A blog by Claire Standen Coaching
Learning to trust myself has been a long and interesting process. It was not until fairly recently that I had the insight that this was because I received fairly conclusive feedback that I am not a sensible, rational or trustworthy person from my mum. Even as I type that a little lurch rises through my body. The audacity! It says… The barefaced cheek to throw back into the face of everything you’ve been given! And yes, I was provided for in my childhood in all the ways that mean I shouldn’t technically be suffering any ill effects in my adult life. Yet for little Claire, I sense, there was a yawning chasm where attunement might have been. I wonder how early I began to receive the message that my feelings were ‘too big’, ‘inconvenient’, ‘badly timed’ and irrational. Never quite receiving the message that while all of these things may be true, it was actually the message that it should be any different that was the most damaging. I know, because occasionally, unconsciously, or before I catch myself, I deliver them to my own daughter. When I’m overwhelmed, I tell her she’s too much. When I don’t have time, I tell her this isn’t the time. When she’s feeling something I can’t understand, I tell her it’s irrational. Then, I become more fully aware that I am passing on the internalised messages that I received as a child and young adult, and that I still receive today.
So how do I trust myself to make the big decisions that I necessarily have to make as the only adult in my house, and the visionary leader of a business I plan to make a huge impact with? I breathe, and I be. I learn to accept the parts of myself that I have thus far rejected, and in doing so I become a better therapist, mother, friend, lover, partner and business owner. I become more whole.
I recently signed up to Breathing Space’s Breathwork Teacher and Leadership training. It is a part of my commitment to follow my intuition more than the fears and doubts that naturally arise in me, as a human. Without having finished my facilitator training, it may seem a little mad to sign up to the further training, but as I breathed into the decision, I realised that one of my biggest stretches is to trust myself on this and every other decision and path I may make and take. I am done with being afraid of ‘failure’ and I am done defining ‘success’ with anything other than my own parameters. I believe that my version of success may never meet that of my parents, or those around me. I know that I may take greater risks (and the risks I take are still fairly small so far) than others believe is wise or right. I know that it is probably these things that fed into those narratives others may have about me, and I continue to be the one who writes the story of my life- and to unapologetically be the central character, too.
My kids are my constant teachers, and there’s no-one who sees through my bs more clearly than my daughter, who’s 8.
One thing they’ve taught me since the day they were born is about feeling your feelings. That’s been a very steep learning curve since, as it turns out, I was pretty committed to not feeling my feelings. Ironically, as a result, my feelings really seemed to have control of me, rather than the other way around. It makes a lot of sense, when I look at my upbringing, where feelings were not especially welcome and in my adulthood, where I perpetuated that. As a result, I had that toxic mix of not enough/ far too much which women live when they act out the mother wound. Being, as I am, so committed to putting a stop to the generational wounds being passed on, it seems clear to me that I have work to do.
So let’s return to my Monday morning and my daughter feeling her feelings, while I tried to ‘life coach’ her out of them as any good therapist mother should (ahem).
We were sat on her bedroom floor, her having concluded a fairly epic dysregulated session and me having kept my cool admirably… and I invited her to breathe with me. Not to ‘calm down’, as such (except if I’m really honest, it was, a bit), but rather to reconnect and to regulate her nervous system (that’s ‘calm down’ to you). So I say ‘let’s imagine when we breathe in, we’re blowing up a balloon’. Like I said, she’s astute, so she’s two steps ahead… and says, but when balloons go down they don’t go ‘psssssshhhhh’ and motioned with her hands to show a balloon slowly deflating. ‘That’s right!’ I said, they go down like ‘pfllllllt’ (cue me, blowing raspberries and waving my hands madly around in a way that’s harder to convey in writing than I’d anticipated…).
You see, my daughter isn’t for being ‘chivvied’ out of her emotions, and I’m determined not to shut them down, which I used to do as a function of my own incapacity to handle emotions. This is something which, clearly, I’m working on. My kids often tell me that I can cry if I need to, because- like I always tell them, it’s ok to feel their feelings.
The great irony is; the more you feel it’s ok to have them, the less you suffer from your emotions.
Suffering and the emotions can be de-coupled and do not have to co-exist (I facilitate this with clients all the time). I’ll go further and say that the felt sense and the meaning making can be de-coupled and do not have to co-exist. As we’re learning in my breathwork course, if something goes wrong, it’s either a problem with framing or a problem with the felt sense. Framing is sense or meaning making and felt sense is felt sense, whichever way you look at it. (Felt sense is the physical sensations in your body without the narrative about what they mean).
The lesson? As a mother, as a practitioner and as a human, it pays to pay attention because if I’d tried to force my daughter to ‘comply’ with my ‘compulsory relaxation exercise’, I would have degraded her trust in me, and built a barrier between us. Instead, we ended up in fits of giggles and I got an insight into how cool and complex she already is, at 8. Which is probably equal to how cool and complex I was at 8.
