They are all growing up and moving away from home. I’ve already written about my daughters leaving, but there’s more – it’s become a larger theme in this moment of my life.
My book is growing up and moving away too. Last Tuesday, we launched the Dutch version of the book. This baby that I spent years birthing is now being stewarded and lovingly held by people in another country, in another language. She’s got a life without me now. I can’t even read this new version of my own book, and that feels a little… hmmm… what’s the right word… weird? I have to trust that my book, like my babies, will have a good and meaningful life in a new place, across an ocean from where I am. The translators were recently interviewed on a podcast in Dutch about the book and I am struck by the realization that it doesn’t even need my voice to tell its story.
My business has grown up and morphed into something new this past year as well. What was, for years, a solitary endeavour has become a partnership. My business partner, Krista, now holds a lot of it on her shoulders and there are parts of it that, like my children, only visit me once in a while and no longer come to stay. This week, Krista has been working with our accountant on our balance sheets, and I have been largely oblivious to the process. There is freedom and also a little guilt in that.
The programs I’ve developed are being lovingly held by other people too. Last week, I participated in two calls for our Foundation Program, and I played only a secondary role on the calls (the “guardian”, in circle lingo) while a member of our team hosted each of the conversations. The same thing is beginning to happen in our Certification Program. A new community is growing around the work, and those who come are being expertly held by the Master Practitioners I’ve trained. I am largely a visiting teacher, dropping into the spaces they hold, offering wisdom and support when I can, but trusting them to hold primary responsibility for the container.
It’s all been a little puzzling and paradigm-shifting, this movement away from me, even though I orchestrated much of it and believe it to be next right thing. On the one hand, it’s gratifying to see that all of my love and hard work has supported babies and books and business in beginning to stand on their own feet. On the other hand, it’s a little scary to let go and to trust that they will be okay. On the one hand, it’s lovely to have this new spaciousness that their independence has granted me. On the other hand, it’s lonely to be the one left behind. On the one hand, there’s freedom in letting go. On the other hand, the ground feels wobbly when so many things that anchored me are being released all at once.
“Hold with an open hand,” I often tell people when I’m guiding them in an understanding of what it means to hold space. “When you hold too tightly, you’re at risk of hijacking space instead of holding it. An open bowl is about freedom and trust, a closed bowl is about control and fear.”
Now, here I am, after years of saying those words, learning this lesson in a new way.
It is all part of a paradox that has long challenged and intrigued me – the paradox of living at the intersection between attachment and non-attachment.
At some point in my life, perhaps in those fleeting moments when I held my stillborn son and knew he was never truly mine, this paradox took hold and wouldn’t let me go. Perhaps that’s why I’ve made many of the choices I’ve made – like letting go of much of my work and trusting others to hold it (when conventional wisdom would tell me to hang onto it and the money it brings in) – because I believe that a deeper understanding of this paradox is part of my soul’s purpose.
At the heart of the paradox are two seemingly inconsistent beliefs. Attachment theory teaches the importance of having secure attachments and tethering ourselves to each other, and yet Buddhism’s non-attachment (which is echoed in other spiritual traditions) teaches us to release our grip on people and things. These concepts seem so paradoxical, and cognitive dissonance rises up in me and tempts me to believe only one or the other can be true, and yet… both hold pieces of the truth.
Somewhat clumsily, I am finding my rhythm in this new version of the dance – between loving and letting go. I am learning new discernment about when it’s time to hold tightly and when it’s time to release my grip. I must allow them all – babies, books, and business – to seek out their own journeys, to stretch into their own autonomy, and to live their own truth, while I offer them love and a safe place to land. I must believe that they are wise enough, strong enough, brave enough and resilient enough to walk the paths that call them, even when those paths take them away from me.
I must trust the other people who now hold space for my people and my work, my babies, book and business, to do so with as much care and compassion as I have done.
Truthfully, though, there is no paradox in these teachings. It is only a limited, fearful mind that chooses to see the binary. A deeper exploration reveals that they are more like yin and yang – intertwined and each holding pieces of the other.
Secure attachment is not tethering yourself to another person – it is living side-by-side, connected but not chained. It is to offer what the nest offers the baby bird – a safe place to be comforted, and a brave space to launch from when it’s time.
