A few years ago, I had a pretty big a-ha moment when I realized that the concept of holding space (which I’ve spent the last seven years exploring in a deep way as I developed programs and wrote a book about it) is, at its core, about freedom and sovereignty. Here’s a quote from one of the last chapters of my book…
“If I treat you as someone entitled to your own sovereignty, it means that I assume you have the same right to self-govern your life as I. You get to tell me how you want to be treated and I can choose to accept those boundaries or walk away.
“Sovereignty is what we’ve been talking about throughout this discussion on holding space – that we offer love to each other without attachment, manipulation, control, or boundary-crossing. It’s the starting point to developing healthy, strong social contracts between us.”
It’s taken me a lot of hard learning to get to the place where I can embrace a concept like sovereignty. As I’ve written about in the past, I had to let go of a lot of social conditioning, work through some trauma and abuse, and rewrite some old narratives to even begin to believe I have a right to self-govern my life and choose what’s best for me and my body. Similarly, I had to learn how to treat other people as sovereign individuals, and that’s especially tricky when you’re a parent trying to respect your daughters’ boundaries but haven’t often had your own boundaries respected. I still slip up sometimes, and the old scripts still play in my head, especially when I’m tired, confused, or feel beaten up, but I feel clearer and clearer about what it means to own my sovereignty and be in relationships with people who are equally sovereign.
Lately, though, I’ve had some concerns about the ways in which sovereignty gets talked about, especially in the wellness/self-help industry. It’s becoming an increasingly common term among those who talk about things like personal empowerment, self-love, etc.
Here’s what concerns me… Some of what’s being said ignores the way in which sovereignty is a relational concept.
When you talk about sovereignty without also talking about community and the kinds of social contracts that allow people to be in relationships while still maintaining their sovereignty, then you’re probably actually talking about selfishness and willful ignorance of the impact of your choices. And when you’re talking about those things, then your version of sovereignty is rooted in colonization rather than equity.
A sovereign nation becomes a colonizing nation when it takes its sovereignty too far, ignores the sovereignty of others, and lives by its own set of rules. It bulldozes over other nations’ rights (especially weaker and/or more community-oriented nations), exploits whatever resources it wants, enslaves and marginalizes people of other nations, and ignores any treaties that might have been written.
An individual can take their sovereignty too far in much the same way, centering their own right to do what they want over anyone else’s rights.
Sadly, most of us have been socially conditioned by the colonization that’s steeped into our cultures. As a result, when we claim a word like sovereignty (as the self-empowerment influencers have done), the concept can still hold the shadow of the culture within it. What you end up with is self-empowered people who believe in their own rights to self-govern their own bodies and choose what’s best for them, but who don’t recognize that those choices might actually be harming other people.
Let’s say, for example, that your self-care practice involves paying people to care for your children and clean your house while you get a massage. You have a sovereign right to do all of those things (and I’m all for it). But… let’s imagine that the people doing these things for you are exploited labourers who aren’t being fully compensated for their work because they’re undocumented immigrants or they’re marginalized in a way that makes other work hard to find. Is that truly a sovereign self-care practice if it doesn’t uphold the sovereignty and rights of others?
Or let’s say that you believe you have the sovereign right not to wear a mask in the middle of a pandemic and you pass the virus on to the person working at the grocery store who passes it on to their immuno-compromised child or elderly parent who dies as a result. Is that truly a sovereign choice if it ignores the sovereignty and rights of that family?
Sovereignty has a shadow side and that shadow looks like colonization. If your sovereignty does not acknowledge and uphold the sovereignty of others, then it’s individualism, and an excuse to be self-centred in your choices.
The only way for sovereignty to work in the world is for it to be interwoven with community (which comes with morality, responsibility, and justice).
Sovereignty needs guardrails. To avoid the shadow side, we need to hold it in a relationship with community. Social contracts serve as the guardrails, holding the two in balance.
We can think about sovereignty and community as a yin and yang relationship – they function together, balancing each other out and holding each other accountable. Within each is a bit of the other. And in the space in between is a social contract that weaves the relationship together and keeps one from swallowing the other whole.
Community that’s left unchecked swallows individual rights and erases sovereignty. Sovereignty that’s left unchecked destroys community and leaves everyone isolated and paranoid of each other.
Social contracts (like treaties between countries) guide us in naming and honouring what our individual rights are, what boundaries we need in order to uphold each person’s sovereignty, what we’re willing to give up in service to the community, how we’ll share and/or distribute assets and resources, how we’ll address conflict, and how we’ll celebrate and cherish the bond between us. Not only do they guide the relationship and protect each person’s freedom within that relationship, they also offer the freedom to leave if the relationship no longer serves or if there is irreparable harm done. Clear and supportive social contracts make a relationship stronger, more resilient, more adaptable, and more supportive of the people in it.
When Krista and I entered into a business partnership, we went through a process called Conscious Contracts (with a lawyer trained in the process) and we developed a Peace Covenant that gives us guardrails for our relationship. This helps us hold both sovereignty and community as values at the core of our business. What Krista has often said throughout this process is “I don’t want to be in a relationship with anyone who feels trapped in that relationship or who clings to it too desperately.” We value the relationship, and we are both free to leave if/when that feels necessary.
