No, it’s not that I ever abandoned love entirely. I didn’t become an angry ogre living in a cabin in the woods and scaring away small children. But… after a period of burnout, overwhelm, conflict, relationship challenges. and endless pandemic disruption last Spring, I was having trouble finding love.
By the end of June, I had lost some love for my work and for the people who come to this work. I tried to dig deep to find the source of the love that had sustained me over the years it’s taken to build this work, but when I tossed my bucket into the well, it kept coming back empty. Instead, the bucket held resentment, irritability, exhaustion, and disdain.
With an empty bucket, I knew that it was time to retreat to try to refill it. I pulled away from social media and narrowed my focus so that I could at least muster enough love for the people who matter most – my family and close friends. I gathered my daughters around me for our last month together (before helping two of them move across the country) and I spent time with only those people who I knew would nourish me.
I protected my heart for awhile so that the tiny seed of battered love that I knew was still there would be able to grow roots and start to flourish again.
In my book and in my workshops, I teach a concept that I call the Spiral of Authenticity, where something happens (an “inciting incident”) which wakes us up and invites us onto a journey. If we choose to step onto that journey, we spiral inward (like a labyrinth journey) until we reach the centre of our own open hearts. From that place of open-heartedness, we return to the world with whatever gift we received at the centre (somewhat like the “heroic journey”). (You can find an explanation of it in this new video.)
I’ve been thinking, though, that maybe I need to create another version of that spiral – perhaps a mirror version – that reflects the way that sometimes, when we’re exhausted, overwhelmed and/or in pain, the spiral actually takes us inward to a protected heart. And that’s not the opposite of the Spiral of Authenticity – in fact, sometimes it might be the pre-requisite.
Because sometimes a protected heart is exactly what we need, at least for a period of time. Sometimes we need to retreat from the world so that we can nurture the tiny bit of love we can still muster. Sometimes we need to put up more firm boundaries and hide from anyone who can’t be tender with our wounded hearts.
It’s happened a few times in my life – most notably after my divorce and after each of my parents died. Each time, I had to retreat, become more selfish about my time and energy, erect boundaries, and protect my tender heart. It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that it happened again now, especially during this time of liminal space while I get used to my future as an empty-nester (so soon after being a pandemic-enforced “full-nester”), but I was still caught a little off-guard by it.
The danger, though, is that if you stay at the centre of the spiral of the protected heart for too long, your heart moves from “protected” to “closed” and then you have a hard time re-opening it. A person with a closed heart is someone who’s become convinced of their own victimhood and need to guard themselves against all of those people intent on doing them harm. They become increasingly angry, afraid, resentful, blaming, guarded and isolated. They start making up rules of engagement for how people are allowed to treat them and anyone who doesn’t follow those rules is punished and/or sent away. Their boundaries become high walls that few people can climb. They wallow in self-pity because they believe the whole world is trying to victimize them. It gets harder and harder for them to receive love because they’re afraid to give it away. (For more on this, check out the victim triangle – a helpful framing of the patterns we get stuck in.)
Not long ago, I was out for a walk with a close friend and, after she’d patiently listened to me talk about all of my woes, I stopped and said… “You know what? I’m getting bored of my own self-pity.” We both had a good laugh and that’s the moment I decided that I wasn’t going to let my protected heart become a closed heart. I knew I needed to do something so that I didn’t get trapped in the spiral (or on the triangle).
So I’ve decided that I’m returning to love. I’ve nourished that seed of love in my heart enough that I’m ready to start giving some way. Because love can only grow when we both RECEIVE it and GIVE IT AWAY.
Love is like a river – it needs to keep flowing in order to stay alive. If you try to block it, you cause disruption and chaos.
That’s why, together with my business partner Krista, I’ve created a series of videos we’ve called Love Letters for Those Who Hold Space. Once I started pouring my love and creative energy into this project, my love just kept growing, so what started out as a couple of videos soon became eight. Each of the videos is meant for a different group of people who we think can use some love right now – parents, teachers, health care workers, leaders, managers, coaches, therapists, facilitators, church leaders, and activists.
There’s also one that’s a little different – for those learning uncomfortable things. This one emerged especially in support of those people who are having to face challenging new information right now – like, for example, the people in Canada wrestling with the findings of thousands of unmarked graves on the sites of former residential schools.
I know that many of us have been struggling lately, with what I’ve started calling “pandemic languishing syndrome” characterized by lethargy, compassion fatigue, irritability, and an allergic reaction to Zoom calls and social media marketing, and I’m guessing that one of the antidotes might be love. So I’m offering some to you, right now, hoping that your heart is open at least enough to receive it.
When you go white-water rafting, if you’re a novice, your guide will spend some time teaching you how to sit in the boat, how to hold your paddle, how to adjust your centre of gravity, and where to plant your feet so that there’s less chance that you’ll get tossed out of the boat when you hit the rapids. Then, once you’re floating down the river, your guide will watch the river and warn you when the rapids are coming so that you have time to adjust your posture accordingly. An experienced guide will have been down that river many, many times, so they know how to navigate whatever’s coming.
Once you’re through the rapids and you get to a smooth spot on the river, your guide will let you know that you can relax your posture and enjoy the view.
A skilled leader has the same set of skills as that guide. They’re out front watching for rough water, and they’ve prepared their people so that they know how to adjust their posture to meet the needs of the moment. They warn people when necessary and then they help create the conditions for people to feel safe when the rapids subside.
This past year, there’s been a lot of metaphoric white-water rafting for all of us as we’ve had to adapt to the rough water of a pandemic without any guides to tell us when and how to adjust our posture so we don’t get tossed out of the boat. It’s hard to know what’s coming when nobody has been down this river before. Most of our leaders have felt just as confused as the people in the boat, and some of them have given us false information so we’re not always sure who to trust.
When you don’t have a guide you can trust, and your boat is floating down a river you’re unfamiliar with, it’s likely that your body will stay in the posture of hyper-vigilance. You want to be prepared for the rapids because you don’t know when they’re coming. After one set of rapids has passed, you don’t know if you can trust the stretch of smooth water enough to relax and enjoy the view.
As we near what we hope is the end of this pandemic, many of us will find it hard for our bodies to fully relax. We might be a little more edgy and anxious than usual. We might not be sure who we can trust or what circumstances are safe.
Recently, I was lying in my hammock trying to read a book and I noticed that, although there was no imminent threat and I couldn’t possibly be in a safer situation (in my own backyard on a beautiful day in a hammock with the gate closed and nobody else around), there was still tension in my body as though I were preparing for rapids. I scanned the things in my brain to try to figure out if there was something I was forgetting to do or some situation I was worried about, and I couldn’t find anything that should result in the posture of readiness in my body. I concluded that it was just the residual effect of a year and a half of hypervigilance without a guide to tell me when the smooth waters could be trusted. (I went through a similar thing the year before and the year after my divorce, to the point where I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue because there’d been so much adrenaline pumping through my system for so long, trying to keep me prepared for fight/flight/freeze.)
This summer, I’m taking time away from my work and from social media and it’s my hope that it will be what my body needs in order to more fully relax. I know from past experience that for this kind of long-term hypervigilance to leave my body it takes a considerable amount of time and intentional release. I’m giving my body and heart what they need – rest, companionship, fun, and nature.
I hope that you can find the time to let your body relax fully as well. Let’s be gentle with ourselves and let’s acknowledge how hard it is to go white-water rafting without a guide. We’ve done well just to survive without getting tossed out of the boat. Hopefully we’ve hit some smooth water that we can trust.
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.