The boat launch was busy, so I sat on a park bench a short distance away instead of my favourite spot near the end of the dock. In the parking lot behind me, a small boy in a life jacket was flailing and screaming “I DON’T WANT TO GO!” His dad was trying everything he could to coax, cajole, or convince the boy to head down to the dock to get in the boat with his grandpa. Nothing seemed to be working, so he finally threw the boy over his shoulder and walked down to the dock, with that familiar clenched-jaw-look that every parent knows.
I couldn’t see the dock from my vantage point higher up on the riverbank and couldn’t hear the entire conversation. I just know that at first the boy continued to scream “I DON’T WANT TO GO!”, then he was silent for a while, and finally he was happily chatting in the boat as it set off onto the water.
Here’s what I imagine happened (based on my own experience, back when my children were small and had grandparents) … Once they got down to the dock, Grandpa worked some form of grandparent magic and was able to soothe the boy’s fear or resistance enough to convince him that he really DID want to go fishing with his dad and grandfather. Perhaps he distracted him with his new fishing pole or lure. Or maybe he made funny faces at him to make him laugh. Or maybe he listened to his fears and helped him see that he had the skills to overcome them. Or maybe he just talked to him in that soothing voice that seems to come easier for grandparents than parents.
Grandpa had a unique advantage at this moment, which is why I’m guessing he was the one to turn things around. He was arms-distance removed from the boy and the situation, yet still in a loving relationship with him. He likely hadn’t spent the morning listening to the boy. He didn’t have to get him out of bed and dressed for the day. He didn’t have to listen to the boy’s whining over the fact that they’d run out of his favourite cereal, or his over-exuberance over the upcoming boat adventure, while trying to pack the lunch for the boat trip, get the dishes done, and/or look after the boy’s baby sister. He didn’t have to clean up the spills, make the beds, or finish off the work project so he could take the rest of the day off with his son and dad.
Grandpa could step in with a fresh voice and fresh love, without any of the baggage leading up to that moment. He loved the boy but had less at stake in the boy’s tantrum because he didn’t have to go home with him afterwards or worry about whether he was making parenting mistakes that would result in long-term emotional baggage.
Everybody needs a grandpa (or a grandpa-substitute). Whether you’re a little boy who’s scared to get into the boat, or a grown-up who’s scared to mess up at a new job, or a teenager who’s scared to sign up for musical theater, you need people who love you but are sufficiently at arm’s length that they are not directly impacted by whatever crisis you’re in. You need people who are objective and compassionate and good at witnessing your fear without judging it or gaslighting you for it. You need people who can hold space for you.
One of the questions I am most frequently asked when I teach workshops on holding space is “Why is it so hard to hold space for the people I love the most?” My answer is usually some version of “the closer you are to the situation and the more you’ll be impacted by the outcome, the less you’re able to be an objective observer who can hold space without judgement or the need for control.”
The dad at the dock was directly impacted by the boy’s resistance (he would have likely missed out on his own chance to spend the day fishing with his dad if they couldn’t get the child in the boat) and therefore his emotions were probably closer to the surface. He wasn’t able to soothe himself enough to effectively hold space for whatever emotions his son needed to process because he had a bias – his own desire to get in the boat and (likely) a desire to not raise a child prone to temper tantrums.
Grandpa, on the other hand, was less directly impacted and probably didn’t have as much bias. And yet, he still had enough love for the boy to support him in the way he needed to be supported.
This is why we need different sorts of relationships and why we need to value people at all levels of intimacy, trust and shared experience. It’s also why we shouldn’t always assume that those closest to us have the capacity to soothe us when we’re upset or listen to us when we need to rant (nor should we always take on that burden in their lives, especially when we can’t be objective).
“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.
My youngest daughter is on the cusp of graduating from high school. Her oldest sister is on the cusp of graduating from her first university degree, and the middle one is only a year behind. There are moments when I hold my breath, knowing these days in which we all live under the same roof are fleeting and soon they will all have launched into their own separate lives.
Before they go, I hope I pass on at least some of the following bits of wisdom.
