Letting my daughters go: On learning to hold space when little birds leave the nest

(photo credit: Maurice Schalker, Unsplash)
(Listen to me read the post)

It all starts months ago. Whenever I consider that two of my daughters are planning to move out at the same time (each to cities more than 2000 kilometres away in opposite directions), I find myself dissolving into minor panic attacks. My throat closes, my brain starts to buzz, and suddenly I’m gasping for air and fighting tears. And then I soothe myself by slipping into denial, because… really… could this ACTUALLY happen, especially in a pandemic when we’ve all become so accustomed to hunkering down and barely leaving the house? My mama-heart does everything it can to try to shield me from the thoughts my mama-brain is trying to have about this sudden upcoming transition from too-full nest to nearly-empty nest. “Nope,” I tell myself, “It likely won’t happen. The fourth wave will come, their universities will shut down, or… maybe one of them will change their mind?”

Then August arrives, as it insists on doing every year, and… “Shit,” my mama-brain starts to say. “I think it’s actually going to happen.” And then mama-heart and mama-brain try to work things out between the two of them, brain trying to console heart while both prepare for the inevitable. “We’ll be okay,” brain says. “We’re strong. And besides… millions of parents before us have gotten through this – why wouldn’t we?” “But…” heart moans in a weaker moment, “has anyone in history ever had to do this, as a single, self-employed mom, when she’s spent over a year gathering her daughters close because they were scared of a deadly virus and especially nervous about protecting the disabled and immune-compromised member of the family? And has anyone had to face this so soon after all the combined surgeries those two daughters have had in the last year? AND the same year two of three daughters were diagnosed with ADHD, and we started a new business and launched a new book? I DON’T THINK SO!” (Mama-heart is well-practiced at slipping into victim mode.)

At some point, though, brain always cuts in and waxes eloquence about how we’d always hoped to raise independent daughters who would find things they were passionate about and do brave things in pursuit of those passions… and… now that they’re about to do just that, why would we get in the way?

Whew – the internal dialogue floors me with its intensity and I get sucked in again and again.

A week before I’m set to leave for the first trip to deliver my oldest daughter, my body dives into the internal dialogue and registers a solid dose of resistance. In a freak accident involving a bucket and a kiddie-pool, I wrench my back so badly I can barely move. For a week, I’m in so much pain, I don’t know how I’ll sit in a car for the three-day drive to Toronto, help my daughter move her belongings up two flights of stairs, and then make the trip back again. I try everything I can to resolve it – physiotherapy, chiropractor, massage, acupuncture.

By the time we’re set to leave, the pain is close to manageable. I drive with the sticky-pads of a TENS machine attached to my back as my physiotherapist suggests, flicking the switch to send little electrical jolts into my muscles when the pain flares up. By the time we’re in Toronto, my back is strong enough that I can carry boxes up to her third-floor room. It’s a good thing because she is still recovering from knee surgery and has limited mobility herself.

****

I spend four days in Toronto, getting used to the idea that I will leave my oldest daughter behind in the middle of this big busy city, and she will begin a life without me near. She will learn to navigate this city on her own, and when I come back to visit, my status as “well-traveled expert” will have diminished, and she will know these streets better than I do. It’s a shift I’ve been working on getting used to over the past few years – accepting the times when my daughters pass the threshold into territory I know nothing about.

We make multiple trips to Wal-mart and IKEA until her small room is fully stocked with the things that will be harder to attain when she doesn’t have access to a car. I watch her make decisions on cleaning products and bed sheets and sometimes she turns to ask my opinion. I pause before giving it, wondering whether this is a moment when she needs a mom’s expertise, or she needs to choose for herself. Maybe she asks my opinion just to make me feel useful in this moment when my usefulness seems to be waning. Or maybe she’s overwhelmed with the multitude of tiny decisions that come with a big move and she needs me to take this one off her hands. I give opinions tentatively, knowing whatever she buys will all belong in a home that is not mine to manage or care for. Mostly, I just provide the transportation.

One evening while I’m still in Toronto, we both have a moment when the immensity of it all washes over us and neither of us can express how that feels in words that have any meaning. As introverts we both know, without saying it out loud, that we each need space after these intense days together. I drive to the beach, walk on the sand and put my feet in the water. She crawls into her new bed under her new blanket and has a nap. Later, I bring her a carton of greasy poutine and we curl up together watching Twilight, a movie that reminds her of easier times when she was a teenager and lived in the safety of her mom’s home and didn’t have to make so many decisions.

