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.
“Try not to react when you see her. She doesn’t look good.” That’s what my former husband was telling family members outside of my hospital room before they entered. He was right – I was in rough shape.
Motherhood did not arrive gently at my doorstep. That moment didn’t look anything like those muted magazine photos of rapturous mothers in long flowing white eyelet dressing gowns leaning over equally white bassinettes where cherubic infants lay sleeping. My bloodshot eyes and haggard face wouldn’t be featured in any parenting magazines or diaper ads.
For the first two hours of motherhood, I was blind. Literally. Hours of hard pushing had strained my eye muscles so badly I was unable to see my newborn baby. Or anything else, for that matter.
And for the first two and a half weeks, I couldn’t pee without a catheter. Days of labour, followed by a delivery that involved cutting and forceps and an emergency visit from the only doctor in the city who knew how to flip the baby into the right position had left my internal organs so beat up that not only did I have no sensation telling me that it was time to pee, but I couldn’t force anything out no matter how hard I tried. It was like my body had just forgotten how to perform that function. Five days after birth, when my body still refused to cooperate, I was finally sent home with a glass catheter tube and instructions on how to drain my bladder. Every two or three hours, I gingerly bypassed the meat-raw zone of my birth canal and inserted the tube to relieve myself.
And that was only the labour and delivery part. Six months earlier, just as I was ending my first trimester, I sat down on the toilet and blood came gushing out. I was rushed to the hospital, sure that I was losing the baby. I didn’t, but after two nights in the hospital, I went home on high alert, worried that the wrong move or the right combination of stress and overwork would bring my pregnancy to an end.
Two months later, my then-husband tumbled into an emotional spiral, overwhelmed with the stress of a new job plus the weight of pending parenthood. After weeks of worry and multiple failed attempts at getting him help, including an overnight in a mental health facility, he got up one morning, kissed me good-bye, and disappeared. My mom and I spent the day looking for him, and later that evening, he checked his beat-up and bloodied self into the hospital after repeated attempts at suicide. Surgeons worked late into the night to repair the damage he’d done to his wrist, throat, and chest.
That was how I became a mother, twenty-five years ago this weekend. Struggle and Pain knocked on my door and said “Guess what? We’re the companions you didn’t know you were inviting in when you chose this path. We’ve brought along a few gifts for you, but you don’t get to open them unless you let us live with you.”
In the middle of my first night as a mother, I woke up in the hospital with the most potent ache of loneliness I’d ever felt. Everyone had left me so that I could finally get a full night’s sleep and my hospital room echoed with the emptiness of it. It was deeper than just the absence of my husband, mom, and siblings, though. The baby that had moved inside me for the last nine months was now somewhere down the hall, separate from me, and I hadn’t had a decent chance to see her yet because of my blindness and because they’d whisked her away for observation and antibiotics after she was born with a fever.
The lower half of my body felt like it had been torn open on an ancient torture machine, but I knew I needed to see my baby immediately or I might die from the ache of separation. I tried to wriggle close enough to the call button so that I could call the nurse, but it was just out of reach and the wriggling was agony. Failing that, I inched slowly and carefully to the edge of the bed, bracing myself for every stab of pain as I moved. After what felt like an hour of tiny movements, I could finally swing my legs over the edge of the bed, prop up my torso, and get my feet on the floor. Then came the even more agonizing effort of lifting my body off the bed.
The nurses were surprised to see me shuffling slowly down the hallway, leaning on the wall as I moved. “I have to see my baby,” I said, and they nodded and helped me to the nursery.
I stood over the incubator, staring at this tiny one who’d only hours before been inside me. She looked so helpless and set apart – no longer attached to my umbilical cord, lying their nearly naked with tubes and wires protruding from various places. I couldn’t even hold her; I could only touch her skin. I was her mother – the gravity of that nearly knocked me off my feet. Standing there with my body and heart ripped apart, I was the Velveteen Mother, made real by the violence of separation.
Nobody warned me that motherhood starts with the ache of loneliness and the avalanche of love the moment your baby is first torn away from you and you have to stumble down the hall.
