Work-Life Balance Profile #7 – Soli Lazarus
I grew up in a family of teachers; my late grandfather was a retired Headmaster, my mum was a primary school teacher, and my brother undertook his teacher training qualification while we were both still living at home. So I know first hand how much work, and role modelling, takes place beyond the classroom. It is more than just a profession; it is a lifestyle.
I look now at friends who are teachers, or those teaching my children, and see the immense pressure that the profession has been under since the start of the Coronavirus pandemic. Amid logistical and bureaucratic changes, and political wrangling, many fear for their physical and mental health on a daily basis as they continue providing and caring for students both in the classroom and remotely. The toll this period may be taking on them and their families is not to be underestimated.
This Work-Life Balance Profile tells the story of Soli, a teacher who has unapologetically prioritised time for self-care throughout her career. Her personal life has posed its own hurdles, alongside the professional ones, including raising a child with special educational needs, adoption, infertility, and caring for elderly parents.
Yet Soli’s determination to focus on the joy in her life remains undefeated. Now in mid-life she is experiencing a type of renewal, realising long-standing professional and personal dreams, at the heart of which, is a steady work-life balance. It is no wonder that her powerful interview was the first since starting my blog that brought me to tears.
Please read and share Soli’s story with anyone you know affected by similar issues, or those who work in caring professions. I hope that others will take strength and inspiration from her about keeping positive and finding happiness, even in difficult times, especially when caring for others. As she wisely puts it: “You can’t pour from an empty cup“.
One thing I quickly learned about Soli is that trying to box her in is a sure-fire way to provoke indignation. So it stands to reason that when I kicked off our conversation asking her what ratio she would apply to her work:life balance, as I do with each Work-Life Balance Profile, she wouldn’t round things up in neatly packaged numbers.
“Of course I’m not precisely 50:50”, she contemplated. “My ratio always weighs heavier on the work side. But I make a big effort to draw myself away from it and make time for myself. Otherwise work would consume me”.
A teacher by training, Soli taught in mainstream schools for some 30 years, specialising in Special Educational Needs. She took early retirement in 2015 and set up a consultancy, Yellow Sun, to support parents and educators help children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) to flourish and thrive.
What qualifies Soli to do this is more than just her professional training and years of experience. Her son was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 8, two years after her daughter (who is neurotypical) was born, so she has lived through many of the challenges that her clients face.
Soli considers herself one of the “sandwich generation”, responsible both for the care of her ageing parents as well as her post-adolescent children. When she’s not working or caring for her family, she loves spending time with creative pursuits such as watercolour crafts, singing with her local Rock Choir, or taking dance lessons. She and her husband recently sold their home in the London suburbs to fulfil a long-standing dream to live in a cottage in the countryside.
The Coronavirus pandemic has taken its toll on Soli. Her longed-for summer holiday plans were cancelled, and work has never been busier as she strives to support not just her own family, but other families going through hard times of unprecedented proportions.
She attributes much of her ‘fine balance’ to her husband, whom she describes adoringly as “the ‘ying’ to my ‘yang’”. They spent the first lockdown taking long walks together, finding the fun in the ordinariness of everyday life and laughing a lot.
This is not the first tough period that Soli has lived through, and she expects it won’t be her last. She is intent on not letting the dark times diminish her spirit, and doesn’t mince her words about it either: “Shit happens; you can’t keep looking back and dwelling on it. You only get to live one life. And I want mine to be a happy one”.
Sugar and spice and all things nice
I had hoped to interview Soli in person but, due to lockdown 2.0 restrictions, we had to make do with a Zoom call. Nevertheless, the technology that stood between us did not dull the energy and charisma that Soli naturally exudes with her warm smile, bright eyes, and an attentiveness that made me feel I had her full attention at all times.
This was the first interview I’ve conducted that has brought me to tears. That Soli could provoke such emotion through the screen indicates not just her candid, engaging and heartfelt manner, but how powerful her story is. It’s hard to know where to start in my writing of it, so I’ll rely on a favourite old adage and start at the very beginning.
Soli’s childhood sounds idyllic. She couldn’t speak more fondly of her parents, who are now ageing and in need of her care. Her eyes sparkled impossibly brighter when she recounted the story of the time her parents took her and her siblings as children to the seaside one summer’s day, and surprised them with an overnight stay in a hotel. “My dad made everything exciting”, she told me. A salesman by trade, Soli’s dad’s positive disposition and enthusiasm for life seems to have rubbed off on her.
Her mother was a woman ‘of her generation’, always setting aside what she wanted in order to please others; she never learned to drive and prepared all the meals at home. It wasn’t until later in her life that she “started to blossom”, embarking on a career as an administrator, at which she was very successful.
When Soli left home for university, she had the sudden epiphany that she needn’t be boxed in by her gender as her mother had been, and released herself from the expectation that she would take on the role of housekeeper of her student digs. The sense of liberation, she says, was wonderful.