In June or July of 2020, amidst the uncertainty of the pandemic, I spoke these words to my ex-husband ‘I set you free, and I set me free- I don’t want any more child maintenance’. A couple of months later, I quit my only source of self-employed income. You could say it was a period of questionable financial decisions… except, it was actually very deliberate and I’m proud of myself for working through the inevitable fears that came up.
The decision was prompted by reading a book by Emma Johnson: The Kickass Single Mom. Now, I don’t identify as particularly ‘kick ass’ (maybe that’s just because I’m British), but she made a compelling case for ditching the reliance on what ultimately is a pittance, and instead working towards a more equal balance of parenting responsibilities, freeing you up to make your own money. As I was (and still am) self-employed, highly creative and very passionate about my work as a coach and therapist, putting the importance of time over money appealed to me greatly. Not only that, but I’m also aspirational, and have trained in a new field that holds high potential for making a lot more money. It takes time, energy and focus to build a business. I didn’t have much of any of those between 9.30 am and 2.30 pm and every other weekend. In short, the classic British set-up of the kids having an ‘every other weekend dad’ wasn’t working well for me.
It's been a while since I prescribed to the idea that ‘we’ll do what’s best for the kids’. That might sound a little callous, but I think it’s too often used as an excuse to discount the welfare of the woman involved in the separation. I strongly believe that when we take the welfare of mothers into account (or, God Forbid, make it a priority!), that children’s welfare naturally increases. I know the experience of being a stressed out and struggling single mum, and trust me, my kids suffered. So when men abuse women emotionally, financially and physically (and yes, it is mostly men who abuse mostly women), their children are also suffering, whether they want to admit it or not.
I decided to take a stand. I decided to back myself in the race and to believe in myself even more than ever before. It was about a year and a half of not taking any child maintenance before I moved to the same home town as my ex-husband, and set up the expectation that parenting would be on a 50:50 basis. This was a huge change, and it presented massive parenting issues for my ex-husband that simply hadn’t been an issue when he was a ‘weekend dad’. Who bought school uniform (both of us!), School shoes (we alternate), who took them to school (me on my days, him on his), how could he continue with full time hours (he employed a childminder). These issues (and resulting costs) had never occurred to him when he picked the kids up on Saturday and dropped them back on Sunday, and I think that’s actually a shame. Because along with the ‘costs’ come huge benefits. Actually knowing your kids, for one. Connection. Love. Involvement in their everyday lives. When we’ve spoken about our new set up since, my ex-husband has expressed how much more fulfilling life is now compared to before.
And do you know how much child maintentance was? Less than 50p/ hour. It was, quite frankly, an insult. Money that is grudgingly given and grudgingly received, apart from anything, has a very icky energy.
My relationship with my ex-husband has transformed beyond recognition since we first split up. In ways I’ve held the vision for, but not necessarily believed would ‘work’. I put it down, in part, to this shift in our financial situation, whereby our overall share of duties is now completely equal, and no money changes hands.
It is of course worth mentioning here that there are situations where partners (both male and female) are abusive and where shared parenting is genuinely not an option. However, to avoid the potential damage that ensues from parental alienation, where one parent denies the other the right to see the children, we must address these issues. In most situations, both parents are equally capable of parenting, even if not to the exact standards of the other parent… But as Johnsson expresses in her blogs, podcast appearances and books, instances of one parent being incapable are not as often as some mothers would have you believe. Often, minor discrepancies are cited as reasons, like ‘he can’t even do the washing up properly, how will he get three kids to school on time!’. When we look at these, they’re really subtle power plays and more about the feelings of the parent than the wellbeing of the child. In my case, even the tricky logistics of a co-parenting dad who works full time have been solved, and not by my sacrificing my working or free time, either.
There is a cultural shift required in order for our individual divorces to transform, and at the same time it’s true to say that in order to make a cultural shift happen, we need to transform the landscapes of our individual lives. My ex-husband’s workplace, for instance, calls itself a ‘life friendly employer’, but often these policies rely on someone in the employee’s life shouldering all the actual burdens of the ‘life’ they claim to be ‘friendly’ to. As a self employed person, I needed to take a stand to ensure my own employment was ‘life friendly’, as well as equal and fair.