If that moment made me into the Velveteen Mother, I wonder what kind of mother I became four and a half years later when I laboured for the third time and knew this time the baby would never breathe. Perhaps when you birth death, you become a Shadow Mother. Or a Ghost Mother. Or maybe some of your velveteen fur gets rubbed off to reveal that there’s not flesh but Steel underneath.
I have been shaped, far more times than I’d like to count, by time spent in hospital rooms. Perhaps that’s why my body still shudders when I walk through hospital doors – because I never seem to leave the hospital the same person.
That particular time, when my third pregnancy went horribly wrong and a failed surgery left my baby vulnerable, with no membrane to protect him, I spent three weeks in a hospital room before he was born dead. Every day, twice a day, I got to watch him on the ultrasound screen. For twenty minutes each time, we’d sit and watch him wiggle around on the fuzzy black screen. Twenty minutes is the normal time it takes for a baby to empty its bladder inside the womb –we’d wait and watch for that to happen so that we’d know his internal organs were still functioning the way they should.
Nobody warned me how much a mother can bond with a baby when she watches him pee on a TV screen approximately forty times over a three-week period. (Probably nobody before me ever knew to tell me. I may have a unique angle on that.)
And then one morning, when I went downstairs for the first ultrasound of the day, the nurse turned the screen away from me, mumbled something, and rushed out of the room to get the doctor. I knew, by the look on her face, that this wasn’t going to end the way we’d hoped it would.
This time, the ache of loneliness that accompanied the birth was as deep as the ocean and as wide as the sky. This time, I didn’t get to shuffle down the hallway to find the baby in the nursery once he’d made his way into the world outside of me. The pain of childbirth was still part of my Becoming, after the ultrasound showed that his heart had stopped, but this time I had to go home with empty arms and a broken heart.
The cruelest moment came two days later when my breasts betrayed me and filled with milk. My body knew only that a baby had been born and not that the baby hadn’t lived. My body was still focused on the Becoming and didn’t know how to adapt to the Loss.
You expect that Becoming a Mother happens only once, but the truth is much more complicated than that. At the beginning, you are only mother to an infant. But then you become a Mother to a Toddler. Then a Preschooler. Then a School-age Child, then a Pre-teen, and so on and so on, and every stage has a whole new Becoming.
Each time, you learn to navigate a brand new landscape, with different emotional needs, different tantrum triggers, different learning edges, different boundaries, and a hundred different ways to fill you with self-doubt. Just when you think you have it figured out, the child morphs in front of your eyes and you have to become a whole Different Mother to meet the new terrain. And gradually, through all of these changes, the child pulls away from you and sometimes even turns on you and you learn the ache of loneliness in a whole new way you didn’t see coming and you feel like you’re still shuffling down the hallway trying to find her.
Nobody warns you how much pain a child can cause with just a few careless words tossed in a mother’s direction. And nobody tells you about the sleepless nights when you’re pretty sure you’re doing it wrong and you agonize over the ways you’ve ruined the child you so painfully yet lovingly brought into the world. (And if they DID tell you, would you really listen anyway?)
And then you become a parent of multiple children and you discover that you are actually Three Different Mothers navigating three separate hallways all at the same time. Each child comes with her own set of needs and her own pace of emotional development and… you stand there in the middle completely befuddled because what worked with the first one is most certainly not working with the second and nobody gave you a roadmap for this and maybe you’re messing up three different children in three different ways.
My first two came in quick succession, and they quickly let me know that they had vastly different personalities. Even in the womb, I knew they were different, when one never stopped moving and one caused concern because she didn’t move enough. One was more introverted, the other was more extroverted. One wanted to walk as quickly and as often as possible, the other took her time and wanted to stay in the stroller long after she could reasonably fit in it. One wanted to be held long into the night, the other didn’t want anyone touching her once it was time to sleep.
Because the first two were so different, I made the mistake of believing I’d covered the spectrum of parenting and expected the third (or fourth, depending on how you count) to come out like one or the other of her sisters. She quickly proved me wrong when she revealed that there was a third way to be the “opposite”.
Even now, as I am learning, at this new stage, to be Three Different Mothers to Three Different Adults, I continue to discover that there is new terrain that I haven’t yet learned to navigate and there are still ways that I can mess up. Throw in neurodivergence and mental illness and disability and… what looked like three straight hallways have suddenly become three complicated mazes. Plus I know that there’s a whole new kind of lonely ache ahead of me as they prepare to move away from me into their own lives and I’ll be left standing alone in the hallway.
