Welcome to Leaders Rising, where we explore the development journey of leaders who’ve risen from the ashes of adversity, examining the leadership gifts born from their experiences, the challenges that have held them back, and the moves they’ve made to transcend hardship and openly face the ragged edges that still remain.
When Amy Childers enrolled in the art school as a recent high school grad, her family wondered “What the hell is she going to do with her life?”
Riding a wild child streak in her youth, she often found herself in trouble, mixing with what others might deem the wrong crowd. Artistic and athletic, Amy was more interested in activities like diving, cheerleading, and gymnastics than academic pursuits. Over time she found herself most connected with other creatives who embodied her sense of adventure. This contrasted-sharply at times-with the values of her Jewish immigrant heritage.
Often feeling like an outsider in her own family, Amy struggled to feel seen and accepted. As she grew older, this feeling of alienation grew into a sense of self-doubt. “It has taken me an incredibly long time in my life to believe in myself,” Amy admits.
As a descendant of Jewish immigrants, Amy’s family came to America in the years prior to World War II, hoping to escape the persecution that had plagued them in Eastern Europe. “I have a huge immigrant family,” she says. “My grandmother immigrated from Romania as a small child between the World Wars. Her parents were lucky enough to have relatives in America they could turn to for support.”
As with so many who emigrated to the United States in the mid-twentieth century, the values of Amy’s ancestors grew deeply entrenched in the textbook pillars of what became the American dream: education, opportunity, and-above all-family. “There were a number of things that happened in my grandmother’s childhood and then in my mother’s childhood that led to that dynamic,” Amy remarks of her family’s enmeshment, “one being immigration from persecution. Family was everything, because that’s who got you out.”
Amy is quick to acknowledge the many privileges her family’s efforts ultimately afforded her. “There was not abuse in my house,” she expounds. “I have loving parents, and we always had more than enough.” And yet, despite having many trappings of a privileged childhood-travel, excellent education, and strong family bonds-her journey through adulthood and her path toward becoming a leader in her field as an occupational therapist have illustrated how trauma can silently and subtly be passed down within families from generation to generation.
It has taken me an incredibly long time in my life to believe in myself.
“My grandmother was incredibly critical,” Amy acknowledges. “In my grandmother’s case, I think she tried to make up for what she was missing in her childhood. She was very controlling-but it was because she was trying to keep her children safe.”
The trauma of loss had been a recurring pattern in Amy’s family, and the responsibility for taking care of the family in the wake of trauma was thrust in particular on Amy’s grandmother, Olga. As the oldest of two daughters, at age twenty-one Olga lost her mother suddenly from a stroke. Under the gaze of a domineering father, this tragedy forced her to take the helm of the household. Not long after, Olga also suffered the loss of her younger sister who was institutionalized after experiencing a psychological break. While Olga remained involved in her sister’s care, she didn’t share with her children that they had an aunt until well into their adulthood.
Similarly, Amy’s mother’s life was marked by patterns of trauma necessitating responsibility at a young age. After Amy’s grandparents narrowly survived a serious accident, her mother was forced to stay home from high school to care for her parents and young siblings while they recovered. “I get really interested in following the threads of how trauma works its way down through behavior in families,” Amy remarks, “because I’ve lived it.”
For Amy’s grandmother, the effects of trauma manifested as extremely critical and controlling behaviors. Amy can now recognize that these often-challenging traits were understandable products of her grandmother’s entrenched anxiety and fear. Above all, she wanted to keep her family safe. But as a child, the sharp criticism left Amy feeling alone, unseen, and like she couldn’t find a place to fit in. “I learned the term ‘impostor syndrome’ last year, and I definitely struggle with that all the time,” Amy admits.
As Amy’s family questioned her choice to pursue an education in art, her feeling of being an outsider persisted. But despite her family’s concerns, it was Amy’s arts education that set her on the path to discovering her leadership gifts. “Art school was probably one of the best decisions I made in my life, because they taught me a different way to think,” she notes. In particular, Amy discovered her aptitude for creative thinking and public presentation, skills that she would ultimately carry forward into an entirely different career path.
I’ve learned there’s always a way out, that there’s always an answer.
With the help of a supportive counselor in the year after she graduated from college, along with the serendipitous intervention of a close friend who recommended she shadow an occupational therapist, Amy discovered opportunity. She returned to school in hopes that studying occupational therapy would send her on a path not just toward making a viable living, but toward leading a fulfilling and happy life. Before long, Amy embarked on a career in occupational therapy, a field that combines the creative skills she refined in art school with a strong emphasis on science, which intrigued her.
Amy began her career in traditional settings as an occupational therapist, both in early intervention birth-to-toddler programs and in the public school system. Yet she’s always struggled with the push and pull between career pursuits, staying home to care for her son, and following her own varied interests. Amy’s path toward leadership has not come without a number of starts and stops, as she navigates the right balance for her and her family.
Throughout these challenges, the self-doubt that stemmed from her grandmother’s criticism continued to linger within her. And yet, Amy began connecting with a growing sense of determination. Recalling her early experiences with experimenting and creating in art school, working with clay became a metaphor. Surrounded by machinery and piles of clay, Amy came to an awareness, “You’re building something and want it to look a certain way, and then you screw it up but realize, ‘Huh, that’s not the way I wanted it to look, but actually that kind of looks cool! What if I do that?’”
