I wake up among the treetops. I peek out the window near my head and I see the shadowy lake below, surrounded by the shadowy trees. Across the lake, I hear the train that was probably the reason for my waking. I close my eyes and a smile creeps across my face. I love the melancholy sound of a train passing through wild spaces. I don’t care for it much in the city, but out here, away from civilization, the clicking and clacking and screeching of metal on metal, especially in the middle of the night, sounds to me like kindness and sadness all mixed together.
I have to pee, of course, as a fifty-seven-year-old body does in the middle of the night, but I close my eyes and pretend otherwise, willing my body to hold off until morning. It would be too much work to grope around in the dark for my headlamp, climb down the ladder from my perch in the loft of this tiny off-grid cabin, and make my way up the dark path, made more treacherous by the exposed roots half-buried by Fall leaves, to the compost toilet in the dark little outhouse. Too much work and too much awakening. Luckily, my body cooperates and I fall back to sleep.
In the morning, I climb down the ladder, pull on a sweater, and make my way to the toilet. After grabbing breakfast from the cooler that feels less-than-cool and should probably be reloaded with ice from the freezer at the far end of the property, I wander down to the lake. I curl up in an Adirondack chair on the dock and watch the ripples on the lake. It’s mesmerizing to watch them, the way they shatter the reflection of the trees into thin strips of perpetual motion.
I wonder, on this windless morning, what is causing the ripples. There are no boats out on this small lake, and nobody else in the handful of cottages is stirring. There are no fish jumping or birds landing, so why the steady ripples?
I stare at them, deep in thought, and something else pops into my mind. “I wish I remembered how to pray.” It’s a thought that I’ve had only occasionally in the years since I stopped going to church and since my faith became so deconstructed I wasn’t sure it existed anymore. Not feeling very certain there’s a god to pray to anymore, I mostly gave up on any attempt at prayer, but sometimes I miss it. Sometimes I miss trusting that there is a higher power with whom I can entrust my worries.
I still think of myself as spiritual, still believe I have spiritual experiences in which I witness the presence of a force greater than me, but prayer feels much more elusive when “god/goddess/mystery” is a more nebulous thing than my former Christian beliefs held to be true. Without the belief that god is the benevolent, omnipotent father-figure I can bring my requests to, I don’t know where to direct my prayers.
This morning, though, I’m missing the simplicity and trust of the prayers of my earlier life. There are worries in my life that I want to entrust to a higher power. There are things going on in my daughters’ lives that I wish I could offer up to a god who might solve their problems for them (since I can’t solve them myself). “Find this daughter a job, give this daughter some friends so she doesn’t feel as lonely.” It’s a “god as vending machine” belief that I’m probably longing for most… drop a few prayers in the slot and out pops the solution, easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.
Unfortunately, even in my most fervently religious days, god never showed up as a vending machine, no matter how many prayers I dropped into the slot. At some point, I just couldn’t reconcile the randomness of it all, or the way that god became, for so many, a weapon for manipulation, power, abuse, and shame. That’s when prayer stopped making sense.
Still staring at the lake, I realize that the ripples have disappeared and the water is nearly flat. I’m puzzled for a moment, and then I realize that it was ME who created the ripples – not a boat, bird, or fish. When I stepped onto the dock, the ripples started, and they only stopped once I was still enough that the dock no longer moved.
Suddenly it occurs to me that this may be prayer – bringing my worries to the lake and then sitting so still that the lake responds to my stillness. Sitting so still that even the ripples in my mind are settling. Maybe this is the point – not to send my wishes to a benevolent being I hope will reshape the world in my favour, but to be in acceptance of the world as it is – in tune with the lake, in stillness, and in deep presence.
I am reminded of Mary Oliver’s poem…
Praying It doesn’t have to be the blue iris, it could be weeds in a vacant lot, or a few small stones; just pay attention, then patch a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate, this isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.
Much later, after sitting by the fire for hours and reading by the light of my headlamp, I turn off my light to walk to the outhouse. The full moon offers enough light that I can safely navigate the path despite the roots. It helps that I am becoming familiar with this path, on my second day here, getting to know these woods around my tiny cabin. I look up to the moon, and for a moment, I stand in reverence of her beautiful glow. Perhaps this, too, is prayer.
I can’t fix it. I want SO BADLY to fix it. My daughter is in distress, she’s far away, and all I can do is be here, listening, at the other end of a FaceTime call. I feel so helpless. My words feel empty and void of purpose. My emotions swell into desperation as my nervous system sends my brain scrambling to find at least one small thing that is fixable by me, her mom. There is nothing.
This is the hard stuff of parenting young adult children from a distance. I feel so frequently helpless when their lives overwhelm them. I can’t show up with food, I can’t rush over to their apartments to hug them or do their laundry… I can’t even send them a plane ticket back home because “home” is no longer a physical place. (And yes… the niggling guilt over selling their childhood home sometimes pokes at me when the desperation swells.)
Even as I write this, the tears well up in my eyes. I feel the enormity of it all over again. This parenting stuff – even when the children are grown and living lives of their own – it’s not for the faint of heart. It wrecks us again and again, tears us apart and leaves us raw, battered and lost. Nothing has ever made me feel more helpless and vulnerable than parenting. Nothing else has triggered my fears of irrelevance, incompetence, or failure in quite the same way.