In many ways I also, mistakenly, took on the mantle of Motherhood in my marriage. Nothing could prepare me for the emotional labour that would be required of me as I navigated that particular landscape, and I thought I had no other choice but to accept it.
When he needed coaxing to get his GED and start university, when he wasn’t confident enough to hand in a university paper without me editing it first, when he competed with our children for my attention and comfort, and whenever he plummeted into anxiety and depression… there were so many ways I took on more weight than a wife should. And then there were the hard years when he fought with our teenagers like he was a teenager himself and I was forced into the role of Peacekeeper.
Nobody told me that a Mother/Wife is allowed to have boundaries. Nobody told me that a Mother/Wife doesn’t have to hold all of the weight of the world on her shoulders. Every training I’d ever received and every modeling I’d ever witnessed taught me that Becoming a Mother means that you show up when you’re needed NO MATTER WHAT and you don’t say no, especially to your partner. And you don’t get angry. And you don’t walk away.
And then there was the second time he attempted suicide, when our oldest two daughters were just starting high school and I had to navigate the psych ward and the soccer field simultaneously, putting on a brave front in both places because I knew I had to be The Dependable One. There’s something about a psych ward hallway that looks particularly dark and interminable, especially when they lock the door behind you.
Becoming a Single Mother was yet another landscape I had to learn to navigate. Again, I had no roadmap, and this time I was even more alone than I’d been before, without even a mother of my own to help me survive the road bumps. Once again, I fumbled my way down the hallway, pretty sure I must have found a whole new way to mess up and get lost. It took me five years to end the marriage because every time I got close, I kept convincing myself that my daughters were better off in a two-parent home and that I would fail them if I chose otherwise.
My greatest fear, though, in the dark lonely hours of the night, especially in those years when the two teenagers triggered the wounded teenager in my husband, was that if the girls were parented half of the time in a separate home, I wouldn’t be there to be the Peacekeeper.
But finally, when the cracks were bigger than the marriage, I knew that I had to take a chance and believe that the separation would be better than the alternative.
The night we told our daughters that their dad was moving out, the three girls were true to form and reacted in three entirely different ways. One got angry and disappeared into her room, one got emotional and blamed herself, and one was relieved that it was finally over.
There were no “stages” in the grief – everything showed up simultaneously and, once again, I stood in the middle befuddled and unsure of which hallway to stumble down first to try to meet the needs.
Weeks earlier, when I’d said I was finished and wanted the marriage to end, my then-husband asked me to visit his therapist with him to talk about it where he’d have her as a support person. I told the therapist “I feel like I’ve been angry for five years.” And she said “you don’t look angry.” Oh… I thought… so this is one of those places where I’m supposed to “show my work”, like an elementary school math quiz? But what if I don’t know how because I’ve spent the last twenty-two years doing my best to erase it?
Moments later, when my then-husband talked about how and when and where to move and I stepped in to help him navigate that decision, the therapist stopped me and said, “you’re going to let him figure that out himself this time.”
In just a few simple statements, without knowing she was doing it, she spelled out my entire training on Becoming a Mother. 1. Never show your anger. 2. Always help out. Never let the fact that your body has been torn apart keep you from stumbling down the hallway to be with The One Who Needs You. Swallow your pain and offer up kindness. Eat nails and spit out candy. Be The Dependable One to the end of your live-long days.
Sometimes I look down at my hands and wonder when my hands became my mother’s hands. When did they get that saggy skin around the knuckles? When did they lose their smoothness and develop these tiny lines and ridges? And then I realize that I am the age my mother was when all of her children were already grown up and moved away and I remember that I thought back then that she must already know everything there was to know about Becoming a Mother.
And suddenly I think… “Hold up, slow down, WAIT…How can I be this old already? How can I have reached THIS stage when there are still so many things I haven’t figured out and so many moments I still feel blind and beat up? And why didn’t I give my mother a bit more of a break for the ways she still really didn’t know how to parent me up until the day she died?”
Days before she died, when her mind had started slipping in and out of focus, my mom leaned toward me and whispered “I don’t know how to do this.” I replied “I don’t know how to do this either.” And it was the truest thing either of us ever said to each other.
