This Tuesday, March 8 is International Women’s Day. This year’s theme is #PledgeForParity, where everyone – men and women – can pledge to take a concrete step to help achieve gender parity more quickly – whether to help women and girls achieve their ambitions, call for gender-balanced leadership, respect and value difference, develop more inclusive and flexible cultures or root out workplace bias. Each of us can be a leader within our own spheres of influence and commit to take pragmatic action to accelerate gender parity. This week’s leaper, Emma Fulu is one such leader. But perhaps in not the way I might have expected.
The surface story of Emma’s leap from a highly successful international career as a gender-based violence (GBV) expert, leading research into GBV in some of the world’s most vulnerable communities for organisations like the United Nations, to start her own business, The Equality Institute. For a long time Emma was the superwoman in her relationship, managing a multi-million research project, breastfeeding twins while working full-time in South Africa, and travelling regularly. Emma’s husband is the primary caregiver of their three children. In Sheryl Sandberg’s lexicon, Emma had ‘leaned in’. All the way. So much so that she ended up face down.
When I read Lean In a few years ago I was all cheers and fist bumps until I got about half through. I am a feminist, and I believe in gender equality, and I fully acknowledge gender based disadvantage. I know we have a long way to go. But I stopped cheering, because I realised that I had leaned in. That I did have my seat pulled up to the table, with a partner who supported me. And that even so, I that was exhausted. And that by pulling my chair back away from the table, to quit my job and get better balance in my life on my terms, I somehow felt that I had failed the sisterhood.
What I know is that sometimes the bravest thing is to lean out. Sometimes the fight has to be won with a noisy rumbling of your own reckoning, and a quiet personal revolution before you can be you in the world. You’ll read in Emma’s story that her leaning out, so that she could lean back in on her own terms, came through a breakdown from trying to do it all. My #PledgeforParity starts with acknowledging that all men and women need to keep asking themselves does it have to be this way?, how else could the world be?, how else could I be?, how do I be the change I want in the world? And there in lies a leap to lean into.
What did you want to be when you grew up and why?
I spent my childhood in the country and was obsessed with horses, so I wanted to be a veterinarian. Oh, and an Olympic horse riding champion.
Then as a teenager I wanted to be a singer. When I reached university I thought I wanted to be a business woman and work in Japan, until I came across the subject ‘Third World Development’ and was drawn to work on women’s issues in developing countries.
What did/do you study?
So much. I am a perpetual student and a strong believer in life-long learning. In terms of formal academic study, I completed a double degree in Arts and Commerce, majoring in Japanese and economics. Then I switched my majors to Gender Studies and International Development and went on to complete my Honours in Development Studies. After going out to work in the real world for a few years, I returned to university and completed my PhD in Gender Studies with a focus on violence against women. Now I am about to start a short creative writing course.
Outside of academia I have been a student of yoga, meditation and mindfulness for many years. I think I’ve learnt the most about life from sitting in silence. And everyday I feel like my children teach me how to live in the present.
What has been your most scary/courageous leap you’ve ever made (preferably in your business/career/life direction)?
Quitting my job at the peak of my international career, with no other employment in sight, and moving back home to Melbourne with my three little kids and husband, is the bravest thing I have ever done. At the time I wasn’t exactly sure where the leap would take me but I had a dream to work for myself and be a writer.
That seems like a lifetime ago, but it has only been 10 months. And I now have a small but thriving little organisation called The Equality Institute where we work to advance gender equality and prevent violence against women globally.
In that time, I have also started a personal blog called I am not Superwoman, which explores my messy adventures of trying to be a mindful mother, happy feminist and pursue my creative passions. And I am a quarter of the way through a book that I have been yearning to write for over two years. My intention is to have a first draft complete within the next six months!
What were you doing before you made your leap?
I was living in South Africa, working at the South African Medical Research Council managing a £25 million global program funded by the UK government to prevent violence against women and girls in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. I had moved there a year earlier from Thailand where I had been working for the United Nations conducting a large study on men’s perpetration of violence against women across six countries.
When I moved to South Africa, I had in tow my four-month-old twins who I was still breastfeeding, my two-and-a-half-year-old toddler, and my husband, musician-photographer-bread-baker-full-time-dad extraordinaire. At the same time, we were trying to set up a new life in a beautiful but challenging country – buying a house, a car, finding a kindergarten, and all the rest.
Needless to say I was quite busy.
Who have been the biggest 3 – 5 influences in your life, in terms of your career and doing work?
1. All the feminists and women’s rights activists who have blazed a trail before me. I recognise that they have helped create a space in the world that allows me to live the life that I do.
2. The thousands of women who have shared their painful, empowering and humbling stories with me over the years are engraved on my heart. They inspire me to work towards creating a safer world for all.
3. There are so many brilliant authors who have influenced my writing, but one of the most significant is Arundhati Roy who made me see that there was a path for a woman to be both an activist and a writer.
