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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

****

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

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

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

We say good-bye, and we all cry.

****

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

****

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

______

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

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

Whose voices are you being influenced by? (And when is it time to silence those voices?)

On a news program recently, I heard a judge being quoted as saying that, in deciding the sentence for someone who’d been charged with a crime, he was influenced by neither emotions nor public opinion. And my response was… REALLY?! Is such a thing even possible? I think it would take some kind of unnatural, non-human capacity for detachment to be influenced by neither your emotions nor public opinion. (Or perhaps sometimes it’s sociopathic or narcissistic personality disorder?) We are all influenced, in big and little ways, every single day, even when we’re not conscious of the influence.

Back when I used to teach university courses in communications and public relations, I would teach my students to pay special attention to the voices and ideas that most influenced them. A final assignment in my Writing for Public Relations classes was to do a presentation on one piece of writing that had influenced them in their lives. It could be a book, a movie script, an advertisement, or even a poster. I wanted them to at least be conscious of when and how they were being influenced, and, as they became public relations professionals themselves, I hoped that they would make conscious choices to use their influence wisely and not put unnecessary propaganda into the world. (I also taught them the difference between propaganda and persuasion.) Many of the students had never considered who they were most influenced by.

Part of the reason why I’m taking the sabbatical and social media break that I’m currently on is that I want to be more conscious of the voices I allow in to influence me. Sometimes, when I’m not paying enough attention to how much I’m online, social media feels like a whole lot of noise, and in the midst of that noise, I can hardly hear my own voice. I start to feel like I’m in a boat without an oar and I’m just drifting along on the current of public opinion, not choosing my own direction. 

It’s an easy thing to slip into, and it can happen for a lot of reasons. Sometimes it happens because I’m just too tired or emotionally drained to make conscious choices and I find myself picking up my phone like a drug that comforts me in my exhaustion. Sometimes it happens because I’m feeling disconnected or abandoned and I want to renew my feelings of connection with people (especially in a pandemic). Sometimes I’m just bored and slip into mindless behaviour. 

I am not against social media, by any stretch. I value the very real friendships it has made possible in my life, and I acknowledge the fact that it has helped me grow a thriving business. It would be hypocritical to turn my nose up at it after all of the value that it has brought.

But I want to live in a conscious relationship with social media. I want to be conscious of when it feeds me and when it harms me. I want to witness when I feel like it’s sucking me in almost without my consent. I want to notice when I’m feeling manipulated by the algorithms and when I’m making choices I wouldn’t otherwise make because I’ve been unconsciously influenced.

I especially want to be conscious of when it makes me lose connection with my own voice and the voices of people who matter the most to me. My voice is important to me and I want it to ring clear and true and full of integrity.

This summer, I am intentionally focusing on the relationships that happen offline – with my daughters, my friends, my family, and myself. I am doing a kind of social media detox to see if I think and feel differently when I’m not being fed with a constant stream of other people’s opinions. I’m going to spend a lot of time listening to myself and to those who sit with me for long, slow conversations over campfires. I’ll also read books, but only those that feel nourishing to me and don’t take me down a river I don’t want to float along.

It doesn’t mean I won’t be influenced by voices other than my own. That seems like an impossible thing to achieve (and not necessarily a desirable one, because it borders on narcissism). But it means that when I AM influenced, I’m doing so consciously and with my full consent.

Velcro membranes

(from the Holding Space Card Deck)

When I talk about holding space for ourselves, I often introduce the concept of psychic membranes – the container in which we can protect, nourish, and support ourselves. The cell membrane serves as a metaphor for what it means to have healthy boundaries that allow nourishment in, keep harm out, connect us with others, and maintain homeostasis (similar pressure inside and outside the cell). In my book, I go on to imagine how our psychic membranes interact with each other and how we can stretch them into bowls in order to hold space for people. With intact and healthy membranes, we can do this without threatening anyone’s sovereignty.

A new element of this metaphor has emerged for me lately and that’s the idea of Velcro membranes. 

When a healthy membrane interacts with another healthy membrane, those two “cells” can support each other without becoming enmeshed or codependent. They are autonomous beings who have a supportive social contract between them that allows them to choose when and how they wish to be in contact with each other. Healthy membranes allow us to form consent-based environments.

Unfortunately, that kind of healthy interaction doesn’t always happen, and many of us have scars (emotional and physical) from the times it didn’t work that way. Sometimes we do harm to each other and sometimes we develop unhealthy attachment systems.

Unhealthy attachments can look like membranes that have Velcro on their surfaces. Now, instead of coming into contact and maintaining the freedom to choose how and when to interact, the two cells become hooked in a way that doesn’t support the growth and sovereignty of either. The relationship is now codependent and enmeshed and the membranes can’t move independently of each other.