Of course I couldn’t have known, back when my mother’s hands looked like mine do now, how the Becoming goes on and on and on until one day it’s the Mother torn away from the child. And the child is the one stumbling down the hallway trying to find her way through the Ache of Loneliness to the place where at least skin can touch against skin and maybe it will be alright after all.
Twenty-five years ago, I entered motherhood blind and beat up. At every new stage of Becoming, there is, again, a time when I am both blind and beat up. And then, after Struggle and Pain have had their way with me and have retired, satisfied, back into their private wing of the house, I settle in to unpack the poorly wrapped gifts they’ve left behind.
Fortunately, there always comes the day, after Struggle and Pain have left their mark, when Joy and Ease pop out of their rooms in the house and say “Remember us? We’re here too. We haven’t abandoned you to those bullies.” And when they bring the light back into the room, I look up at my three unique daughters with wonder and awe, and I watch them navigate this new terrain of Becoming Adults, and I feel both dumbfounded and lucky that I get to be on this journey with them and that I’ve always managed to find them down at the end of the hallway.
As blind and beat up as I may have been at every stage, I can’t help but look back and see all of the ways that I have risen to the occasion, that I have, again and again, stumbled down the hallway, that I have shuddered my may through hospital doors, that I have navigated new terrain, and that I have learned to persevere through Struggle and Pain until Joy and Ease came back into the room. And I have, above all else, begun to practice a new story of what it means to Become a Mother – one with more truth-telling and less martyrdom and cultural baggage – so that my daughters might, hopefully, have a new script to help them, should they find themselves here someday themselves.
And in the end, I have discovered that the Ache of Loneliness is only a true companion when you have also known the Comfort of Connection. And that’s what it means to be a Velveteen Mother.
My youngest daughter is on the cusp of graduating from high school. Her oldest sister is on the cusp of graduating from her first university degree, and the middle one is only a year behind. There are moments when I hold my breath, knowing these days in which we all live under the same roof are fleeting and soon they will all have launched into their own separate lives.
Before they go, I hope I pass on at least some of the following bits of wisdom.
You’re not obligated to accept every gift. Whenever they receive a gift from me, they are allowed to tell me that they don’t like it and I do my best not to make it about me and instead to find them something they’d like better. Though I want them to embrace gratitude and to treat people with respect, I don’t want them to assume that they are obligated to receive gifts they don’t want or that they are responsible for looking after the feelings of the gift-giver. When gifts come with strings attached and an indebtedness to the giver, they are not really gifts but tools of abusers and manipulators. As we’ve seen in some of the #metoo stories emerging out of Hollywood, abusers offer elaborate promises and gifts (ie. roles in movies, good jobs, etc.) so that their victims feel a sense of obligation that includes their silence. I hope that by learning that they have the right to resist unwanted “gifts”, my daughters are better equipped to stand up to the tactics of abusers.
You can leave the party early. Especially when they were in high school and starting to attend parties that could possibly get out of hand, I worked with my daughters to ensure that they had an exit strategy in case they ever felt uncomfortable and wanted to leave before their friends did. Even if that exit strategy included me having to get up in the middle of the night and bundle up against the cold to go pick them up, I tried not to shame them for trusting their instincts if it wasn’t safe to accept a ride home with a friend who’d been drinking, or if people were doing things at the party that didn’t fit with their values or comfort zones. I hope that those party exit strategies can be carried into their adult lives and they can apply the principle to jobs they don’t like, relationships that are toxic, commitments they regret making, etc. They don’t have to feel obligated or give in to peer pressure if it means staying where they’re unsafe, uncomfortable, unhappy or undervalued.
You get to feel your feelings and don’t have to be a caretaker or shock absorber for other people’s feelings. I spent a lot of years caretaking other people’s emotions and being a shock absorber when those emotions were particularly volatile (and stuffing down my own emotions in order to do so), and I don’t want that for my daughters. I want them to know that their own feelings are valid, even if those feelings make other people uncomfortable. I want them to know that big feelings are okay, even if other people try to gaslight them into not feeling the way they do. I don’t want them to spend all of their time trying to regulate themselves on other people’s behalf. I want them to find healthy relationships with people who take responsibility for how they feel and who don’t try to stifle other people’s feelings. I want them to know that within healthy relationship, co-regulation is possible, but only if people honour rather than quash those feelings in each other.