Non-attachment is not about living an aloof and non-committed life – it is about resisting codependence with other people or things and becoming neither controlled nor controlling, manipulated nor manipulating. It is to love wholeheartedly but to release any illusions that you have control over the outcome of that love.
Both of these concepts invite us to live in such a way that we are both attached and non-attached, both connected and autonomous, both sovereign and interdependent.
Last week, I flew to where my youngest daughter now lives so that I could support her through yet another surgery in this long saga of chronic illness. Though she lives far away from me, she is still my baby. Though she is now independent, she still needs her mom. Though she left the nest, she still needs a safe place that she can sink into and know that she’ll be held – it’s what we all need, no matter how independent we become.
More than once, before and after her surgery, when we were curled up on either ends of the couch, our feet found each other in the middle. This is something we have long done, touched feet in the expanse between us, to remind ourselves that we are still connected. It started in that tumultuous time after the divorce, when she was beginning to return to me after months of non-communication in her anger over the disruption of our family. Sleepily, she would crawl into my bed before getting ready for school, and though she wasn’t yet ready to cuddle with me, she would let my foot brush up against hers – at first only briefly, and then for longer and longer. The day that it began to be her foot reaching for mine, I knew that we would be okay. We were, and continue to be, both attached and non-attached – sovereign individuals living interdependent lives.
On the Foundation Program calls last week, I mentioned to those who’ve come to learn about what it means to hold space, that these lessons they are learning on the pages of my book might not land fully for them until life and nature teach them more deeply. “When you feel confused about a concept,” I said, “hold it lightly and trust that you will understand it more deeply when life offers the lesson. The pages of a book – and even a rich conversation like this with other learners – will never fully offer you the depth of wisdom that your own life will someday offer.”
This continues to be true for me, their teacher. Though I have written for years about what it means to hold space, life still has much to teach me. These days, I am learning the grace of letting go. And I am learning to hold myself in this grief when the letting go feels hard. And I am learning to experiment with this new freedom the letting go offers.
Today, as I settle more deeply into this learning, I find myself wondering whether the mother bird, after she has watched her baby birds leave the nest, must learn a new kind of flight when her flight’s purpose is no longer about finding food to bring back to her babies. Perhaps she, too, needs to launch herself from the nest she has built, into the unknown spaces beyond, trusting that she, too, will find places to perch and be held when she is weary from the flight.
And maybe, in this new flight, as she learns the paradox of loving and letting go, she will also learn, on an even deeper level than she has before, that grief and joy can be held simultaneously and that they are not entirely different emotions. And she will be reminded that every new liminal space she enters will bring the promise of a new story.
I turned off the radio this morning, on the way home from driving my daughter to work. It was making me feel a little rage-y and I didn’t want to be in a bad mood.
In the lead-up to Mother’s Day, the radio station was holding a contest where people could phone in and nominate a mother for a prize. The people phoning in, mostly nominating their mothers or wives, were saying things like “she sacrifices EVERYTHING for her kids” or “she’s ALWAYS available” or “she’s a mother to the WHOLE NEIGHBOURHOOD” or “she’s the STRONGEST and most GENEROUS person I know”.
When I got home, I said to one of my other daughters “I want you to phone in, list off all of my imperfections and a few of my failures, and then say ‘our mom stopped being a martyr for everyone in the family, and we appreciate that because it’s teaching us we don’t have to do that when/if we become moms.’” And she said “yeah, I could tell them about the times when you’ve flown to the other side of the world for three weeks and left us behind.” (She’s right – I did. Multiple times.)
Can we please stop this glorification and objectification of motherhood? Can we stop layering unrealistic standards and expectations onto mothers so that they only think they’re “good enough” when they’ve given everything up for their families, kept a tidy house, stuffed down all of their emotions, AND volunteered for every school opportunity?
And while we’re at it… can we build more supports for mothers into our communities, so that they feel less alone and can stop pressuring themselves to be solitary superheroes?