Let’s imagine that the trauma in our lives turns into Velcro on the surface of our membranes. Some of us develop loops and some of us develop hooks (or some combination of the two), and both are attempts to get our needs met. Those of us with loops can easily be hooked in and abused or manipulated by someone, because our traumatized brains convince us that hook-people will help us get our needs met. Those of us with hooks become abusers and manipulators and we hook other people in to try to coerce them into meeting our needs. Those of us with a combination can be both abusers and abused. 

The only way to stop hooking or being hooked is to work on healing the trauma that created the Velcro. As trauma heals it’s like cutting the loops and hooks so that the membrane surface is now covered with nothing more than short threads that are difficult to attach to. 

A healed membrane allows you to begin to enter relationships in a new way. It allows you to explore what a generative social contract might look like, where the best interests of each party are prioritized.

What will you do to start cutting the loops and hooks on the surface of your membrane? And what might need to be done in order to disentangle yourself from those people with whom you’re enmeshed?

****

If you want to learn more about psychic membranes, there’s a chapter in my book about them, and you can also learn more in the Holding Space Foundation Program.

It’s okay to be wounded (and it’s okay to heal)

Recently I wrote a post about worshipping our wounds. In it, I talked about how sometimes we cling to our wounds too long because they become part of our identity or healing them might feel threatening to those who don’t want us to change.

I’ve been thinking about that post since, and I think it might need a few additional words to give it balance.

As much as I think it can be unhealthy to worship our wounds, I also don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that we should rush to heal our wounds, that we should pretend we don’t have wounds, or that we should feel ashamed for having those wounds. 

It takes time to heal trauma. And even before the healing begins, it takes time to admit to ourselves that we have trauma and that we need healing. When I think about my divorce, for example, I have to admit that it took me a surprisingly long time to admit to myself the extent of the trauma from my marriage, and then it took even longer to speak about it to others. I’ve always prided myself in being resilient, strong and reliable, and those things felt especially important to me when I needed to be emotionally stable for my daughters and my clients. I was afraid that revealing my woundedness would mean that I was weak and people couldn’t depend on me.

Six years after the marriage ended, I’m still in therapy working to heal not only the wounds from my marriage, but also the wounds that I took into the marriage as a result of my rape as a twenty-two year old. 

You have permission to take the time you need to do your healing work. You have permission to take longer than anyone else around you. It doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong if it takes longer than you expect. It just means you’re human.

One of the dangers of not acknowledging the time it takes to heal deep wounds is that we can be tempted to slip into spiritual bypassing, where we grasp onto any spiritual practice or healing methodology that offers us a quick fix but that only masks what’s really going on or tries to “transcend” it instead of going deep enough to heal the roots of the pain. And one of the risks of spiritual bypassing is that it often excuses the perpetrator of the harm that was done to us and doesn’t allow us to feel anger or to seek justice for the wrong as part of our efforts to heal.

Healing is a journey, with lots of detours and rest stops along the way. It’s like a labyrinth that takes you through all kinds of twists and turns that sometimes feel like they’re getting you closer to the centre and sometimes take you further toward the edge. It takes the time it takes. You’re not doing it wrong if you stay on the path, rest when you need to rest, and keep putting one foot in front of the other. 

You’ll get to the centre eventually if you stay on the path.

As long as you don’t intentionally get stuck and start clinging to your wounds, worshipping them, or allowing them to define who you are, you’re on the right journey.

***

p.s. If you’re on a healing journey and want to learn more about holding space for yourself and others, you might want to check out The Spiral Path, a self-study program that takes you through the three stages of a labyrinth journey. Or check out our Holding Space Foundation Program.

Sovereignty is a Relational Concept

(Listen to me read the post)

A few years ago, I had a pretty big a-ha moment when I realized that the concept of holding space (which I’ve spent the last seven years exploring in a deep way as I developed programs and wrote a book about it) is, at its core, about freedom and sovereignty. Here’s a quote from one of the last chapters of my book

“If I treat you as someone entitled to your own sovereignty, it means that I assume you have the same right to self-govern your life as I. You get to tell me how you want to be treated and I can choose to accept those boundaries or walk away.

“Sovereignty is what we’ve been talking about throughout this discussion on holding space – that we offer love to each other without attachment, manipulation, control, or boundary-crossing. It’s the starting point to developing healthy, strong social contracts between us.”

It’s taken me a lot of hard learning to get to the place where I can embrace a concept like sovereignty. As I’ve written about in the past, I had to let go of a lot of social conditioning, work through some trauma and abuse, and rewrite some old narratives to even begin to believe I have a right to self-govern my life and choose what’s best for me and my body. Similarly, I had to learn how to treat other people as sovereign individuals, and that’s especially tricky when you’re a parent trying to respect your daughters’ boundaries but haven’t often had your own boundaries respected. I still slip up sometimes, and the old scripts still play in my head, especially when I’m tired, confused, or feel beaten up, but I feel clearer and clearer about what it means to own my sovereignty and be in relationships with people who are equally sovereign.

