My social media feed is filling up with images of grinning college students settling into dorm rooms. Sometimes the parents who are posting those images are in the photos and grinning too, but beneath the grins and cheery captions… well, there’s a lifetime of stories and a whole host of other stuff. I can see it in their eyes. (Let’s face it, when your child moves away, it’s hard to keep it from showing up in your eyes.)
“Whoa…that’s three sentences… and ten thousand pounds of stuff,” Michael J. Fox said in his documentary, Still, when he was reading a short passage about his relationship with his dad from his autobiography. That’s what I feel when I look at those photos… just a simple photo, a simple smile, a simple caption about how their child is starting university… and ten thousand pounds of STUFF. Yes, when your child moves away, there’s a lot of STUFF – emotional and otherwise.
Did they really grow up so quickly? Don’t I have more time with them? Can we go back to simpler days when they needed me more? Will I become less relevant in their life? Did I teach them all the things they need to become a good adult? Will they make friends here? Will they be lonely? What if they get their heart broken and I’m not around to support them? How will I spend my time when I’m no longer caring for them in my house? What if I enjoy having them out of the house – will that make me a bad parent? What’s my identity now that “parent” is taking up less space?
Oh parent… I feel you. My heart is travelling with you on this wild roller-coaster ride called parenting. Who could have known, when we first became bonded with those little people who entered our lives, just how much our hearts would become tethered to theirs? Who could have known the ways our hearts would swell with pride and devotion, the way those little people could uniquely break our hearts with their cutting words, the way we could feel such intense anger one moment and love the next, the ways we’d feel so completely unprepared, overwhelmed and uncertain about how we were raising them?
Parenting is a series of thresholds, milestones, and heartaches. It’s a gradual, incremental process of letting go, punctuated with these bigger moments when the letting go feels more and more profound (and sometimes earth-shattering) – like when we first leave them with a babysitter, they start attending school, they have their first sleepover, they go away to a week of sleepover camp, they start high school, they learn to drive, and they get their first job. And there’s the other stuff too – less tangible and sometimes more emotional – the first time they keep a secret from us, the first time they lie to cover something up, the first time they choose a friend over us, the first time they slam their bedroom door. Then, before we know it, they’re ready for that BIG threshold – the one that involves them leaving our home, for a university dorm, their own apartment, another city… whatever. It’s all an exercise in learning to let our hearts walk around outside of our bodies… and then realizing those hearts were never ours to begin with.
Sometimes when I teach about what it means to hold space, I joke that I got my PhD in holding space from being a parent. At first, you hold them close and take responsibility for meeting all their needs, and the container you hold for them is small and enclosed, protective and safe – like a bird’s nest. Then gradually, you open your hands and your heart more and more and let them grow into their autonomy and agency and you practice letting them take responsibility for the consequences of their own actions. It’s not easy, this letting go, especially when your child moves away, but it’s necessary. Individuation, according to Jung, is the process a child must undergo to become their own person – a well-functioning adult, with their own beliefs and ideals that might be separate from those of their parents and society. We let go so that they can become themselves.
(An aside… I think there’s a potential individuation process involved in parenting too, especially if there was some arrested development in our early lives and our children’s growing up brings up our own long-buried childhood stuff, but that’s a post for another day.)
What comes up again and again in the work I do, when people begin to learn about what it means to hold space, is that this practice is FAR more about us, the spaceholders, than it is about the people we hold space for. As parents, we have to hold space for OURSELVES during this important milestone so that we don’t project all of our stuff onto our children, so that we don’t pass down the woundedness and trauma we’ve inherited from our lineage, and so that they can be released more fully into their individuation with liberation and without shouldering guilt over abandoning us or fear that they’re severing family ties or letting us down.
