So, what’s a Barefoot Parent then? Well, I have two daughters, one is nearly 30 and the other has just turned 8. And I’m still alive to tell the tale, which pretty much clears up the ‘Parent’ bit. You’d be forgiven for assuming that the experience has left me so broke that I can’t even afford to wear shoes, and hence the ‘Barefoot’ part of the equation. It’s a bit more complicated than that.
Many years ago I trained as a Mental Health Nurse and specialised in children and young people’s mental health. “Ah a Nurse…so, you are actually broke then” I hear you confirm sympathetically. Not so, for in truth my career has enabled me to pay the bills and feed the kids. However, it has given me much, much more than that…more than I could ever have anticipated. As a children and young people’s mental health professional, I have had access to some of the most fascinating, cutting edge and useful training and information on all things related to kids and their mental health. Over twenty five years of Clinical Practice I’ve had the privilege of having countless opportunities to try and put all of this to some practical use in my work. Closer to home, and maybe more importantly, all of these experiences have had a profound personal effect on me, which was confirmed by my eldest daughter in a comment she made to me when she was 16: “Dad, I’m really glad that you do your job – you help other people but it’s really helped you too hasn’t it.” Wise words.
Sometimes along the way I’ve felt an utter fraud. Job titles that often started with the words “Senior” or “Specialist” and one even had “Consultant” in it, hid the fact that my family life was far from perfect, being a parent was unbelievably hard work, and I often felt like I was getting it wrong and teetering on edge of a precipice. Yet the knowledge, skills and networks that I’d been privileged with as a ‘Professional’ always ended up being an important part of my safety net.
And now for a little story. I was working as a ‘Specialist (what else?) Children and Young People’s Mental Health Nurse’ based in a large Secondary School. I’d been supporting a 14 year old young person whose life was so difficult and complicated that it was affecting how she dealt with the normally difficult and complicated business of being a teenager. After she’d had the space to talk, reflect and find ways to get through things, we were having a conversation to tie up loose ends. I’d asked her, “In ten years time, when you look back on this period of your life, what do you think you will have learned?” Not an easy question at all – one that most adults might struggle with. I don’t remember her response, but remember the feeling I had as I listened to her. Her relationship with her parents was very distant, and was likely to remain so for a complex range of reasons. Many professionals had criticised them for ‘not meeting her needs appropriately.’ However, in that moment I started to feel compassion for these people. Here was this incredibly insightful, resourceful and compassionate young person – their own daughter – and they had no idea who she was or what she was about. Suddenly, it dawned on me that over the years, I’d gotten to know a whole load of other people’s kids better than they did themselves. In fact, this seemed to be a main part of my Job Description. I was supposed to have some sort of magic keys to the Kingdom and I was to go and find out, interpret, understand and report back. To fix it. At that moment, that all felt a bit wrong. “What if parents had access to what I’ve had access to?” “What if parents knew what I knew?” “What if parents could fix this for themselves, or even stop it from getting this far in the first place?” “What if people like me weren’t needed?”
And that’s where the seeds of the ‘Barefoot’ bit were born. I stopped working with children and young people, and concentrated my efforts on helping parents – partly as a professional, but also partly as a parent myself. The two roads have run parallel with each other for many years…now it’s time for them to merge. Like the Barefoot Doctors in China, I’ve learned a little bit about a lot and I’d like to share that around the village. It’s a pretty big village I’ll grant you, but hurrah for the internet!