and I, Better Boards Conference, Melbourne, July 2013

Having been back in the country for less than a week, it was a bit hectic to then head off down to Melbourne for the Better Boards Conference, but I’m so glad I did!

The opening keynote on Saturday was from ThinkPlace’s Dr Nina Terrey on how design thinking can drive innovation. She talked about some of the challenges of our NGO environment, from technology and the demand for businesses to operate online, to our ageing population and the impact of this on our economy, housing, and family structures.

She suggested that perhaps one of the biggest challenges is how we (NGOs) connect within one another, and challenged us to consider how we can be cooperative as well as competing.

She then talked about how many young professionals are “mission-driven”, and there’s a trend toward social entrepreneurship in Australia. I certainly notice this in my friendship groups.

Dr Terrey did say though that there are no formulas or models that will simply help us deal with these uncertain times, but that design thinking can help us navigate the “mystery” of our environment.

Innovation-mindset

Leadbeater’s appetite for collaborative innovation

So where to start with design thinking?

Dr Terrey encouraged delegates to think about where some of the biggest challeges are for our organisations, and said to start with looking at the available evidence to help us understand “where we are” at this point in time.

She then said to think about what success looks like. Then how we might get there. Talk to stakeholders to understand what it’s like from their perspective. Do some interviews, spend time with those people, get some information. Then hypothesise…

Design-thinking

Dr Terrey’s “leading on the edge of innovation” preso

One of the other sessions I attended on Saturday was with Philip Mayers, Director, Dakin Mayers Associates, on the role of the nominations committee in recruiting the right board directors.

He started out by saying that one of the fundamental issues in recruiting board directors is that many are recruited through the “old boy/old girl” network. There’s also the “big names” syndrome, and he reckons these people only want to put in minimal effort on a board, and more often than not they’re doing it for the professional development or networking opportunities, rather than having a deep connection with the issues the NGO is dealing with.

He said that some of the biggest challenges for a nominations committee includes:

  • there are no magic bullets with recruitment
  • big names will not help your board strategically guide an organisation
  • recruitment can be a very slow process and it needs to be tackled strategically and thoughtfully

He suggested that the makeup of the nominations committee comprise: 2 senior board members, 2 externals, and the CEO. He stressed the importance of the externals in keeping the internals honest (if they’re the right people).

In terms of what to look for in board members, Philip cited the following qualities: big picture thinker, open-minded, non-biased, approachable, change agent, inclusive, think on their feet, team player, positive manner, ability to delegate, personal integrity, and has skills in board governance.

He talked about the danger of appointing young people to the board (eeek). The reason being that “board members need to have an understanding of governance.”

This comment puzzled me. Don’t young people have the capacity to understand what governance is all about? I sit on a board where there is a minimum requirement that 30% of all board positions are to be held by young women, and I can tell you, they discuss governance A LOT.

In fact, most of the young women on the YWCA of Canberra board pride themselves on their governance nerdiness. More about the Y’s awesome finance and governance workshops here and a good overview of Gen Y in the board room from Chris O’Neill here.

After hearing this comment I asked the other folk on Twitter what they thought about having young people on boards. Here are some of the responses:

todddavies “my experience as a Gen X is that boards can get stayed and dull without a Gen Y or two.”

Rebecca Vassarotti “I know plenty of older people with no governance exper. Everyone has to learn.”
Michel Hogan “because we need diversity on Boards as well as experience and also need to build future generation”

At the end of his presentation I had a chance to ask Philip to elaborate on his earlier comment, and asked him how he got his first gig on a board. He told me that his comment was more to do with “getting young people on boards just for the sake of understanding what young people want”.

He also told us that his first board appointment was when he had just graduated from law school, and he was recruited by his local synagogue – a great learning space for him, I imagine.

One of my favourite sessions of the weekend was run by Sallie Saunders from Building Better Boards, on “Assessing the CEO: the good, the bad and the ugly”.

The key message that came from this session was that a thriving NGO relies on good relationships, in particular the relationship between the CEO and the board.

