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.
I’m not a mommy-blogger for a few good reasons. I don’t think I’m particularly competent at parenthood (aren’t we all just feeling our way in the dark?), and there are a lot of other things roaming around in this grey matter that I’d just as soon write about as parenting. While I take great delight in my three daughters, I’m not one of those moms who gives up all else for the sake of her children (nor do I think that’s particularly healthy for mom or kids).
Today is an exception, though. I’m going to blog about my kids.
Last night, I was curled up on the couch when a lovely thought occurred to me. “My three children are all blessedly happy at this moment.” It was a good moment and I had to bask in it while it lasted.
The oldest daughter had just returned from a rugby game and was riding that post-game adrenalin high as she demonstrated some of the plays for her dad and I.
The second daughter is off on a French exchange program in Quebec, and though I didn’t speak with her last night, I can only presume she was happy based on all of the conversations I’ve had with her so far. (There was pure joy in her voice after visiting Old Montreal.)
The third daughter was taking great delight in some new art supplies (thanks Connie!) and was making art in her new journal.
Fierce athlete, curious explorer, and imaginative artist.
That doesn’t paint the whole picture of those three girls, but it certainly gives you a clue about what makes each one unique.
I didn’t mold them into these things, nor did I put any particular effort into helping them find these particular paths. I just did two simple things – I gave them tools and permission. The tools weren’t particularly expensive. Just rugby cleats, art supplies, and a suitcase. And the permission? Well, that was just a matter of deciding a long time ago that I was going to be okay with watching them choose their own paths, whether or not they seemed like the right paths to me.
I think this goes way beyond parenting, though. I think it’s got everything to do with leadership too. Give them tools, give them permission, and set them loose on the world. It’s what leading with your paint clothes on is all about (which, by the way, could also be called “parenting with your paint clothes on” because there are so many parallels).
And it has everything to do with self leadership and self care too. Give yourself the tools. Give yourself the permission. And set yourself loose.
If you love to paint, when was the last time you bought a new paintbrush or tube of paint? If you love to write, why not invest in a beautiful journal and trust that your thoughts are worthy of a good home? If your body loves to move, why haven’t you bought yourself a good pair of dance shoes or running shoes?
And when was the last time you gave yourself the gift of an afternoon to do these things you love to do? Are the things that bring you joy at the bottom of the list after all of the other priorities you have to get to? Stop doing that. Seriously. Give yourself permission.
It’s pretty simple, really. It’s the only way you’ll find your path – give yourself the tools and the permission.
(Well, at least MY 14 year old girl. I can’t vouch for yours.)
1. Encourage her to begin living out her “I want to be a fashion designer when I grow up” dream a little early by designing her own junior high grad dress.
2. Offer to sew it with her.
3. Don’t change your mind, even when she shows you a sketch of a dress with about a thousand individual petals on the skirt.
4. Encourage her to make bigger petals that will have less chance of leaving your hands irreversibly crippled and your shoulders permanently hunched.
5. Take her shopping for fabric and STILL don’t change your mind even when she picks satin (every sewer’s worst nightmare).
6. Spend endless hours cutting, stitching, ironing, cutting, stitching, ironing… about a hundred petals.
7. Take her shopping again for the accent around the waist and STILL don’t change your mind even when she chooses glitter that you have to stitch in place.
8. Spend a few more endless hours stitching, seam-ripping, cursing, stitching, seam-ripping, cursing the blasted zipper that just won’t go in properly, especially by the sequined waistband.
9. Rue the day you thought an invisible zipper was a wise choice.
10. Finally emerge victorious having conquered the myriad of enemies that took the seemingly innocuous shapes of pink satin, flower petals, silver sequins, “boning” (to keep the top rigid), and an invisible zipper.
11. Dance around the living room with her when she puts it on and both she and the dress look stunning!
12. Take her shopping again and let her pick her shoes.
13. Cringe a little, but smile and pay the bill when she picks the most impossibly high-heeled shoes this side of Sex and the City. Brace yourself (and her) for her father’s less-than-pleased reaction. Justify the purchase by saying “at least it’s only shoes she’s obsessed with and not drugs!”
14. Buy her some fancy jewellery as a surprise, just because you can’t resist helping her complete the picture. (And admit to yourself that this has been more fun for you than you expected.)
15. Keep your promise not to share any photos of The Dress online until after she’s had the Big Reveal to her friends at grad, even though you’re bursting with pride and desperately want to show off all over Twitter, Facebook, and maybe even some random street corner.
16. Consider googling “fashion design competitions for teenagers” because you’re convinced your daughter would SMOKE the competition.
17. Beam with pride all evening at the grad dinner and then the next morning at the school ceremony as you watch her postively glowing when her friends, teachers, friends’ parents, and maybe a few random people on the street ooh and aah over her dress.