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GARY AUSBRUCH

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They say that identifying a leader should be easy. Team members just know. Leadership assessments at the office got me thinking it’s clear who the leader is at home…and it’s certainly not me.

I recently participated in a leadership assessment process at work. This involved a self-assessment of how I perceive myself as a leader, and obtaining 360 degree feedback from my boss, peers and staff on my leadership style. It certainly got me doing some self analysis, and in particular thinking about how the results applied to my other role in life – parenthood – and how I would go if a similar assessment was performed on how I’m going.

What makes an effective leader is a difficult concept to put your finger on exactly, but one thing that most team members would say is that it should be very clear who the leader, or the leadership team, is. The leader in our house is certainly clear, but the leadership team beyond her can be a bit murky. Obviously I see myself as the deputy, ready to step up in her absence, but try telling that to two toddlers. Consider the situation when Ella is trying to get Sebastian to do something he doesn’t want to do.

“You’re not the boss,” I tell her firmly. “I know,” she says, “I’m only the second boss after Mummy”.  This type of exchange gives me valuable feedback on how my attempted leadership is perceived.

 

The leader in our house is certainly clear, but the leadership team beyond her can be a bit murky.

This is further exemplified by a situation that may arise where I’ve been struggling with getting the kids to start or stop something. Tempers are fraying (me), tears are rolling (them, with mine being held back), Timeout has been used to no effect and it’s all going completely pear-shaped. Until, that is, The Omnipotent One walks into the room. All she has to do is imperceptibly raise an eyebrow ever so slightly, and they jump to attention. If she isn’t around, the situation is likely to end up with me getting angry, and then being told by a two year old to go straight to Timeout for swearing.

This respect doesn’t just happen, it’s earned. An effective leader will use their positional power to put some fear into the eyes of their disciples to get them to perform. Sometimes it’s just the threat of me “telling mummy” that can prove effective.

Sometimes it’s just the threat of me “telling mummy” that can prove effective.

But effective leadership requires a balance of competencies, not just Hard Taskmaster.  And this was demonstrated to me in my leadership assessment where some of the competencies around Relating, Caring and Authenticity indicated I had room for improvement.

Take the situation where one of the kids is crying for what appears to me to be over nothing. My initial reaction is to tell them to stop crying for no reason; which generally makes it worse. Learning to take a minute to assess the situation, and decide whether they need emotional support rather than an Earful, has been a hard one to master. Flying off the cuff is a child-like response, while our adult brains should be sufficiently developed enough to assist our children with identifying what the problem is and how it’s making them feel, which then turns off the tears anyway.

The inspirational aspect of leadership though, is one where I feel I may be marked quite well on. It’s important that a leader sets a good example to their team and empowers them to have the confidence to deliver results. I believe Sebastian’s ultra-smooth transition to being toilet trained is solely down to the example I’ve set him by my own actions: proudly announce your intentions to the rest of the house, grab some reading material, enjoy the process, and then hold a feedback session afterwards on how it went.

So I have a feeling that my parental leadership is okay, with some areas for improvement. But to add some factual credence to this, I’ll be issuing my wife and kids with 360 degree feedback survey forms tonight. Armed with this information, who knows, I may even be promoted to second boss soon.

 

It’s important that a leader sets a good example to their team and empowers them to have the confidence to deliver results.

The inspirational aspect of leadership though, is one where I feel I may be marked quite well on. It’s important that a leader sets a good example to their team and empowers them to have the confidence to deliver results. I believe Sebastian’s ultra-smooth transition to being toilet trained is solely down to the example I’ve set him by my own actions: proudly announce your intentions to the rest of the house, grab some reading material, enjoy the process, and then hold a feedback session afterwards on how it went.

So I have a feeling that my parental leadership is okay, with some areas for improvement. But to add some factual credence to this, I’ll be issuing my wife and kids with 360 degree feedback survey forms tonight. Armed with this information, who knows, I may even be promoted to second boss soon.

Gary takes charge of the house and kids while his wife has a well-deserved break.

Even though The Omnipotent One was thousands of kilometres away, enjoying a well-deserved break from her two children and occasional third child – me – I could still hear her voice loud and clear, and feel her eyes trained on my back. Make sure they wash their hands. Take a jumper for them in case it gets cold. They have to eat at least three quarters of their salad before they get dessert. Yes, that brand of apple juice might be cheaper but it’s got bad numbers in it. Do either of them have itchy bottoms? Do you?

