So, it’s a special day when we meet a working parent who enters every interaction with an open heart and open mind. Whether it’s helping people from diverse backgrounds, caring for family members, creating a safe space for vulnerable youth, or raising good humans, it’s all in a day’s work for Cassandra Quinlan.
Can you tell us about your career journey to date and about your current role?
I worked in the not-for-profit sector for 20 years, initially helping people with disabilities, then refugees and asylum seekers, by placing them in jobs. Then I moved into the private sector, working as an account manager, recruiting entry-level positions in factory environments. When I first started this job, I also started doing volunteer work so I could continue helping others as I had done in my not-for-profit work. I have this innate sense to help which I can’t seem to switch off. But it was challenging managing family life, working full time, and doing as much volunteering as I was. So instead, I’ve been able to find the link between my work in not-for-profit helping others and my current role. I link into a large network to secure jobs for others, and I’ve built a reputation for finding the right person for the job.
We’d love to know a little about your family…
I’m lucky enough to live by the water where my family has lived for five generations. We’re a close family: my mother lives next door (which is amazing), my brother lives with me, and many other family members live within a five-minute drive. I have two sons who live at home: Riley, who’s 19, and Grayson, who’s 17. We also have Josie, my son’s partner, living with us.
I grew up in a family where several generations lived together. My uncles lived with my grandparents and more recently, my sister, her husband and three children moved in. When I was younger, I used to think how unusual I was to have that. But what I’ve learned over time is that many cultures live the way my family does.
How has living close to your family helped you?
The little things make a huge difference. My mother had a liver transplant 16 years ago and we decided to build our home next door to her when we were looking into how we could support her. It’s been a win-win: not only a great support for her, but for me, it means that when she’s well, she helps out with the kids. When the kids were young, if I wanted to make a quick trip to the supermarket or have a break, they could run next door. Also, my mother loves baking so, suddenly, half a chocolate cake would appear – there’s the kids’ snack for the next day!
Recently my mother phoned me at 3am because something was wrong. I was there in seconds to take her to the hospital.
With five adults under one roof, how do you share duties to make life run smoothly? Can you share your top tip for parents of older children?
My brother usually travels around the world for work, staying with me whenever he returns to Australia. Because of the pandemic, he’s now stuck living with me. He works full time and helps out, though he’s planning to move out.
When my children started secondary school, it became their job to cook one meal per week. To start with, they cooked really basic meals, like mac and cheese – and we struggled through them! But after six years of doing that, they’ve become amazing cooks. Now they’re older, they cook two meals a week – dishes like osso buco and pulled pork. And since my son’s girlfriend moved in, she cooks too. So six meals a week are cooked for me! Not only has it helped me as I work full-time, but it provides variety, and everyone gets a chance to cook something they want to eat.
Grayson has had disordered eating. We went through a stage where he struggled to cook because he didn’t want to be around food at all, but we pushed through it. And now, it’s wonderful having two meals a week that he chooses and is excited to eat. Sometimes we swap nights, go out for a meal, or if I feel like cooking, I’ll cook one night (and always somebody will say, “That’s not fair!”). But generally, it works really well. I assumed that’s what other families did, but whenever I tell people this story they can’t believe that six meals a week are cooked for me.
So, my tip for other parents is to encourage your children to share the cooking.
We also have a rule that the cook has to clean the kitchen. We used to cook and clean up on separate nights, but the kids found it more tiring working over four nights a week.
In terms of other household duties, everyone has one job they’re responsible for. So my oldest son mows the lawn. Josie does the mopping and vacuuming once a week, and Grayson has to clean the downstairs bathroom. It all runs pretty smoothly most of the time.
Your son Grayson identifies as transgender. Can you tell us a little about Grayson’s and your family’s journey so far?
I’m blessed to have such an amazing son who knows who he is as a person and is so sure of who he wants to be. In 2017, Grayson was brave enough to share with his family that he’s transgender. When Grayson first started the conversation with us in regards to his gender identity, I went to our general practitioner and discussed what services were available to Grayson and me. We were referred to a local medical clinic (The Royal Children’s Hospital Gender Service in Melbourne, Australia) and an LGBT+* youth program (Headspace Peninsula Pride).
Headspace was the first service Grayson accessed. He attended almost immediately and found other youths on a similar journey. This was a great way for Grayson to not only socialise with other youths from the LGBT+ community but also feel like he was not the only one like him. Grayson has continued to attend Peninsula Pride and is now considered to be a senior and mentor, but will, unfortunately, have to move on when he turns 18.
The Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) was the other referral and it has turned out to be our saviour – they truly are incredible. The waitlist for the gender clinic back in 2017 was six to 12 months. We had our initial assessment at six months, and our first psychiatry appointment at nine months. After a few psychiatry appointments, we then had our appointment with one of the gender service doctors. We’ve been involved with the RCH over four years and I have nothing but praise for them. We have been given numerous opportunities to access other services within the hospital which all supported Grayson in transitioning. There has never been a push from the hospital to make a decision or choose between two things. We never felt like we couldn’t change our minds in regards to a decision and, most importantly, we’ve never been made to feel like there is one way to feel.
It’s wonderful that you and Grayson have been able to locate the right professional support for your journey. How important is it to access the right services and support?
Accessing services early to help us understand how we all feel has been paramount. This has meant we’ve never been in crisis without support.
Early on in the journey, I didn’t think Grayson was transgender even though there were signs. As young children, they’re trying to work out how they’re feeling, what their body is, and their identity. My recommendation to other parents is to seek help from an adolescent health service as early as possible, even if you don’t think your child is going to go down the path of transitioning. Often there’s a six to 12-month wait to get an appointment, and many youths who visit the RCH Gender Service, for example, don’t transition. They’ll give you advice, support, and guidance whichever path you choose to go down.
