“We are born in relationship, we are wounded in relationship and we can be healed in relationship.” – Harville Hendrix
Awhile back, I watched the popular and heartwarming Netflix show Heartstopper. If you’ve seen it, you’ve likely fallen in love with the show’s main characters, Nick and Charlie. Nick is a tender athlete who grapples with his sexuality as he falls for Charlie. Charlie is a kind-hearted boy who’s heartbroken, faced homophobia at school and longs to meet someone. I fell in love with them, but it wasn’t either of them that rocked my heart, the one who did that was Tao. Tao is one of Charlie’s best friends. He’s insecure, scared of being alone and struggling with the changes this relationship has brought to the friend group (he’s also unwaveringly protective of his friends). Why did he touch me so? Because I get him, I really get him. In many ways he was, and still is me at 46 years of age. It was the first time I’ve ever seen a character that feels so true to my experience, to what was my shameful secret and most tender vulnerability. Something about seeing Tao in his beautiful messy imperfect human self, gave me the courage to start writing about this. See this part of life – the part where our friends get partners and our relationship changes – has been so profoundly hard for me. It’s been so hard that I’ve lost almost two handfuls of friends, cried during the entire ceremony of one friend’s wedding, and slammed down the phone and punched a wall when another called to tell me she was engaged. My story is in no way unique, though it felt that way for many years. For years, I felt isolated as I struggled through a storm of developmental trauma, disenfranchised grief, fear and shame around being single and heartbreak around motherhood that wasn’t to be. But it made me love and appreciate friendship in a way I don’t know if I could have otherwise. What follows is part meditation, part manifesto and part love letter, with parts of my story woven through. I’ve heard many calls for more voices to speak to friendship, this is my contribution.
(Note: most of my close friendships have been with cis-gendered women, it is mostly of those that I speak)
In Praise (and Defense) of Friendship
Like most of us, I grew up being fed many conditioned ideas about how things are that are somewhat out of touch with what actually is. Reality is both always shifting and so much more complicated – many shades of grey, nuance and complexity, than black or white. One of the ways I’ve seen this reflected is in the repeatedly communicated belief that romantic relationships are more important than friendships and I can’t expect a friend to stay present in my life when they meet someone. While sometimes this is a reality we experience, especially when family making is involved, we also live in a culture that has privileged, prioritized and romanticized the romantic relationship above all others. This hasn’t been my experience, and I know it’s not the experience for many others. Truth that feels more in the vicinity of reality is this: for some, romantic partnerships will be almost everything and though they care about friends, they exist more on the periphery. For others, there may not be much desire for friendships for diverse reasons including harm they’ve experienced in past friendships or preferring a life of solitude. For others, friendships are deeply important, but the day-to-day reality of life doesn’t leave much room to invest in friendships at certain points of life. For others, they are both very important and there’s room to invest in both in regular ways. For others, say those who are single, friendships may hold a much greater importance. We may move in and out of these times with phases of life, and there are many shades and flavours in between all of these. Personally, I can’t imagine a world where my friends aren’t of great importance to me even if I were coupled. Wherever we fall, the truth is for many of us, friendships are vital – impactful, meaningful, life giving and life-saving.
And the beautiful thing is, when I started to pay attention, I started to see this reality reflected back to me. I believe we’re in the midst of a shift on the discourse of friendship. On the day I started to write this piece, I saw an Instagram post from the Atlantic. Journalist Julie Beck had spent three years interviewing friends for a series called “The Friendship Files.” One of her reflections from this study was that friendship takes imagination: “Society has a place for friendships, and it’s on the sidelines. They’re supposed to play a supporting role to work, family, and romance. It takes imagination not to default to this norm, and to design your life so that friendship plays the role you really want it to.” In “Big Friendship,” Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow share their story of deciding to go to therapy together when they realized their friendship was in trouble (despite living on opposite sides of the country). I love that they started to normalize friendship as worthy of therapy and the investment of time, energy and money. Lissa Rankin, the physician and New York Times bestselling author, wrote a blog post about letting go of unsupportive friendships and investing in herself to better serve the friendships she does have. She wrote, ““My friends are one of my top priorities, second only to my daughter… I’ve also invested in a lot of therapy to learn how to become a better friend. I’m learning how to shore up my boundaries so I can be a safer person to my friends.” I love that she shared how important inner work is for relationships like friendship, not only for romantic or parental relationships. Friendship hurt can also have a profound impact on our life. Fred Luskin, the director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, dedicated his career to studying forgiveness after he was deeply hurt when out of nowhere, his best friend dropped him with no communication or explanation. Disability activist, Mia Mingus wrote a post on Instagram that, based on my feed, seemed widely shared. It put into words what every part of me had been feeling and that brought me to my knees in tears:
“Wish we embraced falling in friendship love and the magic of friendship love in general. It really is such a magnificent, kindred soul-shifting experience that can manifest in so many wonderfully different ways. It truly deserves its own genre of art, movies/TV, writing, music.