It was the first time she’d been away from me and the kids, and the first time I was left completely in charge for more than a day. I was a little daunted, but let me say, completely in charge felt pretty good. Actually, it felt really good. Finally, I had the chance to put my mark on things a bit more. Only for nine days mind you, and I intended to follow the instructions she’d kindly left on the planner in the kitchen, and I certainly intended to heat up the meals she’d left in the freezer, but my brain was ticking over, identifying the areas where the rules could afford to bend a little.

There’s something about being left alone that triggers a rebellious switch in me. It’s remained with me since I was a kid, and my mate Vince and I used to steal cigarettes from his dad’s stash when he was out. And when my brother and I swigged sips from those obscure liqueur bottles in the liquor cabinet, finally old enough for our parents to leave us home alone to go out on a Saturday night. And when I first moved out of home and could finally put the music on full blast in my bedroom so I could hear it in the shower.

Being left alone reminds me of youth, discovery and opportunity. And now that The Omnipotent One was half a world away, I could almost taste the Horizon 50s and Tia Maria.

It wasn’t as if I was going to throw a party though. Given my primary, well pretty much only, responsibility was to keep our kids alive, the craziest I was going to get would have to be limited to putting my stamp on daily tasks.I would have to get my thrills from things like the washing. This I chose to do infrequently, conjuring up fond memories of the overflowing, broken-under-the-weight-of-dirty-clothes plastic laundry basket from my bachelor days. School lunch making would occur the night before, so as to generate an invaluable extra 15 minutes sleep-in each morning.  Dishwasher stacking would be undertaken immediately upon finishing a meal instead of being left in the sink with water and bits of food in them.Being a hot sleeper, the kids would wear cool, summer pyjamas to bed like me, even though it was an unseasonably cold spring. I grew a beard, which I normally don’t do if I know what’s good for me. This is of course, not to say that the way The Omnipotent One operates isn’t right, or effective. Except for perhaps the dishwasher thing. It’s just not the way I roll, or would roll if I had absolute rolling discretion.

The Omnipotent One arrived back during the night, visibly impressed with the state of the house – better than just still standing, and the kids – not just alive, but healthy and sleeping soundly. I was congratulated and genuinely felt proud that I’d managed without her.

She lingered as she looked in at the kids. “It’s a cool night,” she said. “Why are they wearing short pyjamas?” I opened my mouth, but waivered. It didn’t seem right that I attempt to cling to power when she was the one who puts the majority of the daily effort into making sure our children are as happy, healthy and comfortable as possible, and does an amazing job of it.

The next day, I put them in their flannelette pyjamas for bed, and the day after, my beard was off. I had enjoyed my time in charge, but realised I just didn’t need it. Eventually, even the rebellious learn that the home is a place for harmony, not revolution.

Gary contemplates the value of forcing his daughter to face her fears versus the prospect of creating worse problems.

My daughter desperately wanted to go down the big waterslide at the fun park. She made it to the top twice, and both times she ended up descending down the stairs instead of on her bottom. The second time, I was up there with her as she sat at the top of the slide in tears, wrestling with the decision of whether to go or not. The people in the queue below craned their necks to see what the hold-up was, and the slide attendant started to get impatient. I was trying to talk Ella into doing it, pleading with her to go, that she could do it and she’d be okay.

I thought of last year’s series of The Bachelorette, where Sam made all the contestants jump off a cliff as a test of their devotion to her, and there was one guy who was petrified of heights who just couldn’t jump. She booted him off the show shortly after. Cruel to be kind, I guess. For the briefest of instants I contemplated giving Ella a gentle nudge to the back with my foot, just enough to get her on her way, and soon she’d realise that there was nothing to worry about.

But I didn’t. To use The Bachelorette as a tool to make a parenting decision was a bridge too far, even though I really like it. Or if I was to be one hundred percent truthful, what actually stopped me was the cost of years of counselling for Ella’s paternal abandonment issues that flashed through my head.

 

Even though I was able to go down the water slide (just wanted to make that clear), I told her that I was afraid of things too.