Two years ago, my oldest and youngest daughters moved out within two weeks and I drove each of them twenty-four hours in opposite directions to their new homes in faraway cities. Not long afterwards, my middle daughter started traveling and I was mostly an empty-nester. The pandemic had given me bonus time, with all of them staying home longer than expected, but then the world started opening and suddenly they were all leaving in quick succession, and going far away. SO quickly it all happened and suddenly… I was alone. And there I was, reeling from the emotional tailspin of it all, but doing my best to hold space for myself so that my aloneness didn’t become their burden.
This summer, I’ve enjoyed the gift of a few months with two daughters back under the same roof, but next week I have to say good-bye again as one heads back to the west coast and the other heads in the opposite direction. I’m a little more prepared for it now, having survived the initial blow, but I know it will still be hard. I know my emotions will bounce all over the place for a while.
As I prepare for this next period of transition, I thought I’d share some reflections from my own experience and my understanding of what it means to hold space for our growing children and for ourselves. I hope these are supportive for when your child moves away.
1. Trust that you have taught your children as much as they need to know, and that they have the capacity to figure out the rest. This one surprised me when I helped my daughters set up their new homes far from where I’d be living. I worried about whether I’d taught them enough that they’d know how to function as independent adults. Some of it was about simple things (like getting stains out of clothes) and some of it was bigger (like building community in a new city). I cried about it in a hotel room on the long trip home, but then I had to let go and trust that they’d be okay. Two years later, I can see how well they adapted, and I have to admit that those fears were more about my own insecurities (i.e. Had I been a good enough mother?) then they were about them.
2.Give them the advice that matters most, and withhold the stuff they can figure out on their own. This is related to the first one, but it’s also about allowing our children to have their own autonomy and make their own mistakes. They need to know that we trust them and that we don’t assume they’ll be helpless without us nearby. When we try to dump too much advice on them, we run the risk of hijacking space while making them doubt their own capacity to make good choices independently. In those early days for each of my daughters as they set up their apartments and learned to navigate new cities, I had to learn to (mostly) keep my mouth shut when they chose sheets and towels, and then figured out how to navigate public transit. There was some discernment in recognizing when to stay silent and when to step in and let them know I still had their backs and I didn’t always get it right, but I tried.
3. Be mindful of what this separation might be triggering in you, and work to hold and heal it without making it your child’s burden. Are you feeling separation anxiety, or having old abandonment trauma triggered? Are you afraid of becoming irrelevant in your children’s lives? Are you afraid of losing your sense of purpose when you’re not needed as much? Are you letting your mind cycle through irrational fear of what could happen to them while you’re far away? Maybe there’s codependency in your relationship with your child and you’ve been overly enmeshed in their life? These are all very real things, and you don’t need to bury them and pretend you’re not feeling them, but it’s your responsibility to hold these things (and/or find peers or professionals to help you hold and heal them) not your children’s. Breathe deeply, dear parent, and release them with a blessing so that they don’t have to take responsibility for (or inherit) your pain.
4. Recognize that there is grief in this and find healthy ways to process your grief. I know it hurts – that’s natural. You’re grieving the end of a really important era of your life. You’re grieving the loss of that little innocent child you cherished. You’re grieving the way your role in your child’s life is changing. You’re grieving all of those meals you won’t eat together, all those movies you can’t watch, all those car rides, and all that laughter you’ll no longer hear from the living room. It’s not a death, exactly, but it can feel that way. Let yourself cry, let yourself grieve, and find friends who will hold space while you release all of those big feelings. Pour it onto your journal page or go sit by a river and let the natural world hold space for your tears. Grief is a natural part of relationships. Grief is a part of what it means to love. Go ahead and feel it. (This too shall pass.)
5.Recognize that there is also freedom in this (and let go of any guilt you feel over enjoying that freedom). There is never just one emotion involved in a major milestone like this. There might be some relief mixed in with the grief, and maybe even some joy (though those might not be the most immediate emotions to show up). You’ve done the heavy lifting of parenting a child into adulthood and now they’re not going to need you as much. When your child moves away, they’re going to find other people to lean on and your burdens will likely become lighter. You won’t need to cook as many meals or give as many rides or clean up as many stray socks. That can feel like freedom. Your life is about to open up in ways that might not have been possible when your children were more dependent on you. Feeling guilty over enjoying it isn’t going to serve anyone, so why not enjoy it? In the long run, your kids are likely going to enjoy their own freedom more (and feel less guilty about leaving you behind) if they see you enjoying yours. It’s a healthier way of nurturing a secure (and evolving) attachment bond between you.
