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.
My youngest daughter is on the cusp of graduating from high school. Her oldest sister is on the cusp of graduating from her first university degree, and the middle one is only a year behind. There are moments when I hold my breath, knowing these days in which we all live under the same roof are fleeting and soon they will all have launched into their own separate lives.
Before they go, I hope I pass on at least some of the following bits of wisdom.
You’re not obligated to accept every gift. Whenever they receive a gift from me, they are allowed to tell me that they don’t like it and I do my best not to make it about me and instead to find them something they’d like better. Though I want them to embrace gratitude and to treat people with respect, I don’t want them to assume that they are obligated to receive gifts they don’t want or that they are responsible for looking after the feelings of the gift-giver. When gifts come with strings attached and an indebtedness to the giver, they are not really gifts but tools of abusers and manipulators. As we’ve seen in some of the #metoo stories emerging out of Hollywood, abusers offer elaborate promises and gifts (ie. roles in movies, good jobs, etc.) so that their victims feel a sense of obligation that includes their silence. I hope that by learning that they have the right to resist unwanted “gifts”, my daughters are better equipped to stand up to the tactics of abusers.
You can leave the party early. Especially when they were in high school and starting to attend parties that could possibly get out of hand, I worked with my daughters to ensure that they had an exit strategy in case they ever felt uncomfortable and wanted to leave before their friends did. Even if that exit strategy included me having to get up in the middle of the night and bundle up against the cold to go pick them up, I tried not to shame them for trusting their instincts if it wasn’t safe to accept a ride home with a friend who’d been drinking, or if people were doing things at the party that didn’t fit with their values or comfort zones. I hope that those party exit strategies can be carried into their adult lives and they can apply the principle to jobs they don’t like, relationships that are toxic, commitments they regret making, etc. They don’t have to feel obligated or give in to peer pressure if it means staying where they’re unsafe, uncomfortable, unhappy or undervalued.
You get to feel your feelings and don’t have to be a caretaker or shock absorber for other people’s feelings. I spent a lot of years caretaking other people’s emotions and being a shock absorber when those emotions were particularly volatile (and stuffing down my own emotions in order to do so), and I don’t want that for my daughters. I want them to know that their own feelings are valid, even if those feelings make other people uncomfortable. I want them to know that big feelings are okay, even if other people try to gaslight them into not feeling the way they do. I don’t want them to spend all of their time trying to regulate themselves on other people’s behalf. I want them to find healthy relationships with people who take responsibility for how they feel and who don’t try to stifle other people’s feelings. I want them to know that within healthy relationship, co-regulation is possible, but only if people honour rather than quash those feelings in each other.
You can come back home after you mess up. We’re not looking for perfection in this household, and so I try to admit my mistakes to my daughters, apologize when necessary, and let them know that this is a place where it’s safe to fail. I don’t want them to hide their mistakes or weaknesses, but to speak of them openly so that they can learn from them and grow. And I want them to know that I will provide a safe haven for them to return to when they need to lick their wounds and/or process their shame. I want them to feel safe when they’re here so that they can return to the world feeling more brave.
Sometimes disruption is necessary. But it will rarely be easy. I want them to know that they should follow the “rules” that make sense and help to keep people safe, but I also want them to know that they can break the “rules” that are outdated or that are meant to keep people small and compliant. This isn’t always easy for me to pass on, especially when I’m the one attached to the outdated rules, but I do my best. I want them to know that they don’t have to stick with the status quo when the status quo is harming people. I want them to know that they can speak truth to power. I want them to know that they’re allowed to be disruptors if the disruption is in the service of positive change. Disruption isn’t an easy path to choose, though, so I also want them to be prepared for the ways in which people will resist them and possibly try to hurt them for having the courage to be disruptive.
Power and weakness are companions, not opposites. I want them to see that vulnerability and authenticity are important parts of what it means to be powerful. I want them to know that generative power often emerges out of places of the greatest weakness. I want them to see that sometimes, in their moments of greatest weakness, admitting it allows other people to show up and be powerful and together we can create collective power that is greater than any of us can hold alone. I hope that they’re not afraid to claim their own power, but that it is always “power with” rather than “power over”.