There is also a process called Blueprints of We that is a form of social contract that could be helpful for all kinds of relationships (not just business partnerships). I encourage you to check it out for your marriage, your family, your community organization, your church, etc.
P.S.If you want to learn more about how to hold space for people’s sovereignty, while also leaning in to community, we welcome you to join us for the Holding Space Foundation Program. Registration just opened for the session that starts in October 2021.
A few weeks ago, when I was teetering on the edge of crawl-under-the-covers-and-don’t-come-out-until-2022 burnout, I was on Zoom with a couple of wise friends. We were checking in about how our lives were going, and I had just unloaded a long list of stressors, fumbles, and mom-worries. I was fighting back tears.
They both looked at me with kindness and one of them said “Nothing is expected of you here.” That’s when the tears spilled out and down my face.
My body wasn’t entirely sure what to do with their offering. Was it REALLY possible that a space was available to me where there were NO expectations? Could I REALLY be fully myself and not have to meet anyone’s needs or worry about letting people down?
While, on the one hand, the tension in me started to ease (because I have a high level of trust in these two friends), on the other hand there was still a little voice whispering “This is too good to be true. Stay on alert because they might change their minds.”
I live in a body that is highly attuned to other people’s expectations and easily triggered if I can’t read those expectations or doubt my capacity to meet them. Raised by a father who was prone to anger and a mother who was prone to insecurity and self-doubt, I learned early how to read the room. If the expectations of one weren’t met, I risked facing anger. If the expectations of the other weren’t met, I risked the parentification of having to soothe the self-deprecation and shame. Add to that the expectations of being the oldest daughter on a farm where poverty was always knocking at the door, who had to take on extra responsibilities when Mom had to find full-time work. Add to that a religion that taught me that if I didn’t make the right choices and meet the expectations laid out in the Bible, I was doomed to hell.
And then I married a man who was prone to both anger AND insecurity (probably because that was what was familiar to me). I spent the next twenty-two years on high alert, trying to read the expectations and anticipate which of those reactions would be triggered if expectations weren’t met. Add to that the expectations of three daughters with their own needs (who were also learning to navigate their dad’s moods and needs). Add to that the expectations of a demanding career and then the financial burden of self-employment. Add to that the residual effect of a religion that told me I had to be a good wife and a culture that idealizes the sacrifice of motherhood.
Anticipating expectations and meeting needs is deeply engrained in the way I live and, quite frankly, it contributed to the success I had in my past career as a Communications Director. It’s part of what has always made me “high-functioning” and “calm under stress” and “a good leader”. (Back when I was sixteen and had to take over for my mom who’d been hospitalized, many people commented on my high capacity to support the family’s needs. That’s been the theme in many, many crises and high-stress situations since. Because we are so reliable under stress, high-functioning people like me tend to overlook our trauma and stress until one day we crumble and it can no longer be ignored.)
That’s why the tend-and-befriend trauma response resonates with me as much as it does. I could never fully see myself in fight, flight, or freeze, so it took a long time for me to recognize that there was trauma in me. When I learned that there was a fourth response, my whole life suddenly made sense. I know what it means to be on high alert and how to discern, in an instant, who has to be protected and who has to be calmed in order to minimize the threat. I know what it means to deprioritize my own needs when there is a threat (real or perceived). I know how to kick into high-functioning-mode when the expectations are high. I know how to scan for possible danger, how to soothe those who are afraid and how to calm those who are angry.
I know how to do all of that at the expense of myself.
When you’ve had a period in your life when you had to spend your days in a psychiatric ward with your husband after his suicide attempt and evenings with your anxious children who don’t understand what happened to their dad, you learn some pretty unique and specific skills in “tending and befriending”. And your body remembers and is easily activated back into that kind of high alert whenever a new threat shows up.
That activation was present a few weeks ago when my friends made that kind offering of space without expectations. And that’s why my body was reluctant to trust it. Because a space without expectations, where people care for me unconditionally, is a space my amygdala tells me is unfamiliar and unpredictable and therefore unsafe.
If you’re a long-time reader, you might be wondering… how does a person with this kind of trauma end up spending her life teaching people how to hold space? Isn’t that counter-intuitive?
No, quite the opposite. It is precisely BECAUSE I am so highly attuned to what’s in the room that I learned early how to listen to people, how to tune in to the complexity, how to set aside my own baggage in the face of other people’s needs, and how to ask good questions that help people articulate their needs, desires, and fears. And because I was so accustomed to being in spaces and relationships where expectations were high (and the consequences of unmet expectations were equally high), I was uniquely able to identify and articulate what it means to release oneself of those expectations and to hold space without attachment to outcome. (It’s worth noting that the section of my book on “holding space for yourself” was the hardest section for me to write – I needed to dig a little deeper for that.)
Because I know, so intimately, what it means to have space hijacked, I also know what it means to have space held. Sometimes the deepest clarity comes when you’ve spent a lot of time examining the flipside of something.
It was partly my own longing that led me to this work. I could see it and name it and dream it, and then, because my trauma also made me high-functioning, I could begin to build it and invite people into it… and fiercely protect it and work doggedly on it until it grew.
My trauma has alchemized into a gift.
But… it isn’t always a gift. It’s a two-sided coin. It holds both shadow and light.