6. Lean into liminality. There is liminal space involved in any major transition in our lives and this one is no exception. We have to let go of the old story of who we were and how we spent our days and it will take some time for the new story to emerge. There’s an identity shift when you lose some of the duties and expectations that once defined you as a parent and you might even find yourself in a full-fledged identity crisis. Lean into it, dear parent (while getting support if the crisis is significant). Things are going to be different. There’s going to be a new normal. You will eventually adjust to a new way of filling your days, a new way of being in communication with your child, a new way of welcoming them home for the holidays, and perhaps new hobbies, new friendships, and new ways of making meaning of your life. But you don’t have to figure any of that stuff out right away. Let yourself feel wobbly for awhile. Let yourself feel all the complicated back-and-forth emotions. Be tender with yourself when old wounds get triggered, when you feel lonely, when you’re full of self-doubt, or when you’re uncertain what your purpose in life should be. This is liminality, this is normal.
7. Consider planning a “gap year” for yourself. When we think of gap years, we picture high school graduates going off into the world to find themselves before entering college. But what about a gap year for new empty-nesters? When my daughters all moved out, I sold our family home (because none of them planned to move back to Winnipeg and I didn’t intend to stay in the city either) and set off on a year-long adventure. Because my work affords me the privilege of working from anywhere there’s Wi-Fi (plus I teach internationally), I had the privilege of traveling all over Europe and Central America. Now that I’m at the tail end of that year, I am immensely grateful that I had the opportunity! It wasn’t always easy, and sometimes I felt lonely, but it was a profoundly meaningful (and fun) way to explore who I am, where I want to live, and how I want to live in this next phase of my life. I got to spend the year being intentional about making choices rooted in joy, tenderness, and liberation – choices for ME and nobody else – and I feel grounded and have a new sense of confidence and self-love now. Your gap year might look nothing like mine (maybe you can’t leave your home or have no interest in travel), but there might be some way for you to experience a similar period of exploration, expansion, and joy-seeking as you figure out how you want to live, love, and make meaning. (Consider joining our Full-Bodied Life community for this time of exploration.)
8. Explore (and enjoy) your expanding identity and possibilities. Related to the last point, you have an opportunity, in this transition period, to dive into more intentional self-exploration. Maybe there are lifestyle changes you want to make. Maybe there are relationships that need to shift or new boundaries you need to adopt. Maybe it’s time to dive into that therapy you’ve been putting off. Maybe you want to travel more. Maybe you want to take up new hobbies or take a course. Maybe it’s time to sign up for that master’s degree program you always dreamed you’d get but put off when the children came. This is a moment when you get to let go of some of that old programming about what’s selfish or a waste of time or what you’re not worthy of. This is a time when you get to choose YOURSELF. Be playful with your exploration and HAVE FUN!
One day, dear parent, you will wake up in the morning and realize that something has shifted and that you’ve now become accustomed to this new normal. Despite how monumental they feel when they happen, transitions don’t last forever. You can weather this storm, just as you have weathered storms in the past. You’re not finished growing and evolving, and while growth can sometimes hurt, it can also lead us into more expansive lives. Go ahead – live a more expansive life!
P.S. If you want to learn more about how to hold space for yourself, now would be a great time to sign up for our How to Hold Space Foundation Program. It starts in October 2023, and if you sign up before September 1, you can still get last year’s prices.