In an interview I listened to yesterday, Kerry Washington was talking about two of her acting roles and how those roles related to parenthood. The first role she talked about was in Scandal, a series in which she played a “fixer” who was almost always the most powerful person in the room, fixing things on behalf of a government, believing she was doing so for the greater good. During the eight years of taping Scandal, Washington gave birth to her own two children, and she wrestled with whether her character, Olivia Pope, should become a mom in the show. It was a deliberate choice on the part of Shonda Rhimes, though, not to let the character become a parent, because that would have made Olivia too vulnerable and no longer as capable of the kind of power, control and ruthlessness she needed to be a fixer.
Immediately after Scandal, Washington appeared on Broadway in American Son in which she played the mother of a Black son who’s gone missing and may have been killed by the police. This was the counterpoint to Olivia Pope, a role in which she could explore the vulnerability and powerlessness that comes along with parenthood. Unlike Olivia, the mother in American Son has no power to fix (especially as the mother of a Black son).
It’s true – there is a way in which parenthood disempowers the “fixer” in us. It takes away some of our potency and leaves us vulnerable and exposed. It’s an unraveling, a deconstructing – it unmoors us from what once felt like control.
Some of us resist that deconstruction at every level. Helicopter parents, for example, or those who’ve sometimes been referred to as “Tiger moms” – they cling desperately to their ability to control every situation on behalf of their children. They push away the powerlessness and swoop in to rescue, control, and strong-arm whatever situation threatens their child. Back when I used to spend summer evenings in a lawn chair beside many soccer fields, I witnessed this resistance on a regular basis – parents who reacted to feelings of powerlessness by inserting themselves into every situation. Some always knew better than the coach, some insisted on having input into every decision that would impact the team (and specifically their child), and some were overprotective about the potential for injury to their child.
I understand the temptation to over-control. I have sat helpless on the sidelines and witnessed more than one injury to one or the other of my children – once a concussion that required an ambulance be brought onto the field, once a broken arm, and once a torn ligament that required knee surgery.
It’s a vulnerable thing to allow your child to enter a situation where you have no control over what happens to them. It starts when we watch their first lurching steps across the living room, and it gets increasingly more complex as they get older and take more and more risks. From the first day of school to their first sleepover to their first job – it’s a gradual (and sometimes painful) process of letting go.
Now, while my daughters each navigate big cities and diverging lives far away from me, I have to let go even more. The thread that ties us to each other has stretched and I have less and less capacity to be the “fixer” in their lives. Sometimes I feel completely lost, not sure what my role is anymore.
For years now, I have been teaching people that holding space is the practice of walking alongside someone and supporting them, without trying to control them, while they pass through liminal space into an unknown future. At its heart, it’s about letting go of our attachment to the outcome.
But what about when the person we’re trying to hold space for is our child and we’ve been the primary person committed to raising them into responsible, compassionate adulthood? How do we let go of the outcome THEN?! In some ways, it feels like the outcome is the WHOLE POINT of parenting – we want to attach the label of “success” to their version of adulthood.
Therein lies the rub. It is ALWAYS the hardest to hold space for the people we are closest to, and the complexity of it increases for the people we’ve birthed and/or raised. We can’t help but be attached to the outcome when we love someone, especially when we’ve been highly invested in training and guiding that person into adulthood. We want the outcome to be a better, happier, healthier, more fulfilling life. We want them to know ease and love and contentment.
There is love in this attachment and in our wish for them, of course, but there is a shadow side too. Especially when it comes to our children, our egos are invested in the outcome. We don’t want our children to fail because we ourselves are afraid to fail and their failure can feel like a personal failure on our part. We don’t want our children to experience discomfort because we ourselves are afraid of discomfort and we get triggered by theirs. We don’t want our children to be unhappy, afraid, lonely or depressed because we’re uncomfortable with our own emotions, and (because our children feel like extensions of us) their emotions make us feel too exposed.
It is hard to disentangle ourselves from our children’s identity and emotional experience. It’s hard to watch them be educated in the school of hard knocks.
Some of us, because we haven’t done enough of our own healing and personal growth work, become enmeshed and codependent, shaping our lives around our children’s lives and taking too much responsibility for their emotional well-being. I understand this tendency – in my most vulnerable moments, when I want to swoop in as the fixer on my daughters’ behalf, I feel nearly helpless to the energetic pull toward codependency. There’s a pattern of it in my life. It flared up especially during the two times my former husband attempted suicide. In the years since, I’ve had to work hard to avoid slipping back into the pattern whenever another out-of-control situation presents itself.
It sounds selfish to say this, but I’m going to say it anyway… the best thing we can do for our children when they are struggling is to take care of ourselves. I don’t mean that we take care of ourselves AT THE EXPENSE of them, centering our own needs and feelings and dismissing theirs. No, I mean that we hold space for ourselves, for whatever ways that we get triggered and feel powerless and desperate, so that we are grounded enough to provide for them the “safe haven and secure base” that they need.
It’s become a well-worn cliché to say “put on your own oxygen mask first”, but it’s worth repeating nonetheless. We can’t support our children from an empty tank. We can’t hold space for them well if we’re not holding space for ourselves. We can’t support their breakdowns well if we are too enmeshed and their breakdowns trigger our own. We can’t help them hold their big emotions if we are afraid of those big emotions and stifle them in ourselves.
