Public displays of EV: reimagining a healthier future

Image: RamCreativ

Recently, a quote of unknown source was shared with me:

“The mother whipped off her cape, held her hands in the air, and said ‘I’m struggling this time’. The other mothers breathed a sigh of relief, ripped their capes off and said ‘me too’, and they knew they were not alone

‘Vulnerability’ is not new to EmergentThinkers.com, surfacing positively in several posts.

Despite global renown speaker Brené Brown’s elevation of emotional vulnerability (EV) as ‘having the courage to show up and be seen‘, a personal admission may still carry the connotation of an ‘inability to cope’. I suspect this is due to the long-term association with people at risk or need of protection. For example, The Department of Health defines a vulnerable person as someone “who is or may be, in need of care, because of mental or other disability, age or illness” and therefore unable to take care or protect him or herself against significant harm or exploitation. Similarly, the HSE (2020) defines vulnerable workers as “those at risk of having their workplace entitlements denied, or who lack the capacity or means to secure them”.

The word ‘vulnerable’ derives from the Latin noun ‘vulnus’ meaning ‘wound’. Since the late 1600s, it’s been used figuratively to suggest a defencelessness against non-physical attacks, including criticism or failure (Merriam-Webster, 2021). Not too unlike ‘kindness’, as illuminated in my recent interview with Gay Haskins, co-author of ‘Kindness in Leadership’ (2018), the concept is often unfairly construed with a display of weakness.

Vulnerability is a multifaceted concept. Components of vulnerability are linked to resilience in coping with natural risks and are necessary for authentic relationships with others. Sharing difficult or challenging experience can spawn a connection (Suval, 2013). A reveal of our vulnerability requires courage and move us closer towards our authentic-selves (Brown, 2007).

“Vulnerability is the only authentic state… Be vulnerable: quake and shake in your boots with it. the new goodness that is coming to you, in the form of people, situations, and things can only come to you when you are vulnerable, i.e. open.” – Watson 1998

The covid context has churned up many lives, manifesting in circumstances that have led people to become or feel ‘vulnerable; in many cases, a new or amplified need for intervention to stave off harm. I suspect, there is also some portion of society who would also benefit from an individual or collective share of their ‘vulnerability’; a safe and healthy space for a simple and authentic reveal of their current state of being at a point in time. This latter prospect fascinates me. I consider the conditions for a more open, rather than a spotted embrace of ‘vulnerability’. In Ponder, Puzzle and Pose, I explored why the natural habit of asking wonder-like questions is trained out of us by the time we are grown. My thoughts migrate to the many episodes in child-rearing where we, as parents, actively encourage our young to be vulnerable, take a leap of faith, face some risk. Taking those first steps, or facing those early days of independence upon starting school. As parents, we typically face our responsibility to help our children work through negative and positive emotions and be open and honest about feelings, whether that be a disappointment or grief.

So, at what point and why, does our natural propensity for authenticity and vulnerability get worn down?

I suspect being a ‘wearing my heart on my sleeve’ type of person was naturally going to tip over into my parenting style, but frankly I demand more from society, and thus more from myself. As much as I embrace societal and workplace positivity, I find myself worrying about the cracks, some due to a false and thin veneer of coping and smiling. With a cultural bias towards ‘keeping calm and carrying on’ and to ‘maintain that stiff upper lip’, I fear the negative consequences of a high propensity to cover over our ‘vulnerability’.

This week we have had some public displays of ‘EV’ – a Lancashire primary headteacher admitting difficulties managing WFH whilst home-schooling and Professor Brian Cox fronting the advertising campaign for the new BBC bites size schooling campaign, which follows on from disclosure on ‘The Andrew Marr Show’ of his home-schooling challenges. Unusual, but very much welcome, they both resonated deeply as we read or heard the headlines.

Fact: Post-Christmas home-schooling pressures have turned up a number of notches. An increase of live-streamed class per child, and formal expectations on learning output level, to be evidenced via submittal to school online accounts. Millions of working parents forced to prioritise, subsume teaching roles and work, forfeit income, or be left in a situation where they are unable to support their children’s education. The schools, workers, parents, carers, the children themselves, all doing their bit or their best. But it remains highly stressful – a varying cocktail of pressure, worry, guilt, exhaustion and fear.

Pre-covid, 86 million tuned in to watch Professor Kelly deal with his two young children (4years and 9months) burst in on his BBC live broadcast from his home office in South Korea. Today, there are thousands of anecdotes or parenting-while-WFH video outtakes. As the pressures have become normalised, there has been a notable rise in the celebration of ‘presenteeism’ or the slapping of backs of the ‘committed workers’ who ‘have stepped up’, even though they may not had not faced similar obstacles. Something is shifting…and it’s neither palatable or fair, and may lead to a new divide in the workplace.

Let’s face some covid-context stats:

· One-quarter of mums (25 per cent) are worried they will lose their job, either through being singled out for redundancy, sacked or denied hours (TUC, 2021)
· Nearly half of mums (48 per cent) fear they will be treated negatively by their employer as a result of difficulties with childcare (TUC, 2021)
· Half of working mums believe increased childcare responsibilities during the coronavirus crisis has negatively affected their career prospects (Pregnant Then Screwed, 2020)

The impact on men being pulled away from the workplace to pick up on care duties is unfortunately formally underreported, and time will tell as to whether their ‘decisions’ will have any long term impact on their careers.

Going forward

Emotional vulnerability requires risk-taking; revealing a part of yourself or your experience that exposes you somehow to others. You risk being accepted or embarrassed or ashamed at having been so open. But not only can it lead to some welcome relief. Collectively, it can help us gain purchase on the common reality, drawing attention to hidden issues, and have improved opportunity for positive change,

Here goes…

Like unknown source above, I am removing my wonder woman ‘cape’.

I am a working mum, one that does, and will continue to, contribute to society on many levels.

I am unapologetic for my current life challenges, and even more, so for having children in the first place.

To stand united with all parents (Mums and Dads) and carers, whether I’m having or a good day or week or a bad one.

 Why? 
  • Because keeping it on, covers over reality, and frankly helps no one. The covid situation has created unsustainable arrangements for a myriad of working parent/carer models.
  • There is a real and urgent issue, and not just in the UK, that at least one parent in the household will be being pushed out of the labour force, or dialled down on hours or opportunities as their home responsibilities increase(d).
  • There are elements of the ‘WFH whilst parenting situation’ that are here to stay, even with a vaccine rollout and children physically filtering back to school in the short-term.
  • A new wicked problem has evolved. There are at least further questions to be raised and discussions to be had about responsibilities and boundaries between work and home.

I don’t have the answers. But I believe a dose of vulnerability, openness and authenticity about what is going on behind closed doors, or in our heads, is key to an open and frank conversation, more creative thinking, and potentially a more healthy and harmonious future existence. More routine public or collective displays of EVs may be a critical contributing step to a reimagining for a healthier working parent/carer post -covid world.

It never gets you anywhere, in any situation, to be overwhelmed by things” – Warren Ellis 2015


Photo credit: RamCreative: Licensed  ID:1133163637

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