The shame of being a statistic

My sister-in-law works in a government department that creates policy for Social Development. We were speaking about poverty in New Zealand one day, the state of things, the injustices done. A typical Sunday arvo kind of chat. But then it changed.

‘But you have done so well, considering. I’m so amazed and proud to know you’, she says.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, given the statistical likelihood of someone with your background succeeding, you are an anomaly’’.

I was taken aback. I mean sure, I know my story, but no one had called it out as an anomaly before. A bit uncomfortable at this thought, I tried to pretend I didn’t know what she was meaning. But she was having none of it.

‘As you are a woman, from divorced parents, a low income family living in a rural community, part-Maori, with only a high school education, and a teenage single mother, you had a very low likelihood of becoming someone more than that.’

And there it was. My shameful statistical one-liner. Never in my 40 years had I had that laid out in black and white for me. I was mortified, insulted and ashamed. I went red in the face…I stuttered. I didn’t have the words.

‘Jesus H Christ when you put it that way you make me sound so terrible, and such a loser.’

She was somewhat apologetic, although reiterated that the facts remain. I think she was perplexed by my visceral response. She meant it as a compliment, and went on to say that I was a inspiration, and repeated she was proud to know me.

This conversation has stuck with me for a long time, for many reasons. The facts, the connotations the statistical words bring to mind, the shame I felt. Why did I feel so ashamed and confronted about being put in this particular set of boxes? I have spent some time (over) thinking this.

Firstly, lets address the current state. I am a successful women in Technology, earning a six figure salary, in a senior management position. I live in a nice neighbourhood in a house valued at more that $1M, with my husband who is a CEO, and our new daughter who is 15months old. I drive a nice car. I don’t think about the price of things when I buy them anymore. I don’t think about budgeting as we have a buffer in our everyday account that we try to keep above $5k or so. We spent more than $50k on our wedding. We travel overseas when we want to. Have I earned it? Fuck yes I have. It is because my husband is a CEO? Fuck no its not, although its definitely good that we are both doing well. I work hard and deliver, every time. I am very good at what I do, and worth every penny I make. I write this to show you how ridiculous my life is, and the privilege I have. I also write it to show the contrast to the way things used to be for me, and the statistical anomaly I am. And to admit to myself that I am an outlier.

Now lets go back to 1992. I was all of those things she said I was; an unmarried mother of a new baby, two months away from turning 17 years old. I didn’t know I was pregnant until I went to the doctor for indigestion. They told me I was 7 months pregnant. I know, I was also one of THOSE stats too. And no, it was not denial, it was a flat stomach, period having, contraception taking normality with no reason for thinking this was the case. I was about to finish 6th form and head off to Uni that following year. I’d only ever had one boyfriend.

Upon letting my parents know, my step mother’s first response was ‘how am I ever going to show my face to my friends now — I’m so ashamed of you! You have ruined your life’. My father was silent, and I watched him grey before my eyes. I decided to visit my Mother (the Maori side of me) on the West Coast and get out of my small home town before it all blew up in my face. She met me off the train, and looked at my flat belly, yelling at me for playing such an awful prank. I had to show her the scan for her to believe me. I ended up having my daughter 6 weeks later after 17 hours of labour, 5 weeks before my guessed-at due date. I had never even held a baby, and spent the first two weeks in hospital learning what to do to take care of her. I had initially decided to adopt her out, mainly due to the shock of the situation, but I soon came to terms, and remember thinking to myself that even though it wasn’t intentional, I needed to take responsibility for my actions, and therefore changed my life goals to be focused on this tiny baby girl, instead of other dreams I had.

As I was too young to go on the DPB, I had to go on the Emergency Benefit until I turned 18. When I think back on this time, it was not as bad as people would imagine, even though I was surviving on such a small amount, I think $120 a week initially for a good year of so. Man, I was good at extracting the best value out of every dollar. I had people help me; my sister found me a tiny holiday home to rent near her home, for $40 a week, from this old couple who wanted to help. I just had to get out at Christmas so their relations could use it. It was on a cliff by the sea in a tiny costal settlement, so close that if you walked out the gate you could fall 10 metres into the sea, and at night you could feel the waves crashing which shook the house a little. It was me and a baby, a black and white tv, and a two bar heater. I fed the baby with everything she ever needed first, and then I ate mainly Continental Pasta and Sauce with steak. In those days steak was very cheap and chicken was only for the rich. It was a really great time. I didn’t know anything about child raising, and it was before the internet told you all about it, so I just played it how I felt it, and it worked out better than most who know more. I didn’t have a career to miss, so it was all about growing a great person and I was okay with that.

