I was born "wrong"—and spent way too much energy trying to fix that.
As the youngest of two daughters born to a man who was an only child, I was often reminded how the family name “died with me”. I was the final hope, and I had fallen short by being a girl.
I felt like a disappointment, a failure, and responsible for a tragic ending to a family line.
I point to this origin story as the source of my resilience and my “I’ll show you!” spirit. But it’s also the source of my exhaustion of feeling like everything was a fight—to prove myself, to demonstrate my value, and to overcome my differences.
Somewhere early on I was imprinted with the belief that because I was born a girl (a left-handed one, at that!) I was not enough, and need to work twice as hard to fit in. Conversely, I was also too much, standing out in ways I couldn’t yet understand.
This origin story inspired a desire to self-authorize my life—to trust I am a reliable narrator of my own experience.
After years of seeking external validation for who I am, what I desire, and how I move, this story recalibrated my GPS to point me inward—away from a culture steeped in white male traditions, and into the heart and soul of what it means to be a woman.
I am a door greeter—I gravitate to outsiders, misfits, and new faces.
My family used to refer to me as Julie McCoy—you know, the friendly and good-natured cruise director from The Love Boat show in the 80s?
But it’s true, I love nothing more than to orient people in time and space.
When I was in kindergarten, I was the kid that greeted the newcomers at the door and offered to sit next to them at lunch. I’d gravitate to the people who looked scared or uncomfortable and would do what I could to connect them to some familiar bearing, be a person, place, or routine.
Ironically, the best introduction I’ve ever been given was to a class of kindergartners who were keen on meeting a published author. Their teacher introduced me this way: “This is Lael. She teaches people how to be brave.” Yes. That.
I suspect it’s why so many people refer to me as a “guide”—I have the ability to create a safe haven in the swirl of transition, generally with a smile and often with a clipboard handy with loads of choices to try.
I can see things people miss—or don't want to see.
Fun fact: I was once told my strong intuition and ability to voice it would cause people to be completely drawn to me or completely repulsed by me—without really understanding why. Truer words were never spoken, and it took me years to not take this personally.
I am able to see things (and indeed people) that are trying to become—it’s why I often refer to myself as a midwife. It’s also why one of my favorite words in the English language is mustering.
The origin story for this happened on a lake in New Hampshire when I worked on the waterfront of a summer camp.
I stood on a dock watching a young woman attempt to jump off the high dive—something that was required for her to move onto the next level class.
She stood alone at the end of that diving board for hours, just staring at the black water—long after the swim lessons had ended, and the bell for dinner had rung. People pointed and jeered at her to just give up, already.
I stood on the dock, eyes trained on her.
Most people assumed nothing was happening, but I knew better. As long as she didn’t move away from the edge and come down the ladder, she was moving forward—even if she didn’t jump.
She was mustering her courage—and that is the hardest part of making a scary or bold move.
Mustering, I learned, is often invisible to the naked eye, but it’s what requires the most effort. It’s quiet, not glamorous. It’s also the moment we feel most alone.
The day I stood on that dock looking up at that young woman—holding space for her, believing in her, helping her to not feel so alone by witnessing her—was the day I plugged into my life’s work.
I just didn’t know it at the time.
(And yes, you betcha she eventually jumped.)
I was one of the guys—until I wasn't.
I often joke that I didn’t realize I was a woman until I was 34 and nearly ten months pregnant with my first child.
This isn’t about gender confusion—it’s about me having completely disassociated from anything feminine or having to do with being a woman.
Growing up, most of my friends were guys. I’m resisting the urge to use the term “tom boy”, but that’s what I was called back then. I related to men (and still do)—appreciating their directness, unabashed ambition, and freedom to author their own experience of the world. To be clear, these are white men I’m talking about—so fair to say I did all this to align with what I perceived to be the most dominant caste in our society.
The day I realized I was, in fact, not one of the guys, I was helping to facilitate a corporate retreat for the top 150 leaders of the company I was working within at the time. This was not a new experience—I had done it for many years.