Soli says that she is all for being a people pleaser (“why wouldn’t you want to please others?”), but, in contrast to her mother – perhaps because of her – she draws the line at going along with things she doesn’t want: “I can’t remember ever saying yes to something I haven’t wanted to do”, she reflects.
Distressing as it is to see her parents’ decline with age, caring for them now goes without saying. “They are loving and beautiful people who shaped who I am today”, she says; “How could I not want to do all I can to care for them?”. The longing one feels for one’s parents doesn’t diminish with age, she tells me, as even now she concedes “I just want my mum and dad back”. Soli sets that longing aside, however, to focus on what they need, which is just one indicator of her immense capacity for caring.
A sensible teenager, Soli was given all the freedom she liked to socialise with her friends (whom she describes as a lovely crowd), and she was trusted to do her best at school and follow the career path of her choice; teaching was all she ever wanted to do. “Everything was very nice”, she told me of the people and places of her youth, “and I loved that”. Even now, she considers that as her aspirational baseline: “I just want people to be nice”.
Take the shackles off my feet so I can dance
In reality, of course, not everyone – or everything – is “nice”. And herein lies Soli’s perpetual challenge: when injustice rears its ugly head, she just can’t help herself from trying to make things better. This has got her into hot water many times, but that does not seem to deter her from standing up for what she believes to be the greater good.
Her sweet demeanour in such quests is her superpower. She is well aware that she has the look of someone for whom butter wouldn’t melt in the mouth, with her youthful smile and playful facial expressions. So to hear her refer to herself as “gobby” conjured up a delightful juxtaposition.
She certainly knows how to leverage her sweetness to its full effect, relying on her innocent appearance as a shock tactic and a deterrent for attack. Alongside this, she possesses an inner confidence in her ability to connect with others, which makes her unafraid to be outspoken. She gave me the example of a time she attended a football match with a group of friends, including children, and was outraged by the loutish crowds sitting nearby shouting obscenities. While others in her party were equally disgusted, it was Soli who, refusing to be intimidated by the hooliganism, turned around and kindly asked them to refrain from swearing in the presence of children.
When it comes to righting the wrongs she sees around her, Soli’s fearlessness seems to know no bounds. I lost track of how many voluntary positions she nonchalantly name-dropped throughout our conversation – school governor, charity trustee, fundraiser, committee member – proving that here is a woman willing to put her time and effort where her mouth is.
Such passion has spilled into her work values too and, during her profession as a teacher and Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator, she faced one battle after another, standing up for what she saw as systemic injustices towards her students.
She noticed it from her earliest days, entering the classroom as a newly qualified teacher and being forewarned by a well-intentioned colleague to watch out for one particularly “lively”* student (*code-word for “trouble”). Rather than being put off by this warning, Soli warmed to the child; she saw something in him beyond what could be seen and not as the problem that others saw.
As the years passed, she became worn down by the red-tape that formed barriers to providing the care she felt her students needed. She told me the sad story of one of her initiatives, which involved adapting a stock of unused bikes for the school’s wheelchair-user pupils to provide them with an opportunity for outdoor exercise (the benefits of which would be far-reaching). The bureaucratic hoops that she had to jump through to bring her idea to fruition took hours of energy and time, which she voluntarily undertook on top of her day job. She eventually won that battle, only to find the red-tape was reapplied each year in the form of annual ‘health and safety’ checks. “What of those bikes today?“, I ask. “They’re probably rusting in a cupboard“, she replies, with a sad shrug of her shoulders.
Soli’s indefatigable energy was burning out when she sought the opportunity to take early retirement at the age of 55 and set up her own business. Again, she experienced the liberation of stepping out of the boxes she felt stifled to fit into. And so, at a time in life when one might expect to wind things down, she flourished with renewed professional vigour, excited to be able to provide families and professionals with the care and guidance they need without being answerable to bureaucratic processes. She has also become a published author of a children’s book to empower and educate about ADHD, which is due out next year. These days, the only paperwork Soli dreads are the invoices she issues to her clients, which make her feel incredibly uncomfortable.
You can’t pour from an empty cup
Soli has unapologetically sought respite from her work ever since embarking on her teaching career in 1987. She described how, as a fresh young graduate, she would listen to her Walkman as she commuted to work, allowing the music to lift her spirits.
Working part-time was a natural and practical choice once Soli had a family to care for – something that happened not long after she had completed her training to become a teacher. Family is incredibly important to Soli, and there is no sense that her career ambitions were compromised by this working arrangement.
She was a young mum when her son’s ADHD was diagnosed and, juggling his care with the demands of her daughter (a toddler at the time), was intensely challenging. As her children grew, so too did their needs and Soli and her husband faced complex behavioural challenges and domestic confrontations of enormous magnitude. She describes some of these heart-wrenching scenarios in her blog, which features on her website.