How important is it for LGBT+ youth and their families to feel safe and included in all environments?
This is critical. No one wants to feel rejected and alone – or worse. It’s really important to raise awareness of how at risk the LGBT+ community’s mental health is.
Grayson wanted to drop out of school at the end of year 10 [middle secondary school]. He didn’t want to tell the school officially, as he was worried about bullying. Going into Year 11, I told the school and we put the right support systems into place for Grayson. By having that support we were able to keep Grayson in school.
When he first started going to Headspace, he realised he was one of few youths there who had a supportive home environment. Everyone had a battle, and some didn’t always feel safe at home. So I’ve had vulnerable kids come to stay at our house for a night here and there.
Grayson has said that every time he walks into a shop or a business, he looks for a sign that he’ll be accepted; if anyone in that environment found out he’s transgender, would he be OK? Is he safe? How will he be treated? I don’t do that. I don’t walk into a business and think, “Is this going to be a safe space for me?”
And I find that, since going on testosterone and changing his name at school, that most people treat Grayson like a man. Fewer and fewer people know that he used to be female and have a different name. And he comes home with the biggest smile on his face when he’s been somewhere everyone has called him Grayson and treated him like a guy. He thrives in that environment.
What can individuals and workplaces do to create supportive, inclusive communities?
Something as little as putting pronouns at the bottom of an email, a rainbow flag, or a sticker in a foyer allows LGBT+ people to feel they’re safe and will be accepted. Grayson says he has a look in every business as he enters for clues that the business supports the LGBT+ community.
What have you learned along the way that you would like others to know?
Over the past few years, I’ve learned that there is no one type of person, and it definitely has never been that there is one type of woman or man. We are all unique in our own ways – some girls like to play football and some boys like to do ballet; the list goes on forever. So just like any other spectrum, why can’t you sit anywhere along it? No two people have the same thoughts or feelings – if we did it would be a terribly boring world. We can enjoy the company of so many interesting people. And this diversity makes our world an incredible place to live.
When people say to me “you are amazing” I don’t really feel like that because all I’m doing is letting my child be who he wants to be and that is Grayson. When we allow him to be who he is, I have a happy, healthy child who wants to participate in society. At the end of the day, all a parent wants is for their child to be happy.
How have the joys and challenges of being a working parent changed as your children have grown up?
It never gets easier, it’s just different. Doctors appointments, high school issues, mental health. It’s been challenging to manage.
But a friend of mine once said to me when she was going through some issues with her teenager and I had little kids, “You grow with your children”. And I’ve found that to be true. If I look back to when my kids were little, half the decisions I made, I never would have done. For example, I very much believed the only path for teens was to study hard, finish school and then look at their options. Grayson has mental health issues, a thyroid condition, and just being trans in itself is a battle every day. And so schooling has been really difficult. So last year we looked at a number of different alternative options to completing school. And so now I say, “It’s really important to grow with your children, and do what you can to make your child happy and healthy”.
How has your workplace supported you on this journey?
I’ve been really lucky. I was pretty open early on about Grayson. I started by talking about Grayson’s thyroid condition and we moved on from there. Last year I took a month off work to support Grayson. Senior management are supportive of family needs and that’s been really lovely. And I think that comes from being honest with them. Also, we have a pride group at work that gets together and organises events and activities.
Do you have any advice for others who might be going through a challenging time?
- Seek out the right person to support you both at work and at home.
- Communicate openly and honestly.
- If, at first, you don’t find the right service to help you, try others.
I manage about 400 people, and I find when someone drops off and doesn’t ring for two weeks, I’ll finally catch them and say, “You’re about to lose your job, you need to be honest with me about what’s going on in your life.” If you’re honest, we can work on that. But if you don’t say anything, how can anyone help you? We all need support at some point. We all have ups and downs in our life. You need to find the person who will give you support. There’ll be a manager somewhere in the business that will advocate for you. You need to find that person and be honest about what is going on in your life.
The other thing I find is that when you’re overwhelmed, it’s really hard to reach out. People might suggest you try connecting with this organisation or that, and you think to yourself, I know I really need to do this, but I just can’t do it. So, I recommend you find a friend or someone in your life you can turn to and say, “I need to find some support. And I need someone to help me find that support because I don’t have the energy to do it”.
Also, if the first organisation you find doesn’t offer what you need, keep looking because there are many great services out there and you will find the right fit for you.
And, any advice for allies of the LGBT+ community?
Don’t be afraid to ask questions – it’s a great way to break down barriers. It’s good when people ask me because as a parent, I can protect Grayson. People come up to me and say, “I’ve never known anyone who’s transgender before. Can you help me understand?” And that’s so much nicer than not engaging because you’re unsure of what to say. Though I recommend first asking if it’s OK to ask questions.
And if you ever say the wrong thing, simply apologise, move on, and correct it next time. Don’t dwell on it.
As a manager, I think it’s important to always be asking your staff if they’re OK and what tools and support they need to manage their work and family life. Employee assistance programs are important to get those who are feeling stressed and overwhelmed the mental health support they need.
I rest and recharge by… hiking and playing video games.
I’m happiest when… my family is happy.
I’m listening to… When we are BRAVE podcast by Tiffany Johnson and The worldwide tribe podcast by Jaz O’Hara.
I’m inspired by… my children, Riley and Grayson, who continue to be themselves, despite EVERYTHING.
If you or a loved one needs support, speak with a trusted health professional or crisis support hotline in your area.
*The term LGBT+ refers to people who identify as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, intersexual, questioning/queer, asexual, and other gender non-conforming identities.