When I walked into the room that day, I was struck by what I saw, seemingly for the first time—a sea of white male faces, with one, maybe two women and people of color. I looked down at my swollen body, and saw the tips of my shoes poking out from below this massive baby belly I was carrying around.
My brain broke in that moment and I had two distinct thoughts: 1) “Holy shit, I’m a woman, and 2) I don’t belong here.”
Laugh if you must, but it’s true. Every time I tell this story, I see nods from other women because they know how this can happen—that neutering we can do to ourselves in order to be seen as one of the guys.
They get how dangerous it can be to “out yourself” as a woman working in a male industry, and the shame that can linger years later as a result of disassociating from the world of women.
That was the beginning of the end for me in the corporate world. I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s when something in me left the building—and went in search of myself…and women who shared my story.
I was drawn to something my whole life I couldn't quite name.
I remember sitting in a darkened auditorium for an art history class I was taking at Rutgers. I was 19—kind of lost, but really stubborn and opinionated. My mom called that energy in me my “Jersey barbs.”
Out onto the auditorium stage walks this voluptuous woman—a goddess, really—wearing this fitted black dress and a mane of thick, black curls cascading down her back. I believe she was from Bulgaria.
My jaw dropped open when this art history professor started to talk to us about the cave paintings in Lascaux, France, and their “smooth skin over muscle”.
Everything about her felt powerful, sensuous, and deeply feminine, but not in the way I’d ever seen embodied. She wasn’t rail-thin, blond and perfect, commanding the stage. She was curvy, took her sweet time, and was possessed by something…from within. It was like she was oblivious to us, gawking as we were.
All I knew at that moment was that I wanted what she had—but I had no words to describe it.
What I know now, is that that was my first experience of what the divine feminine looks like in a woman, fully in possession of herself. That’s what a whole woman looks like. No wonder we were agog—she was a unicorn.
I take a stand for women being different—and relevant.
There was a day, early on in my career, when I attended a women’s leadership luncheon.
I was really looking forward to it because as I moved into my thirties, I was just starting to get the fact that I was a woman, something I had never really seen as remotely relevant to my life or my work in the world.
I felt like I was late to the game, never having identified as a feminist or taken any women’s studies classes at college, so I was eager to catch up. I got the sense something was waking up in me that had been dormant—or silenced.
A panel of distinguished women leaders spoke on a number of topics, but it wasn’t until the Q&A session that my heart started beating wildly.
Someone asked, “How has being a woman contributed to your success as a leader?”
I held my breath and could sense the entire room of women right there with me—what this the moment we could finally talk freely?
The woman’s response: “Being a woman has nothing to do with who I am as a leader.”
The soundtrack to that story was like a needle scratching across a record. Everything stopped for me (and I suspect many other women in the room).
I was disappointed. I was angry. I was heartbroken.
But I was also on a mission—from that day forward—to help create a world that offered a different answer to that question.
I was afraid of my power—until I wasn't.
If you’re drawn to me and my work, chances are you’ve probably lived this story as well.
It’s the story that tells us we better be careful with ourselves because we’re “too much for people to handle…” Or worse, “out of control.”
There was a time—many times, in fact—I was terrified of my own power. I denied it, played coy, bit my tongue, or handled it with kid gloves. Until one day a group of strangers saw me—and called bullshit.
I was participating in a group exercise where people had to give you a nickname to represent the greatest strength they saw you fearing—and therefore not using.
Mine, apparently, was easy to see.
The “jury came back” in minutes with a unanimous decision on their nickname for me, an enthusiastic group member offering me a fresh new nametag to replace Lael: Linebacker.
As in, “Hi, my name is Lael the Linebacker.”
When things get tough, and the blocks, resistance—or bullshit—kick up, I have this ability to drop my shoulder and charge straight at it so that it…generally gives way.
I used to be afraid of this. I used to say I was “a bull in a china shop” (fun fact: I hate china…) I’m a really tall woman who trained herself to slouch to not take up too much space.
I’m not afraid of this side of myself anymore. Maybe it’s age. Maybe it’s practice. Maybe it’s that damn nametag. Maybe it’s because the secret is out. Or maybe it’s seventeen years of evidence, having been hired for exactly that skill.