Despite the demands on her to care for others, Soli says that she has never felt guilty about prioritising time for herself outside of work and home. She recognises the importance of looking after herself: “You can’t pour from an empty cup”, she told me, which is something I can imagine her reassuringly telling the clients that flock to seek her advice and learn from her experience.
Soli has seen the effect that her profession has had on colleagues that haven’t cared for themselves, bearing the weight of others’ troubles to the detriment of their own health and wellbeing. For parents of children with special educational needs, there is even less respite available. She knows all too well how devastating mental illness can be, and recognises how vital prioritising her self-care has been in enabling her to retain her positivity.
She loves her work, is totally absorbed by it and is personally and emotionally invested in it. So tearing herself away from work is a discipline that she still pushes herself to keep to, setting her own rules, such as not working on weekends. It is not an act of selfishness, she argues. She knows without a doubt that she must take breaks and find pleasure in the things she enjoys, for her own happiness and sense of balance, as well as for those for whom she cares.
In my blog, I often refer to the choices people make in how they construct the balance between their work and everything else in their lives. But, of course, not everything in life happens by choice, and some of the biggest barriers to finding balance present themselves when life throws you off course. As Sam’s story of living with cancer, for example demonstrated, it takes untold resilience to adapt and be mindful of your choices when changes occur that are out of your control.
The course of Soli’s life entirely changed with the arrival of her son, who, I learned towards the end of our interview, is not her birth son. She generously shared her story with me about how, as a very young newly-wedded couple, she and her husband were faced with the life-altering choice to adopt the baby of a close relative who, due to severe mental illness, was unable to care for him herself. It’s a choice, Soli says, that she would make again in a heartbeat; “giving our son a loving home among his family has been an immensely fulfilling and positive course for my life to have taken”, she says.
Soli went on to tell me about the infertility struggles that she and her husband later endured when trying to conceive a child together. She has never forgotten the cycles of hope and disappointment that stretched from months to years, and the crippling desperation she suffered to carry a baby within her. Throughout that time, even as she prepared to undergo IVF treatment, Soli continued caring for her son while working part-time. Her longed-for pregnancy occurred after almost five years of trying, and the years that followed were dominated by juggling her work with the challenges of parenting children with extreme and diverse needs.
Soli’s choice is to “find the light and joy in life”; the alternative, she says, is to drown in sorrow, and her joie de vivre is too strong to allow that. There are things that she wishes she had done differently in her past, “but I’m a glass half-full kind of person”, she smiles.
She describes her partnership with her husband as being fundamental to maintaining balance in her life, demonstrating how ‘power couples’ come in all shapes and sizes. Compromise, she says, is the key to a good marriage. But just as important, it seems, is supporting one another to pursue both professional fulfilment and personal interests, while also generating intimacy and happiness through shared experiences.
Soli describes how both she and her husband are encouraging of one another’s careers and hobbies (he works as an Insurance Loss Assessor and, in his spare time, hosts a podcast called Your London Legacy). Yet they take pleasure in the time they spend together too, seeking out the adventure and beauty in the everyday and deciding everything together (apart from how to decorate their home, which is one thing they can’t agree on!).
One example that has stayed with me is a tree that they discovered in a nature spot during the early days of their marriage. It was there that they considered their decision to adopt their son and they named this their “decision tree”. Since then, this tree has taken on a mythical quality for them, and they have continued to return to it whenever faced with life’s big decisions.
As our interview drew to a close, Soli imparted some final words of wisdom in the form of a mantra that she has developed with age when weighing up the balance in her life: when faced with obstacles now, she asks herself “does it really matter? If the answer is no, then let it go”.
The inverse, I suppose, is to fight on for those things that you decide really do matter – but those are my words, not Soli’s. “I’m exhausted, really tired now”, she sighs, and I sense that she is talking more broadly than just the effect that the Coronavirus pandemic has had on her.
She has long-since passed the baton down to the next generation of teachers to contend with red-tape tangles and rusting bikes. Now she can rest easy in the knowledge that every battle she has fought on someone else’s behalf, and every cause she has taken on, big or small, will have touched someone’s life for the better, however fleetingly, and made the world a fraction “nicer” than it would otherwise have been.
And she’s proving how mid-life can be a pivotal point in a person’s life: a time to live by your own rules, contribute positively to the world and still find fulfilment and fun. I walked away from our conversation feeling not just moved by Soli’s story and grateful that there are people like her that dedicate themselves to caring professions, but feeling uplifted and hopeful for the promise of mid-life opportunities for my generation. I, for one, think that hers’ is a mid-life to aspire to.
If any of the issues raised in this post relate to your situation, feel free to “like” it and comment below. If you’re interested in being featured in the Work-Life Balance Profiles series – or would like to nominate someone you know to share their story – please get in touch. To receive further updates, follow @afinebalance_blog on Instagram or subscribe below.