I’m at the airport, ready to fly from the west coast of Canada to the east coast (where I’ll spend time with some dear friends), and then, next week, I’m heading to Europe for a few months, followed by some time in Costa Rica. I drove to the west coast from my home in the middle of Canada to move my youngest daughter back to university, and then I left my car with my middle daughter. All that I will wear and use for the next six months is packed into carry-on luggage.
If you’ve been following along on social media over the last few months, you will likely know that I sold the house I’ve lived in with my family for twenty-four years (where I raised my children), gave away most of my furniture, and packed my personal belongings into an 8’x10’ storage unit. All three of my children have left home over the last year, and now it’s my turn to leave the nest. In about six months, I expect I’ll be looking for another place to live (in a new city), but for now I’ll be living out of a small suitcase and smaller backpack.
It’s been a year of big transitions for me. Last year, I wrote about letting my daughters go. Now, in the wake of that big change, I have let my house and most of my belongings go. It was hard, but it was time. I knew the house had served its purpose in our lives and the next chapter of my life belongs in a different place – a place I will find when the time is right.
Someday I will write more eloquently about what it’s like to release as much as I have, but right now it’s still difficult to articulate. Some of it was good, some of it was hard, some of it was healing, and some of it was painful. The last four days in the house felt especially gruelling, when I (together with two of my daughters) worked from sun-up to sun-down, sorting and cleaning and carrying and donating and dismantling and packing and releasing. Part of me wants to block the memory of that hard time from my memory, but a wiser part knows it’s important to hold space for it all. It’s the kind of transition that changes a person.
As best I could, I tried (and continue to try) to walk through this time with mindfulness and intention, paying attention to whatever emotions came up, being tender with myself whenever necessary, and making choices that align with my values and needs. I am, as always, intent on living a mindful, liberated, tender, intentional life.
Here are some of the things I’ve been noticing about what it means to hold space for myself during such a time:
Even when you’re choosing something that you really want, there will be periods of grief. It can be surprising when the grief sneaks up on you, but it’s normal. There are losses even in a joyful transition. I was ready to leave my house and had planned for it for several years as I helped my daughters launch into their lives, but there were still moments when I simply needed to sit down on the floor and cry over all of the memories that were held within those walls. I wasn’t just letting go of a house – I was letting go of the last home where I’d live with all of my children, and the last place either of my parents would ever visit me. I was leaving the place I’d built my business, written my book, gotten a divorce, grieved my parents’ and son’s deaths, and loved and been loved abundantly and well. Each room I cleaned and each piece of furniture I moved out held a myriad of stories, and those stories had emotional triggers attached, so I grieved and released.
Fear shows up with many disguises, especially during big life changes. Fear can masquerade as anger, frustration, immobility, impatience and/or difficulty making decisions. “Look over there!” fear says, to distract us away from the truth that’s hidden underneath. I had moments when I’d suddenly be irritated with my real estate agent, belligerent with caring people who were asking questions I didn’t know the answers to, or unable to make a simple decision over what to do with a favourite bookshelf. When I’d get quiet with myself, I’d almost always find that fear was at the root. Whenever I’d give fear a voice, it would settle and release some of its hold, so I’d listen, soothe, make adjustments if necessary, and carry on. I tried not to shame myself for the fear or get too attached to it but to simply let it surface and then let it go. In the quiet space after the fear was finished with its blustering, I could usually make my way back to my original intentions and reasons for making the decisions I had.
The emotional waves will come and sometimes you’ll feel like you’re drowning, but when you treat yourself with tenderness in the midst of it, the tidal waves pass and soon the seas are calm again. I can’t tell you how many emotional roller coasters I’ve been on lately. There have been far too many to count. (The last one was just hours ago when I said good-bye to two of my daughters who I likely won’t see for six months.) Almost every day for the last few months I’d get knocked over by the waves at least once. When I tried to push the emotions away, they’d eventually find a way to resurface, but when I’d meet them with tenderness and mindfulness, soothing myself and not getting overly attached to the feelings, they’d pass and soon I’d be back on solid ground again. “This too shall pass” seems like a trite mantra, but it works. No emotions ever last forever.