I am an imperfect mother who wears no cape. There are often dust bunnies in the corners and I have fed my kids far too much processed food. I hardly ever volunteered for school things and I am notoriously bad at making small talk with other moms on the sports field. I have sometimes put my work ahead of my kids, and I’ve made quite a few mistakes when I thought I was doing what was best for them. I sometimes let my old trauma and social conditioning get in the way of honouring their dignity and autonomy. I get angry sometimes and even a little vengeful on occasion. I am forgetful, distractable, selfish, and sometimes insensitive.
I don’t want my daughters to say otherwise because it wouldn’t be true. I don’t want them to wear rose-coloured glasses about how perfect I’ve been, because then, if they ever become moms, they’ll judge themselves according to an illusion and the same impossible standards. I want them to have permission to be imperfect moms too.
I believe in anti-perfectionism motherhood. I believe in doing the best we can with what we have. I believe in showing our flaws and honouring our efforts. I believe in “good enough” and “I’m too tired to do better”. I believe in apologizing and trying again. I believe in giving ourselves permission to say no. I believe in asking for help. I believe in healthy boundaries. I believe in making motherhood more realistic and manageable by supporting it with community care. I believe that fathers (and other caregivers) should be supported in developing more capacity for emotional labour to take some of the load off mothers. I believe we should reject martyrdom as a motherhood construct. I believe we should celebrate imperfection and honour our limitations. I believe in forgiveness and grace and love and self-care.
I also believe that there are reasons why this glorification and objectification of motherhood has become so baked into our cultures. The patriarchy has created an environment in which a.) women (and, by extension, “women’s work”) are undervalued, and b.) we have to perform and compete to prove our worthiness.
Mothers who are fighting to prove their worthiness within a system are women who are exhausted, overwhelmed and more easily dominated, shamed and controlled.
“Historically, patriarchal cultures have not only treated motherhood as a mandate for women, they’ve also made it oppressive, holding mothers to unreasonable standards, such as requiring them to:
Relinquish personal ambitions to care for their families.
Deplete themselves to support their families and raise children.
Be the primary caretakers of the household.
Constantly serve others and others’ needs, while not attending to their own.
Handle everything with ease 100 percent of the time; have well-behaved children and maintain a high standard of beauty, a sex drive, a successful career, and a solid marriage.
“Our society’s unspoken messages to mothers include:
‘If motherhood is difficult, then it’s your own fault.’
‘Shame on you if you’re not superhuman.’
‘There are ‘natural mothers’ for whom motherhood is easy. If you are not one of these, there is something deeply wrong with you.’”
It’s not going to be easy to disrupt this narrative of the Perfect Mother, given that it’s one of the pillars that’s propping up the patriarchy, but if we want to liberate ourselves from oppressive systems, we have to keep chipping away at the old tropes until they release their grip. This begins, I believe, by telling the truth, healing the wounds, and freeing our children from the baggage we inherited.
That’s why I’m having different conversations with my daughters. We are wrestling, together, with the mistakes I made in the past that can be traced back to the flawed narrative I’d inherited about what it meant to be a Good Mother. We’re unpacking which parts of our family baggage are systemic and how we can disrupt those patterns in ourselves. And we’re wrestling with how to let go of perfectionism and accept “good enough”, even while we continue to feel the pressure from outside forces. And I’m helping them give themselves permission to be different kinds of mothers (or not be mothers at all) than I was or their grandmothers were.
More than anything, I want to model more self-compassion and less perfectionism for my daughters.
Perfectionism is deeply rooted in our fears of being deemed unworthy, and motherhood is extra hard when you’re always fighting to prove your own worthiness. Unfortunately, the game is rigged against us and we’re fighting a losing battle because the Perfect Mother doesn’t exist. It’s an illusion. We keep finding ourselves pressured into measuring ourselves against the impossible standards of the Perfect Mother that’s idealized on Mother’s Day, but it’s nothing but a mirage.
We cannot perform ourselves into worthiness. We have to find that in ourselves and we have to support others in finding it in themselves too.
We’ll only dismantle patriarchy if we create alternative models of community where we don’t have to play by patriarchy’s rules and we can find love and acceptance without having to endlessly strive for it. I’m starting in my home, with my daughters.
Our vacation didn’t start well. We’d barely arrived at our AirBnB apartment when my daughter and I got into an argument.