Your body is your own. For years, I gave away my own body because I believed I was under contract to do so and because I was being coerced even when I was unwilling. I accepted the old rules of what it means to be a woman in a marriage, because that was the only way I’d seen modelled and the only way that I’d been taught to behave. I’ve spent the last several years reclaiming my body and relearning how to treat it, and I want my daughters to see that another way is possible. I want them to know that they can lavish love on their own bodies, that they can protect their own bodies, that they can say no to anyone who doesn’t treat their bodies well and that they can say a big and holy YES to those who make their bodies feel alive, safe and loved.
You can ask for what you need, but those needs shouldn’t supersede the needs of those more marginalized than you. I want them to know that they are worthy of having their needs met. I want them to pay attention to themselves enough so that they are actually aware of their own needs and can articulate them clearly. I don’t want them to be afraid to ask for what they need or to be so focused on other people that they consistently overlook themselves. I don’t want them to be haunted by shame for being too selfish or asking for too much. However, I don’t want them to be greedy and I want them to recognize how meeting their own needs will sometimes mean that people with less access to privilege won’t get their needs met. I want them to be aware of injustice and be willing to sacrifice their own needs in order to centre those who rarely get their turn. I want them to balance self-care with other-care, and worthiness with justice.
You can love who you want, as long as that love is generative and not stifling. This is a home in which there is little pressure to be heteronormative. Two of my daughters have, in fact, come out and we have celebrated them and embraced their choices and never asked them to be anyone other than who they are. I want them to know that whoever they choose to be in an intimate relationship with, they don’t have to be afraid to introduce that person to me for fear of my judgement. I do, however, want them to know that I will speak up if I see the person they’re in relationship with treat them in ways that harm their spirits (or the other way around). If they choose to be in relationships (and they are always free to choose singleness instead), I hope that those relationships are ones in which they are supported to flourish and grow and shine.
Friendships matter. Community matters. Family matters. But no relationships are worth abandoning yourself over. I hope that they find deep and lasting friendships (and hang onto the ones they already have). I hope that they surround themselves with people who will support them, challenge them, laugh with them, travel with them, grieve with them, and feed them. I hope that they recognize that friendships are worth fighting for, that forgiveness and grace are necessary parts of being in relationships with flawed human beings, that having people in your corner is essential for meaningful success, and that conflict is worth working through when you’re with the right people. I want them to find out how much richness comes when they make friends with people whose skin colour is different from theirs, whose beliefs are different, and/or who grew up in other countries.I also want them to know, though, that sometimes it’s best to walk away from friendships or communities that hold them back. I want them to dare to choose their own growth and happiness over stifling relationships. I don’t want them to stay stuck in places or with people that don’t value or respect them.
The hardest parts of life are usually the ones that result in the most growth. There’s a part of me that longs to protect my daughters from the hard parts of life, but the wiser part of me knows that I have grown most when life has been hard. I have been changed by grief and trauma, and I know that the work I now do is rich and meaningful because of all of the darkness and pain I have traveled through. I want them to recognize that they have the strength and resilience to survive hard things and that there is something to strive for on the other side. I hope that they always know that they don’t have to survive the hard things alone and that, whenever I am able, I will walk alongside them. I also want them to know that they should never be ashamed to ask their friends or family for help, to hire a therapist, and/or to seek treatment for mental illness, trauma, etc.. I don’t want them to bypass the pain, but rather to move through it with grace and grit and people who love them.
There’s a lot of beauty and magic in the world – don’t miss it. Some of my favourite moments with my daughters are ones in which we’ve stood in reverence in front of a stunning sunset over the mountains, we’ve giggled with glee at an amusement park, we’ve sat around a campfire watching the flames leap up, or we’ve driven for hours and hours just to hear our favourite bands in concert. I hope that they always give themselves permission to have fun, to seek out adventure, to be in awe of the natural world, and to surround themselves with beauty. I hope that they take the time to pause and notice even the simplest bits of magic. I want them to live fully and reverently and to fill their lives with meaningful experiences.