Since selling my house (and my daughters’ childhood home) last year, I’ve come to the realization that, especially now that there is no physical place to return to, my children’s version of home is ME. My presence serves as an anchor for them while they learn to navigate the world on their own.
I want to be a solid and secure place in which they can sink their anchor. I want to be emotionally available and reliable so that they don’t have to second guess my capacity to hold space for them. I want to do my own work, continuing to heal my own woundedness and resourcing myself well, so that, whenever they need it, I am a safe place to land. I want to be on the other end of FaceTime, not solving their problems for them, but listening and supporting and loving and empowering. And I want them to know they can call.
Our children don’t need enmeshed or codependent parents. They don’t need fixers who will disempower them when they swoop in with solutions. They don’t need us to become overly attached to their identity, their emotional experience, or the outcome of their decisions.
They need a safe place where they can fall apart occasionally. They need to know that they won’t be abandoned (or fixed) when they fail. They need to be allowed to have big emotions without having those emotions shamed, ridiculed, fixed, or projected back at them. They need to be allowed the autonomy to discover their own resilience and their own tools for navigating hard places. They need us to hold space for them – with a love that’s not enmeshed.
But first… we have to learn to hold space for ourselves.
I’ve come to the woods to remember who I am. As I write this, I’m off-the-grid, offline and unplugged, tucked into a tiny cabin by a lake, with just enough solar power to occasionally charge my laptop so that I can write. I cook over a propane stove and haul water in a bucket to wash my few dishes. The only bathroom facility is a compost toilet in a little outhouse just a little further up the hill. I brush my teeth with a cup of water and then spit into the woods. I haven’t showered or looked in a mirror for two days. When I need a break from writing, I wander down to the dock and watch the ripples on the lake. In the evenings, I light a fire and sometimes I read under the light of my headlamp.
Just now I wrote in my journal, “I love it here. It soothes my nervous system. It ignites my creativity. It allows the words to flow onto the page. I love it in all its variations – the rain of yesterday, the sun and warmth of the day before, the deep fog of this morning, and even the chill that made me pull my sleeping bag tighter in my little loft bed last night.”
This kind of solitude and connection with nature nourishes me and re-ignites the spark that sometimes gets dampened by the over-stimulating, demanding, noisy world. I am more myself here, more grounded, and in greater equilibrium.
I know myself here. I remember that I am part of nature – both contributing to it and receiving from it. I am in reciprocal relationship with the woods, the birds, the lake, and the trees. I talk to chipmunks and listen to the songs of the loons floating across the lake. Sometimes I talk to myself.
I know my body and I trust her needs. I know how to meet those needs with the simplicity of what’s available to me. I have little judgement of my body out here in these woods, because I see it in relationship to all that is around me – everything that is both imperfect and wildly beautiful. There’s a gnarly oak tree not far from where I sit and… gosh, she is beautiful in all her imperfection. Out here, I begin to move to the rhythm of the woods and the moon, and my body remembers herself into beauty.
The noise of the city makes me forget these things sometimes. I forget my natural rhythm and my place in the order of things. I forget my beauty and I begin to see myself through the lenses offered up to me by social media, advertising, and capitalism. My body begins to absorb the ways that she has been devalued. In the city, I am fat and aging, and both of those things make me more invisible. In the city, I know my flaws and I get sucked back into the drive for perfectionism. I judge myself through the yardsticks that the patriarchy, white supremacy, and colonization have imposed on me. I evaluate myself through the expectations of other people.
Out here, I disconnect from all of that. I disentangle myself and I stop performing according to the script for which I was trained. I become more fully embodied, more fully in love with myself, more fully visible.
Sometimes I find myself wishing I could stay here, in these woods, but I’m not sure that is wise or even possible for me. I know that I need community too. I know that I need to be part of the world. And I know that this deep connection I have nurtured with myself and with the natural world I am part of is a gift that many are longing for, so I have some responsibility to bring it back into the city with me. I know that, so I sit here in this beautiful place and I write words that I will share with you, my readers and friends.
Sometimes when I teach people the practice of holding space for themselves, they think it’s simply about self-care, but that’s only a small part of it. Holding space for yourself is about knowing yourself, truly seeing yourself. It’s about living a deeply embodied life. It’s about making yourself visible so that you can see yourself more clearly without the lenses that have been passed down to you. It’s about recognizing the harm that’s been done to you by the systems you’re part of. It’s about healing that harm, and then divesting yourself of those systems as much as you can so that you can be free.
Ultimately, holding space for yourself is about freedom. It’s the kind of deeply embodied freedom that I feel when I’m out in these woods. It’s about connection with all that is and acceptance of all that cannot be changed, and it’s about presence. It’s about nurturing relationships of reciprocity and grace with all human and non-human beings, knowing that you are an integral part of all of it.
No, I can’t stay in these woods. I will emerge in a few days and return to the places where people gather to have meaningful conversations and to wrestle with the many complexities in the world. I will emerge because I still have work to do and a contribution to make. But I will return to these woods whenever I need to be reminded of who I am.
There’s a place I love to walk. I discovered it at the beginning of the summer, when my daughters and I rented a little house in a different neighbourhood of the city than where we’d lived before. It’s a low-lying area along the Red River, ending where it meets the Seine River. It’s an area that’s frequently flooded in Spring when the rivers swell their banks. You can see the marks of past floods on the trunks of the trees that are rooted there.