I met my first husband-to-be when she was 9 months old (and I was 18), and we dated for several years before I moved in with him, in a different town, and we got married when I was 23. I got a job as a waitress in a local pub, doing lunchtime and evening shifts, so I could be there when she got home from school, and then leave again once she was ready for bed. At this point we were typical blue collar people (he was a panel beater and then a mechanic), earning under $50k between us. I recall celebrating when I earned over $500 a week as it had been my target to reach for so long. It was also a good time, full of friends, simple fun and our first mortgage. He still lives in that first house with his new family and is still happy with his simple but good life.

But there was much I needed to prove — to the people who told me I had ruined my life and wouldn’t amount to anything, as well as to myself. I knew I was capable of a lot, and I had a high resilience, which meant I could pick up things quickly, cope under pressure and never panic. From the pub I went to work for a Pharmacy as a shop assistant. I learnt a lot about people and their problems there. From there I went to work at a newspaper selling advertising, and learnt a lot about sexism there. And then my favourite one so far — I worked at a fine NZ Art Gallery. Here I found my love of computers, websites and photoshop. I spent many happy years there as an associate, dealing in $M+ artwork sales. I published art books and catalogues, dealt with marketing of exhibitions, opened a new gallery for them in a different part of the country, and learned a great deal from an infuriating man who was very bi-polar. But I listened, and learned fast. I ruined such a perfect job by purchasing my own business on a whim. Throughout the many years before, I had learnt the art of make up and offered my services through some salons for balls and weddings. I was very good at it and it was a fun on-the-side thing I could do when I wanted. But then I bought a closed but fully kitted out beauty salon/day spa business and decided to make it my full time gig. I sadly quit my job, got a loan from the bank and off I went — managing my own business at 28.

I have no idea what made me think I could run my own business, but I did, and did so very well for a time. I had staff — hair dressers, beauticians, nail technicians, and I took care of the make up and spray tanning. It was a crazy time. I came up with curious marketing ideas that went off very well, and became a player in the game of business in one of the main centres of NZ. People treat you differently when you are the boss of something. It commanded a level of respect, without me doing anything differently. It was strange that I was the same person who worked in a pharmacy not long before, but suddenly I was invited to everything — fashion week, big parties, promotional stuff left right and centre. I worked for cable TV agencies to put make up on famous people. I was there when a famous sports person got engaged, and then when she got married, and then when her first born arrived — all for a magazine to print the first pictures. Geez, thats a crazy thought.

There was a rough time ahead, as I went through a miscarriage and a separation within a 6 week period. I took some time off to recover. Even though I had been checking in over the two months I was away from the salon, when I returned, things had not gone well. The person I trusted to manage things had, unknown to me at the time, a rather drug dependant boyfriend, and had started skimming cash from me. Not just a little, but a lot, and products that she sold off on the side. One of my reps called and said he was concerned with the stock count he had just done as it was way off what she had listed. Again, this was only 2 months off. I then got a call from IRD saying I owed them, even though I had approved any payments to go to them. A long story short, I ended up nearly going bankrupt due to this woman stealing over $80k from me. I managed to pay off most of my debts over time, looked after my remaining staff, finding them good jobs, and selling the studio to one of my beauticians for $1. My accountant took no responsibility, the person who stole from me didn’t take any responsibility and still to this day she ‘can’t work out how this is her fault’. I nearly prosecuted her as would have been my right, but she by then had gotten pregnant and was on the DBP from the druggie, so I figured why put myself through the pain of it — I said Fuck it, I can start from scratch — I had done it once already. She would get her own one day I was certain. Goodbye being my own boss, and my marriage.