Sometimes joy surprises you in the most unexpected way at the most unexpected moment. One of my favourite moments, in those last few unrelenting days in the house, came in the most unexpected way. We couldn’t decide what to do with all of the food in the pantry or the cleaning products or the random things that we hadn’t found homes for yet and we were running out of time. Two days before we had to be out of the house, I set up a table in front with a sign “FREE – I’m leaving the country – PLEASE take my stuff!” and then we filled the table to overflowing with canned goods, dry pasta, spices, cushions, etc. My daughter posted a photo and invitation on Facebook Marketplace, and within fifteen minutes, people were streaming to the house, happy to take anything we’d give them. While I was bringing out more things, I stopped to chat with some of the people. Many were newcomers to Canada, some having arrived as political refugees from the Ukraine, Algeria, and Chile. Though our conversations were brief, they were all lovely – human lives touching other human lives. Because many of them had, fairly recently, been on their own life-changing journeys, they all wanted to know about mine and they offered encouragement and support. One lovely man who’d sold his home in Chile to give his children a more safe life in Canada offered gracious advice about the grieving process. He and his wife then offered to help clean my house in exchange for the chairs and barbecue I gave them. At one point, when the table was almost empty, my daughters noticed that a family had come by taxi. “Mom!” one said. “We can’t let them waste a taxi ride! We have to find more stuff!” So we rooted through the cupboards and fridge for whatever was left and they took it all. I don’t think my daughters or I will ever forget how much joy it gave us to simply give things away and connect with the people who needed those things. It reminded me of my childhood, growing up poor on a farm, when I got a windfall – a couple of bags of barely used clothes that were just my size, dropped off by a neighbour.
The bigger the transition, the more you need to be intentional about prioritizing time for processing, rest, and tenderness. It’s tempting to keep ourselves overly busy to avoid the feelings that want to come up, but in the end, we’re able to meet the transition with more grace if we give ourselves space. One of the best things I did during the month of August was commit to a morning bike ride to the park with my journal and give myself time to process whatever was coming up. Even though it sometimes felt indulgent, especially on those days when I had the most to do, I knew how much I needed it and how cranky and disoriented I could sometimes be without it. Sitting by the river every day, watching the waves below and the hawks above, helped me to stay grounded and less wobbly when the emotional waves threatened to overtake me. Because I’m introverted, it also helped to resource me for the times when I’d have to face numerous interactions with lawyers, bankers and other service providers.
In the words of Elsa in Frozen, “Let it go, let it go, let it go.” With so many changes going on, not only did I need to let go of a lot of stuff, I also had to let go of expectations, let go of plans, and let go of a vision of the way things “should” turn out. As I’ve already written, the letting go started when I made less money on the house than I’d hoped. It continued from there. When construction workers showed up to tear up the street in front of my house weeks before the move, I had to let go of my plans for a garage sale and a backyard party. Then I let go of most of my expectations that I’d make money off my furniture and gave most of it to an organization that helps support Indigenous families who are trying to get their kids out of foster care. “Let it go” became the theme of my summer as box after box of things left my house to go to local charities, friends’ homes, and then the homes of strangers who responded to our FB Marketplace invitation. I can’t say it was always easy, but I can say that the less I resisted the letting go process, the happier I was for the freedom and lightness that followed and the more I could appreciate the fact that others were making good use of the things they’d received. Sometimes I had to grieve the letting go (and that often happened during my morning times with my journal at the river), but once I acknowledged the feelings, I was able to face the adjusted reality with a measure of courage and grace.