So, for the second part of this blog, I’d like to speak to the issues that under-pin how this turns up for separating couples. Firstly, the idea that any amount of money can replace the presence of a parent, is a fundamentally flawed idea. There is no monetary value that can be ascribed to the physical presence, emotional support, selflessness and care-taking that is the role of parenting. To go full ‘feminist’ on this issue for a moment, the very idea that there could be points at the fundamental lack of respect there is societally for the work unpaid that is done worldwide by (primarily) women. Why am I being apologetic for being feminist about this? Because that is not a popular stance. We’re actually supposed to put up and shut up. Not voice our dissent. That the ‘welfare of the children’ I so often cited as of primary importance, and yet child maintenance is either a pittance, paid late, partially or not at all… well, as they say- put your money where your mouth is. There is often the question arising of what ‘she’ uses the money for… as if feeding, clothing, bathing, transporting, entertaining, educating and all the other activities of a parent don’t add up to more than a few hundred pounds a month (they do, and more). But beyond that, and if you’re still with me… that doesn’t mean the paying parent is necessarily able to pay. So what then? Apparently, 90 % of single parents are women. So where are all the fathers? There are those that pay. Those that pay more than they ‘should’ (yes, they do exist!), those that default and those that don’t declare their real earnings.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m fairly sure my ex-husband could afford the money he was giving me, but I do wonder whether he would have so happily taken the kids on days out, treated them to toys, and ultimately, whether we would have been able to build the fair, co-operative relationship we now have, if he’d have been handing over that money. There are, of course, also parents who struggle to pay child maintenance. I’ve worked with some of these while I was assisting veterans. I’ve also worked with women plunged into debt and financial insecurity because of inconsistent or absent payments from equally absent ‘fathers’. Let’s be clear, that doesn’t work for anyone. It’s no coincidence that separated parents is one of the ‘adverse childhood experiences’ that affect outcomes in adult life. It’s been my mission to mitigate that risk in my own children’s lives as much as possible, and I consider my mental, physical AND financial wellbeing to be a key part of that.
Honestly, there’s so much more to say about how the current system traps people in poverty, and I could write a whole article on that too, and maybe I will… But for now, I wonder if this has got you thinking about what that child maintenance is really worth, and whether true equality might be within reach.
I’m on the train to Thurso, in the very North of Scotland. I can feel my spirits soar, even as the train rocks and rumbles along the tracks. The going is fairly slow since the track is bordered on both sides by thick vegetation that looks like it should have been cut back some years ago. Nonetheless, as we move, my heart stirs. Adventure courses through my veins. Even better, I’m travelling to meet my equal in adventure, my inspirational partner, Ewan. I can feel myself becoming more alive in every moment. As the train blasts it’s horn, I wonder who for… but we’re in fairly wild country now, so perhaps it’s a level crossing or maybe because we’re coming to a part of the track which appears to be one-way over a little green bridge. If something can simultaneously charming and mildly alarming, this is it.
. It reminds me of hunkering down in my roof-top tent near Lairg in a wildly windy valley last year with Ewan, the wild wind making us wonder whether we’d still be in situ by the morning… and as it howled and whipped the unsecured parts of the tent, a huge grin spread across my face. Throughout the night, we heard red stags moving up and down the valley roaring for partners, scaring off adversaries, since it was rutting season. My heart, I acknowledge, needs these wild moments and, in truth, craves many more of them. The wind lashing rain in my face at my cousin’s lake district wedding on an Ullswater steamer. The North Sea throwing huge waves ayt me with zero regard for my capacity to withstand them. These moments that make me feel more fully alive and that bring me back to my body. At times, it seems to need to be these ‘peak’ experiences to be capable of this. If there’s anything I’ve learnt about myself these last five years, it’s that my disconnection to my body has been pervasive and profound, and I don’t really know when it started. For the majority of my life, I had very little awareness of how I really felt about things… because I couldn’t really feel anything, much less the subtleties. Perhaps there’s always a stepping stone from feeling nothing, through feeling the extremes, to feeling into the subtleties. I’m somewhere on that journey. Aren’t we all.
So, I wake in the morning for the first month after signing up to breathwork training acutely aware of how I feel in my physical body. I realise, with a creeping awareness, that the sensations in my body when I wake up having breathed principally through my mouth all night, are signalling to my brain that all is not well. Or perhaps it’s the other way around? Perhaps the meaning my mind makes as it senses these neural signals from my nervous system is ‘all is not well’. Perhaps all is genuinely not well… Or perhaps the feelings I initially shut off all those years ago are nothing more than misinterpretations of a well-meaning but chaotic Universe. Perhaps. Perhaps. Perhaps. All I know, is that as I take the time (and it really is a very little time) to do the compulsory five minutes of breath-work we have all signed up to for the training, something shifts each and every day. Whether I become more aware of my chronic incapacity to focus (ah, sweet awareness! The first step to meaningful and lasting change!) or feel some subtle or profound shift in my body, whose impact I will not know and may never understand, all I know is that there is magic at play. Alchemy. And I’m here for it.
‘What is it you’re searching for?’, she asked, her eyes fixed on mine with a pained expression on her face… My twin towers of impassivity and emotional meltdown representing an inexplicable dichotomy for her, as ever. In this case, impassivity won. ‘Well’, I said, realising that I didn’t need to justify myself despite knowing the response might not make sense, nor necessarily answer her question in a way she found meaningful… ‘I used to be searching for something… but then when I found ‘it’, I realised ‘it’ was me’.
Claire Standen - NLP Mind Coach
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