I love this place because it feels liminal – a space between two realities. Sometimes it is solid land, sometimes it is part of the river, and sometimes it is covered in thick, gooey mud after the water has subsided. It’s special (and somewhat mystical) partly because I can only navigate it when Mother Nature gives me permission. Whenever it is wet, I have to walk a different path on higher ground.
I have a greater propensity for liminality than most people. I go seeking it in nature and in life because I want to understand it, to know it as deeply as I can even though its very nature is to remain always somewhat unknowable. There’s a mystery that draws me to it, and so I make choices that seem baffling to many because a strange siren call beckons me toward this mystical place.
In anthropology, liminality is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage. It’s a space of transition, threshold, ritual, and quest. In most of the literature about it, liminality is a temporary place that has an end-point – a place we eventually emerge out of when our new story begins. It’s what happens when we lose our job, a loved one dies, or we move through puberty into adulthood.
According to Victor Turner, one of the pre-eminent early writers on the subject, liminality can have three dimensions – a moment, a period, or an epoch. Momentary liminal spaces are sudden events, like death, divorce, or illness. Periodic liminal spaces are stages of life, like puberty or the shift into elderhood. Epochal liminal spaces are those that last a lifetime, like when someone steps out of or is exiled from society (monkhood, for example). (Source: The Uses and Meaning of Liminality)
At least in Turner’s early work, there is some apparent judgement of epochal liminality. He talks of “stuckness”, “failed ritual” and “danger”. These qualifying words seem to miss out on the beauty of what is offered from this place of suspended liminality. What about those of us who feel called to lives of liminality? Those of us who live as edgewalkers and wanderers, always witnessing society but never being fully part of it? What about the value of the lessons we learn there? What of the gifts we offer to those who don’t spend their lives in quest as we do?
I don’t know why liminality is so deeply embedded in who I am. I don’t know why I seek it out in such an intentional way that I sold my home last year (as soon as my daughters moved away) and have been nomadic ever since. Perhaps if I were more connected to my own ancient indigeneity, if it hadn’t been so intentionally trained out of me by colonization, religion, and patriarchy, I would have a better understanding of the purpose and calling in this restlessness. Perhaps I would see myself (and the society I live in would see it too) as some kind of medicine woman, explorer, alchemist, or guide. Perhaps there would have even been a ritual way of commissioning me into it – a robe placed across my shoulders, perhaps, and a walking stick offered for the journey.
What I DO know, after years of doubting my purpose, years of wondering why I didn’t fully know what it meant to fit in, and years of judging my restlessness, is that there is value in this calling. It may not be fully understood, in a culture that centres capitalism, colonization and consumerism and distances itself from spirituality and indigeneity, but it is necessary. Perhaps now more than ever, it is of value.
Now, when the world feels increasingly wobbly and the systems we’ve created that used to make us feel secure only add to the wobbliness, we need guides for the liminal spaces. We need people who have the resilience, resources, and capacity to skillfully navigate what is unknown and unknowable, people who understand the quest and aren’t afraid to lead other people through it. We need people with courage and strength to face the uncertainty.
Several years ago, around the time I was leaving my full-time employment to set off on this quest called self-employment, I heard a speaker at a conference say, “The world needs more people who know how to navigate in the dark.” In that instant, the whole world went still and everyone else in the room disappeared. I knew she was talking directly to me. I was very much “in the dark” at that moment, having quit my job just after my then-husband attempted suicide. As much as I felt lost and overwhelmed at that time, though, I had a strong sense that there was something in me that was being strengthened by the darkness for a higher purpose. I’d felt it years earlier, too, when my stillborn son Matthew was born and I felt oddly at peace and empowered as I navigated the darkness and grief of that time.
Perhaps that moment, when the whole room went still and I heard the words of the speaker as a clarion call, was my modern-day version of a commissioning into this work. Perhaps that was my invitation to stop doubting myself and step fully into the confidence that this work was calling me. Not long afterward, I started the work that would eventually lead to my first book and the Centre for Holding Space. I have been faithful to the calling ever since.
Lately I’ve had some new thoughts about liminality and about the value and purpose of this space. It occurs to me that liminality is not just the space in between “what was” and “what will be”, but it’s the space between polarities. It’s the space between black and white, good and bad – even male and female. It’s the space of “transition”, “transcendence” and “transness”. It’s the curved line on the yin-yang symbol
In liminality, old boxes, definitions, polarities, beliefs, and dogmas fall apart. That can feel like a scary and destabilizing place to be. We can’t make sense of this new space from within the limitation of our old version of sense-making. We try but we always fail. Often, we try to put the genie back in the bottle but the genie refuses. The genie is a lover of freedom.
I believe this is part of the reason why the rights of trans people have become such a focal point recently (at least here, in North America). Trans people represent liminality – the space in between male and female – and many people want to put “the genie back in the bottle”. For those people, the world makes more sense, and it feels safer if gender exists only on a binary.
Many people bemoan the fact that more and more people are coming out as trans and that there is greater and greater demand for gender-affirming care. These people have constructed a belief that there is a “gay agenda”, that drag queens are grooming young children into gay lifestyles, and that providing more supportive spaces in schools for trans youth is a threat to family rights. I hear the fear of liminality in these people – they want to return to what they believe was a world that made sense and where they could keep their children safe.
