Why our children need to be free to be their own stories

Image by Annie Spratt unsplash

Image by Annie Spratt unsplash

Clutter and mess show us that life is being lived...Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation... Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist's true friend. What people somehow forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here.

Anne Lamott: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

 

When my first-born was not even ten weeks old, I’d had enough of this motherhood lark.  With four months of maternity leave left, it wasn’t that I was desperate to get back to work, more that I craved what work gave me: a sense of identity, one I felt was a better fit.  Pushing the buggy round the Surrey commuter-town where I lived (which was very dull when you actually had to live there every day), the biggest decision I had to make was Starbucks or Costa.  I pushed the buggy wishing I had a t-shirt with my job title on it: “I am an important, serious, corporate, career woman not just a mum" was the message I wanted to convey.

We’re not born with an identity.  Sociologist Anthony Giddens says that self-identity “must be created and sustained in the activities of the individual”.  We construct our identities by integrating our life experiences into an evolving story of our “self”, what we call biography.  Self-identity is therefore reliant upon the capacity to keep a particular narrative going.

The narrative I was trying to keep going; ambitious, talented career woman, had been interrupted by a baby.  Mummy wasn’t in the script I was following, although the little ball of fluff I was tied to day and night was evidence to the contrary.  But why let facts get in the way of a good story?

From childhood, we tell ourselves stories about our actions and experiences, but says developmental psychologist Monisha Pasupathi, it’s not until our late teens and early years of adulthood that story construction, as opposed to storytelling, starts - because by then we’ve developed some of the cognitive tools that allow us to create a coherent life story.

Note that accuracy is not the main objective - coherence is.  Narrative coherence helps us to navigate the world - to know where we're coming from and where we're heading. Our stories give us reassurance, security and a sense of self; they make us feel solid.  They’re a fundamental part of our existence and of being human. The stories we tell to ourselves is how we bring meaning to our life, and the stories we tell to others is a fundamental part of how we form relationships.

Pasupathi says coherence has two elements: causal coherence - the ability to describe how one event led to another, and thematic coherence - the ability to identify overarching values and motifs that recur throughout the story. In a study analysing the life stories of 8-, 12-, 16-, and 20-year-olds, these kinds of coherence were found to increase with age.

As the life story enters its last chapters, it may become more set in stone. In her study psychologist Kate C McLean found that older adults had more thematic coherence, and told more stories about stability, while young adults tended to tell more stories about change.

So our biography isn’t "truth" - it’s our own personal fiction - our minds taking threads of personal history and tying them together with knots of (made-up) memories.  However our need to create a narrative around our actions and experiences often stops us from living fully and audaciously because we're unconsciously following a script, a script which has been authored by our parents mostly.

This doesn’t just have implication for how we make sense of the past, but for our future, and our children’s future.  We can only become the person we want to become by acting out in the world a story we are able to tell.  If we cannot find a way to synthesise strands of our identity, mother and career-woman, for example, it’s like we’re living a “blueprint” - a neatly drawn up plan for how we need our story to pan out.   Which has significant downsides if life doesn’t got to plan.

As I was to discover, narrative inflexibility isn’t good for one’s health.  Not only do I regret wishing those precious days with my first baby away, more importantly I regret how hard I was on myself.  My son’s birth was tough: pre-eclampsia diagnosed at 35 weeks, an inverted uterus, surgery, intensive care, difficulties feeding, mastitis….no wonder I wasn’t able to identify with the perfect mum I imagined I’d be.   Unable to meet my own unrealistic standards of the job of motherhood, I sought to flee to where I felt safe: the office.  I managed to keep that story going for a decade before spinning out of the corporate world, exhausted and burnt-out.  My own mother’s cancer was the final straw.