You have to be prepared to drop the balls that bounce. A time of transitions is NOT the time to prove we are a superheroes who can do ALL the things. Instead we have to take on fewer responsibilities, say no to more commitments and set healthy boundaries, prioritizing our own well-being. If you’re anything like me, you will likely need more energy and time than you expect to need, so be meticulous about guarding what you need. I had high hopes, for example, of throwing a big backyard party to say good-bye to my friends. I had to let go of that plan largely because the construction on our street made it too difficult for people to find parking but letting go was for the best because I know I would have exhausted myself trying to host people in the midst of the chaos. I let go of other things too (like responding to email on a timely basis), acknowledging my own limits during a stressful and exhausting time. I’m still letting go of things, even as I set off on my adventure, because I know that I now need rest and restoration to replenish myself after an exhausting few months. (If you’re waiting for an email reply, please bear with me – I’ll get to it.)
Sometimes you need to send out a distress signal to remind yourself that there are people who care for you. On the morning of the last day before the new owners took possession, my daughter convinced me not to try to be a superhero about doing everything ourselves and to hire a cleaner to come after we’d gotten the last of the things out of the house. Once she got the okay from me, she hired someone to come at five o’clock and all day we kept counting down the minutes until we could rest and let someone else finish the work. Just before five, I made a last trip to the storage unit, and when I came home, I expected my daughters would have let the cleaner into the house. That isn’t what happened, though. When I pulled into the driveway, both daughters were sitting on the front step looking dejected. There had been a mix-up and the cleaner wasn’t coming. Now here we were, weary to the bone, and still had hours of cleaning work to do. “It’s time to call in reinforcements!” my other daughter said, reaching for her phone. “Everyone ask at least one friend to come and we’ll have it clean in no time.” So that’s what we did – we sent out a distress signal and within minutes, there were four friends in our house scrubbing our toilets and washing our floors. We were still there for a few more hours, but a surprising amount of energy returned to our bodies when we were surrounded by friends lending their energy to ours. Plus the shared Chinese food feast at the end was a good finale to a hard day.
Trust yourself. Trust your own resilience, your courage, your wisdom, your strength, and your ability to adapt to changes. In the midst of the hardest moments, I found resources I didn’t know I had. I saw the same in my daughters. Even when our bodies were ready to give out, we found inner pools of strength and courage that got us through to the next moment. Whenever I felt overwhelmed, doubtful, depressed, or afraid, I was always able to reach deep down for what I needed for that moment (though sometimes I needed to break down and cry first). Though it’s not really fair to compare what we did with an extreme endurance race by people who seem to have superhuman strength and courage, I sometimes found myself thinking about the show World’s Toughest Race (on Amazon Prime) where teams compete around the clock in some of the most gruelling conditions imaginable. Even when their bodies seem broken, they rally the strength for one more challenge. Though it’s not good to push ourselves in this way on a long-term basis, in critical moments, we find what we need to get through. We are surprisingly adaptable and resourceful human beings.
When transitions feel too big to process all at once, and the feelings are too complicated to articulate, a ritual can help. There were so many layers to this transition that made it feel complex. I wasn’t just selling a house, I was leaving the city where I’ve spent almost all of my adulthood and the province where I’ve spent almost all of my life. I was also removing the safety blanket from my young adult children who won’t have a back-up home to retreat to when their lives feel hard or even a mom in the country for the first six months. (We haven’t figured out Christmas yet.) And I was moving away from my business partner and having to figure out how to transition our business relationship to virtual-only. And I was leaving behind my sister and some close friends who mean a lot to me. One day, I was feeling particularly restless and unsettled, so I decided to make a solitary drive out to the small town where I grew up, where both of my parents are buried. At the last moment, I took along a basket of stones that I had decorated several years ago and wasn’t sure what to do with in the move. On the way to my hometown, I came up with an idea for a ritual to help mark the places that had helped shape me as a child. At each place, I left a small cairn (a pile of stones meant to mark a significant place). It turned out to be one of the most meaningful things I’ve done in a long time. (You can watch a video of it here.) It helped me release some of what had been weighing me down and by my last stop (a beach where I used to attend summer camp), I was ready to let go of all of the remaining stones and walk away with a lighter load. Something changed in me after that ritual and I felt much more at peace with my uncertain future.
