I can’t fix it. I want SO BADLY to fix it. My daughter is in distress, she’s far away, and all I can do is be here, listening, at the other end of a FaceTime call. I feel so helpless. My words feel empty and void of purpose. My emotions swell into desperation as my nervous system sends my brain scrambling to find at least one small thing that is fixable by me, her mom. There is nothing.
This is the hard stuff of parenting young adult children from a distance. I feel so frequently helpless when their lives overwhelm them. I can’t show up with food, I can’t rush over to their apartments to hug them or do their laundry… I can’t even send them a plane ticket back home because “home” is no longer a physical place. (And yes… the niggling guilt over selling their childhood home sometimes pokes at me when the desperation swells.)
Even as I write this, the tears well up in my eyes. I feel the enormity of it all over again. This parenting stuff – even when the children are grown and living lives of their own – it’s not for the faint of heart. It wrecks us again and again, tears us apart and leaves us raw, battered and lost. Nothing has ever made me feel more helpless and vulnerable than parenting. Nothing else has triggered my fears of irrelevance, incompetence, or failure in quite the same way.
In an interview I listened to yesterday, Kerry Washington was talking about two of her acting roles and how those roles related to parenthood. The first role she talked about was in Scandal, a series in which she played a “fixer” who was almost always the most powerful person in the room, fixing things on behalf of a government, believing she was doing so for the greater good. During the eight years of taping Scandal, Washington gave birth to her own two children, and she wrestled with whether her character, Olivia Pope, should become a mom in the show. It was a deliberate choice on the part of Shonda Rhimes, though, not to let the character become a parent, because that would have made Olivia too vulnerable and no longer as capable of the kind of power, control and ruthlessness she needed to be a fixer.
Immediately after Scandal, Washington appeared on Broadway in American Son in which she played the mother of a Black son who’s gone missing and may have been killed by the police. This was the counterpoint to Olivia Pope, a role in which she could explore the vulnerability and powerlessness that comes along with parenthood. Unlike Olivia, the mother in American Son has no power to fix (especially as the mother of a Black son).
It’s true – there is a way in which parenthood disempowers the “fixer” in us. It takes away some of our potency and leaves us vulnerable and exposed. It’s an unraveling, a deconstructing – it unmoors us from what once felt like control.
Some of us resist that deconstruction at every level. Helicopter parents, for example, or those who’ve sometimes been referred to as “Tiger moms” – they cling desperately to their ability to control every situation on behalf of their children. They push away the powerlessness and swoop in to rescue, control, and strong-arm whatever situation threatens their child. Back when I used to spend summer evenings in a lawn chair beside many soccer fields, I witnessed this resistance on a regular basis – parents who reacted to feelings of powerlessness by inserting themselves into every situation. Some always knew better than the coach, some insisted on having input into every decision that would impact the team (and specifically their child), and some were overprotective about the potential for injury to their child.
I understand the temptation to over-control. I have sat helpless on the sidelines and witnessed more than one injury to one or the other of my children – once a concussion that required an ambulance be brought onto the field, once a broken arm, and once a torn ligament that required knee surgery.
It’s a vulnerable thing to allow your child to enter a situation where you have no control over what happens to them. It starts when we watch their first lurching steps across the living room, and it gets increasingly more complex as they get older and take more and more risks. From the first day of school to their first sleepover to their first job – it’s a gradual (and sometimes painful) process of letting go.
Now, while my daughters each navigate big cities and diverging lives far away from me, I have to let go even more. The thread that ties us to each other has stretched and I have less and less capacity to be the “fixer” in their lives. Sometimes I feel completely lost, not sure what my role is anymore.
For years now, I have been teaching people that holding space is the practice of walking alongside someone and supporting them, without trying to control them, while they pass through liminal space into an unknown future. At its heart, it’s about letting go of our attachment to the outcome.
But what about when the person we’re trying to hold space for is our child and we’ve been the primary person committed to raising them into responsible, compassionate adulthood? How do we let go of the outcome THEN?! In some ways, it feels like the outcome is the WHOLE POINT of parenting – we want to attach the label of “success” to their version of adulthood.