You can come back home after you mess up. We’re not looking for perfection in this household, and so I try to admit my mistakes to my daughters, apologize when necessary, and let them know that this is a place where it’s safe to fail. I don’t want them to hide their mistakes or weaknesses, but to speak of them openly so that they can learn from them and grow. And I want them to know that I will provide a safe haven for them to return to when they need to lick their wounds and/or process their shame. I want them to feel safe when they’re here so that they can return to the world feeling more brave.
Sometimes disruption is necessary. But it will rarely be easy. I want them to know that they should follow the “rules” that make sense and help to keep people safe, but I also want them to know that they can break the “rules” that are outdated or that are meant to keep people small and compliant. This isn’t always easy for me to pass on, especially when I’m the one attached to the outdated rules, but I do my best. I want them to know that they don’t have to stick with the status quo when the status quo is harming people. I want them to know that they can speak truth to power. I want them to know that they’re allowed to be disruptors if the disruption is in the service of positive change. Disruption isn’t an easy path to choose, though, so I also want them to be prepared for the ways in which people will resist them and possibly try to hurt them for having the courage to be disruptive.
Power and weakness are companions, not opposites. I want them to see that vulnerability and authenticity are important parts of what it means to be powerful. I want them to know that generative power often emerges out of places of the greatest weakness. I want them to see that sometimes, in their moments of greatest weakness, admitting it allows other people to show up and be powerful and together we can create collective power that is greater than any of us can hold alone. I hope that they’re not afraid to claim their own power, but that it is always “power with” rather than “power over”.
Your body is your own. For years, I gave away my own body because I believed I was under contract to do so and because I was being coerced even when I was unwilling. I accepted the old rules of what it means to be a woman in a marriage, because that was the only way I’d seen modelled and the only way that I’d been taught to behave. I’ve spent the last several years reclaiming my body and relearning how to treat it, and I want my daughters to see that another way is possible. I want them to know that they can lavish love on their own bodies, that they can protect their own bodies, that they can say no to anyone who doesn’t treat their bodies well and that they can say a big and holy YES to those who make their bodies feel alive, safe and loved.
You can ask for what you need, but those needs shouldn’t supersede the needs of those more marginalized than you. I want them to know that they are worthy of having their needs met. I want them to pay attention to themselves enough so that they are actually aware of their own needs and can articulate them clearly. I don’t want them to be afraid to ask for what they need or to be so focused on other people that they consistently overlook themselves. I don’t want them to be haunted by shame for being too selfish or asking for too much. However, I don’t want them to be greedy and I want them to recognize how meeting their own needs will sometimes mean that people with less access to privilege won’t get their needs met. I want them to be aware of injustice and be willing to sacrifice their own needs in order to centre those who rarely get their turn. I want them to balance self-care with other-care, and worthiness with justice.
You can love who you want, as long as that love is generative and not stifling. This is a home in which there is little pressure to be heteronormative. Two of my daughters have, in fact, come out and we have celebrated them and embraced their choices and never asked them to be anyone other than who they are. I want them to know that whoever they choose to be in an intimate relationship with, they don’t have to be afraid to introduce that person to me for fear of my judgement. I do, however, want them to know that I will speak up if I see the person they’re in relationship with treat them in ways that harm their spirits (or the other way around). If they choose to be in relationships (and they are always free to choose singleness instead), I hope that those relationships are ones in which they are supported to flourish and grow and shine.
Friendships matter. Community matters. Family matters. But no relationships are worth abandoning yourself over. I hope that they find deep and lasting friendships (and hang onto the ones they already have). I hope that they surround themselves with people who will support them, challenge them, laugh with them, travel with them, grieve with them, and feed them. I hope that they recognize that friendships are worth fighting for, that forgiveness and grace are necessary parts of being in relationships with flawed human beings, that having people in your corner is essential for meaningful success, and that conflict is worth working through when you’re with the right people. I want them to find out how much richness comes when they make friends with people whose skin colour is different from theirs, whose beliefs are different, and/or who grew up in other countries.I also want them to know, though, that sometimes it’s best to walk away from friendships or communities that hold them back. I want them to dare to choose their own growth and happiness over stifling relationships. I don’t want them to stay stuck in places or with people that don’t value or respect them.