Afterwards, Ella was pretty down on herself for not being brave enough and couldn’t understand why her mind wanted her to go down the slide but her body just wouldn’t let her. I told her that fears can be irrational and everyone has them. Even though I was able to go down the water slide (just wanted to make that clear), I told her that I was afraid of things too.

The bird fear, I’m convinced – even though my parents insist this wasn’t the case – was from being attacked as a child by a blackbird who, due to our similar features, mistook me for one of his own and considered me a threat.

I mentioned the things I’m most afraid of: birds (ornithophobia), clutter (knickknackphobia) and tools (bunningsphobia). Some pretty heavy things in that list, I know. And things – with the exception of clutter, surely – other people might actually find fun. But where do these fears come from?

The bird fear, I’m convinced – even though my parents insist this wasn’t the case – was from being attacked as a child by a blackbird who, due to our similar features, mistook me for one of his own and considered me a threat.

I’m far from a psychologist, but I would imagine the genesis of most of our fears is from childhood, and particularly where we were made to do something against our will, like being dragged along to a hardware store. Or pushed down a waterslide you really don’t want to go down.

Thinking about it, this scenario had happened before; when I’d gone to the effort of doing something with or for my kids that I thought was supposed to be fantastic fun, but they actually considered pretty terrifying.

A couple of instances stick in my head which I hadn’t handled well where I got upset with my kids’ inability to enjoy something supposedly enjoyable. The first one was at the beach when I repeatedly tried to take a freaking-out child into the ocean, and the second at a playground where I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t cross one of those wobbly bridges. Come to think of it, both of these incidents were with Ella, so perhaps it’s already too late to avoid the counselling for at least one of my kids. My poor first born!

But even though these types of incidents are tricky, I’m encouraged by the fact that I seem to have learned something by my past mistakes. I think I’ve learned to lose the expectations when it comes to what should be fun for the kids, and more importantly, when it should be fun.

Experiencing anything for the first time can be daunting, and it takes time to figure out what is really worth being fearful of and what can be accepted. Plus, kids seem to have their own in-built mechanism to protect themselves from harm that works pretty well. It actually overrides any desire or bias a parent has for them to be at the “right” developmental age and stage compared to other kids, or to do what the parent thinks they themselves were capable of at an equivalent age.

Basically, although it takes a bit longer for some, eventually most kids get over things in their own time. Except birds, who I swear know me and are after me. I will never get over them.

Gary contemplates the changing nature of his family’s diet.

As I sit here munching on some wholegrain crackers packed with linseeds, chia seeds and sesame seeds, but not packed with gluten or MSG, and definitely not packed with artificial colours or flavours, I ponder the question: When did eating get so complicated? It used to be simple.

When I was a kid, there were three broad categories of food: Firstly, there was food you ate on special occasions. Secondly, there was going out food, which was Chinese or Italian. And then there was everything else.

Special occasion food pretty much only appeared when we had guests over, sat in the dining room on the velour upholstered chairs and ate off the white plates. The only other times it might have been sprung for was when interest rates had gone down or Australia won the America’s Cup or something.

Special occasion food was camembert, or any cheese that wasn’t cheddar and came in a shiny paper wrapping. It was mangoes, avocados and nuts that weren’t peanuts. It was fish that didn’t come in a tin or a packet.

“Special occasion food pretty much only appeared when we had guests over, sat in the dining room on the velour upholstered chairs and ate off the white plates.”

I don’t mean to imply that my mum wasn’t creative with her food preparation, or didn’t have the health of her family at the forefront of her mind. Quite the opposite – we at least had real cheddar in our wholemeal sandwiches, while some of the other kids at school had Kraft Singles in their white bread ones. It was just that special occasion food was special because in those days, it was – relatively speaking – scarce, and therefore, expensive.

These days, we’re spoilt for choice, and everything is cheap (with the exception of my favourite fish in a packet, smoked salmon – each time I buy it I still can’t believe it costs $12 for a few slivers) and plentiful and available all year round.

Of course, these days there is a much greater awareness of the impact unhealthy eating has on our bodies and especially the development of kids. In our house, this awareness has recently heightened, as The Omnipotent One has embarked on a whole and organic foods journey.