Therein lies the rub. It is ALWAYS the hardest to hold space for the people we are closest to, and the complexity of it increases for the people we’ve birthed and/or raised. We can’t help but be attached to the outcome when we love someone, especially when we’ve been highly invested in training and guiding that person into adulthood. We want the outcome to be a better, happier, healthier, more fulfilling life. We want them to know ease and love and contentment.
There is love in this attachment and in our wish for them, of course, but there is a shadow side too. Especially when it comes to our children, our egos are invested in the outcome. We don’t want our children to fail because we ourselves are afraid to fail and their failure can feel like a personal failure on our part. We don’t want our children to experience discomfort because we ourselves are afraid of discomfort and we get triggered by theirs. We don’t want our children to be unhappy, afraid, lonely or depressed because we’re uncomfortable with our own emotions, and (because our children feel like extensions of us) their emotions make us feel too exposed.
It is hard to disentangle ourselves from our children’s identity and emotional experience. It’s hard to watch them be educated in the school of hard knocks.
Some of us, because we haven’t done enough of our own healing and personal growth work, become enmeshed and codependent, shaping our lives around our children’s lives and taking too much responsibility for their emotional well-being. I understand this tendency – in my most vulnerable moments, when I want to swoop in as the fixer on my daughters’ behalf, I feel nearly helpless to the energetic pull toward codependency. There’s a pattern of it in my life. It flared up especially during the two times my former husband attempted suicide. In the years since, I’ve had to work hard to avoid slipping back into the pattern whenever another out-of-control situation presents itself.
It sounds selfish to say this, but I’m going to say it anyway… the best thing we can do for our children when they are struggling is to take care of ourselves. I don’t mean that we take care of ourselves AT THE EXPENSE of them, centering our own needs and feelings and dismissing theirs. No, I mean that we hold space for ourselves, for whatever ways that we get triggered and feel powerless and desperate, so that we are grounded enough to provide for them the “safe haven and secure base” that they need.
It’s become a well-worn cliché to say “put on your own oxygen mask first”, but it’s worth repeating nonetheless. We can’t support our children from an empty tank. We can’t hold space for them well if we’re not holding space for ourselves. We can’t support their breakdowns well if we are too enmeshed and their breakdowns trigger our own. We can’t help them hold their big emotions if we are afraid of those big emotions and stifle them in ourselves.
Since selling my house (and my daughters’ childhood home) last year, I’ve come to the realization that, especially now that there is no physical place to return to, my children’s version of home is ME. My presence serves as an anchor for them while they learn to navigate the world on their own.
I want to be a solid and secure place in which they can sink their anchor. I want to be emotionally available and reliable so that they don’t have to second guess my capacity to hold space for them. I want to do my own work, continuing to heal my own woundedness and resourcing myself well, so that, whenever they need it, I am a safe place to land. I want to be on the other end of FaceTime, not solving their problems for them, but listening and supporting and loving and empowering. And I want them to know they can call.
Our children don’t need enmeshed or codependent parents. They don’t need fixers who will disempower them when they swoop in with solutions. They don’t need us to become overly attached to their identity, their emotional experience, or the outcome of their decisions.
They need a safe place where they can fall apart occasionally. They need to know that they won’t be abandoned (or fixed) when they fail. They need to be allowed to have big emotions without having those emotions shamed, ridiculed, fixed, or projected back at them. They need to be allowed the autonomy to discover their own resilience and their own tools for navigating hard places. They need us to hold space for them – with a love that’s not enmeshed.
But first… we have to learn to hold space for ourselves.
My social media feed is filling up with images of grinning college students settling into dorm rooms. Sometimes the parents who are posting those images are in the photos and grinning too, but beneath the grins and cheery captions… well, there’s a lifetime of stories and a whole host of other stuff. I can see it in their eyes. (Let’s face it, when your child moves away, it’s hard to keep it from showing up in your eyes.)
“Whoa…that’s three sentences… and ten thousand pounds of stuff,” Michael J. Fox said in his documentary, Still, when he was reading a short passage about his relationship with his dad from his autobiography. That’s what I feel when I look at those photos… just a simple photo, a simple smile, a simple caption about how their child is starting university… and ten thousand pounds of STUFF. Yes, when your child moves away, there’s a lot of STUFF – emotional and otherwise.
