I recently read a story about a village where the women all washed clothes together at the river. When their fortunes changed and they all got washing machines the depression rates in the village went up drastically. No one could initially figure out why.
It wasn’t the technology or owning a washing machine that was at fault, but rather the sense of isolation that these women felt because they were no longer spending time together down by the river. Their sense of community was missing.
The Invisible Load
This really resonated with me, because at various times in my life and career I have felt this isolation too.
The first time was when I took a break from teaching to welcome my first child into the world. I went from being part of a busy centre to being a stay-at-home mum. I love being a mum, and I really wanted to love being a stay-at-home mum. However, I really missed the sense of community that my job had given me. Along with all the hormonal things that were going on, the absence of adult company really took its toll on my mental and emotional wellbeing.
The second instance that I can remember feeling this way, was when I decided to become a home-based educator for a brief stint when my children were preschoolers.
When I was promoted from being a teacher to became a centre manager. Now this one came out of leftfield. I was part of a team, I was surrounded by people, some of whom I called friends. However, the feeling of loneliness and isolation I experienced was really profound.
I know now, that this is something that many leaders struggle with. It is often lonely at the top. Especially when you work in a small stand-alone centre and you don’t other centre managers to talk to.
This can become an invisible load of stress and emotional labour that only we can see and feel. This load can have a damaging impact on our feelings of belonging and wellbeing in our own centres. Which is ironic really because we feel responsible for building a culture of wellbeing and belonging for the people around us and yet we are often doing this from a place of lack and loneliness. We can feel the weighed down under the expectation of being the example worthy of imitation.
We’re “fine,” we tell ourselves even when in reality we’re depressed, we’re overwhelmed, we’re lonely, and we’re hurting. “We’re fine, we’re just too busy right now,” we say as days turn into weeks, weeks into months and months into years. “I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine.” It’s so easy to say even when it’s not true.
We’ve become so isolated and it’s hard to know how to get back. It’s so hard to know how to even begin to build the kind of relationships our hearts need which could mean the difference between thriving and surviving.
And, as a result, we shy away from the very thing we are wired to do – connect.
We live in a culture where we have our own “washing machines” and we don’t really depend on each other for much of anything if we’re being honest. We hide behind labels, titles and roles as a way to keep ourselves separate and safe; in case we will need to have a difficult conversation with someone in the future. Frightened by the messiness of human relationships, we isolate ourselves behind our “management” armour and keep our “professional distance”, denying ourselves the joy of whole-hearted human connection. Consequently, this has a detrimental impact on ourselves and our centre cultures and children’s experiences are poorer because of it.
In Brene Brown’s book Braving the Wilderness, she likens the damaging effects of being lonely on overall wellbeing and even the length of our life expectancy to be similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. I don’t say that to freak anyone out, but to let you know that the longing for connection is REAL.
I think we’ve treated friendship and our relationships like a luxury for far too long. Feeling part of a community – having a genuine sense of belonging isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity.
Building a Sense of Community
We need it. Remember the leader is part of the team, and you set the tone for the culture and the relationships. How many of the kaiako in your team are carrying similar pain and are struggling with their own courage and vulnerability “stories” too? For us to have true empathy, we must first be able to relate. By taking the lead and being brave and real, we make it okay for others to do the same thing.
If you are a teacher reading this, look out for each other but also check in on your leaders. They are people first and foremost and they might need a little help and support too (even though they might not ask for it.)
Remember that we are all part of a wider teaching community. It is our community and it is our responsiblity to strengthen and uplift it. We can get so caught up in the idea that we are in competition with each other. There might be people in this community that might not be your “tribe”. However, what would happen if you changed the “story” that we tell ourselves and took a chance?
It is very likely that there are many other teachers, leaders, owners and centre managers in your neighbourhood that are feeling a similar sense of isolation. Why not reach out and get to know them? Or reach out to an independent coach or mentor. There so many benefits to having a person outside of your centre for you to talk to or to gain a perspective outside of your own.
Be independent. Be proud of it. But be an independent person who realizes the value and the importance of opening the door to other good people.
You can do it alone, but you don’t have to. Islands are only fun for so long.
There is true magic when people come together and share ideas, share stories and struggles. You use your gifts, and I’ll use mine, and then we’ll invite the person over there who brings a completely different set of skills to the whariki we are building, and we’ll watch together as something miraculous unfolds.
If some of this is a challenge for you and you would like to chat with me about how I might be able to support you, please click the button below to book a 15-minute no-obligation chat over the phone or via video call.