****

A friend flies to Toronto to make the long drive back to the prairies with me. When she’d first offered, a month earlier, I was hesitant to accept the offer, not sure I’d know how to be with somebody in those first days of this new liminal space. My heart feels protective of this moment that feels so uniquely solitary, and a part of me wants the solitary hours in the car to process and prepare for this new aloneness. I have always done my best crying alone. I accept her offer, though, trusting what I teach others – that we get through things better when we trust others to hold space for us.

The first night in a hotel room on the long drive home, after a FaceTime call with my daughter, I melt down with the weight of all of my sadness, and my friend sits with me as I cry. She doesn’t say much. She, too, has left a daughter behind in Toronto, a few years earlier, so she knows this is simply a moment I have to pass through.

I worry about who will hold space for my daughter when she cries, in a city where she knows no-one. For twenty-five years, for many melt-down moments, I have been her person.

****

A week after arriving home, I am ready to set out again – this time heading west, to Vancouver, where I will leave my youngest daughter. We pack the car one more time and this time my middle daughter will make the trip with me. After this is all over, she will be the only one who will return home with me.

On the way through the mountains, my friend Lenore is never far from my mind. In Banff, we stop to see the house where Lenore and I lived with three other young women the summer I turned nineteen. My nineteen-year-old daughter, now on her own way to a place where she will live with roommates like I once lived with Lenore, snaps a picture of me in front of the house. I tell her how hard it was to live there even though the mountains around me were so beautiful. I cleaned hotel rooms for a living, with a mean boss who yelled at me for moving too slowly, and it was the hardest job I’ve ever had.

Almost exactly seven years before this trip with my daughters, Lenore died in these mountains, on her way to drive her own daughter to B.C. for university. She, too, had three daughters, born a few years sooner than mine. The parallels feel eerily prescient. She died in the passenger seat of the car when it went off the road, just after her daughter had taken over as driver. I don’t tell my daughters about this on our trip, not wanting to spook them, but I also don’t let my daughter drive. I stay vigilant and pray that we will make it through the mountains intact.

In B.C. we pass places where forest fires are still burning and we watch helicopters dropping water from the sky. The grief of a burning world threatens to consume me, but I push the thought away, knowing I only have enough capacity to hold the grief that’s right in front of me. I worry for my daughter, though, so primed to pay attention to the grief and fear of climate change that she became an activist two years earlier. How will she be able to hold all of that as she dives deeper into studies that could sometimes overwhelm her with the doom of an uncertain future? She jokes that her time at university will be short because the planet will be destroyed soon, but under her sardonic humour is anxiety and grief.

****

In Vancouver, I make the same trips to Wal-mart and IKEA for bedsheets and cleaning products, and it feels like déjà vu. Once again, I try to withhold my opinions until they’re requested. Once again, I listen to the complaints about how expensive it is to buy all the essentials and how annoying it is to buy toilet paper just to flush it down the drain. My oldest daughter sends texts from Toronto into the family chat about how it bugs her to have to pay to do laundry, and they commiserate with each other about the frustrations and expenses of becoming adults. I chuckle as their awareness grows about how much I provided and they took for granted.

While they complain and make jokes, I marvel at their capacity and adaptability. I watch them each do things I didn’t know they’d become capable of. I begin to relax the tension in my neck and chest and I tell myself “You have done all that you could to help them prepare for adulthood. They will be fine without you.” And yet… there is still a part of me that stresses about the things I should have taught them when they were still under my roof. Did I miss some critical parts of their education? Will they bump up against things that surprise them because I forgot to warn them?

****

When the morning of our departure arrives, I wonder, for the second time, about how much emotion I should reveal and how much I should hold back, to release when I am alone later. Should I let them know how empty the house will feel, or should I focus on the fact that I will be fine, and I’ll soon find ways to fill the empty spaces in my life and home? Will my tears let them know how much they are valued, or will they make them feel guilty for leaving me behind? If, on the other hand, I am too stoic, will they think they don’t matter to me?

My own mother had a way of making her grief other people’s burden. When my siblings and I grew up and left home, her loneliness became our guilt. She rarely missed an opportunity to say how much she wished we’d call her more often and how she was afraid her life no longer mattered to anyone. Determined not to let that family pattern pass on to the next generation, I try to ensure my daughters that they have my unconditional support in these big, brave moves they’re making.