The shadow side of it means that sometimes I still over-function. Sometimes I get burned out from the over-functioning. Sometimes I try to control situations that are outside of my control. Sometimes I slip into performance mode because I’m trying to meet expectations. Sometimes I spiral into over-thinking and over-doing and over-tending and over-befriending. And sometimes I go into a tailspin if I can’t read the expectations or there are too many of them or I lack the capacity to meet them and I fear the consequences. Sometimes the simple act of opening my in-box can be paralyzing because I fear it will be full of people’s expectations and/or disappointments over unmet expectations.
I am working hard to witness and heal these patterns in myself, and to catch myself before I go into a tailspin. I am spending more and more time in conversations and relationships like the one I mentioned above where the expectations are low (or at least clearly articulated and not projected). I am carving out more and more intentional time for myself where there are no expectations (including being off social media, where I sometimes take on too much of the expectations that I be “The Good Author/Influencer/Ally/Friend”). I am letting go of some of my perfectionism and learning (and relearning) that sometimes I need to let people down in order to be true to myself. I am, once again, in therapy, working to loosen the grip of the trauma that’s been re-activated this year. I have a strong business partner who manages a lot of the expectations and reminds me to rest and have healthy boundaries. I am dating someone who has high capacity for naming and claiming her own expectations, for witnessing me fully and authentically, and for taking responsibility for her own baggage (which has been rather revolutionary). And, as my daughters grow into their adulthood, I am taking on less and less responsibility and trusting them to be self-aware and self-lead (and they are stepping up to the challenge).
This summer, I am going on sabbatical and, other than helping my daughters move to faraway cities on opposite sides of the country (yikes!), my time will be blessedly free of responsibilities or expectations. After a year of so much intensity, where my body has been on high alert not only to the danger posed by the virus (especially for my immuno-compromised daughter), but also the additional pressure of launching a book, a new business, and several new programs, I need to claim spaciousness for rest and restoration and nourishment and fun and laughter and love.
I am becoming more and more curious about this next phase of my life, when my daughters move out, when the Centre is in its second year and on more solid ground, and the responsibilities and expectations are reduced. Will I know how to adapt to this new way of being? Will my body truly be able to relax into it? Will it heal me or scare me or a bit of both? Will I set healthy boundaries and claim space for rest? Or will I take on more responsibilities than is necessary just because that’s what I’m familiar with? Time will tell. Check back in a year or two.
P.S. If you’re nearing burnout from trying to meet people’s expectations, you might find meaning and support in my new self-study program, Holding Space in Times of Disruption and Overwhelm. It’s offered on a pay-what-you-can because we want it to be accessible to anyone who needs it.
I turned off the radio this morning, on the way home from driving my daughter to work. It was making me feel a little rage-y and I didn’t want to be in a bad mood.
In the lead-up to Mother’s Day, the radio station was holding a contest where people could phone in and nominate a mother for a prize. The people phoning in, mostly nominating their mothers or wives, were saying things like “she sacrifices EVERYTHING for her kids” or “she’s ALWAYS available” or “she’s a mother to the WHOLE NEIGHBOURHOOD” or “she’s the STRONGEST and most GENEROUS person I know”.
When I got home, I said to one of my other daughters “I want you to phone in, list off all of my imperfections and a few of my failures, and then say ‘our mom stopped being a martyr for everyone in the family, and we appreciate that because it’s teaching us we don’t have to do that when/if we become moms.’” And she said “yeah, I could tell them about the times when you’ve flown to the other side of the world for three weeks and left us behind.” (She’s right – I did. Multiple times.)
Can we please stop this glorification and objectification of motherhood? Can we stop layering unrealistic standards and expectations onto mothers so that they only think they’re “good enough” when they’ve given everything up for their families, kept a tidy house, stuffed down all of their emotions, AND volunteered for every school opportunity?
And while we’re at it… can we build more supports for mothers into our communities, so that they feel less alone and can stop pressuring themselves to be solitary superheroes?
I am an imperfect mother who wears no cape. There are often dust bunnies in the corners and I have fed my kids far too much processed food. I hardly ever volunteered for school things and I am notoriously bad at making small talk with other moms on the sports field. I have sometimes put my work ahead of my kids, and I’ve made quite a few mistakes when I thought I was doing what was best for them. I sometimes let my old trauma and social conditioning get in the way of honouring their dignity and autonomy. I get angry sometimes and even a little vengeful on occasion. I am forgetful, distractable, selfish, and sometimes insensitive.
I don’t want my daughters to say otherwise because it wouldn’t be true. I don’t want them to wear rose-coloured glasses about how perfect I’ve been, because then, if they ever become moms, they’ll judge themselves according to an illusion and the same impossible standards. I want them to have permission to be imperfect moms too.
I believe in anti-perfectionism motherhood. I believe in doing the best we can with what we have. I believe in showing our flaws and honouring our efforts. I believe in “good enough” and “I’m too tired to do better”. I believe in apologizing and trying again. I believe in giving ourselves permission to say no. I believe in asking for help. I believe in healthy boundaries. I believe in making motherhood more realistic and manageable by supporting it with community care. I believe that fathers (and other caregivers) should be supported in developing more capacity for emotional labour to take some of the load off mothers. I believe we should reject martyrdom as a motherhood construct. I believe we should celebrate imperfection and honour our limitations. I believe in forgiveness and grace and love and self-care.
