When I am spending time with my one-year-old daughter, Elena, my mind regularly wanders to my hopes and dreams for her.
A reoccurring theme that comes through in these thoughts is resilience and how I can provide her with the tools to cope with the twists and turns that life will inevitably throw her way. The wisest person I know once said to me “one thing we can be certain of is that life is not fair, but what we can do is equip ourselves with the values, tools and ingredients to ensure we know what works best for our individual personalities when those tough times hit, because they will”.
Of course I would prefer that my daughter doesn’t have to experience trauma, but then in the last six years I’ve learned first hand that life can truly be unfair, perhaps even cruel. So my goal as a mother is to put energy into helping her to work out how to find her inner strength so she can deal with anything.
My journey to discovering personal resilience began at 12.51pm on February 22, 2011. Just another day for most, but for the people of Christchurch, New Zealand, it was the moment which changed our lives forever. The city was rocked to its soul by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake, which killed 185 people and injured several thousand.
At the time, I was in an office building in the central business district, seven stories up, where I worked as a Resource Management Consultant (or town planner to those outside of NZ). I can remember every moment like it was in slow motion. When it hit, I was standing in front of my desk, grabbing my bag and reminding myself to be careful running across Cathedral Square in my heels because I was late for a 1pm meeting on the other side of the square.
Thankfully as fate would have it, I was late for the meeting. Had I been racing along the street, who knows, I could have also lost my life alongside many others. Instead, I managed to scramble under my desk on the office floor. The noise is what I remember the most. The rumbling as I realised it was coming, the rattling and banging as the building was shaken to its core. The thuds as the bookshelves around me collapsed on the desk I was under. The shattering as the windows next to me broke and the excruciating sound of people screaming on the streets below.
The other vivid memory I can’t shake is of he feeling that I might die. I know that sounds dramatic now, because I didn’t. But on that day, tragically, others were not as lucky as me. Others did die in their office buildings. I was lucky that the building I was in stayed up and retained its staircase which was our only evacuation option. Others lost their stairs and some fell to the ground completely and people were killed. When we eventually made our way out of the building and into an open park, the ground continued to move violently as the after shocks rolled through one after the other. By that point, thousands of people were assembling and were all attempting to contact loved ones but there was no reception. As I waited and the initial fog from the shock cleared from my senses, through the dust I could see some of the damage in the central city. Then I saw Fili … my future husband.
“The noise is what I remember the most. The rumbling as I realised it was coming, the rattling and banging as the building was shaken to its core. The thuds as the bookshelves around me collapsed on the desk I was under. The shattering as the windows next to me broke and the excruciating sound of people screaming on the streets below.”
He was jogging through the crowds of people, his head whipping from side to side searching for me. I moved towards him and called out his name . At the time Fili and I weren’t officially a couple as we were having a break. On that tragic day, he was there for me in a way that is difficult to properly describe in words.
He had been driving on the outskirts of town when the earthquake hit. He says he thought all of his tyres were punctured as the car was thrown out of control. He saw the dust rise from the city and decided to come look for me. He had to ditch his car due to the rubble and chaos and ran the rest of the way, unfortunately passing people lifting stones to save others who were trapped. He put aside his natural desire to help everyone to focus on finding me. People died on the footpaths that I walked on during lunch every day. I can see how he made the choice to keep going at that time. Now in our marriage, it’s incredibly reassuring to know I have a man in my life that would do anything for me.
I consider myself one of the lucky ones to escape with just the loss of a house and change in circumstances. But you would be super human to not have been emotionally affected to some degree by the change and trauma the city has been through. Mental health has been a hot topic for Christchurch since the earthquakes. Six years ago I wouldn’t have known much about it. As a family, we weren’t familiar with depression or anxiety and to be honest, we had lived pretty steady lives. That situation has now turned on its head and our experience with mental health could not be more acute.
My brother, Edward, didn’t die during these earthquake events, but it was around this time that his decline to death began. Three years ago, at 33 years old the clever, kind and handsome man I looked up to took his own life. Ed was frustrated and confused and shut down. He left us a note saying he loved us all. That day was by far the worst day of my life and I can clearly recite every move from the moment mum broke the news to me.