Wish we had more vocabulary to talk about our friendships. Wish we didn’t relegate friendship to the binary or either lover/partner or friend. Ugh. It’s so limiting and does not do justice to the depth and complexity of friendships and love we feel for and with our friends.
My friends have saved my life. They have been there for me in some of my most darkest and joyful times. They have romanced me and I them. They are not “layovers” between partners/lovers. They are not “side dishes” to the main dish.
They occupy such an important part of what love is and can be. They don’t diminish other forms of love, they enhance them. They are a unique kind of home and belonging, esp for me as a queer, disabled, adoptee, woman of colour survivor.
Friendship break-ups can bring you to your knees and lay you out in bone-cold-misery. They are a particular kind of gut-wrenching heartbreak that you go through, often without the kind of support or understanding or commiseration that other break-ups get.
Anyways, I just want more art and books and series and songs about friendships. I want more conversations and spaces for us to be able to talk about our friendships in. I want more language, nuance and exploration. Bc I love my friends deeply and I would not be here without them.”
One of my favorite quotes on friendship comes from activist and writer adrienne maree brown. She shared this with Mingus’ post: “…I identify as poly even when I’m in a monogamous love ship, my friendships are ancient, sacred, crucial, tender, non-negotiable intimate space for me. My lessons over the past few years have included bringing the same quality of care to those connections as I do to a love/lover.” Personally, I know many who have been saved by friendship – in illness, in motherhood, in divorce, in everyday challenging life. I’ve been going through a many year walk in the dark and I don’t know how I’d have gotten through it without the support of a handful of friends.
Friendship, trauma and grief are three big pieces of my story; the three overlap like a Venn diagram. Friendships were a struggle for me as far back as I can remember. From as early as three years of age, I desperately wanted to connect with other kids and had no clue how. I was so easily flooded with overwhelming and unstoppable tears when I wasn’t able to connect in the ways I longed to. When I did have friends, I seemed to sabotage and hurt the relationship (and the person) or get so fixated on it, it became an obsession. By the time I was in high school, I had started to develop and foster closer, healthier friendships. It was far from smooth sailing, but I was blessed to have a group of supportive kindred friends. Despite life taking us in different directions and to different locations after high school, we remained close to varying degrees. But as each friend got married, what I now know to be both developmental trauma and disenfranchised grief started to show up more and more.
Andrea was the first to get married. At her shower, two others from our friend group presented a plaque with big plastic gold scissors glued to it. The idea was that as each of us got married, we were “cutting ties” with the group. This would be acknowledged by our name and our partner’s name being added to the plaque. The plaque didn’t sit well with me and it was painful for me that others weren’t able to hear my concerns or feelings. I felt like the oversensitive one who didn’t have the right attitude. I was undoubtedly scared that this wasn’t going to happen to me and that I was going to be left behind, but I also didn’t like the concept. These were my friends, my family, they were never going to cease to be that for me even as our lives and relationships shifted and changed. It also felt disrespectful to the fact that some of us may not get married or be partnered. We are so conditioned to assumed that this is an unquestionable step in a person’s life. As I reflect on it now, I can’t think of a better symbol for this trauma and how it progressed. With each wedding, with each cut of the symbolic umbilical cord, I became more and more untethered.
The experience that touched me when my friends started to have kids is something that’s hard to put into words. Though I had already started to spiral as they got married, this pulled me into a level of despair and anguish I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Until I discovered Lighthouse community (an online support community for childless not by choice women), I had never heard anyone else talk about the grief of losing friends to motherhood, or what Lighthouse founder and author Jody Day calls the “friendship apocalypse.” I was completely unprepared for this change, for the loss and how it would open my own profound grief over motherhood. To an outsider it looked as though I was simply envious and insecure, and while there was truth to this, it was so much more. I felt terrified, heartbroken, uncertain and like an out-of-control freak. I couldn’t control the triggers and was filled with many kinds of shame. I often felt like I couldn’t keep up or fit in and was anxiously trying to do both, desperate not to be left behind. For close to 20-years, I felt like I was drowning. I was constantly getting pummelled by every engagement, wedding, pregnancy and birth announcement. From friends, colleagues, family friends. I could barely catch a breath. Every time I found some ground, another wave would come, knock me over and pull me under.