4. And finally, I have to agree with Sheryl Sandberg who said that for women, ‘the most important career choice you’ll make is who you marry.’ I am the primary income earner in our family, and my amazing husband is a stay-at-home dad who looks after our three children. He does most of the messy, repetitive, exhaustingly relentless work that is childcare. And there is absolutely no way that I could do the work that I do, without my husband doing what he does so brilliantly.
What did you have in place before you made the leap?
A supportive husband and family. That’s about it. For me it was a major leap into the unknown. It was basically unplanned, although I had been dreaming about it for years.
What was your defining ‘I can’t do this anymore’ moment that lead you to the leap?
Well, everyone used to call me superwoman. My friends, work colleagues, even people I’d just met. I think it was meant as a compliment. Nine months into my new job in South Africa, however, I was totally exhausted and desperately missing my children who I barely saw. I rarely spoke more than a few functional words to my husband and had started having nightmares during those rare moments of actual sleep. After an insane series of work trips that took me from Johannesburg to Istanbul to Washington DC to New York, back to DC, back to South Africa, then to Sydney, Canberra and finally to my hometown of Melbourne, all within three weeks, I collapsed. As I sat in my doctor’s office to treat a chronic sinus infection I’d picked up during New York’s Snowmageddon, I broke down. I was broken.
I had lost myself somewhere along my overly ambitious path. As I strived to have it all, do it all, and look perfect while doing it, I had forgotten to ask myself if this was what I truly wanted. I ignored the neon flashing warning signs telling me my life was out of control because I felt immobilised by responsibility – I had to support my family, people were depending on me, everyone would be so disappointed if I didn’t keep up this charade (or so the crazy little voice in my head told me). Thankfully, my body and mind called an urgent ‘time out’.
Following my burnout/emotional breakdown or whatever you want to call it, my husband and I seriously reassessed our lives. And, after some intense (thankfully government funded) therapy I made the difficult decision to resign from my job. We rented out our house, sold our car, packed up our lives (again), said goodbye to our friends in South Africa and moved back to Melbourne.
How did/do you overcome/work with the fear that comes with leaping? How do you decide to choose courage?
The idea of quitting my job with no other employment in sight, when I was financially responsible for four other people, and leaving South Africa, having just bought a house, two cars and a horse (!) was so very scary that I had actually wished, at one point, that I had cancer (not the terminal type) to provide a legitimate excuse to dramatically change my life. At the same time, the idea of staying where I was, keeping up the superwoman act, and not pursuing my dreams filled me with an even greater dread, and felt like a self-imposed jail sentence. I was afraid that if I didn’t follow my heart I would regret it for the rest of my life. I was genuinely afraid that that my marriage would not survive the stress we were under too.
But which fear should I run away from and which fear should I lean into to? After much-needed sleep, regular therapy, daily meditation, and honest conversations with family and friends, I came to the conclusion that my two fears, while they seemed similar, were actually very different. My first set of fears stemmed from what is often called the reptilian brain. These fears come from an ancient part of the brain and are driven by the survival instinct; concerned with territory, and social dominance. ‘I won’t have enough money to support my kids; we’ll be homeless; I’ve spent almost 15 years building this career, I’d be crazy to turn my back on it now; people will be so disappointed in me; my dreams are crazy and I’m bound to fail.’ I could virtually feel the scales growing on my skin as this mantra got louder and louder in my mind.
On further reflection, I realised that these fears were based on an imagined future that had not actually occurred. So why did they feel so very real? You see, even though we have evolved to be able to feel, think and reason, the subconscious brain is still catching up and cannot yet differentiate between reality and our imagination. That means our thoughts about possible threats create exactly the same response in our brains and bodies as if we were being attacked by a T-Rex. On the other hand, my second set of fears, the fear I had for my own mental health, for my family, and of not pursuing my passion, seemed to be more rooted in reality, and to come from a deeper place inside myself, my true self.
In the end, the key to making my decision was not rationally comparing a list of pros and cons for each option (I did try that but got nowhere). Instead, I consciously sat and observed what each choice – to stay in my current career in South Africa, or quit my job and follow my dreams – felt like in my body. What I noticed was that the thought of staying in my job and keeping up the superwoman charade brought on a sense of dread as if I was being drowned in toxic sludge. I felt physically repulsed and wanted to run away. In contrast, the prospect of quitting, being financially and emotionally vulnerable and starting a new life felt like jumping off a cliff without a parachute: scary, but somewhere within myself I knew that I could fly.
How did you fund your leap?
I didn’t plan it in a financial sense because it was a sudden and dramatic decision in response to my burnout. However, it would not have been possible without family support. We sold everything we could in South Africa. We moved in with my mother into her two bedroom townhouse in inner Melbourne with the three kids. All five of us slept in one room. We borrowed money and received some financial support through Centrelink.
