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The Word That Might Make You Cringe

by Janette Dalgliesh
white stone statue depicting a human figure with a neutral face, holding a human infant in its arms
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There’s a word we hear all the time in our culture, and it’s often weaponised against people in historically marginalised groups, such as women and people of colour.

It doesn’t seem like a toxic word, or one we should stop our kids using – in fact, it sound like a good, kind word that we should all embrace. Trouble is, it comes with a ton of shitty baggage.

I’m talking about ‘nurture’.

Nurturing literally means ‘care and protect something or someone while it is growing’.

It’s not the same as ‘caring’, though there is a ton of overlap. It’s incredibly important for us as individuals and as a species. Without it, we’d die out in a generation.

But thanks to the systems and institutions of our culture, it’s become synonymous with ‘martyrdom’.

And that’s not surprising.

The role of the nurturer is often seen as a ‘mothering’ kind of role. Mother isn’t the only place we find nurturing, but it’s the most instantly recognisable.

Whether it’s literally a mother, or simply someone in the role of caring for someone or something, the role of nurturer is radically undervalued and dismissed in most of our traditions. This is not new.

For the ancient Greeks, women were literally possessions. They had the job of nurturing the child to a certain point, to keep them healthy and alive and growing.

And once a boy child grew to manhood, he was handed over to the father for the [far more high-status] work of being trained to take on roles of power, might and authority.

Girl children remained chattels, so although they also experienced a transition into adulthood, their trajectory went from nurturee to nurturer, without missing a beat.

Until very recently, nurturing work was mostly undertaken by women and/or by enslaved people, particularly people from Africa, Asia or the Pacific regions, or First Nations people.

The work of nurturing meant sacrificing their own needs for the needs those of the young person they were helping to grow – sometimes voluntarily, very often not.

Those who did the nurturing were rarely, if ever, rewarded or even valued for that work.

They might be romanticised, in books and poems and popular songs.

But ‘mothering’ was not truly valued.

And this deeply flawed premise is reflected in the way the nurturing professions are still massively underpaid.

Ask any child care worker, early childhood educator, teacher, nurse or even aged care worker (after all, caring for someone through the final stages of life is also nurturing).

The idea of nurturing as a thing done by ‘less valuable’ humans is deeply wired into us, by generations of culture.

We often hear the cry ‘oh no, feminism has changed everything – men can be nurturing! women can have political power!’

The issue is not whether men can be nurturing, or women can be politically powerful. Obviously we can.

The issue is that we still conflate nurturing with self-sacrifice, and we still systemically undervalue that work and dismiss the emotional, intellectual and physical load.

It’s time to reclaim this particular N word, from a whole new perspective.

Nurture your freaking socks off, if that’s your thing!

Celebrate this incredible gift of being human – that you have the choice when and where and whom to nurture!

Just make damn sure your boundaries are stable and secure, and your emotional wellbeing is not invested in the thing or person you are nurturing.

Is it healthy to devote your time and energy to looking after your newborn? Of course! (AND it’s important to get help when you need it, and to set whatever boundaries you can).

Is it healthy to still be doing your 25yo’s laundry when they come home? Maaaaaybe not so much – after all, is a 25yo fully grown if he doesn’t yet know how to do his own laundry?

Think about your own style of nurturing, and explore with high levels of curiosity and zero judgement.

  • What about YOUR style of nurturing brings you joy?
  • What about it brings frustration, or feelings of being taken for granted or exhaustion or overwhelm?
  • To what extent might you be conflating ‘nurture’ with ‘self-sacrifice’, and giving more than you can reasonable do?
  • What’s the worst that could happen if you said ‘no’ more often? Is that really true?
  • What’s the best thing that could happen?
  • What’s the worst that could happen if you said ‘I need help’ more often? Is that really true?
  • What’s the best thing that could happen?
  • How are your boundaries, really?**

Many of us have learned some sticky, shitty notions when it comes to the superpower of nurturing.

Let’s clean up this word, so we can restore it to its true beauty.

** If you would like to learn an approach to boundaries which helps enable the full heart-to-heart connection of nurturing, check out my special Boundaries Workshop at www.getyourmarson.com

Black and white headshot of Janette Dalgliesh, wearing a bold floral print shirt and a pearl necklace

Janette Dalgliesh is a gifted transformational coach for world-changing progressive women who are ready to fulfil their true purpose – the the community regenerators, the activists, champions of the underdog, the rebels and the good troublemakers. She’s based in south-east Australia and you will find her at www.janettedalgliesh.com

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