You’re not obligated to accept every gift. Whenever they receive a gift from me, they are allowed to tell me that they don’t like it and I do my best not to make it about me and instead to find them something they’d like better. Though I want them to embrace gratitude and to treat people with respect, I don’t want them to assume that they are obligated to receive gifts they don’t want or that they are responsible for looking after the feelings of the gift-giver. When gifts come with strings attached and an indebtedness to the giver, they are not really gifts but tools of abusers and manipulators. As we’ve seen in some of the #metoo stories emerging out of Hollywood, abusers offer elaborate promises and gifts (ie. roles in movies, good jobs, etc.) so that their victims feel a sense of obligation that includes their silence. I hope that by learning that they have the right to resist unwanted “gifts”, my daughters are better equipped to stand up to the tactics of abusers.
You can leave the party early. Especially when they were in high school and starting to attend parties that could possibly get out of hand, I worked with my daughters to ensure that they had an exit strategy in case they ever felt uncomfortable and wanted to leave before their friends did. Even if that exit strategy included me having to get up in the middle of the night and bundle up against the cold to go pick them up, I tried not to shame them for trusting their instincts if it wasn’t safe to accept a ride home with a friend who’d been drinking, or if people were doing things at the party that didn’t fit with their values or comfort zones. I hope that those party exit strategies can be carried into their adult lives and they can apply the principle to jobs they don’t like, relationships that are toxic, commitments they regret making, etc. They don’t have to feel obligated or give in to peer pressure if it means staying where they’re unsafe, uncomfortable, unhappy or undervalued.
You get to feel your feelings and don’t have to be a caretaker or shock absorber for other people’s feelings. I spent a lot of years caretaking other people’s emotions and being a shock absorber when those emotions were particularly volatile (and stuffing down my own emotions in order to do so), and I don’t want that for my daughters. I want them to know that their own feelings are valid, even if those feelings make other people uncomfortable. I want them to know that big feelings are okay, even if other people try to gaslight them into not feeling the way they do. I don’t want them to spend all of their time trying to regulate themselves on other people’s behalf. I want them to find healthy relationships with people who take responsibility for how they feel and who don’t try to stifle other people’s feelings. I want them to know that within healthy relationship, co-regulation is possible, but only if people honour rather than quash those feelings in each other.
You can come back home after you mess up. We’re not looking for perfection in this household, and so I try to admit my mistakes to my daughters, apologize when necessary, and let them know that this is a place where it’s safe to fail. I don’t want them to hide their mistakes or weaknesses, but to speak of them openly so that they can learn from them and grow. And I want them to know that I will provide a safe haven for them to return to when they need to lick their wounds and/or process their shame. I want them to feel safe when they’re here so that they can return to the world feeling more brave.
Sometimes disruption is necessary. But it will rarely be easy. I want them to know that they should follow the “rules” that make sense and help to keep people safe, but I also want them to know that they can break the “rules” that are outdated or that are meant to keep people small and compliant. This isn’t always easy for me to pass on, especially when I’m the one attached to the outdated rules, but I do my best. I want them to know that they don’t have to stick with the status quo when the status quo is harming people. I want them to know that they can speak truth to power. I want them to know that they’re allowed to be disruptors if the disruption is in the service of positive change. Disruption isn’t an easy path to choose, though, so I also want them to be prepared for the ways in which people will resist them and possibly try to hurt them for having the courage to be disruptive.
Power and weakness are companions, not opposites. I want them to see that vulnerability and authenticity are important parts of what it means to be powerful. I want them to know that generative power often emerges out of places of the greatest weakness. I want them to see that sometimes, in their moments of greatest weakness, admitting it allows other people to show up and be powerful and together we can create collective power that is greater than any of us can hold alone. I hope that they’re not afraid to claim their own power, but that it is always “power with” rather than “power over”.
Your body is your own. For years, I gave away my own body because I believed I was under contract to do so and because I was being coerced even when I was unwilling. I accepted the old rules of what it means to be a woman in a marriage, because that was the only way I’d seen modelled and the only way that I’d been taught to behave. I’ve spent the last several years reclaiming my body and relearning how to treat it, and I want my daughters to see that another way is possible. I want them to know that they can lavish love on their own bodies, that they can protect their own bodies, that they can say no to anyone who doesn’t treat their bodies well and that they can say a big and holy YES to those who make their bodies feel alive, safe and loved.