I have a very different view of this issue. I feel hopeful that more and more people are seeing themselves for who they truly are, outside of the definitions and binaries that once boxed them in (and that we, as a culture, were addicted to). I am encouraged by those who find themselves in “epochal liminality”, outside of the limitations of linear, binary thinking. Just as I resisted the language of “stuckness”, “failed ritual” and “danger” in the anthropological literature, I am much more inclined to see the beauty and value of what is transpiring and to challenge the resistance.
This form of liminality is not without precedent among non-human animal species. In an episode of the podcast, You’re Wrong About, there’s a fascinating exploration of queer animals, including an island with an unusually high percentage of lesbian seagulls. According to the research done by the podcast host, our awareness of how much queerness shows up in animals is limited largely because there is fear and lack of funding that limits the research.
I am hopeful that that is changing and that, despite the political push to “put the genie back in the bottle”, there is increasing openness to the liminality of queerness. I am delighted to be witness, for example, to the ways that my daughters and their circles of friends explore gender and sexuality. There’s a playfulness there, an openness to possibility. They inspire me to explore it for myself as well, to step into liminality with them. I don’t feel any of the fear that I might have in my younger, more religious days (or that I witness in some of my friends).
I believe that trans people, and all others across the 2SLGBTQIA+ spectrum, have a gift to offer the world from their place of liminality. I believe that many have gained wisdom from their own personal quests that the rest of us can benefit from. By removing themselves from the boxes that once confined them, they are modeling what it can look like to no longer be confined by the systems we’ve created and that now harm us. I believe that instead of resisting and marginalizing them, we should be listening and paying attention.
I feel similarly about the number of us who are now identifying as neurodivergent. There is freedom in exploring what it means to remove ourselves from what is seen as “normal”. There is gift and possibility when we step out of the frame ourselves, or when we listen to those who do.
Bayo Akomolafe once said, in a conversation in which he talked about the neurodivergence of his son, that “whiteness attempts to flatten everything” and I hear the truth of that. Systems of dominance, like white supremacy, colonization, and patriarchy, attempt to flatten us, to put us all in boxes and to keep us there. Those of us who live in the liminal spaces are forced to reside in spaces that feel more safe for the dominant culture. We lose our uniqueness, we lose the ceremonies that celebrate and empower us to step into our special areas of giftedness, and we are forcibly distanced from our own internal sources of wisdom.
When we break out of those boxes and see ourselves outside of the lenses of those systems, when we enter the liminality of a world that’s less definable, we bring dimension and possibility back to a flattened world. Instead of marginalizing those people who live in liminality, we should be embracing them, calling on their wisdom and gathering around them in the public square.
I want to say to those people who find themselves embracing their own liminality (whether that is in their queerness, their neurodivergence, or some other way), in much the same way as I heard from that speaker several years ago, that “the world needs more people who know how to navigate liminality”.
The world needs YOU, my friend, even if you’re currently feeling lost and overwhelmed and wounded by frightened people. The world needs you to continue to be true to yourself despite the efforts to put you back in a box (or a closet). The world needs you to be courageous and strong even when there are those who fear for your safety.
The world is changing and we need new skills for this changing world. One of those skills is the ability to navigate liminal spaces. Who better to guide us than those who are, by their very nature, liminal?
I was lying on a table and the practitioner holding my arm with both hands was saying “relax your muscles and let me move your arm for you”. With all of my will, I tried. I wanted to do what she asked, if only to make my inner people-pleaser happy. I wanted to be completely relaxed, trusting her to manoeuvre my arm the way she was trying to do it. But I couldn’t. I just COULD NOT. Every time she tried to move my arm, my muscles would involuntarily tighten, anticipate the movement she was trying to manage, and then help her do it. As much as my head told me she was trustworthy, my body refused to believe it.
I was visiting this Feldenkrais practitioner, hoping to relieve the pain in my shoulder. I’d been for an X-ray a month earlier, when I’d injured myself in a tumble out of my bathtub, and it revealed nothing, so I’d assumed, based on the doctor saying it was probably muscular, that the shoulder would just get better. It didn’t. A friend recommended Feldenkrais.
Not knowing it was a fracture (that would be revealed a month later in an MRI), the treatment left me in more pain than when I’d arrived. I drove home in tears.
The tears weren’t just about the pain though. I was crying because, while lying on the table trying not to move the muscles she didn’t want me to move, I’d been reminded just how hard it was to lean into fully embodied trust in another person.
By then, I knew enough about trauma to recognize what was going on. My muscles held the memories of all of the times my body had been harmed – the rape by a stranger in my twenties and the abuse in my marriage – coupled with the shame and disassociation/disembodiment planted in my body from a childhood in a restrictive “purity culture” religion. Even though I’d done a considerable amount of therapy and healing by then, my body remained hypervigilant, prepared for any harm that might come. The only person I could trust to keep my body safe was ME.
Last week, on a long road trip, I was listening to Billy Porter’s memoir, Unprotected, about how he grew up – a flamboyant queer Black kid in a world that rejected and assaulted him again and again. His family and church community treated him like an abomination, his step dad sexually abused him for five years, he was bullied in school, and there were no places (or people) in his childhood that were truly safe for him. The first place he remembers having an embodied experience of safety and support was on the set of Pose, the TV show he starred in about New York City’s ball culture, an LGBTQ subculture in the African-American and Latino communities (in the 80s and 90s).
Though we come from very different backgrounds, there was still resonance in his story for me. I know what it means to have lifelong shame in my body because I was told it was shameful by the church. I know what it means to not believe people will treat my body with care because my body remembers harm.
