In 2021 I took 3.5 months off from London life to look after my sick Mum in Australia. This is a story about my time as her carer, the importance of self-coaching to look after myself and finding different ways to feel fulfilled.
A few weeks ago I was asked by my coaching buddy about my strategies for getting through some career transitions, namely when I had breaks of paid employment, such as choosing to leave a toxic workplace without the next job lined up.
With that question, I was actually reminded of when I took 3.5 months out of my NHS job during the pandemic, to go to Australia to care for my Mum. She’d been diagnosed with cancer (and a type we have a family history of). My sister had already been caring for Mum for about four months and now it was my turn.
It was hard going – I was already pretty exhausted before I even left London. Caring for Mum was one of the biggest privileges of my life, but it was also hard. My NHS job for the previous seven years had been all about strategic transformation of care pathways and services to support people living with and beyond their cancer. I thought I knew all about consequences of treatment and the importance of primary care in this period.
I do know the NHS well, but I knew the Australian healthcare system only a bit – it had been 17 years since I’d lived there and I was in my mid-20s when I left. There were a lot of intricacies about health insurance, and Medicare and referrals to doctors and access to pathology that I didn’t know about!
I was also learning about my Mum in a new way – what it really means to care for a sick adult, and the adult that has spent her life caring for me. Learning what chemo did to her brain and to her personality. Seeing first hand the severity of the fatigue, her body not working properly, her anxiety and distress of having cancer, the emotional toll of not being able to do what she wanted. Navigating what all of that meant for our family – with three siblings thousands of kilometres away. And with her friends too, many of whom I’d known since I was a child.
I am a pretty good project and programme manager. I’m organised and pre-empt things that are needed before they’re needed. I can see the dependencies and the order in which things need to happen. I think I’m generally a pleasant person to interact with on the phone and by email. I get the importance of reciprocity in these interactions, so that everyone gets what they need on a stressful working day.
I kept good notes of all the medical stuff for each phone call and appointment. So if in the event I couldn’t go with her to an appointment, someone else could and they would have the latest info in there. And also having that record for my sister, because after my 3.5 months, she would return to care for Mum again.
I had to use all of these skills to help Mum. The thing I was surprised the most about, was the admin burden of being her carer. It was a lot. But I didn’t resent doing this for Mum. I took meaning from it - that I could do it well and it would be a huge load off her shoulders to not have to worry about it.
She could trust me to be organised, to not drop the ball even though I was learning, and that I would be pleasant to the people that she needed most of all at this time – her GP, her nurse practitioner and the rest of the GP practice team, her chemo-at-home nurse, the pharmacy team (thank goodness I’d been a pharmacy assistant in my student days and mostly knew how that all worked!), her oncologist, her surgeon and his team and the pathology team.
I took a sense of achievement from getting through each day without a disaster, with solving problems for her, in finding ways for her to tell me important stuff about bodily functions without losing her dignity too much. I felt achievement when I could ease my Mum’s day as much as I could, even though her days were not easy. I found ways to help her self care - without me nagging about whether she had taken countless medications at the right times of day. Or whether she’d finished her protein smoothie, or how long she slept for in the afternoon. This gave her some degree of autonomy at a time when she had so little of it.
But what about enjoyment through all of this? It might sound weird to say that I enjoyed looking after Mum when it was so tough, but I did.
In addition to spending so much time with her (we have been described as two peas in a pod), I also relished being in my hometown for such a long time. I hadn’t spent three consecutive months there since I moved to Canberra in 2003. I loved being able to swim in the ocean, go for walks by the river or on the beach or in the bush. To see all the wildflowers I love so much come out for spring and summer, especially the Christmas Bush and Christmas Bells which are native to the Mid North Coast of NSW!
It was wonderful to reacquaint myself with a school friend I hadn’t been in touch with for almost 30 years, with old family friends, as well as getting to know Mum’s ‘new’ friends (well, new to me!) and neighbours. And a good uni friend was able to come and visit for a weekend too.
[I do feel the urge to share that I didn’t enjoy the high summer humidity, the harshness of the Australian sun (yes, the UV index goes above 10!), poisonous snake encounters in the countryside and giant spiders in my bedroom. But that’s a different story!]
In this story, I’ve talked about learning, meaning, achievement and enjoyment.
What is the Fulfilment Kite?
I really like the concept of the Fulfilment Kite – or a diamond more accurately speaking. On each of the four points are these four concepts.
The idea is that the more fulfilled we feel, the more we have a sense of all four things in our lives.
We don’t have to find them all in one place though.
You might have a sense of achievement in your work, meaning in raising a family, enjoyment in your hobbies and learning a new skill.
So how does it work?
Give yourself a score out of ten for each concept, where ten is the best it can be and one is the worst.
If you score six or less on any of the points, consider how you might raise it to a seven or eight.
If you find yourself leaning heavily on only one area of life for each of these points, I strongly encourage you to think of ways to diversify your sources of fulfilment.
The more we lean on one area of life for all those aspects of fulfilment, the more likely we will be knocked around if that area of life takes a hit.
We are more resilient if we don’t have all our eggs in one basket.
An additional point (turning it into a star rather than a kite!) might be to consider your purpose (this is not quite the same as ‘meaning’) right now. Whilst in Australia, I consciously gave myself two purposes:
· To help Mum as much as I could, for her.
· To structure my weeks to include coaching stuff, for me.
So I listened to about 25 hours of lectures from that year’s International Coaching Federation’s conference. It took me weeks and weeks to do it, but each time I listened to a lecture or two I resumed the role of student with curiosity (a happy place for me). That sense of purpose, also gave me achievement, learning, meaning and enjoyment over a challenging period.
It sounds selfish to say that I did this so that my days weren’t just about caring for Mum, but honestly it was so helpful to have more of the things that give me joy. It gave me energy to care for her. It filled up my energy fuel tank so I had more than enough to give to her.
What are your thoughts on the Fulfilment Kite as a way to assess how fulfilled you feel right now and perhaps some ideas for 2024? I’d love to hear your insights and questions so feel free to email me.