So there’s a real paradox here: stories are a fundamental part of being human and bringing meaning to our lives and being over-attached to how the story needs to turn out is bad for our mental and physical wellbeing.  We can’t and wouldn’t want to predict the future, but in being inflexible with our personal narratives, that’s precisely what we’re trying to do.  Psychologically, it’s a rational response to the uncertain, and often frightening world we live in, but we are not characters in a story: real life is more complex than any novel.

Knowing this, our job as parents is threefold: firstly to have self-compassion for our own messes - they are a necessary part of finding out who we are and why we are here.  Secondly to inspire our children to be not just the author of their own stories, but the agent too, and thirdly to create the conditions for them to act out lots of potential plot lines in the real world and love them no matter what unfolds, messes and all.

Free to be their own stories, our children might just sort out the clutter and mess the world finds itself in right now. 

What's in a name? The power to be your own story.

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I didn’t dare call myself a designer for many years despite the over-whelming success of my wrap dress.  Yves Saint Laurent was a designer. Madame Gres was a designer. Halston was a designer.  Me, I came into fashion almost by accident in the hope of becoming financially independent.  I didn’t dare call myself a designer then, any more than I called myself a good mother while my children were still growing.  You cannot make these claims until you get much older, because you need to have the proof.

Diane Von Furstenberg – The Woman I Wanted to Be

 

My cousin’s wedding in the West Sussex countryside afforded me the opportunity to partake in two of my very favourite things: celebrating with people I love and dressing up for the occasion.  I'd coveted a pair of Stella McCartney sandals, in yellow, for ages and they had my name on them, well to be more precise, my mother’s name.  A mother called Linda, lost too soon to cancer, is not all Stella and I have in common.  We share a love for Mini Coopers and Scotland.  If you were to look at photos of us with our dads from around 1975 you'd be stunned by the uncanny resemblance Gordon has to Paul.  We're practically soul-sisters.

A wee bit beyond my budget (writing for The Pool this week Laura Craik reveals that the average wedding guest spends £1,015) I patiently waited for the Lindas  to reduce in price, convinced that my mother was looking down on me knowing, being the fashionista she was, that they would perfectly complete my outfit (yellow floral maxi dress, by Yumi Kim (named, of course, Woodstock), and yellow floppy hat purchased at the market in Monflanquin one of the Dordogne’s prettiest villages).

A week before the wedding those yellow, cork-heeled, Scholl-like Lindas were mine: reduced on My Theresa by 50%, only a 4-and-a-half was in stock. Boom.

Last month Stella McCartney took full control of her eponymous fashion label by buying out her partner Kering, the French billionaire François-Henri Pinault’s luxury goods company, which also owns the Gucci and Alexander McQueen brands.  The 50-50 joint venture began in 2001 when the Gucci Group, as it was then, agreed to back McCartney.   In The New York Times in 2012, Cathy Horyn writes that "Stella struck a very good deal for herself, the kind that was uncommon even then and almost certainly would not happen today. With the advice of her uncle, the lawyer John Eastman, McCartney negotiated equal ownership, 50-50. “They were fighting for 51 percent, and I just kept holding out,”” she told Horyn.

Now the designer, businesswoman and environmental activist assumes control not only over the destiny of her brand, but over what the name McCartney stands for.  In an interview with Jess Cartner-Morley in The Guardian she says  “Owning my name changes my mindset,” she says. “It’s about legacy. My grandfather [Lee Eastman]’s motto was ‘staying power’, and I’ve always been about the long-term.”

The power of owning one's name is a topic that has long fascinated me, one rooted no doubt in the fact that there weren’t an abundance of Victorias to be found where I grew up.  Being a Victoria was just another thing that marked me out – along with having parents who did not allow me to hang around outside the chippie and wearing sensible clothing to the school disco (a yellow jumper from M&S still causes me to wince at the memory of the popular girls' sneers).  Forget owning my name (it's beautiful, elegant, timeless…..I’ve never quite managed to pull it off consistently), I can at least now dance with joyful abandon in yellow.