I also believe that there are reasons why this glorification and objectification of motherhood has become so baked into our cultures. The patriarchy has created an environment in which a.) women (and, by extension, “women’s work”) are undervalued, and b.) we have to perform and compete to prove our worthiness.
Mothers who are fighting to prove their worthiness within a system are women who are exhausted, overwhelmed and more easily dominated, shamed and controlled.
“Historically, patriarchal cultures have not only treated motherhood as a mandate for women, they’ve also made it oppressive, holding mothers to unreasonable standards, such as requiring them to:
Relinquish personal ambitions to care for their families.
Deplete themselves to support their families and raise children.
Be the primary caretakers of the household.
Constantly serve others and others’ needs, while not attending to their own.
Handle everything with ease 100 percent of the time; have well-behaved children and maintain a high standard of beauty, a sex drive, a successful career, and a solid marriage.
“Our society’s unspoken messages to mothers include:
‘If motherhood is difficult, then it’s your own fault.’
‘Shame on you if you’re not superhuman.’
‘There are ‘natural mothers’ for whom motherhood is easy. If you are not one of these, there is something deeply wrong with you.’”
It’s not going to be easy to disrupt this narrative of the Perfect Mother, given that it’s one of the pillars that’s propping up the patriarchy, but if we want to liberate ourselves from oppressive systems, we have to keep chipping away at the old tropes until they release their grip. This begins, I believe, by telling the truth, healing the wounds, and freeing our children from the baggage we inherited.
That’s why I’m having different conversations with my daughters. We are wrestling, together, with the mistakes I made in the past that can be traced back to the flawed narrative I’d inherited about what it meant to be a Good Mother. We’re unpacking which parts of our family baggage are systemic and how we can disrupt those patterns in ourselves. And we’re wrestling with how to let go of perfectionism and accept “good enough”, even while we continue to feel the pressure from outside forces. And I’m helping them give themselves permission to be different kinds of mothers (or not be mothers at all) than I was or their grandmothers were.
More than anything, I want to model more self-compassion and less perfectionism for my daughters.
Perfectionism is deeply rooted in our fears of being deemed unworthy, and motherhood is extra hard when you’re always fighting to prove your own worthiness. Unfortunately, the game is rigged against us and we’re fighting a losing battle because the Perfect Mother doesn’t exist. It’s an illusion. We keep finding ourselves pressured into measuring ourselves against the impossible standards of the Perfect Mother that’s idealized on Mother’s Day, but it’s nothing but a mirage.
We cannot perform ourselves into worthiness. We have to find that in ourselves and we have to support others in finding it in themselves too.
We’ll only dismantle patriarchy if we create alternative models of community where we don’t have to play by patriarchy’s rules and we can find love and acceptance without having to endlessly strive for it. I’m starting in my home, with my daughters.
She wasn’t born that way – in the beginning she was just like every other child, expressing herself freely and wanting to be seen and accepted and loved for who she was. Sadly, though, it was her quest for love and acceptance that convinced her that, in order to survive in the world as it presented itself to her, she had to become an Invisible Woman.
First she watched her mother for clues in how to become an Invisible Woman. Her mother had become quite adept at it, so there were lots of things to learn from her. She watched her mother sacrifice nearly everything for her husband, her children, her church, and the people who needed her. She noticed how her mother made herself disappear by rarely expressing an opinion, especially when there were men present whose opinions mattered more. She noticed how, in church, her mother never complained about the fact that she and the other women were only allowed to teach Sunday School (it was okay to be Visible to children) and feed people and that when it came to any forms of leadership or power, they had to stay Invisible.
She also received a lot of clues from her cultural and religious lineage. Historically, her people were known as The Quiet in The Land because of the way they had withdrawn from society due to persecution. (She learned of one woman who’d been burned at the stake with a screw through her tongue to prevent her from speaking to the gathered crowds as she prepared to die. Her fifteen year old son later combed through the ashes to find the tongue screw.) Understandably, there was among her people a suspiciousness of Visibility because of the danger it posed.
When she started to emerge into the world outside of her mother’s kitchen and her Sunday School classroom, she noticed that other women behaved much the same way her mother did, so she thought it must be the Right Way to Behave. She wanted to ask questions about whether she had a right to Visibility, and why some people seemed to have more rights than others, but it didn’t seem like there was anyone around who would be receptive to her questions, so she stayed silent.
Because she was busy learning to be Invisible, she learned to camouflage her skills in Leadership and Communication so as not to threaten the people around her who were used to women like her being Invisible. She had a few chances to become at least partially Visible, and she tested them out occasionally, but mostly she got the message that good girls were comfortable being Invisible and trying too hard would mean she was arrogant.
When she went to university, she decided to study Theatre and Literature, because, secretly, she wanted to write and be on stage, but she didn’t tell too many people about those dreams because she thought they’d laugh at her for her misguided desire for Visibility. She assumed that Visible people must be better than her or smarter than her or they were born with the acceptable gender for Visibility, so she kept convincing herself she was okay with Invisibility.