Did they really grow up so quickly? Don’t I have more time with them? Can we go back to simpler days when they needed me more? Will I become less relevant in their life? Did I teach them all the things they need to become a good adult? Will they make friends here? Will they be lonely? What if they get their heart broken and I’m not around to support them? How will I spend my time when I’m no longer caring for them in my house? What if I enjoy having them out of the house – will that make me a bad parent? What’s my identity now that “parent” is taking up less space?
Oh parent… I feel you. My heart is travelling with you on this wild roller-coaster ride called parenting. Who could have known, when we first became bonded with those little people who entered our lives, just how much our hearts would become tethered to theirs? Who could have known the ways our hearts would swell with pride and devotion, the way those little people could uniquely break our hearts with their cutting words, the way we could feel such intense anger one moment and love the next, the ways we’d feel so completely unprepared, overwhelmed and uncertain about how we were raising them?
Parenting is a series of thresholds, milestones, and heartaches. It’s a gradual, incremental process of letting go, punctuated with these bigger moments when the letting go feels more and more profound (and sometimes earth-shattering) – like when we first leave them with a babysitter, they start attending school, they have their first sleepover, they go away to a week of sleepover camp, they start high school, they learn to drive, and they get their first job. And there’s the other stuff too – less tangible and sometimes more emotional – the first time they keep a secret from us, the first time they lie to cover something up, the first time they choose a friend over us, the first time they slam their bedroom door. Then, before we know it, they’re ready for that BIG threshold – the one that involves them leaving our home, for a university dorm, their own apartment, another city… whatever. It’s all an exercise in learning to let our hearts walk around outside of our bodies… and then realizing those hearts were never ours to begin with.
Sometimes when I teach about what it means to hold space, I joke that I got my PhD in holding space from being a parent. At first, you hold them close and take responsibility for meeting all their needs, and the container you hold for them is small and enclosed, protective and safe – like a bird’s nest. Then gradually, you open your hands and your heart more and more and let them grow into their autonomy and agency and you practice letting them take responsibility for the consequences of their own actions. It’s not easy, this letting go, especially when your child moves away, but it’s necessary. Individuation, according to Jung, is the process a child must undergo to become their own person – a well-functioning adult, with their own beliefs and ideals that might be separate from those of their parents and society. We let go so that they can become themselves.
(An aside… I think there’s a potential individuation process involved in parenting too, especially if there was some arrested development in our early lives and our children’s growing up brings up our own long-buried childhood stuff, but that’s a post for another day.)
What comes up again and again in the work I do, when people begin to learn about what it means to hold space, is that this practice is FAR more about us, the spaceholders, than it is about the people we hold space for. As parents, we have to hold space for OURSELVES during this important milestone so that we don’t project all of our stuff onto our children, so that we don’t pass down the woundedness and trauma we’ve inherited from our lineage, and so that they can be released more fully into their individuation with liberation and without shouldering guilt over abandoning us or fear that they’re severing family ties or letting us down.
Two years ago, my oldest and youngest daughters moved out within two weeks and I drove each of them twenty-four hours in opposite directions to their new homes in faraway cities. Not long afterwards, my middle daughter started traveling and I was mostly an empty-nester. The pandemic had given me bonus time, with all of them staying home longer than expected, but then the world started opening and suddenly they were all leaving in quick succession, and going far away. SO quickly it all happened and suddenly… I was alone. And there I was, reeling from the emotional tailspin of it all, but doing my best to hold space for myself so that my aloneness didn’t become their burden.
This summer, I’ve enjoyed the gift of a few months with two daughters back under the same roof, but next week I have to say good-bye again as one heads back to the west coast and the other heads in the opposite direction. I’m a little more prepared for it now, having survived the initial blow, but I know it will still be hard. I know my emotions will bounce all over the place for a while.
As I prepare for this next period of transition, I thought I’d share some reflections from my own experience and my understanding of what it means to hold space for our growing children and for ourselves. I hope these are supportive for when your child moves away.