Only one of us could have a bedroom to herself for the week we were there. My daughter had done the research on where to stay in Chicago and had booked the apartment. At some point, while making the arrangements, she’d told the rest of us where we’d sleep, and though I don’t remember the conversation, those arrangements involved me sharing a bedroom with one of her sisters. (The third sister was going to sleep in the living room.)
When we arrived, though, after two tiring days of driving, I suddenly thought “WHY am I paying for this vacation, doing most of the driving, etc., but not reaping the benefits of a room to myself?” And in that moment, the many years of having made sacrifices for my family bubbled to the surface and I thought “nope, not this time.”
I claimed the space, and she reacted. We argued, and then both stormed into separate bedrooms.
In that moment when I claimed the space, it wasn’t just about selfishness – I was trying to change one of my old patterns. For the twenty-two years I was married and the twenty-three I’ve been a mom, I have given up a lot of things and let a lot of my boundaries be crossed – especially on vacations – in order to keep the peace. (I learned it from my mom.) For whatever reason (ie. being away from home, spending too much time in enclosed spaces together, having to make more collective decisions than usual, etc.) our vacations have often been powder-kegs for conflict, especially between my ex-husband and daughters. Conflict makes me anxious and my typical trauma response, in that situation, is to “tend-and-befriend” – to look for whatever compromise I can make and to calm everyone’s emotions in order to smooth things over and return to what feels more safe.
I’ve given up so many things, in fact, that if you ask me (especially while I’m on vacation) which restaurants I like to eat at and where I like to stay, I get a little flummoxed and sometimes a little anxious because I want to make sure everyone else is satisfied first. (If everyone is satisfied and there is little potential for conflict, the little girl in me can relax and feel secure.)
In recent years, though, I’ve been doing a lot of healing and I’ve been trying to change some of those well-engrained patterns. I do this for myself, and I also do this for my daughters – I don’t want them to assume that, when/if they become mothers, they have to sacrifice themselves for everyone else. And I don’t want them to instinctually run from or rush to fix conflict whenever it surfaces.
The challenging thing about changing patterns, though, is that it can be quite disruptive to those who are used to the existing patterns. Also, the person changing the pattern hasn’t yet learned new skills in communicating this new way of being, and there’s tenderness in the exposed wound that they instinctually want to protect, so they can end up treating those they love rather brusquely and sometimes unfairly.
To put it frankly, I was a bit of a bully parent in the way that I claimed the space.
About half an hour later, my daughter came to me in tears. “Can I just tell you how that felt?” she asked, and I, softened by the time that had passed and the tears in her eyes, said “Yes.”
She told me that she’d felt brushed aside by me – that I hadn’t offered her an explanation, hadn’t honoured the agreement she thought we had, hadn’t considered the effort she’d put into researching and booking the place, and hadn’t shown any concern for her feelings or needs. “You don’t usually do that,” she said. “That triggered me and I pushed back.”
“You’re right. I handled that badly,” I said, and then asked if she’d like to hear the words I’d neglected to say earlier. I told her about how I’d been triggered in that moment too – how I’ve so often given up things to keep the family peace and how I’ve been intentional about trying to change that. I also told her about why having a bedroom to myself feels important right now – how it’s helped me heal some of my past trauma and how it helps me be a better mom when I honour my own need for solitude.
We listened, we soothed our own nervous systems when things were difficult to hear, we gave each other space, we forgave each other, and we figured out a compromise that allowed each of us to get at least some of what we needed. (In the language of Brené Brown, we agreed to “rumble” with what had transpired between us.)
The next morning, I told her “I’m proud of us. We managed to find our way through that without continuing to trigger each other and getting stuck in reactivity.”
I’m especially proud of HER, because she initiated the exchange that healed us, after the necessary pause. She was able to soothe her nervous system first and recognize that our relationship was much bigger than this conflict. And she wasn’t afraid to speak truth to her mother even though, ultimately, I’m the one who holds more power in the relationship and could have shut her down (and have done so in the past).
That exchange with my daughter came at a time when I’ve been especially aware of the impact that wounded parents have on their children when they don’t recognize and work on healing their own woundedness (which, admittedly, has been me in the past). In recent months, my backyard has been a bit of a haven for more than one young person who’s wrestling with how to communicate with reactive parents who shut down their children’s emotions and/or needs or shut down their own emotions and/or needs in the face of whatever triggers them. Listening to these stories and trying to offer support has made it especially clear to me how generational trauma gets passed down through the lineage until someone decides to face it.