Before her sister and I leave, my daughter jokes that now would be the time to say something toxic, to try to coerce her into coming home. “No,” I say. “I will not be responsible for you changing your mind about something you want. I don’t want to be the person you blame in therapy ten years from now for ruining your life.” She turns to her sister, who’s feeling the grief of this moment as much as I am, and says “How about you? Do you want to say something toxic?” Her sister’s response is similar to mine. As much as we want her home with us, we want her to follow her dreams more.

We say good-bye, and we all cry.

****

It’s hard to leave my baby in Vancouver, but it’s especially hard after the last eighteen months we’ve had together. Just before the pandemic hit, she was diagnosed with a rare disease that keeps closing her trachea and making it hard for her to breathe. Since then, she’s had surgery each time her trachea closes again. Nine times I’ve taken her to the hospital for surgery, and for seven of those trips, since the pandemic rules changed things, I’ve had to leave her at the front door. I couldn’t stay with her as her advocate in the healthcare system and I couldn’t be at her bedside when she woke up. Two of those times, while I was at home waiting, I got a call from the surgeon saying that her oxygen levels had dropped suddenly after surgery, and they’d had to revive her.

About a year after the first diagnosis, after she switched specialists because the first one wasn’t very proactive, she saw a third specialist and received a second diagnosis for a rare and scary auto-immune disorder that is likely at the root of the problem with her trachea and could possibly cause other problems. They began treating her with immune-suppressing meds with a long list of side effects. A team of specialists began working on her behalf. Meanwhile, the family lived with the anxiety that there was a deadly virus lurking just outside our door that would likely be especially deadly to her. We were all extra careful not to expose ourselves, lest we expose her, and all of us got vaccinated as quickly as we could.

Now I need to leave her behind, in a new city, where she’ll need to meet with new specialists and learn to navigate a whole new healthcare system. Alone. When I think of the enormity of that, I am filled with both panic and admiration. This is a brave thing my girl is choosing to do. I assure her I will be available for conference calls with specialists and can fly to Vancouver for surgeries, but that’s the best I can do. This is the part of the letting go process that nobody warns you about when you hold a tiny, dependent baby in your arms.

****

Before setting off for home, my middle daughter and I take a ferry to Victoria for a short holiday. On a whim, because we’re both feeling sad and want to do something nice for ourselves, we decide to splurge on a whale watching tour. The zodiac ride out into the open ocean is exhilarating and breathtaking. I decide, even before we see whales, that this is the perfect way to release some of the big emotions bottled up inside me. Just like in Toronto, when I went to the beach, I have found my way to water. In the fast-moving boat, with water splashing all around us, nobody can tell my tears from salt-spray.

We find a pod of killer whales and our skipper tells us what he knows about them. It’s a family of four, two males and two females, who’ve been together for many years. The best guess is that it is three generations of whales – a grandmother, a mother, and two sons (though the females may also be sisters). The oldest female is believed to have been born before 1955 and the second before 1965. That means they’ve been together since just before I was born. The sons were likely born in 1995 and 2001, around the time I was having babies.

I marvel at this family that has stayed together all these years, and my longing makes me jealous. I have never wanted to be a killer whale before this moment.

We leave the whales behind before I’m ready to say good-bye. When we’re back on the dock, the skipper pulls me aside to offer me and my daughter a free trip the next time we come, because there were noisy kids on the boat and he worried that they were rather distracting when we should have been able to watch the whales in silence. (Perhaps he’d noticed my tears after all.) I wasn’t bothered by the kids, but I accept his offer anyway, promising myself I’ll be back next year to spend more time with the whales.

Maybe the mama-whales can teach me what it means to swim wild in big waters and still hold your family close. Maybe they can teach me how to use echolocation to reach through the water for my faraway daughters.

****

On the way back through the mountains, we’re stopped on the highway by a construction truck. The sign on the side of the road says that blasting is currently taking place up ahead. We sit and wait for the boom. Up on the cliff beside the road ahead of us, there’s a large black object that looks like machinery. When the blast comes, the black object flies into the air and I realize it isn’t machinery after all. It’s a stack of blankets made of thick black rubber that contains the blast and keeps the rubble from hurting anyone or spilling all over the road. A few minutes later, the construction vehicle moves, and we are allowed to pass.