In her Theatre classes, she tried only half-heartedly to be picked for roles on the stage (even though she secretly wanted them) and instead proved herself to be useful behind the stage where Invisible People could be of service. She started to write plays, and some of them were produced on stage, but mostly she stayed Invisible even when she was the originator of the ideas. When a professor thought that one of her plays was good enough to be submitted to the CBC, she was sure he must be mistaken (because he was allowed to be Visible and couldn’t really understand) so she didn’t follow through.
Her theatre experience revealed to her that she was actually pretty good at helping OTHER people to become Visible (she wrote the words that they said on stage) and that lead to her first career. She became a Communications Professional, which mostly meant that she wrote a lot of words that were either uncredited or credited to other people, and that she advised a lot of people in how to be Visible in a way that served the purpose of the government department or non-profit she was working for.
She wrote speeches for the people on the stage, she arranged for many people to talk to the media, she organized press conferences and tours, and she produced documentaries, but she stayed resolutely behind the curtain. If you were to look at the photos or videos of events she organized for Prime Ministers, Premiers, scientists, and celebrities, you would see little evidence that she was there. She hired photographers who took pictures of the Visible People and then stood beside the photographers with the lenses pointed away from her.
Periodically, she would renew her attempts at seeking Visibility, but, because she was also becoming a mother (which added a whole new layer of Invisibility), she had little time for that pursuit and found little encouragement. When her first two babies were small and she was on her second maternity leave, she wrote a novel during her daughters’ naps, but when that novel was finished and she was trying to get it published, she had to go back to work and no longer had time for it. The novel sat on her shelf and collected dust along with her other dreams.
One day though, several years later, she recognized the growing restlessness in her, and she finally admitted to herself that she’d never fully given up the hope of Visibility. She had to work through a lot of self-doubt and shame over this, because the voices in her head kept telling her it was a sign of her arrogance and lack of gratitude for the great life she had and the great jobs she was getting with her skills in supporting others’ Visibility, but she decided it was time to at least try. She didn’t think it was just selfishness that wouldn’t let her release the longing.
While still working at supporting other people’s Visibility, she started a blog to test out what it would be like to write about her OWN ideas and stories instead of everyone else’s. At first, she was very secretive about her blog because she was afraid that people would judge her for trying to become Visible. She called that blog Fumbling for Words, because she wasn’t sure she trusted her own words yet and she wanted a place to practice.
She grew to love that blog, and it sparked a dream in her that she’d someday be able to make a living as a writer. That dream wouldn’t die, and finally, though it seemed completely preposterous to everyone including herself, she quit her job as a Communications Professional, and started her path toward Visibility.
It wasn’t easy, choosing that path and sticking to it. There were far more bumps than she could have anticipated. She had to make a living to support her family, and so, at the beginning, she still found herself doing lots of work that supported other people’s Visibility more than her own. And she had to keep wrestling with her self-doubt and fear and other people’s judgement and her social conditioning, and some days she wanted to run back to Invisibility because she felt overwhelmed and vulnerable. Some days she convinced herself she wasn’t meant for Visibility.
Sadly, she discovered that some of the people she cared about weren’t very comfortable with her increased Visibility, so some of her relationships changed. She considered the possibility of returning to Invisibility, in order to keep her life more stable and make the people around her more comfortable, but once she’d committed to this path, she knew she could never be happy going back.
The thing that surprised her most, though, was how much she started to notice the expectations and projections that are placed on Visible people. The more she became Visible, the more she exposed herself to other people’s criticism, blame, and expectations that she perform a certain way. Especially when she started to move beyond simply sharing her stories to also sharing the wisdom she’d gained, she noticed that people either wanted to put her on a pedestal as a wise guide or tear her down because she proved to be more flawed than they wanted their heroes to be.
One day, she became more Visible than she could have dreamed possible. A blog post (about her mom dying and a nurse who held space at the deathbed) went viral and suddenly there were millions of people all over the world reading her words. This was very exciting for her, but it was also very stressful. When her inbox filled up with emails from lovely people who wanted to share their stories with her, she suddenly felt overwhelmed by the pressure of wanting to support all of these people who, like her, just wanted to be Seen. She tried to witness them all and send them all love, but it became too much for her to carry alone (especially while she was also struggling with the primary relationship in her life in which she was not feeling Seen), and so she shut down her inbox for awhile and disappeared.
She didn’t disappear for long, though, because she now knew that there was a Purpose to her Visibility. It wasn’t just a longing to be Seen, or a desire to make herself the centre of the narrative – it was a longing to support all of the other people who also wanted to be Seen. She realized she had a special gift for seeing Invisible People and perhaps that was what her quest for Visibility was all about.
Before she could support all of those other people, though, she found that she had work to do in making sure she was strong enough for what Visibility required of her. She removed herself from the relationship that made her feel Invisible and she began a search for the kind of people who would strengthen her and stand by her as she became more and more Visible. She sought therapy and she did lots of other deep work to help her stand more firmly in self-love and courage. She also found a person who could work alongside her in helping her to develop more clear boundaries that kept her more protected from other people’s projections and expectations (and she eventually made that person her business partner).
As she became more and more confident being the Visible Woman, her work continued to grow and the community around it grew with it. She still had moments of crippling self-doubt, and moments when other people’s opinions would sideline her for awhile, but because her Purpose felt so clear and there was now so much Meaning attached it, she was able to return again and again to the work that made her come Alive.