Let’s be honest – there are few things that reveal our woundedness, our reactivity, our anxiety, or our fears the way that parenting does.There are few people who can trigger us in the way that our children can. There are few responsibilities that leave us feeling more insecure and uncertain than parenting. It’s a minefield for trauma triggers, for conflict, for overwhelm, for self-doubt, and for exhaustion. AND… it’s also the place where we put the most pressure on ourselves to “do it right” because we know we’re impacting someone else’s life. And it’s the area in which the old trope “never let them see you sweat” feels the most appropriate because we feel the pressure to show confidence in order to offer security to our children.
It’s all of that AND it’s the area of our lives in which we were given the least education and preparation and, for many of us, where we had little modelling of heathy parenting from our own wounded parents.
So here – from one wounded parent to another – are some thoughts on how to parent while you’re still working on your own healing. These come from my most recent parenting experience (with teens and young adults), so are geared to that age of parenting, but most of them can be adapted for younger age children as well.
1. Let them in on the story of your wounds. If you have childhood trauma, or you were in an abusive relationship, or you were sexually assaulted, etc., let them know as much about it as you think they can handle (keeping in mind what’s age-appropriate). This is especially important if the trauma left you with triggers that may show up in a way that your children will notice and be impacted. If they know, for example, that you might be triggered by car accidents because a loved one died in an accident, it might surprise them less when they see you having an anxiety attack or running from the scene. And if they have the understanding that your reactivity comes as a result of the trauma, they’ll be less likely to assume that your anger, etc., is targeted at them and less likely to absorb the shame of responsibility for triggering you.
2. Let them know what you’ll try to do to soothe your own nervous system in the moments when you’re triggered so that they can count on you to take responsibility for yourself and not to fall apart entirely.If you only give them the story of your trauma but don’t tell them about the healing work you’re doing, it will likely create insecurity for them and they’ll have their own vicarious trauma, worried about when and how you might fall apart, snap at them, etc.. If, on the other hand, they know that you might fall apart or be reactive momentarily, but then you’ll do what needs to be done to soothe and heal yourself, their security will increase.
3. Apologize when you mess up. You’re going to mess up – that’s a given. And you will likely wound your children when you mess up. We’re all human and flawed and nobody prepares us for this gargantuan task of raising children. You’ll snap at them, you’ll dismiss their feelings, you’ll make them feel invisible – it happens to all of us at some point, when we’re tired, triggered, overwhelmed, grieving, etc.. Start by forgiving yourself, do what you need to do to deal with the shame of the mistake you made (talk to a friend if that helps), and then apologize to your children. Your apology is a message of love to them and it helps them recognize that whatever happened is not their fault. It also lets them know that it’s okay to screw up once in awhile and it won’t mean that they’re a bad person when they do. (A word of caution, though – don’t over-apologize or insist that they forgive you right away. That can place a burden on them to process it too quickly or to look after your feelings instead of their own and that’s not fair.)
4. Help them to become emotionally literate by modelling it for them.Talk to them about your emotional responses to things (ie. what situations make you feel anxious, what might trigger your grief, etc.) so that they recognize (and aren’t afraid of) their own emotions when they show up. There’s good research that reveals that the more clearly we are able to articulate our emotions the more healthy our relationship with those emotions will be and the less they’ll control us. Help them to recognize that there are no “bad” emotions so that they don’t feel shame or try to hide what they’re going through. A child raised in an environment where all emotions are accepted and can be talked about will be more inclined to live authentically and to seek out help for the emotions that are hard to deal with alone. (If you’re not yet emotionally literate yourself, one way to become more so is to develop a mindfulness practice in which you name each emotion when it comes up. You might also want to write about your feelings in a journal.)
5. Don’t put the burden of holding space for your trauma, grief, healing, etc. on their shoulders. While it’s valuable for them to understand something about your wounds and your healing journey, it shouldn’t be their burden to look after you, soothe you, protect you, etc. That’s reversing the natural order of things and creates insecurity and instability, even for an adult child. Let them know that you have your own support system (therapist, friends, siblings, etc.) to whom you can and will turn when you’re struggling. You’ll take the burden off them, offer them more security, and model that it’s okay for them seek out help when they need it just as you do.