It makes me think about how we hold space for our big emotions – still letting them happen but doing our best to contain and regulate them so that the blast doesn’t destroy anyone. I make a mental note to gather the rubber blankets I might need in the coming weeks to help me contain the blasts of this big grief.

****

Back home, I wander around the house feeling lost and untethered. I begin to turn one of my daughters’ empty bedrooms into a much-needed office for myself and I cry as I do so. Some moments I am fine and I look forward to the spaciousness that will now be mine, and some moments I dissolve into a puddle of tears.

I feel more untethered and ungrounded than I can ever remember feeling. With the only daughter still at home set to leave at any moment herself, I no longer need to provide a home for anyone other than myself. With no partner, no parents still alive and no in-laws, I am not tethered to any family commitments and don’t need to provide care to anyone who’s aging. With a business that is portable, I can work from anywhere and don’t need to stay in any one place. I am tethered to neither place nor people, neither work nor obligations. Nobody needs me to put their needs at the centre of my plans.

I know that there will be a time when this will feel like freedom, but that time is not now. Now it feels too liminal.

****

Ten days after we get home, my middle daughter, the only one still at home, goes for long-anticipated (and oft-delayed) elective surgery. It seems routine and there is little risk, but my body remembers the stress of this last year, and my body also knows, because it has birthed a stillborn son, that children can die. While she is in surgery, I find it impossible to focus on anything else. I go for a long drive and stand by the river, returning to water once again. Some of the grief comes out and because there is nobody around who might get hurt by the blast, I don’t bother with the rubber blankets.

It takes too long to hear from her after she should have been out of surgery and I can’t relax until I know she’s breathing and alive. I call to find out and am told she’s fine. When I pick her up, I want to wrap my arms around her and tell her she can never leave me, but I resist.

I know that she too will make choices that will take her away from me. And I know that I will grieve all over again.

****

Gradually, my daughters and I begin to find our new groove as a spread-out family. We text about inane things and we send each other pictures of ordinary moments in our ordinary days. We try to have a meal together over FaceTime, but the spread of four time zones makes finding a time for all of us to eat a little challenging. I hear the loneliness in their voices, but I also hear the hope and anticipation. “I LOVE Toronto!” one says, and the other responds with “Can you believe I live this close to the ocean AND the mountains?” I send them pictures of my new office, and though my images aren’t as interesting as theirs of the CN tower or the mountains, they ooh and aah anyway. We are all moving forward into new landscapes.

I trust that they are doing alright on this new solitary journey and they trust that I am too.

After painting and hanging special things on the walls, I begin to settle into my new space and I notice how different the light looks in here. When my desk was in my bedroom, I looked out an east-facing window and got the morning sun on my face. Now that my desk is in the room across the hall, I look out a west-facing window and get the evening sun. I wonder how this will shift my perspective on the world.

As I adjust to the new light, and a new pattern of movement between bedroom and office, I begin to plan for the new year that opens up ahead of me. When a wave of grief comes, I sit for a moment and let it pass. I comfort myself with all of the things I’ve learned about liminal space and how necessary it is for transformation.

Then I carry on. And I trust that my daughters are doing the same, wherever they are, in the midst of their own journeys through liminal space.

______

Note: We are all holding space for so much these days. If you would like to learn more with me, consider joining the next offering of the Holding Space Foundation Program which starts in October.

P.S. Whenever I share stories that involve my daughters, they’re always given a chance to read them first.

I’m back from sabbatical and I’m feeling so many things…

(selfie taken on the ferry, just after leaving my daughter at university)

Friends, can I level with you for a moment? I’m feeling sad this week… and tender, with my emotions very near the surface. If you dare to ask me, when I’m having a tender moment, how I’m doing with my nearly-empty house, I might just drench your shoulder with tears.

Last week I got home from the second of two long trips to move daughters to opposite ends of this vast country that I live at the centre of. To suddenly, after twenty-five years of parenting my daughters in my home and holding them close (six of those years as a single parent), have the oldest and youngest simultaneously move so far away from me, especially eighteen months into a pandemic when we’ve spent SO much time together… well… it’s a LOT.

I’m okay with the sadness, though. I know how to hold it and welcome it like a gentle friend. I know how to let it pass through me and remind me of all of the ways I have loved and been loved. It’s all a part of this liminal space that I am now in, learning how to be a different kind of mom, and I know that it’s better to feel what I need to feel than to try to numb or bypass those feelings.