It’s become harder and harder for me to differentiate what was grief and what was trauma. Hard to put language to two things that are spoken of separately and yet can be so inter-related. For me, they kind of entangled together, fed each other, created an insidious web that took much time and effort to untangle, to get to a point where grief could exist just as sorrow, without the debilitating emotional vortex that I came to understand to be an abandonment emotional flashback. My experience of a flashback is of feeling completely untethered to earth, to a tribe, to a family, but most importantly to myself. It’s as though I’m a lost child floating alone in outer space, feeling desperation, panic and despair. These would last on and off for days and include nightmares, crying, sleepless nights, an inability to focus and concentrate, and intrusive obsessive thoughts (including wanting to take my life or cut myself). The experience isn’t rational – the physiological response happens in less than a second. I spent every day hypervigilant and on high alert for whatever the next trigger might be. But the more I read about grief and hear the stories of others, the more I questioned some of my assumptions that my experience was mostly development trauma. There’s no doubt that I carried trauma, but I also believe that the experience and circumstances of disenfranchised grief exacerbated the symptoms I was having. And this makes sense in a number of ways. First, what’s common between the two – the real or perceived loss of a person that was of great importance in my life. Second, the more I learn about disenfranchised grief and something called “non-finite” losses (losses that don’t end), the more I realize how not understanding and having the right supports (including not knowing I was grieving), can in and of itself lead to a trauma response. The definition of disenfranchised includes the words “deprived of rights or privilege” and I’ve found that you are denied the things one needs when grieving – connection, community, compassion and ritual. It can be an extraordinarily isolating and even a shaming experience. It became so hard to validate my own grief and so easy to engage in an internal, almost unconscious, comparative exercise of weighing my pain against others. This wasn’t helped by being on the receiving end of comments such as “you can’t expect your friends’ lives not to change” or “why can’t you be happy for your friends.” These comments felt invalidating and shaming. Other culture narratives such as healthy people don’t have envy, think positive thoughts and adjust your mindset, were also invalidating and harmful. I was filled with shame – shame over the experience and emotions I was having, over my lack of being able to “get control” of myself, over not being able to access happiness for friends. All of this ate me from the inside out. I was having the exact opposite experience everyone was telling me I should be having. Grief was constantly being triggered and I would fill with shame and fear. With each additional loss, the shame and fear would compound and build. Mix in some abandonment trauma and I was in an almost constant vortex of despair. The truth is, I was trying everything imaginable to heal or “fix” myself. I had been at the mercy of the times – of what therapies and understanding were available. And at the mercy of a cultural response that had focused almost entirely on one’s attitude and thoughts, to the detriment of emotions and the body. I have felt consistently shamed and pathologized for the envy, sorrow and loneliness I felt. What chance did I have? I was a failure, a freak, a bad person, a bad friend.
The truth is, I wanted nothing more than to feel differently than I did. I wanted to be the one eagerly anticipating baby pictures, buying cute clothes and snuggling babies. And, I was not at all able. Still to this day, I can find it very hard to hear about or see friend’s children. I don’t think it will ever be an easy thing. For years, the narrative around what being a “good” friend is left me paralyzed with shame for the complex emotions I was experiencing. In reviewing friendship literature, I saw a common narrative about being there for each other in the good and the bad. The story I grew up with about what makes a “good” friend included the ability to celebrate with them and be happy for them. I’ve found reality to be far more complex and in need of some mercy. The truth is there have been many days where I’ve had absolutely no access, no capacity for that happiness, which doesn’t mean I begrudge others these joys, it means only that it’s an extremely painful and challenging part of life for me. We need to tear back some of these “shoulds” around friendship to allow for the complexities and challenges of life. The dominant culture does us no favors with some of the portrayals of women struggling with these subjects, from Charlotte digging deep to show up for Miranda’s son’s birthday after experiencing a miscarriage in Sex and the City, or Kristen Wiig’s character falling apart in Bridesmaids (and of course she has her own happily ever after at the end), the pain and complexity of this part of life has been so poorly portrayed. I would absolutely love to see a movie or tv show that portrays someone grappling with this in a way that feels relatable. Perhaps where she chooses not to attend the birthday or baby shower as a way to care for herself, perhaps where friends hold their friend with compassion for the grief she is experiencing instead of portraying her as a messy wreck who needs to pull herself together.
