In her role as Marine Conservation Officer at Halifax’s Ecology Action Centre(EAC), Susanna Fuller’s work is full of purpose. In most basic terms, Susanna is trying to save our oceans. She balances this work with motherhood (son Ira is aged eight, daughter Esther is three), and has taken her kids to meetings in New York, Copenhagen, and wherever else she needed to be. We wanted to find out more about how having such a strong purpose in her work combines with the demands of motherhood.
Why did you start doing what you do?
I completed a biology degree at McGill and then travelled for four years, working in New York but not sure what I wanted to do. I did an internship at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the EAC. While doing that I came up with a PhD project on sponges in the Bay of Fundy, looking at impact of scallop fishing on the seafloor community. I did the PhD at Dalhousie, got involved in policy and became more interested in how to use the science to do something as opposed to science for science sake. I applied for a job at EAC, got it and stayed.
I’ve been there for 10 tears now and I make my own job, raising money for the position by writing grants, which keeps me on my toes. When I started here I was the only person in the marine conservation department, and now there are eight people, so it has been successful.
What does this work bring to your life?
I feel privileged to do the work that I do, and I often tell my co-workers that when we start to feel like the work is hard or we aren’t getting anywhere, and they can’t see their way through a problem. Having people who give us their hard-earned money to do the work that we do, to make the world a better place is a privilege. I appreciate that not everybody gets to do that. Lots of people have to go to work everyday and it’s drudgery and they hate it, I think I’m really lucky to do something that I really care about and inspires me, and I learn from all the time, because lots of people don’t have that option.
Why is this work important?
Often I’m the only Canadian pushing the Canadian government on marine conservation issues, because there are no other Canadian NGOs doing that — our organization has a niche in that.
In my pessimistic days, I think we’re just slowing the tide of complete planetary destruction, but in my more optimistic days I see that we’ve made major strides and there are major changes, and we shouldn’t give up. There are some people to whom this just doesn’t matter and there’s nothing you can do to convince them that purpose is important, they’re happy just going to work and not caring a whole lot about the environment. These people are probably a lot happier than I am, but they aren’t taking on the weight of the world. They’re perfectly happy to ride around on their jet-skis.
Sorry to ask, but how does all this flying to meetings gel with environmental protection?
I feel terrible about the amount of flying I do. I’m burning up fossil fuels to save the oceans, and I feel badly. We do carbon offsetting at my work, which makes me feel somewhat better, also I don’t go to every meeting that I’m asked to go to. I say no a lot, particularly when I think about will my being there actually make a difference in the outcome?
How often are you away from your family?
Some months I’m away two weeks in that month, so I also say no when I feel my family needs me There was a big UN oceans conference at the end of June. Me being there was important because I was on a Canadian delegation for the first time as an official advisor to the minister, and I’d been working on getting that level of transparency and civil society engagement at government level for some time so I couldn’t not go. Then I was back in the UN at the end of July because it was the final meeting for a new treaty for the high seas.
Up until the point where I had to pay for them to fly, I just took my children with me because I was nursing and it was easier to do that than leave them behind. Taking the kids with me isn’t that big a deal, the only ever issue is finding childcare on the ground, sometimes that is challenging. There have been days when I’ve called every single daycare in a city and they can’t help, so then I’ll have to look for someone on Kijiji. You have to have an element of trust in the world for that to work!
How has parenthood changed how you view your work?
In some ways work is a refuge from parenting, and parenting is a refuge from work. Its an uphill battle dealing with environmental issues, and there’s probably no way that we’re going to make the progress that we need to, so for me the work has purpose and every day I wake up thinking at least I am trying to do the right thing.
At least incrementally I know that things have changed because of my work, and that’s quite motivating and powerful. With the tedium of parenting sometimes, you don’t really feel like an adult or an independent human, your brain isn’t really being used. Then the flip side of that is when I’m away with my kids in Cape Breton and not really working and taking them on canoe trips and going bike riding, they force me to not work all the time, so that’s good. They force me to be in the present whereas my work is always looking to the future. They give me these little moments of joy amongst how hard it is parenting them.
What do your kids think about what you do?
They know that I’m trying to save the fish, they know that plastic is bad for the ocean. When I tell them that I need to travel they’ll often ask me, “Is it important?” So, we often negotiate where I’ll say I’m away for five sleeps and they say no, only two. I talk to them about it.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to other parents about working/living with purpose?
Purpose doesn’t always have to be about your work. You can work in a job that might not be purposeful, but if you try and reduce your plastic use by 50 percent that’s great. Or if you decide you’re not going to drive your car to work five days a week. There are little things you can do to change your behaviour. The reality is that people like me work to help others change how they live, and there’s a whole other part of your life that is not work that can be purposeful, and that’s important to remember. These small things are absolutely worthwhile. It’s not enough, but it is something.
What do you think you have in common with other moms?
I think the things I have in common with other mothers is that as a parent there is this constant requirement on you and on your body and your soul to parent. I work a lot with other women, and in my most recent meeting at the UN we took this group picture and there were 20 women and two men and it was really interesting. I know all about the women’s lives, and I’ve met some of their partners and children, I feel like with the women I work with, when you’re trying to work on something this big together and there’s not a lot of work life balance, that your work and life kind of blend together and there’s much more sharing of the difficulties, and we’re a little bit easier on each other.
We still have these high expectations, but if somebody’s kid is sick we’re just like sure lets just cancel that conference call. I think there’s more empathy in some ways through family issues.
What’s been hardest about what you do?
I think it’s that pull. I often feel terrible when I have to get on an airplane and have to call that cab to get to the airport and tear myself away from my family. There are times that I just immerse myself in work and work like crazy when I’m gone, so I can be really present when I’m home. The leaving is the hardest part, but once I’m out its okay.
What other moms do you admire?
I always admire single mothers who do amazing work but also have kids. Take Elizabeth May, she decided to have a kid as a single mother and has just done amazing stuff. A lot of the women I admire most are single mothers.
The Whole Family Happiness Project is a group of moms exploring our connection to our individual purpose, our family happiness, and the happiness of the world around us. Come join us on Facebook.