One day, the Visible Woman finally made her long-held dream come true… she published a book. It wasn’t the book she’d written years earlier when her children were small, or even the book she wrote near the beginning of her quest for Visibility, it was the book that grew out of the blog post that millions of people had read. It was her response to the hundreds of people in her inbox who wanted to feel Seen and wanted to know how to support other people in being Seen.
In realizing this dream, the Visible Woman discovered that everything from her past had value – even the parts where she was mostly Invisible and supporting other people in becoming Visible – because it turned out that her quest was not just about her own Visibility. It was about learning how to share that Visibility, how to help people step into their own Visibility, how to teach people to hold the space for Visibility for all, and how to help people heal from the pain of their own Invisibility.
Now that her book is published, the Visible Woman gets to speak with lots of media people about that book (and she laughed quite a lot when her publisher assigned a Communications Professional to help HER to be Visible), and she gets to spend her days supporting a lot of beautiful people who are Becoming Visible and who are learning The Art of Holding Space (which could also be called The Art of Helping People Feel Seen).
We can’t really say that the Visible Woman lived happily ever after, because there is a lot of responsibility that comes with being Visible and sometimes there is still some pain and discomfort, but we CAN say that she found meaning, purpose, contentment and community in her quest for Visibility. And she continues to delight in making Visibility feel like more than just a dream for the people in her circles.
“Try not to react when you see her. She doesn’t look good.” That’s what my former husband was telling family members outside of my hospital room before they entered. He was right – I was in rough shape.
Motherhood did not arrive gently at my doorstep. That moment didn’t look anything like those muted magazine photos of rapturous mothers in long flowing white eyelet dressing gowns leaning over equally white bassinettes where cherubic infants lay sleeping. My bloodshot eyes and haggard face wouldn’t be featured in any parenting magazines or diaper ads.
For the first two hours of motherhood, I was blind. Literally. Hours of hard pushing had strained my eye muscles so badly I was unable to see my newborn baby. Or anything else, for that matter.
And for the first two and a half weeks, I couldn’t pee without a catheter. Days of labour, followed by a delivery that involved cutting and forceps and an emergency visit from the only doctor in the city who knew how to flip the baby into the right position had left my internal organs so beat up that not only did I have no sensation telling me that it was time to pee, but I couldn’t force anything out no matter how hard I tried. It was like my body had just forgotten how to perform that function. Five days after birth, when my body still refused to cooperate, I was finally sent home with a glass catheter tube and instructions on how to drain my bladder. Every two or three hours, I gingerly bypassed the meat-raw zone of my birth canal and inserted the tube to relieve myself.
And that was only the labour and delivery part. Six months earlier, just as I was ending my first trimester, I sat down on the toilet and blood came gushing out. I was rushed to the hospital, sure that I was losing the baby. I didn’t, but after two nights in the hospital, I went home on high alert, worried that the wrong move or the right combination of stress and overwork would bring my pregnancy to an end.
Two months later, my then-husband tumbled into an emotional spiral, overwhelmed with the stress of a new job plus the weight of pending parenthood. After weeks of worry and multiple failed attempts at getting him help, including an overnight in a mental health facility, he got up one morning, kissed me good-bye, and disappeared. My mom and I spent the day looking for him, and later that evening, he checked his beat-up and bloodied self into the hospital after repeated attempts at suicide. Surgeons worked late into the night to repair the damage he’d done to his wrist, throat, and chest.
That was how I became a mother, twenty-five years ago this weekend. Struggle and Pain knocked on my door and said “Guess what? We’re the companions you didn’t know you were inviting in when you chose this path. We’ve brought along a few gifts for you, but you don’t get to open them unless you let us live with you.”
In the middle of my first night as a mother, I woke up in the hospital with the most potent ache of loneliness I’d ever felt. Everyone had left me so that I could finally get a full night’s sleep and my hospital room echoed with the emptiness of it. It was deeper than just the absence of my husband, mom, and siblings, though. The baby that had moved inside me for the last nine months was now somewhere down the hall, separate from me, and I hadn’t had a decent chance to see her yet because of my blindness and because they’d whisked her away for observation and antibiotics after she was born with a fever.
The lower half of my body felt like it had been torn open on an ancient torture machine, but I knew I needed to see my baby immediately or I might die from the ache of separation. I tried to wriggle close enough to the call button so that I could call the nurse, but it was just out of reach and the wriggling was agony. Failing that, I inched slowly and carefully to the edge of the bed, bracing myself for every stab of pain as I moved. After what felt like an hour of tiny movements, I could finally swing my legs over the edge of the bed, prop up my torso, and get my feet on the floor. Then came the even more agonizing effort of lifting my body off the bed.
The nurses were surprised to see me shuffling slowly down the hallway, leaning on the wall as I moved. “I have to see my baby,” I said, and they nodded and helped me to the nursery.
I stood over the incubator, staring at this tiny one who’d only hours before been inside me. She looked so helpless and set apart – no longer attached to my umbilical cord, lying their nearly naked with tubes and wires protruding from various places. I couldn’t even hold her; I could only touch her skin. I was her mother – the gravity of that nearly knocked me off my feet. Standing there with my body and heart ripped apart, I was the Velveteen Mother, made real by the violence of separation.