Lately, though, I’ve had some concerns about the ways in which sovereignty gets talked about, especially in the wellness/self-help industry. It’s becoming an increasingly common term among those who talk about things like personal empowerment, self-love, etc. 

Here’s what concerns me… Some of what’s being said ignores the way in which sovereignty is a relational concept.

When you talk about sovereignty without also talking about community and the kinds of social contracts that allow people to be in relationships while still maintaining their sovereignty, then you’re probably actually talking about selfishness and willful ignorance of the impact of your choices. And when you’re talking about those things, then your version of sovereignty is rooted in colonization rather than equity.

A sovereign nation becomes a colonizing nation when it takes its sovereignty too far, ignores the sovereignty of others, and lives by its own set of rules. It bulldozes over other nations’ rights (especially weaker and/or more community-oriented nations), exploits whatever resources it wants, enslaves and marginalizes people of other nations, and ignores any treaties that might have been written.

An individual can take their sovereignty too far in much the same way, centering their own right to do what they want over anyone else’s rights. 

Sadly, most of us have been socially conditioned by the colonization that’s steeped into our cultures. As a result, when we claim a word like sovereignty (as the self-empowerment influencers have done), the concept can still hold the shadow of the culture within it. What you end up with is self-empowered people who believe in their own rights to self-govern their own bodies and choose what’s best for them, but who don’t recognize that those choices might actually be harming other people.

Let’s say, for example, that your self-care practice involves paying people to care for your children and clean your house while you get a massage. You have a sovereign right to do all of those things (and I’m all for it). But… let’s imagine that the people doing these things for you are exploited labourers who aren’t being fully compensated for their work because they’re undocumented immigrants or they’re marginalized in a way that makes other work hard to find. Is that truly a sovereign self-care practice if it doesn’t uphold the sovereignty and rights of others? 

Or let’s say that you believe you have the sovereign right not to wear a mask in the middle of a pandemic and you pass the virus on to the person working at the grocery store who passes it on to their immuno-compromised child or elderly parent who dies as a result. Is that truly a sovereign choice if it ignores the sovereignty and rights of that family?

Sovereignty has a shadow side and that shadow looks like colonization. If your sovereignty does not acknowledge and uphold the sovereignty of others, then it’s individualism, and an excuse to be self-centred in your choices. 

The only way for sovereignty to work in the world is for it to be interwoven with community (which comes with morality, responsibility, and justice).

Sovereignty needs guardrails. To avoid the shadow side, we need to hold it in a relationship with community. Social contracts serve as the guardrails, holding the two in balance.

We can think about sovereignty and community as a yin and yang relationship – they function together, balancing each other out and holding each other accountable. Within each is a bit of the other. And in the space in between is a social contract that weaves the relationship together and keeps one from swallowing the other whole. 

Community that’s left unchecked swallows individual rights and erases sovereignty. Sovereignty that’s left unchecked destroys community and leaves everyone isolated and paranoid of each other.   

Social contracts (like treaties between countries) guide us in naming and honouring what our individual rights are, what boundaries we need in order to uphold each person’s sovereignty, what we’re willing to give up in service to the community, how we’ll share and/or distribute assets and resources, how we’ll address conflict, and how we’ll celebrate and cherish the bond between us. Not only do they guide the relationship and protect each person’s freedom within that relationship, they also offer the freedom to leave if the relationship no longer serves or if there is irreparable harm done. Clear and supportive social contracts make a relationship stronger, more resilient, more adaptable, and more supportive of the people in it. 

When Krista and I entered into a business partnership, we went through a process called Conscious Contracts (with a lawyer trained in the process) and we developed a Peace Covenant that gives us guardrails for our relationship. This helps us hold both sovereignty and community as values at the core of our business. What Krista has often said throughout this process is “I don’t want to be in a relationship with anyone who feels trapped in that relationship or who clings to it too desperately.” We value the relationship, and we are both free to leave if/when that feels necessary.

There is also a process called Blueprints of We that is a form of social contract that could be helpful for all kinds of relationships (not just business partnerships). I encourage you to check it out for your marriage, your family, your community organization, your church, etc.

*******

P.S.If you want to learn more about how to hold space for people’s sovereignty, while also leaning in to community, we welcome you to join us for the Holding Space Foundation Program. Registration just opened for the session that starts in October 2021.

On becoming a Velveteen Mother

with two of my daughters, after my second birth

Listen:

“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.  

***

For more personal stories, check out my book, The Art of Holding Space: A Practice of Love, Liberation, and Leadership. The audiobook has just been launched.

Interested in stretching your own writing capacity? I’m hosting a new online writing program, Write for Love and Liberation.

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