You can ask for what you need, but those needs shouldn’t supersede the needs of those more marginalized than you. I want them to know that they are worthy of having their needs met. I want them to pay attention to themselves enough so that they are actually aware of their own needs and can articulate them clearly. I don’t want them to be afraid to ask for what they need or to be so focused on other people that they consistently overlook themselves. I don’t want them to be haunted by shame for being too selfish or asking for too much. However, I don’t want them to be greedy and I want them to recognize how meeting their own needs will sometimes mean that people with less access to privilege won’t get their needs met. I want them to be aware of injustice and be willing to sacrifice their own needs in order to centre those who rarely get their turn. I want them to balance self-care with other-care, and worthiness with justice.
You can love who you want, as long as that love is generative and not stifling. This is a home in which there is little pressure to be heteronormative. Two of my daughters have, in fact, come out and we have celebrated them and embraced their choices and never asked them to be anyone other than who they are. I want them to know that whoever they choose to be in an intimate relationship with, they don’t have to be afraid to introduce that person to me for fear of my judgement. I do, however, want them to know that I will speak up if I see the person they’re in relationship with treat them in ways that harm their spirits (or the other way around). If they choose to be in relationships (and they are always free to choose singleness instead), I hope that those relationships are ones in which they are supported to flourish and grow and shine.
Friendships matter. Community matters. Family matters. But no relationships are worth abandoning yourself over. I hope that they find deep and lasting friendships (and hang onto the ones they already have). I hope that they surround themselves with people who will support them, challenge them, laugh with them, travel with them, grieve with them, and feed them. I hope that they recognize that friendships are worth fighting for, that forgiveness and grace are necessary parts of being in relationships with flawed human beings, that having people in your corner is essential for meaningful success, and that conflict is worth working through when you’re with the right people. I want them to find out how much richness comes when they make friends with people whose skin colour is different from theirs, whose beliefs are different, and/or who grew up in other countries.I also want them to know, though, that sometimes it’s best to walk away from friendships or communities that hold them back. I want them to dare to choose their own growth and happiness over stifling relationships. I don’t want them to stay stuck in places or with people that don’t value or respect them.
The hardest parts of life are usually the ones that result in the most growth. There’s a part of me that longs to protect my daughters from the hard parts of life, but the wiser part of me knows that I have grown most when life has been hard. I have been changed by grief and trauma, and I know that the work I now do is rich and meaningful because of all of the darkness and pain I have traveled through. I want them to recognize that they have the strength and resilience to survive hard things and that there is something to strive for on the other side. I hope that they always know that they don’t have to survive the hard things alone and that, whenever I am able, I will walk alongside them. I also want them to know that they should never be ashamed to ask their friends or family for help, to hire a therapist, and/or to seek treatment for mental illness, trauma, etc.. I don’t want them to bypass the pain, but rather to move through it with grace and grit and people who love them.
There’s a lot of beauty and magic in the world – don’t miss it. Some of my favourite moments with my daughters are ones in which we’ve stood in reverence in front of a stunning sunset over the mountains, we’ve giggled with glee at an amusement park, we’ve sat around a campfire watching the flames leap up, or we’ve driven for hours and hours just to hear our favourite bands in concert. I hope that they always give themselves permission to have fun, to seek out adventure, to be in awe of the natural world, and to surround themselves with beauty. I hope that they take the time to pause and notice even the simplest bits of magic. I want them to live fully and reverently and to fill their lives with meaningful experiences.
I have been contemplating the above quote ever since I heard it on the radio yesterday. We are, all of us, products of the “crooked timber of humanity”. None of us has ever emerged perfectly straight.
Before being shaped and carved by the woodworker’s tools – life’s chipping and sanding away of our imperfections – we are all irregular, imperfect, and unfinished branches of the crooked timber of humanity. Even after the shaping, our imperfections continue to show, but we learn to cherish rather than hide them.
I have a beautifully carved necklace made from a slice of a branch (see photo at the top – made by Windy Tree). What I like best about it is the way the artisan incorporated the imperfections of the branch, turning it into the rugged edge of a cliff out of which a tree grows.
Last weekend, I had the pleasure of spending a few days with those closest to me on my crooked family tree. My three siblings and I took a trip down memory lane together, visiting our childhood haunts in the rural part of the province where we grew up. We drove past the high school we all attended and talked about our favourite and least favourite teachers. We ate lunch in the Chinese restaurant that’s been there as long as any of us can remember. We played on the swinging bridge that crosses the White Mud River where we all took swimming lessons and were baptized as teenagers. We stopped to see the cairn that was erected at the place where our elementary school once stood.