Now this has led to a number of changes in my diet. My Sustain breakfast cereal is now pearl tapioca and amaranth porridge or buckwheat pancakes. My lunchtime sandwich is instead now based around whole grain quinoa, soaked to reduce the phytic acid content. For dinner, my meat wouldn’t dream of feeding on anything other than grass. Even my yoghurt afternoon snack – something I would have thought immune from accusations of being anything other than perfectly healthy – is only able to be consumed in biodynamic, non-homogenised form.

For someone who a) eats a lot; and b) isn’t great with change, this has been an interesting experience, and I’m trying to embrace it. But to go without the cereal that I’ve had every morning for most of my life, and that I could probably survive on exclusively for breakfast, lunch and dinner?

I’m just not sure I can do it. And I suspect it will lead to going to some extraordinary lengths to get my fill. On a work trip, I can see myself going down to the $40 breakfast buffet at the hotel and instead of getting the best value by having the full cooked breakfast, gorging on five of those mini boxes of Sustain. Or I’ll keep a box in the office and start having my breakfast at work like those people I despise, using up all of the milk that was meant for tea and coffee.

But I will keep trying. I will smile to my kids across the breakfast table as we eat our tapioca porridge. Because even though food isn’t as simple as the days when I was a kid, my mum and The Omnipotent One are coming from the same place, and their intentions are as pure as organic extra-virgin coconut oil: they know that eating as many natural, unprocessed foods as possible is one of the keys to a healthy, happy life. It just takes a bit more effort.

And with that, as I polish off the wholegrain crackers-with-three-kinds-of-seeds, I contemplate what I may have munched on while studying at my desk in my parents’ house. Some mouth-drool starts to form as I vividly recall the unmistakable taste of chicken Twisties.

It started with one rogue eyebrow hair. I could see it out of the corner of my eye as I tried to focus on the computer screen at work. 

I positioned my face to get a better reflection in my office window and tried plucking it with thumb and index finger, but it was still too bright outside to see properly and I couldn’t isolate it.  Now quite obsessed, I hurried to the bathroom and moved in nice and close to the mirror…

Got it!

The thrill of a successful pluck quickly gave way to the utter shock of what I saw. I shook my head in amazement as I stood and stared at this thing in the palm of my hand. A THREE CENTIMETRE eyebrow hair stared back at me.

Another guy came in to the bathroom and I quickly dropped the hair (he probably heard it bang on the floor) and pretended to wash my hands. I contemplated myself in the mirror intently. I hadn’t been too worried about the odd grey hair or wrinkle before, begrudgingly accepting that these things were all part of the ageing process for most people in their fortieth year of life. But this was different. This eyebrow hair was the clearest symbol yet of the dark side of ageing.

The fact is, I have always considered myself someone who looks younger than his age. Not by heaps, but just a bit, and I guess I wear this as a bit of a badge of honour. A just reward for trying to keep fit and eat well, and undertaking some fundamental grooming activities. Clearly these activities hadn’t included eyebrow plucking up until now.

But The Eyebrow Incident opened my eyes (which were now clearer in both the physical and metaphysical sense) to the level of work required from this point on to maintain any semblance of physical youth. That night, under closer self-examination, to my dismay I discovered a thatch (or perhaps it was more of a thicket? Or even a hedge?) of hairs growing out my right earhole. Weirdly, just my right one. But I guess I should be happy to accept small wins.

Given the ageing process was now clearly taking hold, it got me thinking: was it worth even continuing any mirage of physical and grooming activity?

Those sit-ups I did a few times a week, what was the point? I’d never had much of a six-pack even at my fittest, so the chances of any abs miraculously popping through now were basically zero.

And I could feel my knees deteriorating each time I went for a run these days. Soon I would have no choice but to swap running laps of the local lake to walking laps of the local swimming pool.

But before getting too depressed, I knew I should be looking at physical decay as part of the bigger picture. That ageing actually does have some surprisingly good aspects to it.

I am certainly wiser now than I was even just a few years ago, and I don’t just mean that in the all-important Trivial Pursuit sense. More that I simply don’t do or say as many stupid things as I used to.

“I also think I’m at the age now where my kids are at a perfect age from a parents’ perspective – old enough to have some independence, but young enough to not hate you.”