1. Trust that you have taught your children as much as they need to know, and that they have the capacity to figure out the rest. This one surprised me when I helped my daughters set up their new homes far from where I’d be living. I worried about whether I’d taught them enough that they’d know how to function as independent adults. Some of it was about simple things (like getting stains out of clothes) and some of it was bigger (like building community in a new city). I cried about it in a hotel room on the long trip home, but then I had to let go and trust that they’d be okay. Two years later, I can see how well they adapted, and I have to admit that those fears were more about my own insecurities (i.e. Had I been a good enough mother?) then they were about them.
2.Give them the advice that matters most, and withhold the stuff they can figure out on their own. This is related to the first one, but it’s also about allowing our children to have their own autonomy and make their own mistakes. They need to know that we trust them and that we don’t assume they’ll be helpless without us nearby. When we try to dump too much advice on them, we run the risk of hijacking space while making them doubt their own capacity to make good choices independently. In those early days for each of my daughters as they set up their apartments and learned to navigate new cities, I had to learn to (mostly) keep my mouth shut when they chose sheets and towels, and then figured out how to navigate public transit. There was some discernment in recognizing when to stay silent and when to step in and let them know I still had their backs and I didn’t always get it right, but I tried.
3. Be mindful of what this separation might be triggering in you, and work to hold and heal it without making it your child’s burden. Are you feeling separation anxiety, or having old abandonment trauma triggered? Are you afraid of becoming irrelevant in your children’s lives? Are you afraid of losing your sense of purpose when you’re not needed as much? Are you letting your mind cycle through irrational fear of what could happen to them while you’re far away? Maybe there’s codependency in your relationship with your child and you’ve been overly enmeshed in their life? These are all very real things, and you don’t need to bury them and pretend you’re not feeling them, but it’s your responsibility to hold these things (and/or find peers or professionals to help you hold and heal them) not your children’s. Breathe deeply, dear parent, and release them with a blessing so that they don’t have to take responsibility for (or inherit) your pain.
4. Recognize that there is grief in this and find healthy ways to process your grief. I know it hurts – that’s natural. You’re grieving the end of a really important era of your life. You’re grieving the loss of that little innocent child you cherished. You’re grieving the way your role in your child’s life is changing. You’re grieving all of those meals you won’t eat together, all those movies you can’t watch, all those car rides, and all that laughter you’ll no longer hear from the living room. It’s not a death, exactly, but it can feel that way. Let yourself cry, let yourself grieve, and find friends who will hold space while you release all of those big feelings. Pour it onto your journal page or go sit by a river and let the natural world hold space for your tears. Grief is a natural part of relationships. Grief is a part of what it means to love. Go ahead and feel it. (This too shall pass.)
5.Recognize that there is also freedom in this (and let go of any guilt you feel over enjoying that freedom). There is never just one emotion involved in a major milestone like this. There might be some relief mixed in with the grief, and maybe even some joy (though those might not be the most immediate emotions to show up). You’ve done the heavy lifting of parenting a child into adulthood and now they’re not going to need you as much. When your child moves away, they’re going to find other people to lean on and your burdens will likely become lighter. You won’t need to cook as many meals or give as many rides or clean up as many stray socks. That can feel like freedom. Your life is about to open up in ways that might not have been possible when your children were more dependent on you. Feeling guilty over enjoying it isn’t going to serve anyone, so why not enjoy it? In the long run, your kids are likely going to enjoy their own freedom more (and feel less guilty about leaving you behind) if they see you enjoying yours. It’s a healthier way of nurturing a secure (and evolving) attachment bond between you.
6. Lean into liminality. There is liminal space involved in any major transition in our lives and this one is no exception. We have to let go of the old story of who we were and how we spent our days and it will take some time for the new story to emerge. There’s an identity shift when you lose some of the duties and expectations that once defined you as a parent and you might even find yourself in a full-fledged identity crisis. Lean into it, dear parent (while getting support if the crisis is significant). Things are going to be different. There’s going to be a new normal. You will eventually adjust to a new way of filling your days, a new way of being in communication with your child, a new way of welcoming them home for the holidays, and perhaps new hobbies, new friendships, and new ways of making meaning of your life. But you don’t have to figure any of that stuff out right away. Let yourself feel wobbly for awhile. Let yourself feel all the complicated back-and-forth emotions. Be tender with yourself when old wounds get triggered, when you feel lonely, when you’re full of self-doubt, or when you’re uncertain what your purpose in life should be. This is liminality, this is normal.