Amy has carried these experiences forward with her along her path as a leader, having learned that what might initially seem to be catastrophic could turn out to be incredibly valuable, even when the circumstances might not look like good fortune. “I’ve learned there’s always a way out, that there’s always an answer.”
In 2011, Amy was given an incredible gift, masquerading as a major life hurdle, when a close family member was diagnosed with breast cancer and then tested positive for a mutation in her BRCA2 gene. This positive test had implications for that side of Amy’s large, ethic family. At the time, new research was revealing that Jewish people of Eastern European descent, known as Ashkenazic Jews, have an increased risk for this genetic mutation. Amy-along with many others in her family-soon tested positive for the gene as well. Amy’s family members each took different routes to address the underlying issue. After six years of managing the condition through screening-a period of time marked by deep soul searching for Amy-she made the difficult choice to pursue a preventative double mastectomy with reconstruction in 2017. “I had to make a horrible decision that doesn’t have a good answer no matter what way you look at it,” she recalls.
Amy’s treatment necessitated drastic changes to her physical body, but its effects were deeply emotional and psychological as well. After emerging from surgery, Amy struggled with feelings of loss and disconnection from living in a body that felt wildly different from the one she had previously known. Amy admits, “I’m in a new body. Three years later I still don’t know how to dress.”
But by applying a fundamental principle of occupational therapy-that the application of meaningful activities can help individuals grow and recover-Amy began pursuing yoga and aerial acrobatics. These activities helped her to feel at home in her body again, and she began to enjoy the satisfaction of gradual improvement. “You set a goal and your progress is directly proportional to the work you put in.”
Amy went on to pursue teacher training in yoga, and as her investment in her yoga and aerial acrobatics practices increased, she began connecting with feelings of positivity and optimism. Amy’s world became newly defined by a strong sense of confidence-so strong that Amy now thinks of it almost as stubbornness-a belief in her ability to tackle any challenges that might come her way. This has translated in her leadership as a sense of clarity and deep trust in her own intuition. “The journey to becoming a leader, Amy says, “has been learning to trust that the answers are inside of me even if I can’t access them in the moment.” Since her surgery, Amy has noticed a marked willingness to let go of things and people when they no longer serve her. After years of struggling to believe in herself, Amy now feels more confident than ever advocating for herself and communicating directly.
It’s okay if you don’t know where you’re going, as long as you have a goal in your heart.
In 2018, Amy made the decision to open her own occupational therapy clinic, Sky’s the Limit Pediatric Occupational Therapy, focused on serving families by helping children develop the skills they need in areas of motor coordination, body awareness, focus, self-regulation, social skills, and more. As its name suggests, under Amy’s leadership the clinic aims to help children learn, grow, and ultimately soar. As a parent herself, Amy identifies deeply with the hopes and fears of the parents who seek her support. “We have more than our parents and we want more for our kids,” she affirms. Amy’s work emphasizes her belief in the healing power that somatic development for children can bring to families.
With support from her husband, a licensed professional counselor who has helped her to reframe her family narrative, Amy has been able to transform what was once a burden into a gift. The feeling of sadness that she once experienced-of not being seen as a child-now allows Amy to connect more readily with the children she supports in her occupational therapy practice, acknowledging their sadness and helping them to feel seen in turn. In her business Amy strives to lead by example, always aiming to exemplify keen observation and attention skills, reading her clients carefully and intuitively while searching for openings that might allow her to connect with them. Similarly, the tenacity and persistence that Amy developed through practicing yoga and aerial acrobatics have helped her encourage clients to persist when trying new things. “Never apologize for what you don’t know,” Amy believes, “because you can always learn it.”
Her journey to self-acceptance has, at times, felt exceedingly difficult, and her work to grow more comfortable within her physical body in the wake of a life-changing surgery still looms large. Yet Amy’s path as a leader is now defined by an unshakeable sense of certainty-”I know who I am-I don’t know a thing about my body anymore, but I know who I am.”
Now, nearly a year into a global pandemic, where the in-person interactions that are the heart of her practice are limited, Amy is re-evaluating her future. Reflecting that the universe keeps teaching you the same lesson until you’ve learned it, Amy found herself putting her business on hold this year as she’s invested more time with her son, guiding him through virtual schooling. Amy acknowledges that it has been a challenging year for so many individuals and industries, and “not a time in the world where anyone knows how to be a business leader.” Yet in spite of the challenges presented by Covid-19, she remains tenaciously hopeful. In the face of uncertainty, Amy continues to leverage her stubbornness, trusting that she will find a way through. “I have given into the idea,” she says, “that it’s okay if you don’t know where you’re going, as long as you have a goal in your heart.”
Ultimately, the self-confidence that Amy has learned to cultivate, combined with a sense of trust in serendipity, allows her to remain optimistic. “Hope is not closing your mind, leaving the possibilities open,” Amy knows, “and trusting you will know which road to go.”
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Originally published at https://www.trueformleadership.com on February 23, 2021.