Letting my daughters go: On learning to hold space when little birds leave the nest
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.