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.
Tonight we’ll take our children to the graveyard, we’ll talk about what might have been, perhaps shed a tear or two, and then we’ll go out for ice cream to celebrate a life that changed us.
It’s what we do every year on this day. Every year for eleven years.
Today is the eleventh anniversary of the day my son died.
I woke up that morning, eleven years ago, to find out that his heart had stopped during the night. Hours later, he was born. Lifeless. Still. But so very real.
Today is the day that changed my definition of motherhood. Today is the day that I birthed pain and lived to tell the story. Today is the day my breasts filled with the milk of anticipation only to dry out days later when there was no-one to suckle them.
Today is the day I shook my fist at God, and yet turned in the same direction when I needed comfort.
Eleven years in, pain has become my companion, my friend. It doesn’t stab me with raw and brittle edges like it once did. Instead it curls up in a smooth and familiar ball inside my chest, tightening my throat now and then, but mostly gently reminding me that I am alive, that I am well, and that I have a story to share with other wanderers along this path.
Pain is my teacher, guiding me along the path, deepening my experiences and enriching my relationships.
Pain is my gift. It helps me paint the world with richer colours and more honest shapes. It helps me write with truth and courage.
Pain is my story. It frames the world for me and urges me to enjoy the depths of beauty and joy within the frame.
I am forever grateful for the gift that is my son, Matthew. Never let it be said that he did not live a full life.
Some days, you will really, really dislike your children.
Some days, your children will really, really dislike you. There may even be days when they yell that dislike in your face.
Children are sucking vortexes of need. Get used to it.
Almost every day, you will wonder if you are doing everything wrong and totally screwing your kids up.
In between those hard days and moments of doubt, there will be moments of pure delight, and you’ll wonder how you could possibly live without these amazing people in your life.
The straight talk on starting a new business:
It’s hard. Really hard.
There will be lots of days when you wake up in a panic wondering how you’re going to survive financially.
On your days of greatest weakness, you will compare yourself to other people and find yourself seriously lacking.
Just when you think you have it figured out, one of your favourite ideas will flop, and you’ll feel like a failure all over again.
If you can work through the discouragement, you’ll have moments when you’re happier than you’ve ever been, doing the things that make your heart sing.
The straight talk on marriage:
There are no fairy tales. No knights in shining armor. No happy endings. You might as well give up the quest.
You’ll have days when you think “what the hell have I done?” or “where did this all go wrong?” or “why does it feel like we are communicating at completely different frequencies?”
There’s a pretty good chance that some day, maybe even 18 years in, the whole thing will fall apart and you’ll be left trying to pick up the pieces.
You’re going to have to work really, really hard if you value what you’ve built and want to stay together. You might even need outside help and you’ll definitely need some prayer.
Once you’ve done the hard work, and given up the fairy tale, you might just find yourself growing (not falling) into real, blinders-off, sometimes-it-hurts-sometimes-it’s-exquisite kind of love. And it will feel like home.
The straight talk on leadership:
Just like parenting, there will be days when you really, really dislike some of the people you lead.
There will be days when they really, really dislike you. They might even file a complaint or take you to court if the dislike runs deeply enough. This may not have anything to do with your actions, but you’ll still be tempted to take it personally.
It may very well be one of the most stressful roles you’ll undertake.
You’ll often feel lonely because lots of people assume the leader is confident enough that they don’t need any moral support or friendship.
If you find the right support and the right people to lead, though, it could possibly be the most rewarding thing you’ll ever do. If you’re living your calling, then it will have meaning.
The straight talk on marketing:
There are people who will want to offer you a formula for success. Don’t believe them. There are no formulas.
Sometimes you’ll do everything by the book, and still very few people will show up or buy your product.
Some people will say “just put out good content and people will show up”. Not true. (At least not all the time.) Lots of people create amazing products that nobody buys.
A lot of times, it’s just a crap shoot – if the right (ie. influential) people show up and buy your product and then share it with their friends, it may go viral.
At the end of the day, the most important thing is building relationships. Be kind to people, support them, offer them your best work, and slowly but surely the right people will show up. (Or they may not, and you’ll have to start over again, but that doesn’t mean you’ve failed, only that the timing wasn’t right for your product, or it needs some tweaking.)
The straight talk on failure:
You will fail. Get used to it. Sometimes even your biggest, boldest dreams will fail.
You’ll have to work hard to not believe that failing defines you as a failure.
Even the most successful people in the world have faced failure at some point in their lives. They may even be failing right now and you just don’t know it because they’re good at hiding it.
Failure may be your greatest teacher if you’re open to it.
Sometimes failure opens doors to you that you wouldn’t have seen if you’d never tried. Go ahead and fail.
The straight talk on life:
There will be many moments when you feel completely lost and unsure of what path you should be on.
People will tell you to “follow these 10 easy steps to success/self-improvement/spirituality”. Don’t believe them. There are no easy steps.
Nobody’s path will look just like yours. You’ll never find the perfect book, teacher, or life coach who will give you complete clarity, because nobody else knows your life. (But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn from other people’s wisdom. You should. Just don’t expect it to be the only answer.)
Living a life of integrity, authenticity, and compassion takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears. It’s still worth it.
If you are true to yourself, true to the people that you love, and true to your God, and if you pursue your passions and share your gifts, your life will have meaning.