During this time of ‘life restructure’, I had taken a second job that someone shoulder tapped me for, while still running the business, to pay my debts as fast as I could, as well as put food on the table for my daughter and I. I managed a Real Estate company’s website, their marketing and their sponsorships. From there, I was shoulder tapped by a friend, to work with someone who had sacked three marketing managers in 6 months. She had a reputation of being a tough cookie who ran a tight ship, and who was a very successful CEO of an organisation she started from scratch, My friend thought I would be the kind of person who would fit with her, and he was right. I learned a great deal from this inspiring, stroppy, unreasonable and determined woman. I began my full blown career in Marketing through this, and spent many good years at the top of that game, before the organisation was sold for some ridiculous amount to a blue chip company who wanted a cool sub-brand to own that side of the market. The office was being shipped to Auckland and absorbed into their way of being — I did not join them. I decided then was the time to move into technology, as this was where I saw the future of anything important going. It was 2008.

I talked my way into a tech company as a Solutions Manager; the one thing I knew I always did well was come up with solutions. Technology is a very skewing industry to be in, as they pay more than seems feasible for anyone to paid, right from an intern level position up. I quickly went down the project management path and led projects from $50k to $250k in the first year I started. I could take complex ideas and create simple pathways to deliver them, and interpret this into non-tech speak. Learning early it was not good enough to just manage developers, I had to understand what they do, so I could call out any bullshit they try to throw my way. The first time a senior dev told me ‘it will take me as long as it takes’ and then he failed to deliver, I swore I would never be set up to fail by others again. From Projects, to Programmes, to Head of Delivery and Digital Transformation, technology has morphed as fast as my own roles in the industry. I still have no formal qualifications for any of these roles, but after a certain point, it did not matter, as my value became self evident.

I have proven my ability to others as well as myself, and I am no longer striving to prove anything to anyone. I have argued with high powered people in high places and won. I have successfully turned big failures into big wins. I am a woman who is a force to be reckoned with.

I am no longer motivated by proving I am not a ‘loser’. But what I realised was, I never was in the first place.

My grown daughter is turning 25. She is doing great and is an amazing person in her own right, and is beginning a career that will play to her strengths and abilities well. I have asked her directly about her childhood, and what she liked or didn’t. Its a strange feeling to be able to actually ask how well you did as a parent. She says she wanted for nothing, and had a happy childhood. We may not have had the most expensive things but she always remembers being told she could choose to do anything. She loves that I encouraged her to read, and can’t remember a time when there was not a book in her hand or a story being read. As I start that whole growing children journey again at 40, with my second daughter, I can honestly look back and say I am successful, in career and home life.

Which brings me back to the original point (I know it took a while)— my shock and shame at being so succinctly put into a box that implied so many things. As someone who went through this journey, I struggle to relate to that statistic, even though there is no doubt that it is true. I have never seen myself as lesser based on almost all of those things. The ones that I do relate to, I used as motivation to succeed. I wanted to prove those doubters wrong that I hadn’t ruined my life, and I could be more than that. I am sad that I felt ashamed of the stats, as this makes me realise that society has placed so much shame on these things, that no wonder I am an anomaly. I only felt shame when others shamed me for them. And that is the shame we all need to feel — how dare we layer this into peoples misfortune or decisions, and especially their ancestry or what situation they were born into? Nothing ever is a given, and we need, as a society, to be doing the opposite, to encourage bravery and growth (and support this through our government), no matter what the circumstances. And we should not be defining people for their statistics. We should be defining them for their actions. My decisions were poor when I was young, but I took responsibility for my actions. Making bad decisions does not mean your life is over, it means you need to be resilient, take responsibility, and move to where you want to next. I chose the life I was living, and I took advantage of every opportunity I had, but you won’t find me judging people who take different paths. I was not afraid of losing as I already was starting from the bottom. I know that I will be okay if I was to be right back to the beginning again.

As a society, we should share these stories of success, not because of the ‘look how far they’ve come’ loser-to-winner story or as an example to shame others because they haven’t done the same, but as examples that nothing is predetermined, success looks different for everyone, and the opinion you have of yourself is more important than other peoples views of you.

Statistics can be damaging if thats all thats ever looked at. Being told you are a failure, or the implication due to statistics that you are unlikely to succeed means you start there. Me telling my daughter she could do anything she wanted meant she started there.

I am a statistic, but statistics are not who I am.