What’s harder to hold right now, though, is what is being added on top of the sadness this week on my return to work… discouragement… and that’s what this post is largely about. (Truthfully, I long to write more about this transition I’m in… and I will… but there are other things I need to speak of first.) 

This week when I came back to work, I discovered that registration for our programs is slower than it’s ever been and that has me feeling discouraged and sad and… well, weary. Instead of doing the writing that I long to do, I have to try to cram my brain into marketing mode. Few things drain my energy more than marketing mode. I don’t really have any clue how to switch from “processing a big transition” into “selling seats in programs”, so instead, I’m going to do what I’m good at – be honest with you about what’s going on.

I suspect that part of the reason for our low numbers is this general malaise we’re all feeling after so many months of this pandemic (it was referred to as “pandemic flux syndrome” in a recent Washington Post article), plus a weariness from having to do so much of our connecting on Zoom. But I think there are also other things going on and those are the things I’m ruminating about this week as I contemplate what’s the “next right thing” in getting the word out.

There are some things that I want to keep stubbornly believing but that keep getting tested in moments like these when the work of running a meaningful small business feels burdensome. 

1.  I want to keep believing that a leader can rest and not suffer any consequences from that rest. (I want to believe we ALL can rest, for that matter.)
I took two months of sabbatical this summer, knowing how badly I needed a rest after the grind of launching a book, building a new business, creating and running multiple programs, parenting three daughters, supporting one of those daughters through complex and scary health challenges – all in the middle of a pandemic. It wasn’t a great time to be away from work, given the fact that it’s when we most need to be selling seats in our programs, but I knew I’d crash and burn if I didn’t tend to myself. (And then what good would I be to the people who sign up for those programs?) I created a lot of content before I left and uploaded it so that it would still get to people’s inboxes and social media feeds while I was away. I hoped that that was enough to still attract people to the programs, but… sales went down… possibly because I wasn’t visible and accessible and “in the grind” of making sales (and because social media algorithms don’t put unpaid content in front of many eyes unless it generates a lot of activity). That’s discouraging, because I don’t believe anybody should be forced to be available ALL the time just to make enough money to pay the bills. That’s capitalism at its cruelest and most exhausting.

2. I want to keep believing that collaborative leadership is better than the cult of personality.
Last year, I very intentionally took on a business partner, created the Centre for Holding Space, and hired an excellent team of co-teachers, because I believe in collaborative leadership and I believe that the best way for this work to be held is in community. Krista and our team members bring wisdom, ideas, energy, gifts and capacity to this work that enrich it and make it much more beautiful than what comes from me alone. However… we’ve had a harder time selling our programs than I did when I sold from my own platform and was the solitary teacher. On one hand, I get that – I’m a known personality and most people came to this work through me and my writing and teaching, so they trust it more when I am at the helm. But… it also feels like there is a misplaced desire to make me into the guru and for me to have all of the wisdom that people need (which feels like a cultural thing, especially in our western culture with its celebrity-worship). There’s a lot of projection and individualism and disempowerment (i.e. people giving their power over to a leader) baked into that and it saddens and troubles me. (I wrote about that in this post about why people start cults.) I am better when my work is rooted in community than when it’s rooted in ego, and I want to keep believing that’s the right way to go. (Note: I am still very present in the programs and you’ll get lots of opportunities to be in conversation with me.)

3. I want to keep believing that meaningful content is more valuable than gimmicky marketing.
I am deeply committed to putting meaningful content into the world, and I keep believing THAT is what will draw the right people to this work (and so far, it mostly has). I refuse to use manipulative marketing language and I will not inundate people with endless emails or try to convince them to buy things they can’t afford. I stand by those values and anyone who’s come to me for coaching or advice on building a business will hear me say what I used to tell my students when I taught public relations courses at university… “The two most important things are to tell good stories and build good relationships.” And yet… sometimes I watch the gimmicky, manipulative marketing tactics fill programs that cost far more than ours and… well, I get discouraged and sad. (For example, marketers would tell me that instead of this post, I should be sending out posts that signal scarcity and trigger your desire to not be left behind – to let you know there are only limited spots available for a limited time and your life will be meaningless if you don’t join, blah, blah, blah. Sadly, much of that plays on our abandonment trauma, and I just won’t do it.)