Trauma, Grief and Consciousness in Friendship
The fact that the most prominent manifestation of trauma and grief happened to me in friendship, was extremely isolating. When I started to learn this was part trauma, I read every book I could get my hands on, listened to every podcast and YouTube video. Almost all literature and study on abandonment and relational trauma is focused on parental and romantic relationships. Then I heard about the work of Emily Langan through Friedman and Sow’s book. She did her dissertation on best friendships and asked whether attachment theory applied to platonic intimate relationships. Colleagues and peers pushed back arguing that attachment only applied to families and romantic partners. She argued that friendships have similar characteristics as families, specifically “a secure base” and a “safe harbour.” This made so much sense to me. The secure base or safe harbour felt threatened as soon as my friends entered a romantic relationship. One of the most useful books I found was the Abandonment Recovery Workbook. Friendship was never mentioned, but the description of what this feels like resonated: “A loss of love, a feeling of disconnection, being left behind.” This was exactly how I felt. Very recently, I discovered Donna Ward and her book “She I Dare Not Name: A Spinster’s Meditations on Life.” I’d never before read a book that so perfectly described my experience. She writes, “To lose friends to family-making is to be abandoned, left tainted and wanting in the village square.” As far as I know, she didn’t carry the same kind of trauma that I did, however to hear her describe her experience as she did, somehow validated just how challenging this experience was for me and lessened the shame. It seems that whether trauma is present or not, the experience of losing your friends to family and parenthood can be a painful and fraught one, and one in which the unique challenges are so rarely discussed only to leave one struggling in isolation.
It often astounds me that not one of the many therapists or healers I worked with pointed to grief as I was spiralling through this time. It also makes complete sense. Up until 3 years ago, I only knew grief to be something experienced when someone close to you dies. Friendship changes, losses and hurts can devastate us, and yet, there has been so little room in our culture for our heartbreak and grief in friendship. The irony is that the nature of friendship, where our lives shift and change in different directions, lends itself to a relationship with grief. I was in the midst of some devastating friendship loss, a triple whammy heartbreak that shattered me and opened up the grief of my high school friendship losses. After losing my high school friends to family, I was wounded and terrified of friends meeting a new partner. When I found a new group of friends, I had a great deal of fear over them meeting someone. And then one did and despite trying my hardest, the relationship fell apart and I lost this group. It was the second friendship group I was losing and yet it was so hard to claim my grief over this. And then I saw Mingus’ Instagram post and another by relationship coach Silvy Houcasian. Hearing these two speak of their own friendship grief, helped me befriend and honor my own. Sharing Mingus’ post, Houcasian writes: “when I first met my current partner, one of my closest friendships was coming to an end. It was truly one of the most painful breakups I have ever been through. It was more painful than any of my romantic relationships ending… I lost access to a big part of my joy for a few years after that breakup. And if I’m really honest with myself, I don’t know if that kind of joy – the kind I felt with her – has ever fully come back.” This is exactly how I felt. I was not only heartbroken and devastated, but I too lost a part of my joy. There’s still a pain and absence that lingers to this day, and yet sometimes there’s just something that makes it impossible for us to be in relationship with someone no matter how much we love them.
Like many, I’ve had to take responsibility for reparenting myself, but healing was not something I did on my own. I could never have gotten to where I am without an incredible village that included friends. Writer and Instagramer, Margeaux Feldman speaks of friendship helping her be ready for secure attachment in a romantic relationship. She says, “I don’t think I could’ve been ready for the secure attachment (my partner) offered me without having had secure attachment in my friendships already. When we talk about healing attachment wounding, there’s always this focus on healing it in a family or with romantic partners. Neither of those were possibilities for me because they were just too terrifying. My friends (…), showed me that secure attachment was possible – and that it could be safe – long before I experienced it in other kinds of relationships.” After I lost that second group of friends, I was gutted and destroyed. It was the support of another friend who kept our weekly phone calls going after she met her boyfriend, that helped me find ground again. Like Feldman, friendships have helped me develop more secure attachment. When they are consciously agreed to, the right friendships can be deeply healing and we can’t exclude them from the conversation. I have learned and grown immensely through friendship. I’ve heard many speak of parenting or romantic partnership as path to consciousness, as that great teacher, but rarely do I hear of friendship. Outside of my immediate family, no other relationships have taught me more. It’s the place I’ve hurt and been hurt. It’s the place I learned to grieve and learned to let go. It’s where I’ve learned that forgiveness is lots of digestion and the gift of grace. It has taught me about trust and repair. It has humbled me and challenged me to look into unconscious patterns. It’s forced me to look at my projections, shadow and protective parts. It has taught me relationship and communication skills; what support and intimacy looks and feels like. It taught me how to care for myself.