I also know how surprising it can be to one day realize that something has changed – that you’ve found yourself in the presence of trustworthy people, that you can trust your own wisdom about what boundaries are needed (and you have more strength and better support structures in place to hold those boundaries), and that maybe, just maybe, you can start to put down the burden of shame that your childhood self learned to carry.
Of course, it’s not enough to know those things in your HEAD, you also need to know them in your BODY – and that’s the tricky part. I thought I’d figured this stuff out years ago, when I had a head full of knowledge and had made some hard choices about much-needed boundaries, but then I kept getting reminders, like when I tried to trust the Feldenkrais practitioner, that my body still didn’t fully trust people.
Often it was more about emotional safety than physical safety, but my nervous system doesn’t know the difference and the muscles in my body prepare for fight/flight/freeze/fawn regardless of the source of the threat. Even in places that are seemingly quite safe, like when I’m at a retreat or in a conversation circle with a group of like-hearted people, I notice the signs in my body that there is something in the room that’s triggering a trauma response.
It’s been a long journey, trying to understand, heal and soothe this in myself. I have deep gratitude for the people who’ve been alongside me in this journey, people like my business partner Krista and my dear friend Saleha, as well as therapists and mentors.
Even in those relationships, though, there were times early on when I struggled to lean into fully embodied trust. A part of me remained wary and vigilant. “Isn’t this too good to be true? Can this person really be trusted? Won’t they withdraw their care at some point? Shouldn’t I keep my guard up and maintain my distance? Will they really stick around when I screw up?”
When I first started teaching about the practice of holding space, years ago, it surprised me to hear a lot of participants in my courses and workshops say “I’m good at holding space for other people, but I’m not very good at allowing other people to hold space for me.” It shouldn’t have surprised me, though – because the very same thing was true for me. I could offer a space that others would experience as safe, but I could rarely trust that what others offered me would be safe. I used to say that it was because “I have high standards for people’s skills in facilitation, coaching, therapy, etc.” but in truth, it was more like “my nervous system is hyper-vigilant about who is worthy of my trust.”
Even in recent months, I’ve had a few opportunities to notice when my lack of trust still gets triggered and sometimes gets in the way of growth. It’s been a busy season of working with other people who are helping to advance my work and the work of the Centre for Holding Space – editors and publishers who are working on making my next book the best that it can be and marketing/branding consultants who are helping us expand the reach of the Centre’s work. Every once in a while, I notice my nervous system being activated in this process and a little voice in my head says “Is it safe to trust these people with this work that feels so intertwined with my identity? What if they reject or mislead me? What if I get hurt?” Whenever that stuff gets activated, I have an opportunity to interrogate it and extend tenderness to that scared part of me that still believes that past harm equals future harm. (Fortunately, the people supporting the book and the Centre are wise and caring and have proven trustworthy again and again.)
I’ve said it many times: holding space is FAR more of an internal practice than it is an external practice. It’s about noticing how our own baggage gets in the way of our ability to be present for other people. It’s about healing our own trauma and soothing our reactivity so that we don’t project it onto other people. It’s about leaning into our discomfort and learning to live in liminality so that we don’t get so easily knocked off centre.
AND it’s also about having grace and compassion for the other people we hold space for, knowing that some of them might lack an embodied feeling of trust even when their head says it’s safe (and most of those people won’t know how to articulate it). It’s about not taking it personally when someone has a triggered reaction to something we say or do. It’s about having patience for the other person’s wariness and resistance, and it’s about consistently showing up and working to earn their trust.
I am eternally grateful to those people who, especially in the early days of my healing journey, were willing to stick around and continue to hold space for me even when the trauma showed up in my body and I wanted to (and sometimes did) run away. They dared to love me despite how skittish I sometimes was.
I keep doing this work because I know that it’s important. I want to be in deep, trusting, and secure relationships with people. I want to find the people I can trust with even my most traumatized parts. I want to be as safe as I can be in my own body so that I can offer a safe haven and secure base for other people.
More than anything, I want to make choices rooted in the pursuit of joy, liberation and embodied trust rather than trauma and distrust. That’s what my upcoming book, Where Tenderness Lives: On healing, liberation and holding space for oneself is all about. I’m excited to share it with you in January. You can pre-order your copy here. (And pre-orders are GREATLY appreciated!)
P.S. If you’re still learning about what it means to hold space for yourself (and others), and if you want to explore more about what it takes to create trauma-informed spaces for meaningful conversation, join us in the How to Hold Space Foundation Program. It starts the week of October 23.
My social media feed is filling up with images of grinning college students settling into dorm rooms. Sometimes the parents who are posting those images are in the photos and grinning too, but beneath the grins and cheery captions… well, there’s a lifetime of stories and a whole host of other stuff. I can see it in their eyes. (Let’s face it, when your child moves away, it’s hard to keep it from showing up in your eyes.)
“Whoa…that’s three sentences… and ten thousand pounds of stuff,” Michael J. Fox said in his documentary, Still, when he was reading a short passage about his relationship with his dad from his autobiography. That’s what I feel when I look at those photos… just a simple photo, a simple smile, a simple caption about how their child is starting university… and ten thousand pounds of STUFF. Yes, when your child moves away, there’s a lot of STUFF – emotional and otherwise.