The hardest parts of life are usually the ones that result in the most growth. There’s a part of me that longs to protect my daughters from the hard parts of life, but the wiser part of me knows that I have grown most when life has been hard. I have been changed by grief and trauma, and I know that the work I now do is rich and meaningful because of all of the darkness and pain I have traveled through. I want them to recognize that they have the strength and resilience to survive hard things and that there is something to strive for on the other side. I hope that they always know that they don’t have to survive the hard things alone and that, whenever I am able, I will walk alongside them. I also want them to know that they should never be ashamed to ask their friends or family for help, to hire a therapist, and/or to seek treatment for mental illness, trauma, etc.. I don’t want them to bypass the pain, but rather to move through it with grace and grit and people who love them.
There’s a lot of beauty and magic in the world – don’t miss it. Some of my favourite moments with my daughters are ones in which we’ve stood in reverence in front of a stunning sunset over the mountains, we’ve giggled with glee at an amusement park, we’ve sat around a campfire watching the flames leap up, or we’ve driven for hours and hours just to hear our favourite bands in concert. I hope that they always give themselves permission to have fun, to seek out adventure, to be in awe of the natural world, and to surround themselves with beauty. I hope that they take the time to pause and notice even the simplest bits of magic. I want them to live fully and reverently and to fill their lives with meaningful experiences.
(Trigger warning)When I was just a little older than my oldest daughter, a man climbed through my bedroom window and violently took what didn’t belong to him – my virginity. I fought back, but he was stronger than I was and he held my own scissors over my head.
One of my memories from that hellish week was the shock on my dad’s face when he admitted that he – a lifelong pacifist – was suddenly aware that he was capable of murder.
Just after reading that article, I read another one by Melissa Harris-Perry in which she shares a story of a man threatening her in the lobby of a hotel. She froze, remembering her own rape and slipping into “the trance of survivor submission”. The only thing that jerked her back out of it and allowed her to fight back was the sudden awareness of her nearby students. Her students saved her, she said. She fought back because of them.
The combination of the two articles left me shaking and in tears. I was glad it was dark in the van as I left to pick up my daughter up at the pool. She didn’t know that my eyes were red – she only knew that she had finally succeeded in getting all the way through her synchronized swimming routine without faltering and she needed me to celebrate with her. And then, when a story came on the radio about Harry Potter, her passion for the half-blood magician filled the van and she chatted the rest of the way home. One of the things she told me was that Draco Malfoy was not a monster like everyone made him out to be, he was just misunderstood.
My daughters, like Melissa Harris-Perry’s students, save me again and again.
Later that evening, I was thinking about the many conversations I have had with a dear friend whose son, though he made some mistakes in his lack of understanding of girls, is not a monster. And yet now, because those girls painted him into a monster, he awaits the court’s decision about the seriousness of those mistakes.
And I realized that those young men who plan to meet in the mall to talk about how to pick up girls, are not monsters, they are somebody’s sons. And they make mistakes in their fumbling attempts to find affection. Perhaps they are the Draco Malfoys of their schools.
And suddenly, I don’t want to bring my rage to the mall, but rather my mother-love (and maybe milk and cookies). And I want to sit down with those young men, look them in the eyes, and say “how have you been so wronged by the world that you can only imagine getting what you want by taking someone else’s power away?” And then I want to offer them some tough love and tell them my story of how it feels to have a man treat you like that.
Sometimes it is rage that changes the course of the future, but more often, in my experience, it is love.
There’s a piece of my story in this unfolding year that I have had a hard time writing about. I still don’t know quite what to say, but I also don’t want to pretend that it’s not going on or that I’m trying to keep it a secret.
This summer, my twenty-two year marriage unraveled and my husband and I are now separated.
That’s the simple version. The more complex version is the part that’s difficult to talk about, because it is not my story alone and I am determined never to write anything that might hurt anyone I care about. My husband, my daughters and I are all fumbling our way through this, trying not to hurt each other, trying to heal from past wounds, and trying to emerge stronger and wiser.