Our lives do change and that most definitely has an impact on our friendships. Losing friends to family, parenthood, illness or other caretaking is painful, yet understandable. Losing them to a romantic partner, has been a much harder experience for me. And in all honestly, it’s felt disheartening witnessing how we’ve normalized the concept of “dropping our friends” when a romantic partner comes along. There’s a truth to the fact that things shift, however there’s also a harshness to the way we can talk about it and move through the experience. There’s a shadow to everything and this seems to be one of the shadow sides of falling in love – we often forget that our other relationships exist and matter, and we may even behave in ways we would never say is okay any other time. I was shocked when a friend “dumped” me as I struggled with the change, despite saying she would be there for me. Months later she said to me “I just dumped you” with a frankness that seemed to suggest that it was both an okay thing to do and say to a friend, and not something that was damaging to our relationship. Months prior, in the midst of the struggle, another friend had said to me “you don’t just dump your friends, you don’t not show care for what they’re going through.” The truth is, I couldn’t hear her at the time. I had internalized the belief that dropping your friends when you meet someone was to be expected, and that the experience I was having was not worthy of care. It took me three years to be able to hear her and to know myself wanting and worthy of friends who share that sentiment. I started to see how the experience I was having wasn’t just about me being the one with trauma, but that my experience was also the result of a cultural bias and shadow. I’m not writing to argue, to be right or tell people how I think they should behave, but to point to an unconscious assumption that permeates our culture and can be hurtful and harmful. I’m saying don’t assume that that’s just the way it is and that it can’t be any different. There will be great romances (and also great friendships and a great many other things) that pull us away from others in our life, but how we do this, how we communicate around this and how we show respect for the experiences of others, does matter.
So what is Friendship?
Despite my love for friendship, I struggle to define it. Common characteristics that are often prescribed as defining friendship, such as being there in the good and the bad and mutuality, don’t always feel to hold definitive truth. I do get their relevance and what they’re speaking to, but they’ve been hard to take. There have been times I haven’t been able to be there in the good, there are still some things that are hard for me to hear about. There have been points where I or others have had nothing to give the other and haven’t been capable of mutuality, and yet in both circumstances the love of friendship remained. There may be extreme ebbs and flows that may or may not end the relationship. In most friendships, there seems to be some mysterious connection that is created that seems to defy definition, though kindness and trust seem to be common characteristics that matter to me. One perspective that really struck me was shared by The School of Life, a London based educational company that puts out thought provoking YouTube video. They said, “When you start a friendship, you realize that other people don’t principally want to know your good news so much as gain an insight into what troubles and worries you so that they can in turn feel less lonely with the pains of their own hearts. You become a better friend because you see what friendship is really about is the sharing of vulnerability” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k-J9BVBjK3o). While I don’t think this is everything, I really loved it. There was a humbleness to it that acknowledged our tenderness and vulnerability. Sometimes I wonder how I would define friendship as verb, and it’s often just simply “to companion.”
Another common characteristic found in the friendship literature, is its choiceful nature. I keep hearing the phrase “chosen family” pop up these days. One way I’ve interpreted this is that friendships don’t have the primacy, or the intentional (and somewhat formalized) commitment that romantic partnerships have or of the blood relationship element of familial relationships. These can definitely more often present unique and painful challenges around things like children and property. But I don’t believe that friendships are any more or less chosen than romantic relationships. Some long-term friendships can have a similar feel to that of a sibling or close cousin. A painful and challenging aspect of “chosen family,” is that it is just that until it isn’t (and this is of course a part of romantic partnerships as well). Our chosen family in our 20’s might look one way until children come along, and then it might look very different. I’ve found it comforting to hear women in their 70’s say they’re more appreciative than ever of their long-time friends, and this gives me hope for renewed connections once child rearing has eased.