And I must say, our choice to start again is a privilege that many people in the world don’t have access to, so I feel very grateful. Many people live in such poverty that quitting their job and making such a dramatic change would not be possible. So while Australia has many problems, I am very thankful to have been born in a country where I could come home and have free healthcare and basic financial support to get us through the worst of a very challenging time.
A couple of months after we moved back to Melbourne, as I started to regain my health and the kids started to settle into another new country, I started consultancy work. That work evolved into The Equality Institute, which now has three other wonderful employees.
What other leaps have you made in the past?
I think I’ve probably been a leaper my whole life. I decided I wanted to become fluent in Japanese so I moved to Japan at age 17 for a year long exchange program. When I was 21 I trekked up to Annapurna Base Camp in Nepal on my own on a whim. After completing my Honours I moved to the Maldives (my father’s home country) to build up experience in international development. I lived with four generations of my extended family in a tiny house, which was a gift in terms of connecting with that side of my family, but I struggled to adjust to a life as a good Muslim daughter. Actually, one of the scariest leaps I made was proposing to my husband very unexpectedly after always telling him that I never wanted to get married (clearly I changed my mind).
What leaps didn’t work out? What did you do about it?
Well, moving to South Africa with three children under three was a pretty major leap, and in some ways a pretty epic failure. I quit my job one year into a five year contract, and it set us back financially in a profound way. At the same time, I think I needed to hit rock bottom, so to speak, to be able to take my most recent leap. Otherwise, I would never have moved back to Melbourne, started my own company, prioritised creative writing and enjoy the flexibility that I do now to spend more time with my family.
What are you most fearful of? How do you deal with it?
I think now my greatest fear is not pursuing my deepest desires and dreams. I fear being sucked back into my workaholic tendencies and returning to the dark place I was in a few months ago. Recently, I read someone else describe themselves as a ‘recovering superwoman’. I think that aptly describes me. And the ‘recovering’ part means that every day I must consciously practice self care, setting boundaries and saying ‘no’. All things I continue to struggle with.
Also, I think being creative and living an authentic life is always scary. To pursue our most profound desires is often the scariest. Some people assume that it gets easier somehow; that once you’ve made a big leap, the fear disappears. Unfortunately, that is not how it works.
I am scared every single day. But I am becoming more adept at being brave – leaning into the fear – again and again and again. As far as I can tell, allowing yourself to be vulnerable is the only way to life an authentic and vibrant life.
How would you rate your level of happiness about making your leap?
1 being sad, 10 being rad.
10+. In terms of making the leap, I have never looked back, and it has been the best, albeit one of the hardest, decisions I have ever made. That doesn’t mean by any stretch of the imagination that life has suddenly become easy. The kids still get sick, there are still too many emails, and I’m still tired most of the time. But I feel more myself than I have in years.
What’s the biggest upside to making the leap?
When I quit my job in South Africa, in a way it felt like I was quitting my career in the field of violence against women. I was burnt out and had lost my passion for the work. My priority was to spend more time with my kids and reconnect with myself and my husband. Interestingly, in the process of doing so, I also regained my commitment to the prevention of violence against women. I have loved the process of starting my own organisation from scratch and putting into practice all that I have learnt over the past 13 years. I feel more successful than ever.
At the same time, my creativity has been reignited. I remember that when I was a kid I used to be so excited by life that I had to physically jump up and down because I couldn’t contain myself. These days I find myself jumping up and down with joy again. I think that is because I am living as my true creative self.
What’s the biggest downside to making the leap? And how do you get through it?
The financial struggle was tough, although we’re coming out of the other side now. We got through it by moving in with my mum and going back to basics. And in truth, that has not been a bad thing. I know that on a global scale we are still incredibly privileged so I still always feel grateful and abundant.
What might be your next leap?
Every day is a leap for me. That’s how I know I’m moving forward.
But in terms of a next big thing that is new and scary, it is to complete my book and put it out into the world. It is a very personal memoir so that is nerve-wracking, but I’ve never had a stronger creative urge in my life. It’s a non-negotiable. I feel that if I don’t do it I will regret it forever.
What are your favourite words to live by?
I love life and life loves me.
Be here, now.
Who do you admire who also made the leap?
I think everyone I admire has made a leap to reach the point where they are living as the most authentic version of themselves.
A piece of advice for someone with an itch to leap?
You will never regret being brave, but you may mourn never trying. So listen to your fears, and reflect on the underlying thoughts and beliefs that are driving them. Then leap into the fear. Leap into the life of your dreams. Leap, I say.
Right now I’m:
Hearing: The lovely chatter of my kids in the background.
Eating: Anything by Ottelenghi. My husband recently gave me three of his cookbooks and that’s my new obsession.
Drinking: I got a Vitamix for Christmas so I’m drinking a lot of smoothies at the moment. That and red wine. Although not at the same time.
Reading: Various books on how to write a memoir.
Happy International Women’s Day kin. Pledge to celebrate our wins, and keep up the fight. There’s a long way to go. 117 years to be exact.
Onward, Kylie x
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