6. Teach them about boundaries by having your own and honouring theirs. Teach them about consent in the same way. Let them know what behaviour isn’t acceptable in your home, what kind of self-care you need in order to be a less grumpy parent, how they should treat your personal space, and what consequences might be in place when they cross a boundary. Let them establish their own, age-appropriate boundaries and honour their right to say no, even to you. For example, once my daughters were old enough to do their own laundry and clean their own rooms, I stopped going into their bedrooms without their permission. This was especially important when their dad moved out of the house and they had to grapple with the grief and fear that came from having their parents separated. I’ve always wanted them to know they have a safe place to go, where nobody is allowed to intrude, especially if/when they need solitude for their own self-care, self-soothing, etc.
7. Work to create an environment where it’s safe for them to challenge you, to talk about the ways your reactivity may have wounded them, and/or to admit their own fears, triggers, etc.A child who can trust that they won’t be shut down for expressing their needs or for being honest about how they feel will have a much greater sense of safety and security in their home and in life. A secure environment, with a healthy attachment to at least one parental figure (that isn’t threatened when they challenge you), is the best place for a child to grow up and to explore who they are. When they find themselves in their own trauma experience, they’ll be more likely to develop resilience if they have that secure base.
8. Don’t take everything personally. Especially in their teens, children go through a period in which they need to push the boundaries, break some rules, reject you, etc. to establish their own sense of independence. This is the normal individuation process – it’s NOT ABOUT YOU. You could be the perfect parent and they’d still feel the need to push against you. If you’re insecure and/or easily triggered, you might be inclined to take it all personally and that will activate your reactivity and trigger old abandonment wounds. Over and over again, you need to repeat a mantra… “It’s not personal – it’s just the way they grow up.” Work on communicating clear boundaries and expectations of acceptable behaviour without doing it in an emotional, triggered way. Give them the space and time they need to grow into themselves, and give them love and patience (even when it seems like they don’t return the love), and you’ll likely find that the relationship that’s on the other side is even better than it was before.
After my conflict with my daughter, I felt remarkably good about the way in which it helped us both to grow and to deepen our relationship. I once heard Dr. Dan Siegel say that “triggers can be your friends” and I agree with him. They can point you in the direction of what needs healing. They can reveal unresolved trauma and provide opportunities for growth and integration. And they can help you deepen your relationships with the people you love most.
If you’re reading through this list and it’s feeling overwhelming because you recognize the ways in which you’ve fallen short – take heart – it’s never too late to do repair work with your children and to change the relationship patterns. I’ve been doing a fair bit of that lately and I can see the ways it’s healing my relationships with my daughters and helping to support them in their growth as young adults. A friend of mine recently went to therapy with her adult daughter (who’s lived away from home for many years) and she said it’s been transformational in their relationship – especially the part where she took responsibility for earlier mistakes.
One more thing… if your children are not ready to trust you yet because of the ways in which they’ve been wounded, don’t give up on them – give them time and space to do their own healing work. As hard as it is to accept, you may have been the cause of trauma for them, and they’ll have their own healing journey to go through before they’re ready to trust.
P.S. In case you’re wondering, my daughter has given me permission to share this story. That’s another way in which I teach them about consent – I don’t write about them without giving them the right to say no.
If you want to learn more about holding space for trauma, grief, etc., and you want to expand your capacity to hold space for yourself so that you don’t wound other people, consider signing up for my Holding Space Practitioner Program. The next session starts in October and registration is open.
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:
Handmade clothes my son’s body was dressed in after he was born.
If it hadn’t been for doctors’ errors, I would have a sixteen-year-old son.
Halfway through my third pregnancy, I could sense that something was wrong. My body didn’t feel right. “I feel like I have to re-adjust my hips every time I stand up to avoid the baby dropping from between my legs,” I said to my doctor when I called her. “Something feels too loose down there.”