Family making aside, we often forget or overlook the fact that friendships require the same work that romantic relationships do. The deepest friendships require intentionality, nurturing, communication, self-reflection, boundaries, commitment and space for freedom. On one episode of her relationship podcast, “Where Should We Begin?”, Esther Perel spoke with two friends going through a challenging time. She encouraged them to find a way to come together once a year to reconnect and bring sustenance to their relationship. In the show notes she writes, “even the most natural and secure friendships need intentional attention given to them. A ritual can act as a promise to show up for your friendships. What ritual would you want to practice as a “reliable gift” of best friendship?” If you’re unfamiliar with Perel’s work, most of her work involves couples, and she advocates for the need for freedom within romantic partnerships. I found it interesting how on the one episode involving friendships, she advocated for the need of intentional attention.
In the final episode of the first season of Heartstopper, Tao and Charlie reconnect and finally talk through their issues and misunderstanding. They apologized and one of the final scenes was of the two of them spending time together. They seemed to instinctively know their relationship needed that intentionality Perel speaks of. I was recently driving home from a visit with a friend and listening to a podcast. On this day, they were speaking of friendship and the topic had come at the request of their listeners. They said that in their experience, friendship comes up in therapy just as much as any other type of relationship. I hear this more and more in groups I’m part – its relevance and impact. We seem to all know and feel its importance and complexities, but don’t quite feel this reflected in unconscious assumptions about it. I hope, if nothing else, this has helped you see it just a little bit differently.
The river flows, the ocean knows
A multitude of rivers I will be, infinite becomings are the truest me
Currents carving, rhythmic renewing, ever evolving
Every edge tells of unfolding stories, every swollen stretch recedes into unsung glories
In the continuous emergence of someone new, in the elemental rebirthing life guides us through
Flows the river, into the ocean
Where the wildest of waves crash over me, the sand washes out leaving no ground to be
Currents carrying, swells submerging, winds wailing
Every drop is a tear of unrelenting grief, every storm sinking hope of any lasting belief
In the rapid reappearance of safe shallow shores, fiercely fighting reality won’t win any wars
Knows the ocean, and shows me
The miracle that we all came to be, the mystery of being so lost at sea
Currents caressing, feels flowing, parts purifying
Every ebb connects with my courageous core, every flow teaches a humility and care never known before
In the alchemical process reclaiming me whole, in trusting God’s plan for my sacred soul
Flows the river that is me
My Mother(hood) Story
Perhaps two of the greatest heartbreaks I’ll walk through this lifetime with are not becoming a mother and having a mother who struggled greatly for most of my life. And yet, this is only part of the story. As with most things, the whole of the story is so much more complex – wrapped up in histories that are beyond our memory; culture and belief systems beyond our control and many other relationships that impacted and shaped us. In some ways it feels unkind and unfair to my mom to be telling my story this way. Unkind to all she’s been through, unfair to how much she loved us. And yet, to deny how my own motherhood story is enmeshed in our relationship and all we’ve been through, also feels untrue. The other factors that impacted my childlessness – my relationship with my father, my shame over being single, the toxic shame I carried about my own worthiness, trauma and grief that were not properly identified – I share about elsewhere. The story I tell here is how intergenerational trauma impacted my childlessness.
To become a mother was a dream of mine from as young as I can remember. I loved babies and toddlers and every interaction left me excited for the day when I would have children of my own. I was also oddly fascinated and somewhat obsessed with pregnancy and birth. When I’d go into a bookstore, I’d run to the pregnancy section and hunt for the books with graphic pictures (these were the best and this was long before YouTube). I couldn’t wait to be pregnant and give birth. At different points in time, I dreamt not only of becoming a mother, but of being an ObGyn or a midwife. These weren’t only dreams; they were how I soothed myself. In times of instability and discomfort, I would enter into my magical dream land where I had a wonderful loving attentive partner and five joyful children. I would assist other women in birthing their own babies, and then return to a home and family with whom I felt a warmth and sense of belonging that wasn’t available to me as a child. When I grew up and had my own family everything would be okay.