Our parents are both buried in a graveyard on a sandy ridge close to our home town, under the towering poplar trees. As we stood near their graves, we marvelled at the fact that they are really and truly gone, that we are forever orphans, that they are part of our past and not our future. Though we are all near or past 50, it still feels far too young to have lost both of our parents. Perhaps one never feels old enough for that kind of loss.
Our last visit was to the farm where we grew up. We moved there when I was one year old and Mom and Dad moved away after we’d left home and my brothers and I were all about to welcome our first babies. That farmyard holds a lot of our family’s stories.
As we walked around the now-dilapidated farmyard, we reminisced about all that we’d lived through on that piece of land.
“This is where Grandpa collapsed and died on our lawn.”
“See that concrete pad? That was the front doorstep of the tiny green house we first lived in when we moved here, before we built the new house.”
“This is where we had to drag cattle out of the water that one Spring when there was so much flooding. Oh how we hated Dad when he came to wake us up in the middle of the night because another cow was stuck.”
“We used to climb into the rafters of this barn to find the new kittens.”
“What was that Low German word Dad would use when we were helping him build the steel bins and he wanted us to know a bolt was tightened and we should move to the next one?”
“Mom would have loved to have seen all of these lilacs she’d planted so fully grown and in full bloom.”
“Remember all those times when Dad had to climb down into the well to prime the pump and we stood at the top praying that he’d make it out safely?”
What emerged, as we peeked into broken-down barns and climbed over discarded fence posts, was how harsh and beautiful our childhood on that farm was. Some of our memories still held a touch of the pain those moments had caused. Others were pure joy. Some of them brought back old resentments of the decisions our parents had made. Others honoured them for their courage and resilience.
We were poor and life was often really hard on the farm. We hovered on the verge of bankruptcy and sometimes the phone was cut off or creditors would show up on the yard. Some of our hard luck was due to sandy soil, harsh weather, and the myriad of things that make crops fail or animals die. But some of it could be attributed to our parents’ poor choices and lack of business sense.
And then there were the other things not related to money that were hard – Dad’s anger and impatience, Mom’s way of over-apologizing and never believing she was good enough.
Our parents were imperfect – products of the “crooked timber of humanity”. They made mistakes. They let us down. They made us angry sometimes.
But that’s not the whole story. They were also full of goodness. They taught us how to love. They modelled integrity and morality. They made sure our home was always safe. They made sacrifices on our behalf. Dad taught us to love learning and Mom taught us to love stories.
Harshness and beauty. Kindness and anger. Insecurity and compassion. Poverty and abundance. All mixed together in one imperfect family.
My daughters will some day gather, after my death, to similarly reminisce. They’ll talk about some of the hurt they carried because of me, but they’ll also talk about the deep way I loved them. Because above all, I love them, just as my parents loved me.
And in the end, we must believe that love wins. And imperfection is less important than love.
We are put on this world not to seek perfection, but to learn grace.
We are put here to learn to make beautiful things out of imperfect branches.
We are put here to discover our own resilience and courage even as we hold our pain.
We are put here to love, to forgive, and to persevere.
One of the questions I ask my coaching clients, when they talk about people in their lives who are challenging, is: “How is that person your teacher?” Everyone – those who love us and those who hate us and those in between – can teach us something.
Not everyone in our lives will be good to us and not everyone will have our best interests at heart. Some of you may, for example, have had much more horrible parents than I had and you’ll be struggling at the end of this article to find any good in them or to forgive them for what they did. When I say that “we are put here to love and forgive”, I do not mean that we are meant to put up with all of the harsh treatment that comes our way.
No. That’s not it. You can learn to love with boundaries. You can end relationships that cause you great harm – even with your parents.
BUT, even the people who hurt us can serve as our teachers. Perhaps they teach us to respect ourselves more and not let them treat us that way. Perhaps they teach us our own courage. Perhaps they teach us boundaries. Perhaps they teach us forgiveness with detachment.
Instead of seeking perfection in others or yourself, seek for the lessons each relationship teaches you. Seek for the ways that you can grow because another person has been part of your life. Seek for the pinpoints of grace. Seek the piece of art that emerges from the imperfect branch.