She sent me to the hospital where an intern taped monitors to my stomach and I lay waiting for the prognosis. “Everything looks normal,” said the intern. “The baby is moving well and the heartbeat is strong. I’ve consulted with your doctor and we’ve decided that there is not enough of an indication of a problem to do an internal exam. At this point in the pregnancy, the risks of that kind of invasiveness don’t seem worth it.”
That was the first mistake. They should have checked my cervix.
A week later, I booked some time off work and visited another hospital for a routine, mid-pregnancy ultrasound. The moment the technician turned the screen away from me, I knew something was wrong. The sudden subdued tone in her voice confirmed my suspicion. An hour later, after an awkward call with my doctor, leaning over the receptionist’s desk and trying not to cry, I was on my way back to the hospital where they would now address the problem that had been missed the week before.
My cervix was open. The signals that my body had sent me were accurate – I WAS too loose down there. I was already four centimetres dilated – four months too soon.
After a variety of doctors visited and asked me the same series of questions over and over again, I finally found myself at a third hospital where I was placed into the hands of the only specialist in the city who had the skill to deal with my problem. That evening, Dr. M. spent nearly two hours explaining the situation to my husband and me.
I had an incompetent cervix. Though it had held firmly through my first two pregnancies, like a rubber band that has lost its elasticity, it no longer had the strength to hold itself closed for the nine months it was required to hold a baby in place. Nobody had an explanation – apparently it just happens sometimes. Because it had been open for awhile, the amniotic sac was bulging out of the gap, which is why I’d been feeling the discomfort a week earlier.
The next morning, after a fitful night that included a panic attack after I listened to the frantic sounds of another mother down the hall giving birth to a dead baby, I was wheeled into the surgical theatre where I was to undergo a cerclage. Like the drawstring of a purse, the doctor would stitch a strong thread through my cervix and then pull it closed, simultaneously pushing the amniotic sac back behind the barrier.
After I was prepped for surgery, Dr. M. entered the room with a young intern. It was a teaching hospital, so I was getting used to students following the teacher around. But I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. Instead of Dr. M., it was the young intern who picked up the needle and stepped between my legs.
Dr. M. read the concern on my face. “Often it’s actually better to have the more experienced doctor watching and guiding rather than doing the stitching,” he reassured me. “It will be okay. She’ll do a fine job.”
That was the second mistake. Minutes later, the faces of both the intern and Dr. M. told me something had gone horribly wrong. “Pull it out,” said Dr. M. “We have to abandon surgery.”
The amniotic sac had been pierced by the needle she was using for the cerclage. My water was now broken. My baby was no longer protected. I would probably go into labour soon and deliver a baby too tiny to survive.
To the surprise of all of the doctors, I didn’t go into labour right away. In fact, hours stretched into days, and the baby seemed to be thriving despite the lack of amniotic fluid or protection from the outside world. Dr. M. watched vigilantly, doing two ultrasounds a day to make sure all of the baby’s organs were functioning properly.
After the failed surgery, I had another fitful night in which I wrestled with the demons that wanted to convince me to point the blame at the doctors. “It’s their fault,” they shrieked in my ear as I fought through the anxiety. “If they had checked you a week ago, or if Dr. M. had done the surgery, you wouldn’t be in this situation, expecting your baby to die at any moment.”
But there was another voice – a quieter voice – underneath the anger and fear. This voice said “You have a choice to make. Blame the doctors and let the bitterness control you, or let it go and choose a more peaceful way through this.” By morning, I had made a choice. I would let it go. Bitterness wouldn’t do me or my baby any good. I wanted to choose life.
The next day, Dr. M. came to see me and at the end of our visit, he paused for a moment. “The intern would like to come see you. She feels horrible about what happened and would like a chance to apologize. Will you see her?”
I took a deep breath. Was I ready to see her?
“Yes,” I said. “I’ll see her.”
A few hours later, she walked into the room. Her eyes filled with tears as she blurted out an awkward apology.
“I know you were doing your best,” I said, “and you made a mistake. I don’t hold that against you. Don’t let this ruin your career as a doctor. Learn from it and keep doing better.”
For much of the next three weeks in the hospital, I felt surprisingly peaceful. I started a gratitude journal and I had many long, luxurious conversations with the friends and family that came to visit. I joked with people who commented on my peaceful appearance that my hospital stay felt a little like being in an ashram – a retreat space away from my busy life that gave me time to reflect on the meaning of my life.