My mom had her first panic attack when I was eight-years old. By that time my parents had separated, we had moved 5 times (though shuttled between my parents in different cities and countries, it felt like more), I had been in 7 schools (that I remember) and had 8 nannies. There was abuse, a traumatic incident with a nanny that involved the police and other incidents I’d prefer not to share here. And yet, the panic attack seems to be the marker of when the insanity and coping mechanisms within the family unit ran thin and the weight of it all bore down on my mom and her system said no more. The brunt of the stress weighed most heavily on her, which is so often the case. At the time, she had no idea what was happening to her. This was long before knowledge of panic attacks was mainstream. Like many, she thought she was having a heart attack. She called my aunt to take her to the hospital, sent my five-year old brother to the neighbour’s and asked me to sit on the curb with her while we waited for my aunt. I still remember the fear as I sat with her. After this, agoraphobia (fear of leaving home) surfaced and she went on sick leave from work. She slept through most of my high school years, but when my brother and I left home, a number of factors confounded to bring about what was one of the worst periods in both of our lives.
For most of my twenties, my mom was spiralling. My sense is that she was in shock, burnt out and pulled into a deep depression after a court case against my dad didn’t go as she had hoped. She had tried to re-enter the work force, but opportunities were few. I also believe her own abandonment trauma was triggered by both empty nest grief and the pain of our relationship with our father. To top it off, her financial situation was precarious and the bank was coming after her house. She was desperate and suicidal and I found myself on the phone with her, trying to convince her that she didn’t want to die. I was pulling money off my line of credit and sending her spare money so she could eat. This continued on and off for roughly 4-5 years. There were multiple suicide attempts and trips to the hospital. She eventually lost the house, then eventually was unable to cover her rent and was close to ending up on the street. I rented a room elsewhere and moved her to my small apartment.
For years, I felt like her life was in my hands. I took on the role of parent during that time when one is supposed to “launch” and individuate. Personally, I was struggling to find my way. I was just out of university and clueless about my future and what I wanted. I did do a Master’s, but deferred my thesis for two years after one of her suicide attempts severely affected my emotional state. I don’t want to paint myself as the ever-loyal dutiful daughter, this wasn’t a role I wanted and there were times I wasn’t kind and found myself struggling to be around her. She had her less desirable moments too, angry at me and projecting her pain at me. Relatives told me to forget about her and get on with my life. Friends staged an intervention and in a much kinder and gentler way, urged for something similar. But how does a twenty something year old whose mom was in many ways always there for her, do that? When your mom has no money for food, isn’t sure if she’ll make rent and is frequently suicidal, you step up and it takes its toll. By the time I hit my late 20’s, I was burnt out, emotionally drained and lost.
I in no way blame my mom for my childlessness or for any challenges in my life. Who knows why we’ve walked this path together. For many years, my compassion for her life circumstances overshadowed my own pain. Since then, I’ve grieved, I’ve been angry, I’ve worked on boundaries and am at a place where forgiveness doesn’t even need to be mentioned, though my experience suggests forgiveness is emotional digestion and grace, rather than something that can be willed. But it would also be untruthful to not be honest about how the experience impacted me and my childlessness. You see, it made me terrified of responsibility, specifically of responsibility for another human. This fear wasn’t only due to this experience, but also of the harsh reality I witnessed as my mom raised my brother and I as a single mother. I knew it was no guarantee of happiness, and could be hard as shit. Between my brother and I, I witnessed my mother face rage, school challenges, bullies, unrelenting willfulness, self-harm, suicide attempts, perfectionism and learning disabilities, all while dealing with her own trauma and mental health challenges. And though I know my mom does not regret having children, all of this left me terrified. I also knew that loving your children was no guarantee that you will have the relationship with them that you long for.
While abandonment trauma is fairly well known, it’s sister, engulfment trauma isn’t quite as readily spoken about. To be engulfed is to have a feeling of being suffocated, of not being able to escape, and that’s certainly how I felt. The fear of losing myself, of disappearing to the needs of another terrified me. The fear of engulfment also unconsciously impacted my own search for a partner, and I somehow found myself in a relationship with someone who didn’t want children and then was single for years. I wasn’t only dealing with engulfment trauma, but more fully cPTSD and had been drowning in that and unknown grief for years. Looking for a partner was not only terrifying for fear of losing myself, but it also felt impossible in all that – how could I explain my constant triggers? I felt so much shame and had no good answer for what I was going through. Internally, I felt a tug-of-war going on. On the one side, this overwhelm and fear, and on the other, my deep desire to be a mother. In hopes that by some miracle, I would feel capable, I froze my eggs and researched becoming a single mother by choice, though I would quite literally freeze at any thought of moving forward. Based on what I saw with my mother, motherhood as a single parent meant isolation, losing oneself and endless stress. I found no easy answers or quick fixes. No amount of therapy or ayahuasca ceremonies easily remedied the war I was in. Although I had some awareness of what was going on within me, I had no clue how to work through the fear that arose in response. I had no clue how to articulate the fear or communicate about it until recently. It’s felt safer to be by my myself, whether that’s meant no children or no romantic partnership. It wasn’t until I got really pulled into the underworld that I got some deeper healing around both abandonment and engulfment trauma, and they are still something I walk with. I really don’t think we get to choose how or when we do our deepest healing, or whether these things ever fully heal.