4. I want to keep believing that work can be meaningful and life-giving AND sustain people financially. And I want to believe in a shared, equitable economy, not one built on greed.
I have never had an interest in being wealthy or being an empire-builder. If I did, I’d still be selling programs on my own and pouring my energy into making a name for myself instead of trying to build the Centre for Holding Space. I do, however, believe that meaningful work CAN provide well for the people who create it and contribute to it so that they don’t have to work so hard in our soul-crushing economic systems. I believe it so much that I’ve been working hard to build something beautiful that will not only sustain me and my family, but also sustain Krista and her family and give meaningful well-paid work to our team. This past year has been a struggle, however, as Krista and I have had to pay for a lot of outside support to build the business and it’s meant that Krista has made almost no money from the Centre and I have made less than I have in several years. That saddens me, a lot (especially the part about Krista, because I love her so much and want her to be well-paid). 

5.  I want to keep believing that people are ready for depth and not just “self-help pablum”. 
On one of our long driving days last week, my daughter and I listened to an audiobook that we thought was a memoir and it turned out to be “self-help pablum”. In other words, it was easily digestible and provided enough nutrients for someone who’s in their infancy in personal development, but lacked depth, nuance and sustenance for anyone further along in their development. I don’t want to denigrate it, because I think it might be the right kind of thing for someone who’s just awakening to a longing for a different kind of life, but I get discouraged about how much of what is available still fits into that category and how often people think that’s enough. This particular influencer has ten times as many followers on social media as I do, and there are many, many others just like her, because that’s what sells and gets attention. It’s a low-risk kind of personal development path because it doesn’t ask you to disrupt anything or see the ways our systems are flawed. It doesn’t expect you to witness your own privilege, challenge your biases, or stand up to oppressive systems. But…I want to keep believing that people are ready for more, and I’ll stay devoted to that belief because I see that readiness in all of the people who show up for our programs. 

6.  I want to keep believing that holding space is one of the most important skills people need right now. 
Like it or not, we are in a time of disruption, unrest and change and we need new skills to meet the challenges we face. In this collective liminal space when so much of our lives are being unsettled by the pandemic, climate change, racism (and all of the “-isms”), political upheaval, etc., we need to learn how to practice sitting with discomfort, how to hold space for ourselves when there is disruption, how to witness our own biases without being buried in shame, how to support each other in times of grief and trauma, and how to be in community even in the darkest of times. When things get hard and complicated, we need less individualism and more community, less reactivity and more co-regulation, less grind and more rest, less hero-leadership and more host-leadership, less competition and more collaboration. We need to know how to hold grief and how to process fear. We need to know how to walk alongside people who are in liminal space. We need to know how to conscientiously disrupt the patterns that no longer serve us. These are all things that we focus on in our programs, and, more than ever, I believe this is what we need to learn, together.  

Despite my discouragement in this moment, I have not lost hope or passion for this work. This too, shall pass. (If I gave up easily, I wouldn’t have made it through my first year of self-employment.) I will keep showing up for it, because I believe in it wholeheartedly, and I know that many of you will keep showing up for it too. I am deeply grateful for all of you who join me in this quest for a better way to be in deep connection with ourselves, with each other, and with Mystery. 

Let us carry on, because it is the right thing to do. 



P.S. If you’re not yet ready to join us in the Holding Space Foundation Program, or you can’t afford it, but you want to deepen your understanding of what it means to hold space, here are a few inexpensive and accessible options:
1. Buy my book, The Art of Holding: A Practice of Love, Liberation, and Leadership. You can also add a deck of cards and/or journal if you want to dig deeper into the practice.
2. Sign up for one of our self-study programs, Holding Space in Times of Disruption and Overwhelm (this one’s “pay-what-you-can”), 52 Weeks of Holding SpaceThe Spiral Path, or Write for Love and Liberation

When you’re afraid to get in the boat, who soothes your fear?

(image credit: Mael Balland, Unsplash)

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). 

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Want to learn more about how to hold space for others and how to ask others to hold space for you? Join us for the Holding Space Foundation Program. Or pick up a copy of The Art of Holding Space: A Practice of Love, Liberation, and Leadership.

When the rapids come, adjust your posture

When you go white-water rafting, if you’re a novice, your guide will spend some time teaching you how to sit in the boat, how to hold your paddle, how to adjust your centre of gravity, and where to plant your feet so that there’s less chance that you’ll get tossed out of the boat when you hit the rapids. Then, once you’re floating down the river, your guide will watch the river and warn you when the rapids are coming so that you have time to adjust your posture accordingly. An experienced guide will have been down that river many, many times, so they know how to navigate whatever’s coming.