Nobody warned me that motherhood starts with the ache of loneliness and the avalanche of love the moment your baby is first torn away from you and you have to stumble down the hall.
If that moment made me into the Velveteen Mother, I wonder what kind of mother I became four and a half years later when I laboured for the third time and knew this time the baby would never breathe. Perhaps when you birth death, you become a Shadow Mother. Or a Ghost Mother. Or maybe some of your velveteen fur gets rubbed off to reveal that there’s not flesh but Steel underneath.
I have been shaped, far more times than I’d like to count, by time spent in hospital rooms. Perhaps that’s why my body still shudders when I walk through hospital doors – because I never seem to leave the hospital the same person.
That particular time, when my third pregnancy went horribly wrong and a failed surgery left my baby vulnerable, with no membrane to protect him, I spent three weeks in a hospital room before he was born dead. Every day, twice a day, I got to watch him on the ultrasound screen. For twenty minutes each time, we’d sit and watch him wiggle around on the fuzzy black screen. Twenty minutes is the normal time it takes for a baby to empty its bladder inside the womb –we’d wait and watch for that to happen so that we’d know his internal organs were still functioning the way they should.
Nobody warned me how much a mother can bond with a baby when she watches him pee on a TV screen approximately forty times over a three-week period. (Probably nobody before me ever knew to tell me. I may have a unique angle on that.)
And then one morning, when I went downstairs for the first ultrasound of the day, the nurse turned the screen away from me, mumbled something, and rushed out of the room to get the doctor. I knew, by the look on her face, that this wasn’t going to end the way we’d hoped it would.
This time, the ache of loneliness that accompanied the birth was as deep as the ocean and as wide as the sky. This time, I didn’t get to shuffle down the hallway to find the baby in the nursery once he’d made his way into the world outside of me. The pain of childbirth was still part of my Becoming, after the ultrasound showed that his heart had stopped, but this time I had to go home with empty arms and a broken heart.
The cruelest moment came two days later when my breasts betrayed me and filled with milk. My body knew only that a baby had been born and not that the baby hadn’t lived. My body was still focused on the Becoming and didn’t know how to adapt to the Loss.
You expect that Becoming a Mother happens only once, but the truth is much more complicated than that. At the beginning, you are only mother to an infant. But then you become a Mother to a Toddler. Then a Preschooler. Then a School-age Child, then a Pre-teen, and so on and so on, and every stage has a whole new Becoming.
Each time, you learn to navigate a brand new landscape, with different emotional needs, different tantrum triggers, different learning edges, different boundaries, and a hundred different ways to fill you with self-doubt. Just when you think you have it figured out, the child morphs in front of your eyes and you have to become a whole Different Mother to meet the new terrain. And gradually, through all of these changes, the child pulls away from you and sometimes even turns on you and you learn the ache of loneliness in a whole new way you didn’t see coming and you feel like you’re still shuffling down the hallway trying to find her.
Nobody warns you how much pain a child can cause with just a few careless words tossed in a mother’s direction. And nobody tells you about the sleepless nights when you’re pretty sure you’re doing it wrong and you agonize over the ways you’ve ruined the child you so painfully yet lovingly brought into the world. (And if they DID tell you, would you really listen anyway?)
And then you become a parent of multiple children and you discover that you are actually Three Different Mothers navigating three separate hallways all at the same time. Each child comes with her own set of needs and her own pace of emotional development and… you stand there in the middle completely befuddled because what worked with the first one is most certainly not working with the second and nobody gave you a roadmap for this and maybe you’re messing up three different children in three different ways.
My first two came in quick succession, and they quickly let me know that they had vastly different personalities. Even in the womb, I knew they were different, when one never stopped moving and one caused concern because she didn’t move enough. One was more introverted, the other was more extroverted. One wanted to walk as quickly and as often as possible, the other took her time and wanted to stay in the stroller long after she could reasonably fit in it. One wanted to be held long into the night, the other didn’t want anyone touching her once it was time to sleep.
Because the first two were so different, I made the mistake of believing I’d covered the spectrum of parenting and expected the third (or fourth, depending on how you count) to come out like one or the other of her sisters. She quickly proved me wrong when she revealed that there was a third way to be the “opposite”.
Even now, as I am learning, at this new stage, to be Three Different Mothers to Three Different Adults, I continue to discover that there is new terrain that I haven’t yet learned to navigate and there are still ways that I can mess up. Throw in neurodivergence and mental illness and disability and… what looked like three straight hallways have suddenly become three complicated mazes. Plus I know that there’s a whole new kind of lonely ache ahead of me as they prepare to move away from me into their own lives and I’ll be left standing alone in the hallway.
In many ways I also, mistakenly, took on the mantle of Motherhood in my marriage. Nothing could prepare me for the emotional labour that would be required of me as I navigated that particular landscape, and I thought I had no other choice but to accept it.
When he needed coaxing to get his GED and start university, when he wasn’t confident enough to hand in a university paper without me editing it first, when he competed with our children for my attention and comfort, and whenever he plummeted into anxiety and depression… there were so many ways I took on more weight than a wife should. And then there were the hard years when he fought with our teenagers like he was a teenager himself and I was forced into the role of Peacekeeper.