Did they really grow up so quickly? Don’t I have more time with them? Can we go back to simpler days when they needed me more? Will I become less relevant in their life? Did I teach them all the things they need to become a good adult? Will they make friends here? Will they be lonely? What if they get their heart broken and I’m not around to support them? How will I spend my time when I’m no longer caring for them in my house? What if I enjoy having them out of the house – will that make me a bad parent? What’s my identity now that “parent” is taking up less space?
Oh parent… I feel you. My heart is travelling with you on this wild roller-coaster ride called parenting. Who could have known, when we first became bonded with those little people who entered our lives, just how much our hearts would become tethered to theirs? Who could have known the ways our hearts would swell with pride and devotion, the way those little people could uniquely break our hearts with their cutting words, the way we could feel such intense anger one moment and love the next, the ways we’d feel so completely unprepared, overwhelmed and uncertain about how we were raising them?
Parenting is a series of thresholds, milestones, and heartaches. It’s a gradual, incremental process of letting go, punctuated with these bigger moments when the letting go feels more and more profound (and sometimes earth-shattering) – like when we first leave them with a babysitter, they start attending school, they have their first sleepover, they go away to a week of sleepover camp, they start high school, they learn to drive, and they get their first job. And there’s the other stuff too – less tangible and sometimes more emotional – the first time they keep a secret from us, the first time they lie to cover something up, the first time they choose a friend over us, the first time they slam their bedroom door. Then, before we know it, they’re ready for that BIG threshold – the one that involves them leaving our home, for a university dorm, their own apartment, another city… whatever. It’s all an exercise in learning to let our hearts walk around outside of our bodies… and then realizing those hearts were never ours to begin with.
Sometimes when I teach about what it means to hold space, I joke that I got my PhD in holding space from being a parent. At first, you hold them close and take responsibility for meeting all their needs, and the container you hold for them is small and enclosed, protective and safe – like a bird’s nest. Then gradually, you open your hands and your heart more and more and let them grow into their autonomy and agency and you practice letting them take responsibility for the consequences of their own actions. It’s not easy, this letting go, especially when your child moves away, but it’s necessary. Individuation, according to Jung, is the process a child must undergo to become their own person – a well-functioning adult, with their own beliefs and ideals that might be separate from those of their parents and society. We let go so that they can become themselves.
(An aside… I think there’s a potential individuation process involved in parenting too, especially if there was some arrested development in our early lives and our children’s growing up brings up our own long-buried childhood stuff, but that’s a post for another day.)
What comes up again and again in the work I do, when people begin to learn about what it means to hold space, is that this practice is FAR more about us, the spaceholders, than it is about the people we hold space for. As parents, we have to hold space for OURSELVES during this important milestone so that we don’t project all of our stuff onto our children, so that we don’t pass down the woundedness and trauma we’ve inherited from our lineage, and so that they can be released more fully into their individuation with liberation and without shouldering guilt over abandoning us or fear that they’re severing family ties or letting us down.
Two years ago, my oldest and youngest daughters moved out within two weeks and I drove each of them twenty-four hours in opposite directions to their new homes in faraway cities. Not long afterwards, my middle daughter started traveling and I was mostly an empty-nester. The pandemic had given me bonus time, with all of them staying home longer than expected, but then the world started opening and suddenly they were all leaving in quick succession, and going far away. SO quickly it all happened and suddenly… I was alone. And there I was, reeling from the emotional tailspin of it all, but doing my best to hold space for myself so that my aloneness didn’t become their burden.
This summer, I’ve enjoyed the gift of a few months with two daughters back under the same roof, but next week I have to say good-bye again as one heads back to the west coast and the other heads in the opposite direction. I’m a little more prepared for it now, having survived the initial blow, but I know it will still be hard. I know my emotions will bounce all over the place for a while.
As I prepare for this next period of transition, I thought I’d share some reflections from my own experience and my understanding of what it means to hold space for our growing children and for ourselves. I hope these are supportive for when your child moves away.
1. Trust that you have taught your children as much as they need to know, and that they have the capacity to figure out the rest. This one surprised me when I helped my daughters set up their new homes far from where I’d be living. I worried about whether I’d taught them enough that they’d know how to function as independent adults. Some of it was about simple things (like getting stains out of clothes) and some of it was bigger (like building community in a new city). I cried about it in a hotel room on the long trip home, but then I had to let go and trust that they’d be okay. Two years later, I can see how well they adapted, and I have to admit that those fears were more about my own insecurities (i.e. Had I been a good enough mother?) then they were about them.
2.Give them the advice that matters most, and withhold the stuff they can figure out on their own. This is related to the first one, but it’s also about allowing our children to have their own autonomy and make their own mistakes. They need to know that we trust them and that we don’t assume they’ll be helpless without us nearby. When we try to dump too much advice on them, we run the risk of hijacking space while making them doubt their own capacity to make good choices independently. In those early days for each of my daughters as they set up their apartments and learned to navigate new cities, I had to learn to (mostly) keep my mouth shut when they chose sheets and towels, and then figured out how to navigate public transit. There was some discernment in recognizing when to stay silent and when to step in and let them know I still had their backs and I didn’t always get it right, but I tried.
