Life. It happens to all of us.
I am the middle child in a big family, too shy to speak as a small child, slightly braver as time went on. At Oxford, I think I probably gave the impression of not being shy at all, my insecurity coming across as arrogance. If you’re too scared to join in, just pretend you don’t want to. Youth, huh
I had a serious car accident when I was 19, a couple of months before I went to University, which meant my health wasn’t great. So that was another thing I was denying. I reckon it took me a decade to get the shock of that experience out of my system, and in some ways the impact is still with me today.
I decided to become a lawyer because I wanted to help people. But it didn’t take long to see that the law doesn’t offer much help, not to individuals in any case. Litigating is expensive and stressful and even if you win, the costs rarely seem worth it. When I became involved in dispute resolution, and later coaching, I discovered that what’s important to many people isn’t an outsider, however well qualified, determining right and wrong. What people want is to talk about the impact of the situation, what they’d like to happen, how to manage that, what needs they have, met or unsatisfied, and what they’d like the other person to understand. The legal system isn’t geared up for this sort of conversation.
I got married just after I qualified, to another lawyer. A year later the relationship ended. That came as a shock, but not the end of the world. Embarrassing, bearing in mind the wedding, the presents, the dress; sad, in the context of dashed expectations and that it’s hard to be friends with someone you’ve promised to spend your life with. But we didn’t have children, we both had jobs, so the split was fairly easy and we did the paperwork ourselves.
I married again and had two children. Wonderful ones, obviously. I found looking after them and looking after my career so much of a challenge that I quit the job when my youngest was two and almost straight away began to experience the career pessimism, identity anxiety, and plummeting self-confidence that I hear other women in this situation describe. I trained in mediation and discovered that I liked it much more than the law. So far so good. Kids became teenagers, an experience not unlike childbirth, painful to go through but quickly forgotten.
Then the second marriage ended. I know what you’re thinking – to lose one husband may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness. We were together 26 years and this time there were kids, jointly owned property, a shared business (did I say we owned a PR consultancy together?), shared jokes, shared record collection, shared experiences as deep as they were long. I was glad for my skills in conflict resolution (even if I didn’t always use them). I’d never have chosen to go through a divorce in middle age, but in many ways I am grateful for the experience. Life is one big learn, right?
What else? People in my life I’ve found impressive, people I’ve found difficult, friends who come and go, and sometimes come back. Family, neighbours, children, colleagues, teachers, employees, shop assistants, pension advisors, call centre workers. And clients. You. Organisations, and individuals. You qualify me to do this work. I learn from you, your experience of the world, your expression of that experience, where you take it and what you do.
It’s wonderful, this work. And that’s the other thing that qualifies me. I love it.