I share it, though, because sometimes people turn to me for expertise on what it means to hold space for people, and I don’t want to pretend that I have figured out everything there is to know about keeping relationships healthy. Like you, I falter sometimes, and I fail people, and I make decisions that might be hard for people to understand. I am still very much on a learning journey.
Early this year, after I wrote the post that went viral, about what it means to hold space for other people, what became more and more clear to me was something I’d woken up to about five years earlier. My husband and I no longer knew how to hold space for each other. We’ve tried and tried, but repeatedly we’ve failed. For my part, I spent too much time judging him and thinking I needed to rescue or fix him, and for his part, he no longer understood me and had no idea how to support the kind of work I was doing or the changes I was undergoing as a result.
For a long time, I tried to tell myself that it didn’t matter that we were in such different places – that I was in this marriage for the long haul and that my daughters were better off with us together – but I could only fool myself for so long. We were hurting each other in our failure, and, after repeated attempts at marriage counselling, it finally became clear to me that we were not doing our daughters any favours by staying in this broken place.
There is much that remains unresolved in this story and I continue to learn from it as I navigate this new path. I stumble sometimes, and then I fall into grace and am given a hand up to get back up on my feet again.
And that is where I will leave this story, in an unresolved place where there is still healing to be done and forgiveness to be offered. I am learning, despite much impatience and struggle, to stay in the unresolved places until what’s meant to emerge can find its own way and time to unfold.
When we see brokenness, our tendency (based in a childish desire for the world to be clean and orderly, black and white) is to rush in to fix it, to find a solution, and to put it back the way it once was. But the invitation of a deepening spirituality is to allow it to remain unresolved, to ask ourselves why we are uncomfortable with it being unresolved, and to consider that perhaps something new wants to grow in its own sweet time without the limitations of “the way things used to be”.
As a writer and teacher, I feel pressure sometimes, on my blog and on social media, to only share a story when it has a complete ending. If I share it when it is still in the unresolved stage, too many people will rush in with advice, solutions, or judgement, responding to their own need to see it fixed in a way that makes sense to them, and then I will feel defeated, inadequate, and not fully heard.
What I most value (and this is why I spend so much time in circles) is to be heard, to be valued, and to be supported in whatever stage of the messiness I am in. This, I believe, is what all of us truly want. Because the best path out of the messiness is rarely the quick fix that first rushes to mind.
I invite you then, to pause for a moment before you respond to my unresolved story or anyone else’s. In your pausing, listen first for what that person most wants from you. And then listen for what is unresolved in your own life that might make someone else’s messy story feel uncomfortable. Because when we sit in the messiness together, we grow truly beautiful and lasting things. That’s what it means to hold space for each other.
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” – Rilke
Thank you for holding space for me in my unresolved place.
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It all started in Maddy’s room. She’d been complaining for quite some time that she’d had to inherit a room decorated for her sisters when they were quite young and it was time for her to have a room fit for her own thirteen-year-old personality. After waffling between a Harry Potter themed room and pretty-in-pink, she chose a pale pink and we bought the paint. It made me smile when I applied it, because it was the exact opposite of what had happened when I was that age. I couldn’t wait to get rid of the pink in the little-girl bedroom I shared with my sister. In my mind, pink = girlie and girlie wasn’t cool, so the bedroom was painted blue.
Like many in my era, I was figuring out who I was in the face of the feminist movement, and instead of embracing what was feminine, I ran away from it and tried to prove I was worthy by being more masculine. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that a) pink is just a colour and has no inherent meaning, and b) to be whole and strong means to embrace what is feminine along with what is masculine.
The day we were choosing the paint, I overhead Maddy (who wears nothing but dresses) say to her friend, “Legally Blonde is my favourite movie because it shows that you can be both feminine and feminist at the same time.” I’m so glad she’s figuring that out earlier than I did.
My other two daughters are now 18 and 19 and though they’ll both be in university in the Fall, they’ll be staying home and studying locally for now. They were switching bedrooms (it was the 18 year old’s turn to have the bigger room in the basement), so it seemed like the ideal time to refresh their rooms as well.
In both cases, we transformed the rooms from their early-teen choices to their much more grown-up choices. The room in the basement (that had been Nikki’s and was becoming Julie’s) was four bright colours – blue, green, orange and yellow – and was now getting a much more subdued look – black, grey, and light teal-grey. The room upstairs was going from orange and green with huge contrasting polka-dots to a dark beige and white.