I swore I’d never write a parenting blog. Parenting feels like a lifelong experiment where the variables, subjects, and researchers keep changing so that there’s never any way to prove your hypotheses. Just when you’ve figured out that “Action A applied to Subject B results in Outcome C”, Subject B becomes a preteen and you get a whole different set of results. Suddenly the evening cuddles are rejected and you’re left sitting in the hallway in the cold.
And then there’s the issue of all of the baggage (self-doubt, fear, trauma, mental illness, etc.) that Researcher D brings to the experiment and suddenly you realize that Action A is never happening in a vacuum and you can’t isolate any of the variables to prove any of the results you thought you were seeing. Researcher D might in fact be sitting in that cold hallway feeling triggered because of their trauma memories of childhood rejection, which means that the cuddles were never just about Subject B.
No, I didn’t want to ever put myself in a position where I was pretending to know something about parenting because I was pretty sure at some point my children would prove my hypotheses wrong and I would have to eat my words. Or sit in the hallway picking up the pieces of my failed attempts.
But… people keep asking me for suggestions on how to hold space for their children, and I’d see the lost looks in their eyes and… well, I don’t want to give them advice, but I want to give them love. And I want to let them know they’re not alone. And I want to at least throw a lifeline in case they’re drowning.
So… what follows is not so much advice as it is a list of things that I find are helpful to consider when holding space for your children. I have three very different daughters, and I have to hold space quite differently for each of them, so these are generalizations rather than specifics. I’m still working on the experiment, so don’t attach any “expert” title to what is offered here. And if my children call to complain that what I say below is not always how I act, let them know that I love them and I’ll keep trying.
Remember that your children are sovereign beings. Your children are not little versions of you. They are not even extensions of you. They are individual, sovereign beings, with personalities that are all their own. Yes, it is your privilege and responsibility to guide them and help them grow into responsible adults, but it is not your job to shape them into what YOU want them to become. Walk alongside them and delight in them as they discover who they are. When they reveal something about themselves that makes you genuinely uncomfortable because it’s so different from you or what you’re used to (eg. they want to move to an organic farm in the middle of nowhere and you’ve always loved your life in the suburbs), meet that revelation with curiosity and openness rather than judgement.
Don’t take it personally. As your child is discovering who they are, they have to figure out who they’re not, and one of the things they’ll discover is that they are NOT their parents. That means that they’re going to need to push back against you sometimes and resist you and argue with you and probably even make fun of what you wear. It’s all part of their development. And it’s not about you. That doesn’t mean you have to tolerate disrespect, but when you discipline them, try to do it out of love for them rather than because you’re reacting to your feelings being hurt. (Yes, I said “try”, because every parent knows how hard it is to not be reactive when our feelings are genuinely hurt.)
Don’t fix everything for them. They’re going to make mistakes. Let them. And then let them figure out how to recover from those mistakes. Resilience, recovery, and adaptability are some of the most valuable skills they’ll need in adulthood and if you don’t let them learn them in childhood, they’ll be much harder to develop later on. And when you’re tempted to fix everything for them, pay attention to what is behind your desire to be the fixer. Is it your ego that doesn’t want your children to look bad because it will make you look bad? Is it your nature to be overly associated with them and you take on too much of their pain as your own? You can stop them when they’re about to make really BIG mistakes (like driving home drunk), but if their mistakes won’t threaten anyone’s lives or cause your house to burn down, step back and allow them to happen.