She said that if you can be the CEO of an NGO, you can pretty much run the country. This was on the one hand a light-hearted comment, but when you look at the qualities, role and responsibilities of a CEO, they aren’t dissimilar to those that are required of a PM.

It’s no surprise then that she considers the CEO to be the most precious asset of an NGO.

Recruiting, developing and assessing the CEO is the only HR job a board has, and Sallie stressed that if directors can’t find reasons to support the CEO, then it’s probably time for them to get off the board.

So what makes it work?

  • keep board development and appraisal on the agenda – it’s a 2-way street
  • set targets for board achievement
  • talk about the difference between strategic and operational matters
  • keep reporting demands to a minimum
  • use the board expertise to add value to the work of the organisation
  • provide support and advice, especially when requested
  • avoid getting involved in staff matters
  • ask the CEO how the board can help (and listen to the answer)
  • the Director’s default position should be to support the CEO. If that’s not the position, then follow grievance procedures.

Later that afternoon there was a lively debate about the question of NGO board remuneration – “to pay or not to pay”?

On the affirmative team:

  • Victor Harcourt, Principle, Russell Kennedy
  • Dean Phelan, CEO, Churches of Christ in QLD
  • Christine Jones, Dispute Resolution Practitioner

Arguing against:

  • Brian Herd, Partner, Carne Reidy Herd Lawyers
  • Alexandra Zammit, CEO, Thomas Holt

The debate itself was pretty entertaining, but the thing I was most impressed with was the live polling and Q&A that was taking place via PigeonHole as the debate progressed.

The idea was to vote on the question of the debate “Should not-for-profit boards be remunerated?” before the discussion took place, as well as afterwards. The MC then compared the results to see whether the speakers had convinced the audience to change their opinions.

In the end there was a shift from something like 65% of delegates thinking that NGO boards should be remunerated, to almost an even split.

I really loved the fact that with PigeonHole delegates were not only able to pose a question to the panel, but also “vote up” other delegates’ questions that they really wanted to hear the answer to.

I think the inclusivity that this kind of tool offers is really valuable, because it means that people who may not feel confident enough to stand up in front of a crowd to ask a question can articulate their idea through a written submission. They can even participate anonymously if they perhaps don’t want the subject of their question to be linked with their organisation or board.

From a strategic communication perspective, I would be really interested to know why the BBC2013 team placed a much greater emphasis on dialogic and digital communication this year as compared to last year (when there was virtually nothing). I’d like to think it had something to do with the feedback I provided!

As Sunday approached I began to reflect on my time volunteering with the YWCA of Canberra. The last 12 months in particular have been a huge period of growth for me.

There are a few guarantees that come with volunteering for an organisation like the Y:

1. You will have the opportunity to work with inspiring, bright, courageous, like-minded women of all ages
2. You will be afforded opportunities to grow your personal and professional experience
3. You will at times, find yourself completely out of your comfort zone thinking “how on earth did I get talked into this?”

But rest assured, you will have the support, encouragement, and expertise of a community of women who want nothing more than to share your success with you.

This is kind of how I felt when Ruth asked me to co-present with her at the Conference this year, but I’m so glad that I accepted her invitation.

Our presentation focused on telling the story of how the board of the YWCA of Canberra developed its 15-year strategic plan. To put the presentation together, Ruth interviewed a bunch of past board members and the Executive Director, Rebecca Vassarotti. The aim was for them to tell the story from their perspective, with Ruth and I providing the commentary around the implications for the current board.

Typically I felt pretty anxious in the lead up to delivering this presentation, but of course it all ran very smoothly!

We had enough time for a 15 minute Q&A session at the end, and later received some really positive feedback from delegates, including CEOs and directors from a range of NGOs.

If you’re interested in checking out the Better Boards Conference as a professional development opportunity for your board, I highly recommend it.

There is something for everyone, no matter how “new” or “experienced” your board directors are, whether your NGO is service-provision focused, or an advocacy organisation, or how big your budget is.

One of Her Canberra’s 15 Women to Watch in 2015

Her Canberra - 15 Women to Watch

Nominated for Mamamia’s Most Clickable Women of 2013

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