Shame is nasty business, it can silence us, or maybe even worse, cause us to tell lies – anything to hide from the truth and been seen. The shame I felt for all the pain I carried around my childlessness was not only harmful to myself, I also behaved in ways that felt unfair to my mom. For years, I hid behind my mom and her struggles to avoid telling the truth about my grief. If I was in a group and talk turned to Mother’s Day, my eyes would most usually well up and tears start to roll. Others would turn to me and say “oh it must be so hard because of your mom.” I would nod silently and likely start crying even more. The truth is my tears were actually my own grief over not being a mother, but it wasn’t something that I felt like I could talk about. I had really internalized the idea that I was supposed to suck it up, get on with it and be grateful for the life I had. It was easier to let them believe it was about my mom, than to tell the truth. The lack of integrity ate at me and felt disloyal to my mom, like a betrayal on top of all she had been through.
There are common narratives that I frequently come across for those who don’t have kids or around motherhood. The first is around choice. It has been so important to bring choice into the discussion around parenthood, but what often gets missed are those who haven’t felt like they had a choice. The notion of choice feels like nonsense to me. Choice is often made invisible in situations like mine. At 46, I find myself for the first time feeling emotionally equipped and capable of raising a child, but I also feel exhausted and don’t have it in me to even try as I feel my body shifting into perimenopause (let alone try by myself). To some it may seem like a choice, but I have never felt like I’ve had much of one. While discussing this with someone recently, she shared that making a choice doesn’t mean that there isn’t great pain in what we’re giving up by making the choice we’re making. Choosing to take care of the parts of me that haven’t felt up to the task of being a mother, doesn’t mean there isn’t great pain in what I’m giving up. Back when I was in the manifesting world, trying to positive think my way out of this, people would say things like, “well maybe you don’t want it bad enough.” When I hear it, it sounds to me like ‘want’ means to be able to will it. It’s hard to explain that sometimes the will has so little to do with it.
The second narrative is around sacrifice. This one is always linked to motherhood and I’ve even seen it weaponized against the childless (and childfree) – “you won’t know sacrifice, you’re not a mother!” I won’t know that kind of sacrifice, but I do know sacrifice. I feel like I sacrificed parts of myself to support my mother. I feel like I sacrificed my dream of having my own children to reparent myself. There are many kinds of sacrifice and perhaps one of the biggest for childless not by choice, is the need to sacrifice our dream in order to move forward with our lives.
The third is around freedom. When I speak to people about the grief of my childlessness, a frequent response is “oh, but you have freedom!” Freedom was something a part of me needed, not something I celebrated. The part of me that had been so terrified by experiences with my mom needed to feel that she could run away and escape. I don’t take my freedom for granted, but grief has been a frequent companion as I’ve needed it. Freedom and grief have walked side by side, linked arms and hand over hand. They may not always be such close companions, but freedom isn’t the answer to childless grief. I longed for a relationship with another being, but needed to prioritize taking care of myself. It can be as painful for me to hear about my friend’s who are mothers taking care of sick kids as it can be hearing them talk about joyful times. Freedom is not the antidote to this.
I recently saw an article titled “It takes courage to parent with trauma.” No argument from me on that one, I witnessed it first-hand. But so often the courage of the childless is not seen. It takes courage to listen and discern what you need and to know your limitations when another part of you wants something so badly. It takes courage to try again and again. It takes courage to decide to stop. It takes courage to accept your body’s limitations. It takes courage to cry yourself to sleep and then get up the next day and go to work hypervigilant for whatever baby or child story will fill the office space. It takes courage to reparent yourself and hold that young part whose biggest most heartfelt dream didn’t come true. It takes courage to face cultural narratives such as “failure to launch” or unconscious biases that parents are wiser and more mature. It takes courage to repeatedly not be seen or to be met with pity while walking with years of silent grief. It takes courage to say goodbye to friends as they become consumed in family making. It takes courage to love the children of others while your heart secretly breaks. It takes courage to walk through life as an I when you longed so much to be a we.