Don’t overpraise them. I know… you really, really want to encourage them and build their self-esteem and let them know what wonderful little people they are. But you’re not doing them any favours if you heap on the praise too liberally. Children get addicted to the praise and think their worth comes from it and then they can’t figure out how to find their own self-worth within themselves when nobody is telling them how great they are. And overly-praised children may not learn how to receive criticism in a healthy way because they’ve been so protected from it. Sometimes (especially when they get to be teenagers and they perfect the combo eye-roll-lip-sneer), they’ll feel patronized by your praise and push back against it because it doesn’t make them feel better about themselves. Pay attention to when your praise comes from a place of superiority.
Apologize. You’re going to mess up. Every parent does, perhaps even on a daily basis. Sometimes you’ll snap at them because you come home exhausted and they greet you with their everlasting need and you just want a moment to yourself or A LITTLE APPRECIATION PLEASE. Sometimes you’ll use inappropriate humour and you’ll hurt their feelings. You’ll try hard not to do it again, but you’ll still slip up. And then you get the opportunity to model for them what it’s like to be a flawed human and how important it is to take responsibility for and apologize for your mistakes. Your apology lets them know that their feelings have value. They also let them know that it’s okay to screw up sometimes, as long as you take responsibility for it.
Allow them to change. One day your child will love bacon and the next day they’ll swear off meat for the rest of their lives. One day they’ll want to tattoo “Sam is my BFF” on their arm, and then the next day they’ll be deleting Sam from Snapchat and throwing Sam’s birthday gift away. Children change. Every day. It’s hard to keep up. Sometimes you’re going to want to slow down the change, sometimes you’ll be tempted to make fun of them for being so wishy-washy, and sometimes you’ll resent how their changes are affecting your life. Take a deep breath and listen to what they’re telling you without reacting with the first judgemental or frustrated thing that comes out of your mouth. They’re SUPPOSED to change, because growth is what childhood is all about. Let them know they’re still safe with you even in the middle of their biggest transitions.
Let them grow their lives outside of yours. From the day they’re born, a child will be gradually growing away from you. First there will be the time when they want to hold the spoon ALL BY THEMSELVES. Then there will be the time they choose to play with a friend instead of stay home with you. Then there will be the first sleepover at someone else’s house. And on and on until they leave home and forget to call. It’s a life-long practice in letting go. It’s a beautiful and painful thing. Let them go and let them know, from an early age, that they’re allowed to have fun without you, they’re allowed to have conversations that you’re not a part of, and they’re allowed to have space in their lives that their parents don’t enter without permission. It will feel lonely sometimes, and you’re going to want to invade their privacy, but unless you have genuine reason to worry about their safety or health (ie. you suspect they may be doing drugs), allow them the sovereignty and sacredness of their own diaries, their own bedrooms (when they’re old enough to look after them themselves), and their own friendships. Teach them early on that they are allowed to have boundaries and that consent is important.
Shut up and listen. Oh how tempting it is to rush in with our wisdom every time our children say things that we understand better than they do! We know the RIGHT way to deal with a friend who betrays us, the RIGHT way to study for a test, the RIGHT way to talk to an annoying teacher… don’t we? We somehow get the mistaken impression that our job as parents is to teach our children everything we know from our vast storehouse of experience… but more often than not, what they REALLY want from us is listening and acceptance and love. If you’re lucky enough to have a child who tells you when their friend breaks their heart, don’t ruin the moment by rushing in with advice. Shut up and listen. Rather than bulldozing over their feelings with your solutions, let them know that their feelings are valid and that it really DOES suck to be betrayed.
Treat each child the way they want and need to be treated. If you have more than one child, you may be surprised, like I was, just how different each one will turn out to be. My oldest daughter is an introverted marathon runner. My second daughter is extroverted and likes hiking and biking but HATES running. When I had a third I thought she’d come out like one or the other, but she’s another completely different personality with her own complexity. She hates biking, running AND hiking, but she’s a synchronized swimmer and she’s more of an ambivert (combination of introvert and extrovert). All three are prone to some anxiety, but their anxiety shows up in very different ways in response to very different stimuli. Not only are their interests and personalities different, but their needs are different too and I can’t hold space for one in the same way that I hold space for another. Remembering that they are all sovereign beings means that I have to be willing to be in relationship with each of them differently. That can be tough, especially when you’re also trying to be fair and equitable.