3. Be mindful of what this separation might be triggering in you, and work to hold and heal it without making it your child’s burden. Are you feeling separation anxiety, or having old abandonment trauma triggered? Are you afraid of becoming irrelevant in your children’s lives? Are you afraid of losing your sense of purpose when you’re not needed as much? Are you letting your mind cycle through irrational fear of what could happen to them while you’re far away? Maybe there’s codependency in your relationship with your child and you’ve been overly enmeshed in their life? These are all very real things, and you don’t need to bury them and pretend you’re not feeling them, but it’s your responsibility to hold these things (and/or find peers or professionals to help you hold and heal them) not your children’s. Breathe deeply, dear parent, and release them with a blessing so that they don’t have to take responsibility for (or inherit) your pain.
4. Recognize that there is grief in this and find healthy ways to process your grief. I know it hurts – that’s natural. You’re grieving the end of a really important era of your life. You’re grieving the loss of that little innocent child you cherished. You’re grieving the way your role in your child’s life is changing. You’re grieving all of those meals you won’t eat together, all those movies you can’t watch, all those car rides, and all that laughter you’ll no longer hear from the living room. It’s not a death, exactly, but it can feel that way. Let yourself cry, let yourself grieve, and find friends who will hold space while you release all of those big feelings. Pour it onto your journal page or go sit by a river and let the natural world hold space for your tears. Grief is a natural part of relationships. Grief is a part of what it means to love. Go ahead and feel it. (This too shall pass.)
5.Recognize that there is also freedom in this (and let go of any guilt you feel over enjoying that freedom). There is never just one emotion involved in a major milestone like this. There might be some relief mixed in with the grief, and maybe even some joy (though those might not be the most immediate emotions to show up). You’ve done the heavy lifting of parenting a child into adulthood and now they’re not going to need you as much. When your child moves away, they’re going to find other people to lean on and your burdens will likely become lighter. You won’t need to cook as many meals or give as many rides or clean up as many stray socks. That can feel like freedom. Your life is about to open up in ways that might not have been possible when your children were more dependent on you. Feeling guilty over enjoying it isn’t going to serve anyone, so why not enjoy it? In the long run, your kids are likely going to enjoy their own freedom more (and feel less guilty about leaving you behind) if they see you enjoying yours. It’s a healthier way of nurturing a secure (and evolving) attachment bond between you.
6. Lean into liminality. There is liminal space involved in any major transition in our lives and this one is no exception. We have to let go of the old story of who we were and how we spent our days and it will take some time for the new story to emerge. There’s an identity shift when you lose some of the duties and expectations that once defined you as a parent and you might even find yourself in a full-fledged identity crisis. Lean into it, dear parent (while getting support if the crisis is significant). Things are going to be different. There’s going to be a new normal. You will eventually adjust to a new way of filling your days, a new way of being in communication with your child, a new way of welcoming them home for the holidays, and perhaps new hobbies, new friendships, and new ways of making meaning of your life. But you don’t have to figure any of that stuff out right away. Let yourself feel wobbly for awhile. Let yourself feel all the complicated back-and-forth emotions. Be tender with yourself when old wounds get triggered, when you feel lonely, when you’re full of self-doubt, or when you’re uncertain what your purpose in life should be. This is liminality, this is normal.
7. Consider planning a “gap year” for yourself. When we think of gap years, we picture high school graduates going off into the world to find themselves before entering college. But what about a gap year for new empty-nesters? When my daughters all moved out, I sold our family home (because none of them planned to move back to Winnipeg and I didn’t intend to stay in the city either) and set off on a year-long adventure. Because my work affords me the privilege of working from anywhere there’s Wi-Fi (plus I teach internationally), I had the privilege of traveling all over Europe and Central America. Now that I’m at the tail end of that year, I am immensely grateful that I had the opportunity! It wasn’t always easy, and sometimes I felt lonely, but it was a profoundly meaningful (and fun) way to explore who I am, where I want to live, and how I want to live in this next phase of my life. I got to spend the year being intentional about making choices rooted in joy, tenderness, and liberation – choices for ME and nobody else – and I feel grounded and have a new sense of confidence and self-love now. Your gap year might look nothing like mine (maybe you can’t leave your home or have no interest in travel), but there might be some way for you to experience a similar period of exploration, expansion, and joy-seeking as you figure out how you want to live, love, and make meaning. (Consider joining our Full-Bodied Life community for this time of exploration.)
8. Explore (and enjoy) your expanding identity and possibilities. Related to the last point, you have an opportunity, in this transition period, to dive into more intentional self-exploration. Maybe there are lifestyle changes you want to make. Maybe there are relationships that need to shift or new boundaries you need to adopt. Maybe it’s time to dive into that therapy you’ve been putting off. Maybe you want to travel more. Maybe you want to take up new hobbies or take a course. Maybe it’s time to sign up for that master’s degree program you always dreamed you’d get but put off when the children came. This is a moment when you get to let go of some of that old programming about what’s selfish or a waste of time or what you’re not worthy of. This is a time when you get to choose YOURSELF. Be playful with your exploration and HAVE FUN!
One day, dear parent, you will wake up in the morning and realize that something has shifted and that you’ve now become accustomed to this new normal. Despite how monumental they feel when they happen, transitions don’t last forever. You can weather this storm, just as you have weathered storms in the past. You’re not finished growing and evolving, and while growth can sometimes hurt, it can also lead us into more expansive lives. Go ahead – live a more expansive life!
P.S. If you want to learn more about how to hold space for yourself, now would be a great time to sign up for our How to Hold Space Foundation Program. It starts in October 2023, and if you sign up before September 1, you can still get last year’s prices.