Lean into Mystery. In my book, The Art of Holding Space: A practice of love, liberation and leadership, I talk about how holding space is like “being a three-layered bowl” with the outer layer of that bowl being what you lean into. The two elements that make up that outer layer are Mystery and Community. I already talked about leaning into community above, but the other aspect is also important – Mystery. Mystery can be defined however you want to define it – God, Allah, Spirit, Universe, nature, Love, your higher power, Tenderness, etc. Whatever name you use for Mystery, especially in the midst of a big life change, it is helpful to have a sense of something bigger than you, holding you and caring for you. I have a tendency to become quite self-reliant in times like this (some of which is related to trauma and social conditioning), but I have learned that I am stronger when I lean into trust that not everything has to come from my own internal resources. In the hardest moments, I would try to lean into a sense that someone wiser than me was maintaining some sense of order in the universe and all would eventually be well.
Let yourself recuperate and integrate. To be honest, this is the one thing on the list I haven’t yet done. After emptying the house, I drove across the country to move my daughter into her university dorm and then did lots of mom-things like stitching up a duvet cover and making multiple trips to IKEA and Walmart to help her get what she needs for the year. The next stop is a visit with a friend whose health is deteriorating, and then I’ll spend time with my oldest daughter in Toronto (also helping her settle into a new space). In other words, I haven’t gotten to the “recuperate and integrate” phase of this process yet. I’ve barely found a moment to myself in the last two weeks. I’ll get there, though, because I know it matters. My first two weeks in Europe will be all about food, wine, beaches, and relaxation. In October, I’ll start teaching a series of workshops, but first I will rest, play and recuperate. I will give time for my body and soul to recalibrate after an intense summer.
I started this post at the airport on the west coast, but I am finishing it at the home of my friends Randy and Brenda on the east coast. Randy has long been a wise spiritual guide and generous friend to me (and some of you saw an interview I did with him for Know Yourself, Free Yourself) and now he is dying of ALS. Moments ago, in one of the fifteen-minute segments that he has enough energy for conversation, we spoke about how the journey that I am embarking on has some parallels with the one that he is taking. We are both releasing a lot of things so that we can journey forward with more lightness. We are both transitioning out of times in our lives when we were bound by duty and accepting that we’re no longer meant to be filling as many people’s needs. We are both leaning into the unknown and we are both learning to trust that we will find the resources we need and that people will care for us when we need it.
There’s at least one crucial difference, though – while I can at least make tentative plans and book flights and accommodations for the places I’ll be landing, he has to trust that wherever he arrives once his body releases his soul will be a place of peace, ease, and beauty. He’s a person with a strong sense of Mystery and he has told me that he believes that death will be a release into “pure joy” where the worries of this world no longer weigh him down. “Can you send a message back once you arrive?” I said to him just now, before he closed his eyes to rest. “Let me know what the accommodations are like in your new home.” We both laughed about what form that text message might take, when he has to find creative, non-verbal ways of getting me to hear whatever wisdom he has gained in his big transition. Up until now, we’ve always had words as our tools for communication.
I am not dying as Randy is, but I do believe that I am taking steps to invite more joy, liberation and ease into my life, and I know that I will learn many things in this big transition. I will be sure to send messages to you, my dear friends and readers, from wherever I am to let you know the lessons I learn along the way. Unlike Randy’s, mine will come by traditional forms of communication, like this newsletter and my social media feed. Watch for it and join the conversation!
****** On a somewhat related note, Krista (my business partner) and I have been grieving our Monday morning meetings when we’d talk about business but also talk about the state of the world and how we feel called to make a contribution through the Centre for Holding Space. Since we’ll no longer be able to meet in our neighbourhood coffee shop (thanks Little Sister for hosting us for several years), we’ve decided to experiment with our conversations and to share some of them with you. Eventually we will likely start a podcast, but for now we’ll be chatting with each other via short videos on TikTok (search for Centre for Holding Space), Facebook or Instagram. We’d love it if you’d follow along!
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.