Learn with them. Your children are going to bring challenges and adventures and learning opportunities into your life that you never imagined before. Don’t pretend you’ve already got it all figured out – learn with them. Get down to their level and figure out how to build a Lego castle with them and then celebrate your joint success. When they figure out technology much more quickly than you do (because it’s bound to happen), let them teach you what they’ve figured out. And when they discover a new hobby that they become passionate about, be curious about it and let them tell you about it, or sign up for classes with them (unless they want to do it without you – in that case, let them have that as their own hobby). And if, one day, your child tells you they are gay (as has happened to me), support them in discovering who they are and let them know that you are open to learning about this part of their identity. You’ll be surprised how much your world opens up when you invite your children to show you the world through their eyes.
Delight in them. This might be an obvious one, but it seems worth saying anyway. Take delight in your children, in what makes them unique, and even in what makes them challenging. Let them know that you enjoy discovering who they are and watching them discover who they are. Surprise them with your willingness to drive across the city hunting for the perfect weird accessory for a costume they’re designing. Don’t indulge their every whim or be patronizing in your praise, but show support for their uniqueness and even their weirdness. Even if it means getting up at 5 in the morning to bike through the rain to the start of their marathon, just to stand there and watch them start, do it again and again and let them know they’re worth it.
Let them challenge, correct, or disagree with you. When your daughter tells you that what you’re saying sounds very passive-aggressive and she doesn’t appreciate it, you might be tempted to lash back at her with “Don’t talk to me that way – I’M the parent here!” (Trust me on that one – I get called on it regularly.) But if you work to create an environment where everyone is allowed (and encouraged) to ask for what they need and create boundaries where they need them, then you need to be prepared for them to push back. If there is truth in what you’re saying, even if it hurts you, accept it and let them know that you’re listening. If you need to take a moment because you’ve been triggered and all you can feel is the pain, let them know that you need to step away for a moment and will come back to the conversation when you can do so calmly. This will create safety for everyone in the household to express their feelings and challenge those who hurt them.
And now, with some trepidation, I will release this to you, with this caveat: I have screwed up in every single one of the above points and will probably screw up again. And you will too. So let’s promise to forgive ourselves and not judge each other and keep trying and keep apologizing when we slip up. Parenting is the hardest job we’ll ever do and there is no roadmap. Every one of us is just making it up as we go along, so there’s no point in beating ourselves up over something we’ve never been taught to do or never been given an instruction manual for.
A messed up parent who apologizes and keeps on loving is better than no parent at all.
In case you need more support in holding space for yourself and others, we’ll be talking about it at my upcoming retreats:
I have been contemplating the above quote ever since I heard it on the radio yesterday. We are, all of us, products of the “crooked timber of humanity”. None of us has ever emerged perfectly straight.
Before being shaped and carved by the woodworker’s tools – life’s chipping and sanding away of our imperfections – we are all irregular, imperfect, and unfinished branches of the crooked timber of humanity. Even after the shaping, our imperfections continue to show, but we learn to cherish rather than hide them.
I have a beautifully carved necklace made from a slice of a branch (see photo at the top – made by Windy Tree). What I like best about it is the way the artisan incorporated the imperfections of the branch, turning it into the rugged edge of a cliff out of which a tree grows.
Last weekend, I had the pleasure of spending a few days with those closest to me on my crooked family tree. My three siblings and I took a trip down memory lane together, visiting our childhood haunts in the rural part of the province where we grew up. We drove past the high school we all attended and talked about our favourite and least favourite teachers. We ate lunch in the Chinese restaurant that’s been there as long as any of us can remember. We played on the swinging bridge that crosses the White Mud River where we all took swimming lessons and were baptized as teenagers. We stopped to see the cairn that was erected at the place where our elementary school once stood.