7. Consider planning a “gap year” for yourself. When we think of gap years, we picture high school graduates going off into the world to find themselves before entering college. But what about a gap year for new empty-nesters? When my daughters all moved out, I sold our family home (because none of them planned to move back to Winnipeg and I didn’t intend to stay in the city either) and set off on a year-long adventure. Because my work affords me the privilege of working from anywhere there’s Wi-Fi (plus I teach internationally), I had the privilege of traveling all over Europe and Central America. Now that I’m at the tail end of that year, I am immensely grateful that I had the opportunity! It wasn’t always easy, and sometimes I felt lonely, but it was a profoundly meaningful (and fun) way to explore who I am, where I want to live, and how I want to live in this next phase of my life. I got to spend the year being intentional about making choices rooted in joy, tenderness, and liberation – choices for ME and nobody else – and I feel grounded and have a new sense of confidence and self-love now. Your gap year might look nothing like mine (maybe you can’t leave your home or have no interest in travel), but there might be some way for you to experience a similar period of exploration, expansion, and joy-seeking as you figure out how you want to live, love, and make meaning. (Consider joining our Full-Bodied Life community for this time of exploration.)
8. Explore (and enjoy) your expanding identity and possibilities. Related to the last point, you have an opportunity, in this transition period, to dive into more intentional self-exploration. Maybe there are lifestyle changes you want to make. Maybe there are relationships that need to shift or new boundaries you need to adopt. Maybe it’s time to dive into that therapy you’ve been putting off. Maybe you want to travel more. Maybe you want to take up new hobbies or take a course. Maybe it’s time to sign up for that master’s degree program you always dreamed you’d get but put off when the children came. This is a moment when you get to let go of some of that old programming about what’s selfish or a waste of time or what you’re not worthy of. This is a time when you get to choose YOURSELF. Be playful with your exploration and HAVE FUN!
One day, dear parent, you will wake up in the morning and realize that something has shifted and that you’ve now become accustomed to this new normal. Despite how monumental they feel when they happen, transitions don’t last forever. You can weather this storm, just as you have weathered storms in the past. You’re not finished growing and evolving, and while growth can sometimes hurt, it can also lead us into more expansive lives. Go ahead – live a more expansive life!
P.S. If you want to learn more about how to hold space for yourself, now would be a great time to sign up for our How to Hold Space Foundation Program. It starts in October 2023, and if you sign up before September 1, you can still get last year’s prices.
Tenderness and fierceness. They seem to be opposites, and yet, surprisingly, they often go hand-in-hand. I first learned that lesson years ago, growing up on the farm, whenever a new mom – a cow, pig, sheep, chicken or goose – would suddenly become aggressive in their efforts to protect their young. One moment they’d be charging at any intruders and the next moment they’d be tenderly caring for their newborn. Their fierceness created a safe space for their tenderness.
I’ve been writing about (and experimenting with) tenderness lately (watch for a new e-book and day retreat early in the new year), and I’m being reminded, once again, that in order to be tender, we must also be fierce; in order to be soft, we must also be strong; and in order to be vulnerable, we must also have boundaries.
As the mother goose teaches, fierceness serves as a guardian for tenderness, boundaries create a safe container for vulnerability.
In recent years, I have become both softer and stronger than I ever was before. Age, maturity, self-love, and a healthy dose of therapy have brought with them increased clarity about what I want and need, where my boundaries need to be, what triggers me, what wounds are still tender and need protection, what I value, what I will or will not put up with, and where and when I need to be fierce. I am more intentional about guarding my energy, more protective of and tender with myself when I feel deep emotions, less tolerant of abusive behaviour, and more willing to say no to what doesn’t feel good and/or align with my values.
Surprisingly, this pandemic period, with its social isolation and slower pace, has increased that clarity even further. Many hours of solitude (especially as my daughters move out) have helped me become more discerning about what I want and need in my life. It turns out, for example, that I really enjoy my own company and I’m not very willing to give up my solitude unless the alternative enriches my life in some way. It’s not that I don’t like other people’s company – I do, but I’m trusting myself more to choose those relationships and opportunities that honour my tenderness and to say a firm (and sometimes fierce) no to those that don’t.