I am writing this newsletter, once again, from my perch in the limbs of the large tree in my backyard. I am surrounded by crooked limbs, and I am grateful for the way their crookedness carved out this space that so perfectly cradles my body. I’m grateful for the smaller crooked limb that juts out at a strange angle that’s perfect for propping up my laptop. I am grateful for the canopy of crooked limbs that spread out above me, giving me shade from the sun’s heat.
Straight limbs are over-rated, especially in family trees.
p.s. If you need to talk to someone about your own crooked family tree and the ways that people serve as your teachers, perhaps I can help. I’m taking on a few new coaching clients.
There’s a piece of my story in this unfolding year that I have had a hard time writing about. I still don’t know quite what to say, but I also don’t want to pretend that it’s not going on or that I’m trying to keep it a secret.
This summer, my twenty-two year marriage unraveled and my husband and I are now separated.
That’s the simple version. The more complex version is the part that’s difficult to talk about, because it is not my story alone and I am determined never to write anything that might hurt anyone I care about. My husband, my daughters and I are all fumbling our way through this, trying not to hurt each other, trying to heal from past wounds, and trying to emerge stronger and wiser.
I share it, though, because sometimes people turn to me for expertise on what it means to hold space for people, and I don’t want to pretend that I have figured out everything there is to know about keeping relationships healthy. Like you, I falter sometimes, and I fail people, and I make decisions that might be hard for people to understand. I am still very much on a learning journey.
Early this year, after I wrote the post that went viral, about what it means to hold space for other people, what became more and more clear to me was something I’d woken up to about five years earlier. My husband and I no longer knew how to hold space for each other. We’ve tried and tried, but repeatedly we’ve failed. For my part, I spent too much time judging him and thinking I needed to rescue or fix him, and for his part, he no longer understood me and had no idea how to support the kind of work I was doing or the changes I was undergoing as a result.
For a long time, I tried to tell myself that it didn’t matter that we were in such different places – that I was in this marriage for the long haul and that my daughters were better off with us together – but I could only fool myself for so long. We were hurting each other in our failure, and, after repeated attempts at marriage counselling, it finally became clear to me that we were not doing our daughters any favours by staying in this broken place.
There is much that remains unresolved in this story and I continue to learn from it as I navigate this new path. I stumble sometimes, and then I fall into grace and am given a hand up to get back up on my feet again.
And that is where I will leave this story, in an unresolved place where there is still healing to be done and forgiveness to be offered. I am learning, despite much impatience and struggle, to stay in the unresolved places until what’s meant to emerge can find its own way and time to unfold.
When we see brokenness, our tendency (based in a childish desire for the world to be clean and orderly, black and white) is to rush in to fix it, to find a solution, and to put it back the way it once was. But the invitation of a deepening spirituality is to allow it to remain unresolved, to ask ourselves why we are uncomfortable with it being unresolved, and to consider that perhaps something new wants to grow in its own sweet time without the limitations of “the way things used to be”.
As a writer and teacher, I feel pressure sometimes, on my blog and on social media, to only share a story when it has a complete ending. If I share it when it is still in the unresolved stage, too many people will rush in with advice, solutions, or judgement, responding to their own need to see it fixed in a way that makes sense to them, and then I will feel defeated, inadequate, and not fully heard.
What I most value (and this is why I spend so much time in circles) is to be heard, to be valued, and to be supported in whatever stage of the messiness I am in. This, I believe, is what all of us truly want. Because the best path out of the messiness is rarely the quick fix that first rushes to mind.
I invite you then, to pause for a moment before you respond to my unresolved story or anyone else’s. In your pausing, listen first for what that person most wants from you. And then listen for what is unresolved in your own life that might make someone else’s messy story feel uncomfortable. Because when we sit in the messiness together, we grow truly beautiful and lasting things. That’s what it means to hold space for each other.
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” – Rilke
Thank you for holding space for me in my unresolved place.
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I am home, once again. The last time I wrote, I was just back from a week of writing at a cottage by the lake, and now I’m just back from a week and a half vacation with my daughters. How very lucky I have been this summer to find the time and space for writing, relaxing, and traveling with my girls!