Our parents are both buried in a graveyard on a sandy ridge close to our home town, under the towering poplar trees. As we stood near their graves, we marvelled at the fact that they are really and truly gone, that we are forever orphans, that they are part of our past and not our future. Though we are all near or past 50, it still feels far too young to have lost both of our parents. Perhaps one never feels old enough for that kind of loss.
Our last visit was to the farm where we grew up. We moved there when I was one year old and Mom and Dad moved away after we’d left home and my brothers and I were all about to welcome our first babies. That farmyard holds a lot of our family’s stories.
As we walked around the now-dilapidated farmyard, we reminisced about all that we’d lived through on that piece of land.
“This is where Grandpa collapsed and died on our lawn.”
“See that concrete pad? That was the front doorstep of the tiny green house we first lived in when we moved here, before we built the new house.”
“This is where we had to drag cattle out of the water that one Spring when there was so much flooding. Oh how we hated Dad when he came to wake us up in the middle of the night because another cow was stuck.”
“We used to climb into the rafters of this barn to find the new kittens.”
“What was that Low German word Dad would use when we were helping him build the steel bins and he wanted us to know a bolt was tightened and we should move to the next one?”
“Mom would have loved to have seen all of these lilacs she’d planted so fully grown and in full bloom.”
“Remember all those times when Dad had to climb down into the well to prime the pump and we stood at the top praying that he’d make it out safely?”
What emerged, as we peeked into broken-down barns and climbed over discarded fence posts, was how harsh and beautiful our childhood on that farm was. Some of our memories still held a touch of the pain those moments had caused. Others were pure joy. Some of them brought back old resentments of the decisions our parents had made. Others honoured them for their courage and resilience.
We were poor and life was often really hard on the farm. We hovered on the verge of bankruptcy and sometimes the phone was cut off or creditors would show up on the yard. Some of our hard luck was due to sandy soil, harsh weather, and the myriad of things that make crops fail or animals die. But some of it could be attributed to our parents’ poor choices and lack of business sense.
And then there were the other things not related to money that were hard – Dad’s anger and impatience, Mom’s way of over-apologizing and never believing she was good enough.
Our parents were imperfect – products of the “crooked timber of humanity”. They made mistakes. They let us down. They made us angry sometimes.
But that’s not the whole story. They were also full of goodness. They taught us how to love. They modelled integrity and morality. They made sure our home was always safe. They made sacrifices on our behalf. Dad taught us to love learning and Mom taught us to love stories.
Harshness and beauty. Kindness and anger. Insecurity and compassion. Poverty and abundance. All mixed together in one imperfect family.
My daughters will some day gather, after my death, to similarly reminisce. They’ll talk about some of the hurt they carried because of me, but they’ll also talk about the deep way I loved them. Because above all, I love them, just as my parents loved me.
And in the end, we must believe that love wins. And imperfection is less important than love.
We are put on this world not to seek perfection, but to learn grace.
We are put here to learn to make beautiful things out of imperfect branches.
We are put here to discover our own resilience and courage even as we hold our pain.
We are put here to love, to forgive, and to persevere.
One of the questions I ask my coaching clients, when they talk about people in their lives who are challenging, is: “How is that person your teacher?” Everyone – those who love us and those who hate us and those in between – can teach us something.
Not everyone in our lives will be good to us and not everyone will have our best interests at heart. Some of you may, for example, have had much more horrible parents than I had and you’ll be struggling at the end of this article to find any good in them or to forgive them for what they did. When I say that “we are put here to love and forgive”, I do not mean that we are meant to put up with all of the harsh treatment that comes our way.
No. That’s not it. You can learn to love with boundaries. You can end relationships that cause you great harm – even with your parents.
BUT, even the people who hurt us can serve as our teachers. Perhaps they teach us to respect ourselves more and not let them treat us that way. Perhaps they teach us our own courage. Perhaps they teach us boundaries. Perhaps they teach us forgiveness with detachment.
Instead of seeking perfection in others or yourself, seek for the lessons each relationship teaches you. Seek for the ways that you can grow because another person has been part of your life. Seek for the pinpoints of grace. Seek the piece of art that emerges from the imperfect branch.