Julie’s former orange and green room presented us with the greatest challenge, not because of the boldness of the colours but because she had covered the walls with hundreds of quotes, thoughts, art, etc., in Sharpie marker.
I knew from previous experience that Sharpie marker is almost impossible to cover with paint, even with the very best primer, and yet, five years ago, when she’d asked if she could do it, I said yes. Julie has a gift for script-work and I knew it would be interesting, but more importantly, I had an intuitive sense that it was what she needed at the time.
The hardest year of Julie’s life so far was when she was thirteen and in grade 8. She’s a deep thinker and a deep feeler, and the world was too intense for her at the time. We watched her walk through a depression and we worried every single day about whether we were doing the right things to support her. When she started writing on the walls, I bought the Sharpie markers, hoping that turning her bedroom walls into a journal of her angst and attempts to rise out of that angst might be healing for her. It was.
Some of what was on the walls was quite angry (especially what she hid in the closet), some was quite hopeful, and all of it was a search for her own path and for meaning in a complex world. Like, for example, the giant word “HOPE” with the smaller words underneath “hold on pain ends”.
While we painted over the Sharpie markings last week, Julie thanked me for letting her do it. On an Instagram photo she posted, she said this: “Incredibly thankful to have the kind of parents who let their angsty 13 year old daughter put her art all over her walls, even if it involves buying $70 primer to cover it up 5 years later.”
Like any parent, I had no idea if we were doing the right thing at the time, and yet we did what we could. And now she has grown into a strong, articulate and wise 18 year old who was class valedictorian at her recent graduation and who won a scholarship for being a gifted writer. (Here’s a piece of her writing I once shared on my blog.)
A few insights emerged while I painted the walls last week, not just about parenting but about holding space for anyone going through their own personal growth. Parenting three daughters who each have unique (and surprisingly different) personalities is a great training ground for my coaching and facilitation work.
Here’s what I’m learning about holding space for people in the midst of their own personal growth:
1) Respect each person as an individual. No two people need exactly the same things at the same time. My other 2 daughters never wrote on the walls, but they need other things, and so we try to offer them what they need to help them through the rough spots. When I try to treat them all the same, I do them a disservice. For example, one is an introvert, one’s an extrovert and one is somewhere in between. They’re learning to recognize what they each need in order to replenish their energy.
2) Honour whatever place a person is in their own journey. Don’t expect someone else’s journey to look anything like yours. All three bedrooms are completely different from what they were and all of them reflect the places the girls are in right now (not five years ago and not five years in the future). There are choices in each bedroom that are different from the choices I might have made, but I’m not the ones occupying those spaces.
3.) Help people find their own right creative practices. During Julie’s depression, I tried to get her to do some of the things that help me through the darkness, but none of those things were right for her. I couldn’t take that personally because it wasn’t about me – it was about her. What worked for her was Sharpie markers and permission to make art on the walls.
4.) Don’t be afraid to let others take risks you wouldn’t take. I often marvel at how confidently Maddy embraces dresses and the colour pink. (At the same time, she also considered black skull-and-crossbone curtains – she is far from one-dimensional.) None of her friends wear dresses and I doubt whether any of them would choose the colour of paint she chose, and yet it’s what she likes and that’s all that matters.
5.) Give people a safe place to hide, to be themselves, to fail, or separate themselves from others. I am so glad that I had the privilege of giving each of my girls a beautiful new space to call their own. They are all learning to honour their own choices, their own sense of when they need to withdraw from the world, and their own boundaries. Those are powerful things to learn, especially for teenage girls navigating a world that places far too many expectations on them. Nikki, my most introverted daughter, loves to close the door to her room and listen to her record player alone, while her more extraverted sisters have been happy to invite friends over to enjoy their rooms with them.
I don’t often write posts about my daughters or about parenting, because their stories are their own and because most days I feel like I’m wandering around in the dark trying to feel my way through. But my parenting journey has taught me much about what it means to hold space for people on their own personal growth paths and I know that I am a better coach and facilitator for the lessons I’ve learned along the way. I can only hope that my daughters will continue to grow into strong, resilient, and courageous young women.