It’s a topic I explore frequently with clients, inspired by a conversation with my friend the ginourmously talented printmaker and designer Jenni, who spent years trading under A Pair of Blue Eyes, before re-branding as her own name, Jenni Douglas.  A former oil and gas analyst, Jenni simply needed to create an "interim identity" a brand she could hide behind a little, before stepping out into the world to proclaim: “Jenni the artist is here!” Like Diane von Furstenberg, Jenni required proof.

Diane von Furstenberg tells that story in The Woman I Wanted to Be (“I knew the kind of woman I wanted to be but I didn’t know how I would become her”) and it’s a pretty wild ride.  From Studio 54 in the early 70s to the too-rapid growth of her business (“I trusted the men in New York. I had no idea how over extended we were.”). By the end of the 70s her American Dream had ended, replaced instead by a huge identity crisis.

Once one of the most sought-after and glamorous women in New York, von Furstenberg  couldn’t get the big names in fashion to return her phone calls - or, when they did, "they treated me like I'm a has-been, thinking I was lucky because I invented a little dress."

The success of her new line Silk Assets sold on shopping channel QVC in 1993 (on one show she sold 2,200 pairs of trousers in two minutes – shades of the Joy Mangano story), caught the attention of Vogue: overnight she went from a has-been to a pioneer once again. At fifty, she re-launched the wrap dress in Saks: Diane was The Comeback Kid.

As she lives “The New Era” of her business, Diane von Furstenberg, like Stella McCartney, is using her voice to powerful effect through building a legacy outside the business of fashion.  She is a member of the board of Vital Voices, a non-profit established in 1997 by Hilary Clinton, Madeleine Albright and others to support women leaders in the areas of economic empowerment, women's political participation, and human rights.

In 2010, with the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation, she established the DVF Awards to honour and provide grants to women who have displayed leadership, strength and courage in their commitment to their causes. In 2016 Forbes named Diane von Furstenberg one of the twenty most powerful businesswomen in the world.

It feels right that the inspiration for finding my own voice should have come from a woman who has done so much to empower women: “Do Vicky Ferrier” became my mantra 18 months ago or so following a coaching session in which I exasperatedly cried: “but how do I actually do me?” Looking down at the monogram I’d drawn on the front of my notebook gave me the answer: I knew the woman I wanted to be, I just needed to do her.

My manifesto Be Your Own Story was written shortly after, and again a notebook had the answer - I'd referenced the Nobel prize winning Toni Morrison's 2004 commencement address in the first Storytelling for Business Leaders Workshop I ran with my Capital Conversations partner Michael Cahill.  For me, Be Your Own Story is a bit like a DVF wrap dress: “wearing the wrap it’s the woman who’s glowing, not the dress”, writes Veerle Windels in Journey of a Dress.  I want to see more women glowing in business (and men who support glowing women and who are prepared to live and lead consciously, intentionally and by their highest calling)

Story and narrative in business is very “in” right now, which initially made me reticent about positioning my work around this. But story is what I’ve always done.  In 2001, at P&G I wrote the programme Finance as Storytellers and created a story of possibility for professional hair care which culminated in the acquisition of Wella AG.  I led the Investor Relations function in FTSE100 companies and told my employer's value creation narrative to analysts and investors thousands upon thousands of times. I have stories to tell of hard won experiences, times when staying alive in leadership (to paraphrase Ron Heifetz) was really challenging.  Staying alive was quite literally a bit of an issue when I suffered major complications during childbirth. The theme of staying alive runs right through my life: Linda tried many times not to.  It's why I ask fundamental questions like "what if security was not the point of our existence?"

I graduated with an MA in English Literature from the university of Aberdeen in 1994.  My dissertation was titled “A Psychoanalytic Perspective on the Work of Toni Morrison”.  Naturally, I then became an accountant (like Gordon).  I’m ready to be my own story, and to help others do the same.  Ferrier Fundamentals is where I do that.