Once you’re through the rapids and you get to a smooth spot on the river, your guide will let you know that you can relax your posture and enjoy the view. 

A skilled leader has the same set of skills as that guide. They’re out front watching for rough water, and they’ve prepared their people so that they know how to adjust their posture to meet the needs of the moment. They warn people when necessary and then they help create the conditions for people to feel safe when the rapids subside.

This past year, there’s been a lot of metaphoric white-water rafting for all of us as we’ve had to adapt to the rough water of a pandemic without any guides to tell us when and how to adjust our posture so we don’t get tossed out of the boat. It’s hard to know what’s coming when nobody has been down this river before. Most of our leaders have felt just as confused as the people in the boat, and some of them have given us false information so we’re not always sure who to trust.

When you don’t have a guide you can trust, and your boat is floating down a river you’re unfamiliar with, it’s likely that your body will stay in the posture of hyper-vigilance. You want to be prepared for the rapids because you don’t know when they’re coming. After one set of rapids has passed, you don’t know if you can trust the stretch of smooth water enough to relax and enjoy the view. 

As we near what we hope is the end of this pandemic, many of us will find it hard for our bodies to fully relax. We might be a little more edgy and anxious than usual. We might not be sure who we can trust or what circumstances are safe. 

Recently, I was lying in my hammock trying to read a book and I noticed that, although there was no imminent threat and I couldn’t possibly be in a safer situation (in my own backyard on a beautiful day in a hammock with the gate closed and nobody else around), there was still tension in my body as though I were preparing for rapids. I scanned the things in my brain to try to figure out if there was something I was forgetting to do or some situation I was worried about, and I couldn’t find anything that should result in the posture of readiness in my body. I concluded that it was just the residual effect of a year and a half of hypervigilance without a guide to tell me when the smooth waters could be trusted. (I went through a similar thing the year before and the year after my divorce, to the point where I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue because there’d been so much adrenaline pumping through my system for so long, trying to keep me prepared for fight/flight/freeze.)

This summer, I’m taking time away from my work and from social media and it’s my hope that it will be what my body needs in order to more fully relax. I know from past experience that for this kind of long-term hypervigilance to leave my body it takes a considerable amount of time and intentional release. I’m giving my body and heart what they need – rest, companionship, fun, and nature.

I hope that you can find the time to let your body relax fully as well. Let’s be gentle with ourselves and let’s acknowledge how hard it is to go white-water rafting without a guide. We’ve done well just to survive without getting tossed out of the boat. Hopefully we’ve hit some smooth water that we can trust.

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If you want to learn more about how you can hold space for yourself when there have been lots of rapids in your life, check out our self-study program, Holding Space in Times of Disruption and Overwhelm.

You don’t know what you can’t see until you see it

I got glasses recently. I’ve been lucky enough to make it to fifty-five without them (and still only need a weak prescription), but apparently my eyes are aging with my body. When I first put them on and noticed how clear the road signs and TV screens suddenly were, I realized that what I’d been accepting as clarity was actually slightly blurry.

It’s the same in all parts of our lives – there are lots of things that we don’t realize we’re not seeing until we’re given a new pair of glasses.

I was raised in an evangelical church where we were taught that everyone needed to be saved and the highest calling was to bring lost souls to Jesus. That was the lens I saw the world through for the first half of my life. In our tiny country church, we often had visiting missionaries who would share stories of the places – both faraway and in northern parts of our country – where they were building churches and schools and bringing people the gospel. Those missionaries were held in high regard.

What I couldn’t see back then, because I didn’t have the right pair of glasses, was how much that worldview had allowed Christianity to be in an enmeshed relationship with colonization all over the world. When colonizers want to take over the land and resources, what better bedfellows than Christians who want to convert the “heathens”, and replace their culture and spiritual practices with Christianity?

Around twenty-five years ago, I started to see it. Books, conversations and movies gradually opened my eyes, and I allowed the questions to keep growing. It was hard, at first, because it felt like betrayal of my past and an abandonment of the people whose beliefs I was beginning to question, but once you start to see it, it’s hard to un-see it. 

Seventeen years ago, I wrote my first blog post when I was preparing for my first trip to Africa. I wrote this… I won’t preach from my white-washed Bible. I won’t expect that my English words are somehow endued with greater wisdom than theirs. I will listen and let them teach me. I will open my heart to the hope and the hurt. I will tread lightly on their soil and let the colours wash over me. I will allow the journey to stretch me and I will come back larger than before.