Like a mother goose hissing at intruders while she tucks her goslings under her wings, I am using my strength to protect my tenderness. I am learning to be my own mother.
Because healing and growth are never linear and the healing of a wound sometimes reveals something deeper that needs attention, I’ve discovered that there’s an interesting side-effect of this increased clarity and self-love. The more I learn to clarify my wants, needs, and boundaries, and the more tender and fierce I become, the more it brings out the voices (mostly internal but sometimes external) that want to convince me that I’m becoming “high maintenance, selfish, self-absorbed, demanding, needy, full of myself, hard to please, overly emotional, picky, difficult, and/or overly particular”.
I have a LOT of scripts in my head about why this isn’t the kind of person I should become. There is a lot of disdain in my family of origin and my culture about people who demand too much and focus too much on their own needs (especially if those people are women). I spent many years of my life believing that the best kind of person was the one who accepted their circumstances without complaint, didn’t raise a fuss when other people were unkind to them, didn’t ask for much, didn’t waste time in self-pity, wasn’t overly emotional, and was self-sacrificial in service to other people. In short, the ideal was always to be nice, calm and agreeable. It wasn’t acceptable to be either too tender or too fierce.
As a result of those internalized standards of goodness, I put up with abuse for far longer than I should have, I spent far too much time trying to keep other people happy, and I tried to prove how tough I was by stuffing down a lot of emotions and needs. Because I didn’t think I was allowed to make a fuss, my boundaries were crossed again and again and I tolerated it because I thought that’s what it meant to be a good person. In essence, I abandoned myself in service to other people.
It’s hard to change those scripts when they’re so deeply engrained in one’s psyche. In my case, and maybe in yours, they’re particularly related to gender and religion, but they’re also present in the broader culture. Think about all of the times we’ve joked about celebrities who expect special things in their backstage dressing rooms (like a bowl full of M&Ms with all the brown ones removed), or about those who get mad when media cameras invade their privacy. Every time we hear jokes like that, we internalize the message that to ask for too much or to ask people to respect our boundaries is to become self-absorbed and a “diva”.
But who are those scripts about what it means to be nice, agreeable, and calm really in service to? They are not in service to me or to you. They are not in service to my children, the people I work with or the people who benefit from my work. They are not in service to anyone I love and am in community with.
Those scripts are ONLY in service to those who have something to gain from our silence, our compliance, and our willingness to put up with abuse. They are in service to those who want to maintain power over us, who benefit from our disempowerment and who make money off our lack of self-worth. They are in service to oppressors, abusers and manipulators.
To be of service to our children, our beloveds, our community members and ourselves, we are much better off when we know ourselves well, when we have clear boundaries, when we refuse to put up with abuse, when we commit to our own healing, and when we learn to articulate our needs and desires. To be of service, we need full access to both our fierceness and our tenderness.
Despite the voices that want me to believe I am becoming high maintenance, I have found that this increased clarity about myself gives me increased clarity about my work, helps me be a better mother to my daughters, protects my energy for the things (and people) that are important to me, and makes me stronger and more well-resourced. My increased fierceness and my increased tenderness benefit both me AND my community.
To be in strong, healthy, and loving relationships is NOT to abandon yourself for other people. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’ve learned a surprising thing from raising daughters into adulthood: If I abandon myself, I am less trustworthy to other people. If I abandon myself, they can’t be certain I won’t abandon them. Those who witness me allowing abuse to happen to myself will have reason to believe that I will allow abuse to happen to them too. (I know this because I have been in some hard healing conversations about this very thing.)
My people need me to be both fierce and tender on THEIR behalf and on MY behalf. They need to know that I’ll show up like the mother goose who won’t let harm come to herself or her little goslings.
Ultimately, those relationships with strong social contracts, rooted in deep respect and care for each other’s needs, boundaries, and wounds are much more beneficial for all involved than those relationships where people abandon themselves for each other. I don’t call that “high maintenance” – I call it “holding space”. It’s a practice that is both fierce and tender.
Want to deepen your practice of holding space for yourself, so that you can be both tender and fierce? Join us for the self-study program 52 Weeks of Holding Space.
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.
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.