I am writing this newsletter, once again, from my perch in the limbs of the large tree in my backyard. I am surrounded by crooked limbs, and I am grateful for the way their crookedness carved out this space that so perfectly cradles my body. I’m grateful for the smaller crooked limb that juts out at a strange angle that’s perfect for propping up my laptop. I am grateful for the canopy of crooked limbs that spread out above me, giving me shade from the sun’s heat.
Straight limbs are over-rated, especially in family trees.
p.s. If you need to talk to someone about your own crooked family tree and the ways that people serve as your teachers, perhaps I can help. I’m taking on a few new coaching clients.
There’s a piece of my story in this unfolding year that I have had a hard time writing about. I still don’t know quite what to say, but I also don’t want to pretend that it’s not going on or that I’m trying to keep it a secret.
This summer, my twenty-two year marriage unraveled and my husband and I are now separated.
That’s the simple version. The more complex version is the part that’s difficult to talk about, because it is not my story alone and I am determined never to write anything that might hurt anyone I care about. My husband, my daughters and I are all fumbling our way through this, trying not to hurt each other, trying to heal from past wounds, and trying to emerge stronger and wiser.
I share it, though, because sometimes people turn to me for expertise on what it means to hold space for people, and I don’t want to pretend that I have figured out everything there is to know about keeping relationships healthy. Like you, I falter sometimes, and I fail people, and I make decisions that might be hard for people to understand. I am still very much on a learning journey.
Early this year, after I wrote the post that went viral, about what it means to hold space for other people, what became more and more clear to me was something I’d woken up to about five years earlier. My husband and I no longer knew how to hold space for each other. We’ve tried and tried, but repeatedly we’ve failed. For my part, I spent too much time judging him and thinking I needed to rescue or fix him, and for his part, he no longer understood me and had no idea how to support the kind of work I was doing or the changes I was undergoing as a result.
For a long time, I tried to tell myself that it didn’t matter that we were in such different places – that I was in this marriage for the long haul and that my daughters were better off with us together – but I could only fool myself for so long. We were hurting each other in our failure, and, after repeated attempts at marriage counselling, it finally became clear to me that we were not doing our daughters any favours by staying in this broken place.
There is much that remains unresolved in this story and I continue to learn from it as I navigate this new path. I stumble sometimes, and then I fall into grace and am given a hand up to get back up on my feet again.
And that is where I will leave this story, in an unresolved place where there is still healing to be done and forgiveness to be offered. I am learning, despite much impatience and struggle, to stay in the unresolved places until what’s meant to emerge can find its own way and time to unfold.
When we see brokenness, our tendency (based in a childish desire for the world to be clean and orderly, black and white) is to rush in to fix it, to find a solution, and to put it back the way it once was. But the invitation of a deepening spirituality is to allow it to remain unresolved, to ask ourselves why we are uncomfortable with it being unresolved, and to consider that perhaps something new wants to grow in its own sweet time without the limitations of “the way things used to be”.
As a writer and teacher, I feel pressure sometimes, on my blog and on social media, to only share a story when it has a complete ending. If I share it when it is still in the unresolved stage, too many people will rush in with advice, solutions, or judgement, responding to their own need to see it fixed in a way that makes sense to them, and then I will feel defeated, inadequate, and not fully heard.
What I most value (and this is why I spend so much time in circles) is to be heard, to be valued, and to be supported in whatever stage of the messiness I am in. This, I believe, is what all of us truly want. Because the best path out of the messiness is rarely the quick fix that first rushes to mind.
I invite you then, to pause for a moment before you respond to my unresolved story or anyone else’s. In your pausing, listen first for what that person most wants from you. And then listen for what is unresolved in your own life that might make someone else’s messy story feel uncomfortable. Because when we sit in the messiness together, we grow truly beautiful and lasting things. That’s what it means to hold space for each other.
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” – Rilke
Thank you for holding space for me in my unresolved place.
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