I went back to work after two weeks. I was aware the whole company knew what happened and I remember thinking of strategies for how I would compose myself. I recall thinking, I wonder if people will think I am ashamed of the way Ed died? I wasn’t. I decided to approach it as an experiment in testing my ability to hold my head high. I came up with the one-liners I would use for when work colleagues approached me to offer condolences. I just rolled them out and managed to do so without breaking down. Every time I remember taking a big breath and thinking, how did I just do that? It gave me strength to know I could be grieving as well as continuing to work and still interact amongst society. Of course I would cry as soon as I got in my car and all through the evening, but that reduced over time.
That summer we found out that mum had developed breast cancer. It darkened our days even further. Mum bravely chose to have a mastectomy and thankfully by the middle of the year we had some relieving news that she was clear of the cancer. Those six months were difficult but I think our family was operating in some kind of auto pilot mode for dealing with tragedy.
“There are still times when I have to muster all my strength. But I find the frames of reference from the traumatic experiences I have been through in the last six years provide me with the resilience I need now to not just survive … but to actually thrive at life.”
After so much heartache, my wedding to Fili the following year provided hope and happiness to not just my family, but our tight-knit community. A few months later I was pleasantly surprised to find out I was pregnant with Elena. At virtually the same time, I was asked to lead the establishment of a new organisation which would be responsible for leading the regeneration phase of Christchurch. I was so excited and thankful to be offered the opportunity and so took it on with all that I had. It was both a big leadership opportunity as well as a subject matter that I was passionate about. As I worked at rebuilding the city, it felt as though I was also rebuilding parts of myself.
At 39 weeks pregnant, my waters broke on the Friday night and my daughter arrived on the Monday morning, need I say more? The birth process for me, was hard. So hard that I remember in the final 30 minutes as I was using all my remaining strength, I was encouraging myself by saying in my mind that I had endured worse when my brother died so to get on with it and get this done. That was an extreme length to go to, but the worry and complications and lack of sleep and food for three days meant I needed to reference the challenges I had managed in the past in order to convince myself I could do it.
Elena is now one and the past year has been such a happy one. My little family feels strong even though I miss seeing and talking to my brother so much. Watching Fili grow into the most loving, caring and gifted father has been beautiful to witness.
There are still times when I have to muster all my strength. But I find the frames of reference from the traumatic experiences I have been through in the last six years provide me with the resilience I need now to not just survive … but to actually thrive at life. This doesn’t mean I don’t cry or get sad when I think back on what I’ve been through. It doesn’t mean I’m not vulnerable. It just gives me a perspective that I find incredibly helpful for getting me through tough situations. In fact, in a way I credit the lows I’ve experienced with giving me the grit to work hard and become a success. I became my family’s major bread winner when appointed the Chief Operating Officer of a major organisation responsible for the regeneration of Christchurch. The role is a significant one, but I’m passionate about this project and that no doubt made the transition from maternity leave to full-time working mum much smoother everyone warned. If I had been in a less challenging role, that would’ve been much less inspiring for me. When I work, that’s what I focus on and when I’m home, I’m completely present and relish my time with Elena.
Now the aim for me as a mother is to not pile any expectations on my daughter to be a certain way or tick any particular box as she grows up. Instead, throughout her upbringing I’ll try provide her with the tools to help her learn how to confidently navigate any situation or environment she finds herself in and most of all encourage her to enjoy the ride of life, with all it’s ups and downs. Looking back, I believe I have way more strength and resources to actually advance positive things in my life now than I did before. I think people need to understand that there will inevitably be lows and you will be knocked to rock bottom, but just like that hit out of left field, change can also come as a surprise and raise you back up, potentially to a place where you are better for it.
Hey mama, our greatest goal is to use The Delivery as a platform for women from all walks of life to share their stories. Let’s open up our hearts and laugh, cry, snort, yell, scream and wee our pants together (damn pelvic floor) … but most of all let’s support and empower each other. If you want to tell your story in the safety of this community, we would love to hear from you.