Having been raised going to the
Winnipeg Folk Festival every year, my daughters have developed a passion for indie music festivals. It’s a passion I like to indulge, so last year we drove with them to Montreal for Osheaga and this year I drove with them to Chicago for Lollapalooza. They’re talking about either Outsidelands or Squamish next year, and I’d be happy to go to either place. Though I find the size of the crowds at the festivals a little overwhelming and usually only go for one day, I so greatly treasure these days on the road with my daughters, and know that this time in their lives is fleeting (the oldest two have already graduated from high school), so I pack my bags and I go.
On the way home, after a discussion about next year’s adventure, one of my girls said “Mom, you’d be game for almost anything, wouldn’t you?” And I said “Yes, I would. Give me an interesting place to go to and some quality time with my daughters, and I’m there.” (If anyone has recommendations for great music festivals in your parts of the world, I’d be happy to hear them!)
When we travel, we do our best to seek some balance for all involved, so after a full week of music festivals, shopping, an architecture boat tour, a crime tour, the Art Institute, and other touristy things in Chicago, we headed to a campsite at McCarthy Beach State Park in Minnesota. In the past, there’d be some mild protest on their part, when I’d insist on camping for a few of the nights on our trips, but they’ve become accustomed to the fact that a vacation doesn’t feel complete to me without some time away from cities and electronic devices, and they appreciate my willingness to indulge them in their interests, so they comply willingly now. Despite the rain (and the fact that I still have a wet tent in my garage that needs to be aired out), we had a lovely time reading, wandering, sitting around the campfire, eating s’mores, and watching the sunset on the beach.
There’s a great life lesson there that I want to keep unpacking (and may write more about some day). Seek balance between the fast-paced days and the slow-paced ones. Seek balance between what you want and what you are willing to give others. Seek balance in your connection with others and your connection with yourself. Seek balance in your plugged-in days and your unplugged ones.
When your life begins to feel out of balance, it may be a good time to head to the woods.
This morning, though it was a little hard to convince my body to get out of bed to return to work (and nearly everything on my computer seems to be protesting similarly), I woke up grateful that I have work that I love and that I no longer have to face that feeling of dread when vacation is over and I have to drag myself back to work that drains me. I have worked hard to find this balance in my life, just as I have found it in my vacations. Yes, there is work to do, but much of it feels so much like play that I rarely feel out of balance. (If you’re not there, take heart. I spent many years yearning for this lifestyle before it finally happened for me.)
During the remainder of the month of August and into September, I will be working on polishing up the newest version of my memoir (with the hopes of seeking a publisher in the Fall), and then I’ll be working on a couple of new things (a facilitator’s kit for Mandala Discovery, and some kind of course or retreat around the theme of Holding Space).
There are a few things you might be interested in for the Fall:
1. I’m really excited to announce that I will be hosting a retreat in Asheville, NC, October 8-11, with my dear friend Desiree Adaway. This is no ordinary retreat. It’s called Engage, and it’s for all (women and men) who consider themselves change-makers, edge-walkers, dream-weavers, or social justice activists. It’s a place for soulful conversations, broken hearts, hopeful dreams, and imaginative action. Desiree and I are both passionate about supporting people in social justice work, and lately we’ve both had a growing sense of despair about some of the injustice in both of our countries. In the U.S., young black men are dying at the hands of the police, and in Canada, there’s a growing number of missing and murdered Indigenous women. We feel called to support anyone working on these or other important social justice causes, and so we’ve created a place for people to gather and be inspired. Will you join us?
2. There is still space for a few people in my online Openhearted Writing Circle on September 18th. If you want to write from a deeper place (whether for your own personal growth or to share with an audience), this is the place to gather with others like you and be inspired. All you need to participate is a Skype account and an open heart.
4. In late October, I’ll be participating in the annual gathering of Gather the Women, in Parrish, Florida. If you’d like to experience the power of a women’s circle, I’d highly encourage you to consider this gathering. I deeply believe in the work of this organization and in the importance of spending time in circle with other women.
5. For those in Canada, there is also a Gather the Women gathering happening in Ontario, September 11-13. They don’t have a website, but at this link, you’ll find a poster. If that doesn’t work, let me know and I’ll send you the email address of the contact person. (I won’t be attending this gathering, but the organizers are all dear friends of mine and I know that it will be good.)
I hope that, in whatever way works for you, you are finding some balance in your life this summer. Thank you for being part of my circle!