At the end of those three weeks, though, my peaceful state met the crashing waves of despair. I went downstairs for my morning ultrasound visit and discovered that my baby had died during the night. A few hours later, I had to go through the excruciating pain of labour and delivery, knowing the outcome was a dead baby. It was the hardest work I’ve ever done.
As I prepared to go home from the hospital, my breasts filling with milk my son would never drink, I checked in with myself about the choice I’d made three weeks earlier. Now that my baby was dead, could I still forgive the doctors for their mistakes? The stakes were higher – could I make the choice again? Yes, I decided that I could. Choosing not to let go would be to choose bitterness and hatred. I wanted to choose peace and forgiveness. I made that choice again and again in the coming months as the waves of grief came.
This week, I’ve been reading Wilma Derksen’s new book, The Way of Letting Go, about her thirty-two year journey to forgiveness after her thirteen-year-old daughter’s murder. The term forgive, she says, derives from ‘to give’ or ‘to grant,’ as in ‘to give up.’ Forgiveness is the process of letting go. It “isn’t a miracle drug to mend all broken relationships but a process that demands patience, creativity, and faith.”
I’ve known about Wilma since the story of her daughter Candace’s disappearance erupted in the media, five months after I graduated from high school (in 1984). Seven weeks after the disappearance, Candace’s body was found in a shed just a few blocks from her home.
A few years ago, I heard Wilma give a TEDx talk about forgiveness. What stood out about that talk was that, during the trial of the man accused of murdering Candace, Wilma realized that she could not hold both love and justice in her heart in equal measure. Though she longed for justice for Candace’s sake, for the sake of the family that was still with her, she chose love.
After hearing her speak, I reached out to Wilma and we have since become friends. Last year, while she was working on the book, she invited me to lunch to explore the idea of me being a guest speaker at a class she was teaching about forgiveness. Over lunch, she told me about how she had, after more than thirty years of processing her own forgiveness over the murder of her daughter, come to a somewhat different conclusion about forgiveness than what we’d both been taught in our religious upbringing. As she says in the book, it’s a long journey of letting go and making the choice, again and again, to choose love and life, just as I’d done in the hospital. It’s not about denying that you feel anger and hatred or that you want justice, but it’s a conscious choice not to let those things control you.
Toward the end of our lunch date, I decided to share something with Wilma that I’d hesitated to bring up earlier in the conversation – that my marriage had recently ended. I was reluctant to talk about it for two reasons: 1. I didn’t want it to dominate the conversation, especially when the focus was on her course and her work, and 2. since she was an “expert” on forgiveness and I knew her to be a religious person, I was afraid of what she might think of me for having failed at marriage. (I still carried some old shame about the sin of divorce.)
Wilma’s response caught me by surprise. Not only was she compassionate and non-judgemental, but she offered a simple reframing of a story I shared that helped me see even more clearly why the ending of my marriage had become necessary. She held space for me in the beautiful way that only someone who has walked through pain and has learned not to judge herself for her reaction to it can do.
I realized, in that moment, that I had placed Wilma on an impossible pedestal. For more than thirty years, I’d seen the media’s version of this somewhat saintly Christian woman who had some kind of super-human capacity to forgive the most egregious crime against her and her family. But the truth was much more complicated and nuanced (and, in my mind, appealing) than that. She was, just as I was, a very human woman who’d been nearly drowned in intense pain, anger, and fear, and yet she kept swimming back up to the surface in search of the light.
Forgiveness, for her, was not a pie-in-the-sky utopian ideal that meant she could live in peace and harmony with all who’d wronged her. Instead, it was a daily – sometimes hourly – decision to let go of fear, grief, ego, happy endings, guilt, blame, rage, closure, and self-pity.
I didn’t get to raise my son Matthew, but because, like Wilma, I chose forgiveness instead of bitterness, his short life transformed mine and his legacy is present in all of the work I now do. That three week period in the hospital with him was not only a retreat, it was a reconfiguring, sending my life in a whole new direction that lead me to where I am now.
At the end of the book, Wilma admits that her concept and experience of forgiveness are still changing and evolving. I’m with her on that. Life will keep giving us more chances to learn.