Nobody told me that a Mother/Wife is allowed to have boundaries. Nobody told me that a Mother/Wife doesn’t have to hold all of the weight of the world on her shoulders. Every training I’d ever received and every modeling I’d ever witnessed taught me that Becoming a Mother means that you show up when you’re needed NO MATTER WHAT and you don’t say no, especially to your partner. And you don’t get angry. And you don’t walk away.
And then there was the second time he attempted suicide, when our oldest two daughters were just starting high school and I had to navigate the psych ward and the soccer field simultaneously, putting on a brave front in both places because I knew I had to be The Dependable One. There’s something about a psych ward hallway that looks particularly dark and interminable, especially when they lock the door behind you.
Becoming a Single Mother was yet another landscape I had to learn to navigate. Again, I had no roadmap, and this time I was even more alone than I’d been before, without even a mother of my own to help me survive the road bumps. Once again, I fumbled my way down the hallway, pretty sure I must have found a whole new way to mess up and get lost. It took me five years to end the marriage because every time I got close, I kept convincing myself that my daughters were better off in a two-parent home and that I would fail them if I chose otherwise.
My greatest fear, though, in the dark lonely hours of the night, especially in those years when the two teenagers triggered the wounded teenager in my husband, was that if the girls were parented half of the time in a separate home, I wouldn’t be there to be the Peacekeeper.
But finally, when the cracks were bigger than the marriage, I knew that I had to take a chance and believe that the separation would be better than the alternative.
The night we told our daughters that their dad was moving out, the three girls were true to form and reacted in three entirely different ways. One got angry and disappeared into her room, one got emotional and blamed herself, and one was relieved that it was finally over.
There were no “stages” in the grief – everything showed up simultaneously and, once again, I stood in the middle befuddled and unsure of which hallway to stumble down first to try to meet the needs.
Weeks earlier, when I’d said I was finished and wanted the marriage to end, my then-husband asked me to visit his therapist with him to talk about it where he’d have her as a support person. I told the therapist “I feel like I’ve been angry for five years.” And she said “you don’t look angry.” Oh… I thought… so this is one of those places where I’m supposed to “show my work”, like an elementary school math quiz? But what if I don’t know how because I’ve spent the last twenty-two years doing my best to erase it?
Moments later, when my then-husband talked about how and when and where to move and I stepped in to help him navigate that decision, the therapist stopped me and said, “you’re going to let him figure that out himself this time.”
In just a few simple statements, without knowing she was doing it, she spelled out my entire training on Becoming a Mother. 1. Never show your anger. 2. Always help out. Never let the fact that your body has been torn apart keep you from stumbling down the hallway to be with The One Who Needs You. Swallow your pain and offer up kindness. Eat nails and spit out candy. Be The Dependable One to the end of your live-long days.
Sometimes I look down at my hands and wonder when my hands became my mother’s hands. When did they get that saggy skin around the knuckles? When did they lose their smoothness and develop these tiny lines and ridges? And then I realize that I am the age my mother was when all of her children were already grown up and moved away and I remember that I thought back then that she must already know everything there was to know about Becoming a Mother.
And suddenly I think… “Hold up, slow down, WAIT…How can I be this old already? How can I have reached THIS stage when there are still so many things I haven’t figured out and so many moments I still feel blind and beat up? And why didn’t I give my mother a bit more of a break for the ways she still really didn’t know how to parent me up until the day she died?”
Days before she died, when her mind had started slipping in and out of focus, my mom leaned toward me and whispered “I don’t know how to do this.” I replied “I don’t know how to do this either.” And it was the truest thing either of us ever said to each other.
Of course I couldn’t have known, back when my mother’s hands looked like mine do now, how the Becoming goes on and on and on until one day it’s the Mother torn away from the child. And the child is the one stumbling down the hallway trying to find her way through the Ache of Loneliness to the place where at least skin can touch against skin and maybe it will be alright after all.
Twenty-five years ago, I entered motherhood blind and beat up. At every new stage of Becoming, there is, again, a time when I am both blind and beat up. And then, after Struggle and Pain have had their way with me and have retired, satisfied, back into their private wing of the house, I settle in to unpack the poorly wrapped gifts they’ve left behind.
Fortunately, there always comes the day, after Struggle and Pain have left their mark, when Joy and Ease pop out of their rooms in the house and say “Remember us? We’re here too. We haven’t abandoned you to those bullies.” And when they bring the light back into the room, I look up at my three unique daughters with wonder and awe, and I watch them navigate this new terrain of Becoming Adults, and I feel both dumbfounded and lucky that I get to be on this journey with them and that I’ve always managed to find them down at the end of the hallway.
As blind and beat up as I may have been at every stage, I can’t help but look back and see all of the ways that I have risen to the occasion, that I have, again and again, stumbled down the hallway, that I have shuddered my may through hospital doors, that I have navigated new terrain, and that I have learned to persevere through Struggle and Pain until Joy and Ease came back into the room. And I have, above all else, begun to practice a new story of what it means to Become a Mother – one with more truth-telling and less martyrdom and cultural baggage – so that my daughters might, hopefully, have a new script to help them, should they find themselves here someday themselves.
And in the end, I have discovered that the Ache of Loneliness is only a true companion when you have also known the Comfort of Connection. And that’s what it means to be a Velveteen Mother.