I experienced things on that trip that gave me an even more clear lens on the relationship between colonizers and Christians and the harm done in the name of Christ, and I came home angry, disillusioned and with lots to process. I no longer wanted to be associated with a religion that had done so much harm.

Recently, I’ve been watching the response of Christians to the discovery, here in Canada, of hundreds of unmarked graves on the sites of former residential schools (which were largely run by churches), and I recognize what it’s like to be suddenly asked to put on a new pair of glasses and see the truth of what’s been done in the name of religion. It can be painful, and many want to stay in a state of ignorance, because they can’t get past the cognitive dissonance that comes when something they believe to be good and true and just (the church) has caused so much harm. 

But once you put on a new pair of glasses, it’s only with intentional denial that you can stay in the belief that the world looks better without them.

It’s taken me some time to get used to my new glasses. I don’t always love them, because they’re a little disorienting (they’re bifocals, so the world looks different depending on which part of the lens I’m looking through), and it takes some effort to keep them clean, but I know I’ll be better off when I get used to wearing them. I just have to give myself time for the adjustment period.

If you’re having a hard time getting used to a new view and you’re tempted to go back to the old one, don’t give up. Just give your eyes time to adjust.

(Note: I believe that it’s possible to decolonize Christianity and I believe that Jesus provided the model for it. I am glad that there are those who are working hard to dig deeper in that work.)

Mothering myself (a new journal practice)

I adopted a new journal practice this Spring, after reading the book Discovering Your Inner Mother. I wanted to nurture all of the parts of me that are connected to old stories, and I wanted to learn to mother myself better.

Each morning, when I sit down with my journal (often sitting on the dock in the local park – my new favourite journal-writing spot), I write, at the top of the page, “Which Heather wants to show up on the page today?” And then I wait a moment to see which voice from my past wants to be heard.

Sometimes it’s the preteen who wants to tell me about how she felt like an outsider at school because she grew up Mennonite and didn’t have a TV and never got to read Teen Beat and didn’t have any entry points into the celebrity-focused conversations the other girls loved to have. Plus she was poor and wore hand-me-down clothes.

Sometimes it’s the young mom who wants to speak about how overwhelmed she felt, with babies and a demanding job, and how she doubted herself and wished she had more of a community to lean on, especially when her husband struggled with mental illness.

Whoever shows up, I hold space for her, as a patient and loving mother would, and when she’s finished speaking, I assure her that she is safe and protected and loved and that I will always listen to her and make choices that hold her best interests at heart.

Recently, during a therapy session, I had a breakthrough in naming and healing one of my traumas. I was able to connect a body sensation that is often present in times of stress and trauma-triggering with a specific moment when harm was done to younger Heather. After doing some work on it, my therapist asked “what are you feeling now, in your body?”

“I still have a bit of the sensation, but it’s weakened, and… there’s something else. I feel a little excitement in me. Almost like there’s a little girl jumping up and down inside my chest. She’s excited because she thinks that if I let go of that trauma, then maybe she can finally come out and play.”

And then I realized that there was something missing from my journal practice. I was allowing the voices of Wounded Heather to show up on the page, at whatever age she was, but I hadn’t yet invited Playful Heather or Passionate Heather or Sensuous Heather. I hadn’t yet considered the voices that Wounded Heather might have silenced because it didn’t feel safe to express those other things. (As I wrote earlier in the Spring, there is a danger in worshipping our wounds.)

Since then, I’ve been listening to the voices that have been silenced by the trauma. I have invited Sensuous Heather to tell me what she most longs for. I’ve asked Playful Heather what her favourite forms of play are. I’ve let Passionate Heather guide me in seeing the world through her eyes. I’ve asked those voices to tell me when they were silenced and what I can do to set them free.

When this post goes out into the world, I will still be on my summer sabbatical. I have taken this sabbatical partly because I want to dedicate more time to listening to those other voices. 

Just before my sabbatical started, I told a dear friend “I think I’ve grown tired of my trauma. I’m ready to find out what’s next.” And so… here I am, in that place of discovery, exploring what joy, passion, desire, and sensuousness feel like in a body that’s a little closer to healing and liberation.

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If you want to adopt a new writing practice that will help you heal and grow, you might want to try Write for Love and Liberation, which was recently re-launched as a self-study program.

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