I also think I’m at the age now where my kids are at a perfect age from a parents’ perspective – old enough to have some independence, but young enough to not hate you.

It’s surreal to think that I now have kids who are doing the things I remember as my earliest memories. I can so clearly remember walking with my mum in the snow for the first time, going to my first football game with my dad, or getting in trouble for using a swear word I didn’t know the meaning of.

It dawned on me that this stage in life was an ideal time to focus on creating happy family memories for my kids, because now they’ll start to take these memories with them through life. Of course I couldn’t plan exactly which memories they held on to, but I could focus on sharing experiences with them, both big and small, that we could look back on when I was actually the old guy walking laps of the pool.

But as I type, my focus shifts back to something else, and my mood turns bleak once again. I see a dark cloud sitting just above my field of vision. One that must be moved on before I can move on, and feel physically, emotionally and spiritually free.

Thankfully, I’ve stolen my daughter’s mani-pedi set, so a mirror and tweezers are never too far away.

Gary shares what it’s like being Dad to a daughter who’s growing up.

I won’t for a minute pretend that I handled a recent stint of unemployment well. Just ask The Omnipotent One, who had to put up with having me around 40 hours a week more than she normally would, and with a slightly whiffy demeanour to make matters worse.

Things started off positively enough. Firstly, a couple of trips away. Then, the opportunity to strap on the Mr Mum apron by helping out with the school drop-offs, homework and extra-curricular activities. I was cheerfully indulging in a new role as one of the school mums, and looked forward to chatting with the girls each day about school mums’ stuff.

I got into the best exercise routine of my life. After my daily workout, I’d potter around on the computer for a bit, emailing contacts about potential work, whilst simultaneously maintaining 15 games of Words With Friends on my iPhone.

“I was cheerfully indulging in a new role as one of the school mums, and looked forward to chatting with the girls each day about school mums’ stuff.”

Then, a leisurely lunch while reading the paper, sometimes even sneakily foregoing the business pages for the gossip section. And afterwards, the afternoon could be spent doing those jobs around the house that never seemed to get done. Our garage was cleaned out so it could actually fit a second car in, our cornices de-cobwebbed, and even that drawer where you put stuff you don’t know where else to put was thoroughly reviewed and reordered.

Life was great. And then I realised something: I wasn’t actually happy. I just wanted to work! Without ever knowing it, I was one of those guys who defined himself through his work. It didn’t matter how sparkling the kitchen was, I needed to have something constructive that I put my energy into and received reward from. And consistently beating Kerry73 at Words With Friends was really very nice indeed, but it just wasn’t enough.

I became anxious and irritable. The Omnipotent One had gone from loving having me around to herself having a full time job keeping me positive. It was bang in the middle of the hot, sprawling summer school holidays and she was having a hard time deciding whether it was me or the kids she wanted out of the house more.

And then, through much coaching and at least a bit of pleading from her, I finally got it. I just let go of it all and decided that I needed to get back to seeing what I was going through as a positive experience.

“It was bang in the middle of the hot, sprawling summer school holidays and she was having a hard time deciding whether it was me or the kids she wanted out of the house more.”

I eventually managed to get it into my head that these circumstances were pretty rare. How often would I get to spend a summer at home without having to go to work?

So I made the most of it. I watched nearly every ball of The Ashes. I went to the beach most days. We had barbeque dinners at 5 o’clock. I was getting into the swing of this.

I took on more writing work. It was a formerly unknown freedom to be able to take time enjoying the creative process rather than write in my spare time with an impending deadline looming. Unfortunately, I’m not quite at JK Rowling’s earning capacity so there was the minor issue of the mortgage that still needed paying each month, but life was great – for real this time.

And just as I’d got my head around it all, I got a job. And I’ve gone straight back to old habits. Instead of stressing about not having a job, I stress about work-related things. Odd-jobs around the house remain undone. Exercise, when it happens, is squeezed in twenty-minute bursts. During the week I only see the kids for an hour at each end of the day.

In other words, it’s back to normal. Only now I don’t take my time off for granted. I look forward to weekends about as much as years ago when they meant party time, and the sight of a public holiday in the distance is like a desert oasis.

And writing? Unfortunately I’ve had to give most of my newly acquired writing jobs up. The only ones I’ve kept are for the very best publications.