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Writing

The river flows, The ocean knows

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 life’s call for my sacred soul
Flows the river that is me

Friendship

“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 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 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. For years, I struggled through a storm of developmental trauma, disenfranchised grief, 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. I’ve also learned that my story is not as unique as I felt it was, 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 isn’t a belief I share and I know many others who feel similarly. 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.

My Story

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 assume 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.

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. As time went on, I became triggered by more and more – engagements, weddings, pregnancy and birth announcements; from friends, colleagues, family friends. I was constantly getting pulled into a 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. For close to 20-years, I felt like I was drowning. 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. But I was constantly getting pummelled and 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 and share the experience of loss. There’s no doubt that I carried trauma, but I also believe that the experience and circumstances of disenfranchised grief, not only exacerbated the symptoms, but produced their own 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 experience. Not only was I constantly hypervigilant and on alert, but I didn’t know I was grieving, I just thought something was wrong with me. 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 cultural 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. Every time grief was triggered, 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. 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 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

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 4 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. 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 the high school friends to family making, I was terrified of a friend meeting a partner. And then one did, and despite a huge effort, the relationship fell apart. It was the second friendship group I was losing and yet it was so hard to claim my grief over this. 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. 

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 family of origin 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. 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.” And then I discovered Donna Ward and her book “She I Dare Not Name: A Spinster’s Meditations on Life.” She writes, “To lose friends to family-making is to be abandoned, left tainted and wanting in the village square.” As I meet and speak with more and more women have walked a similar path as mine, I find we often express a similar feeling of being abandoned. There’s no doubt in my mind that, regardless of the degree of relational trauma we carry, our friends can be that safe harbour that Langan speaks of, and losing them to family making can be incredibly challenging. I hope we can normalize the challenges of this experience more, and that more channels of support start to emerge to help those walking through this passage.

I’ve been grateful to find others who speak of attachment (and all relational matters) beyond the privileged narratives of family of origin and romantic relationships. One of those is writer and Instagramer Margeaux Feldman, who 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 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 can be painful, yet it’s 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 dropping friends is 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 find the right language for it and to define it. One of the characteristics frequently made in friendship literature, is of its choiceful nature, and this is commonly reflected in the popular term “chosen family.” I’ve interpreted this as speaking to the fact that friendships don’t have the intentional (and somewhat formalized) commitment that romantic partnerships have or of the ties we have to relationships from our family of origin. These can definitely more often present unique challenges with the intertwining of so many parts of life including children and property, but I don’t believe that friendships are any more or less chosen than romantic relationships. They may be “easier” to exit only for those children/money reasons, but any relationship between two adults is somewhat chosen. While there may be no choice in our family of origin, any other family (or lack thereof) most often comes to be by some kind of combination of chance, situation and connection. I similarly struggle with other characteristics often prescribed as defining friendship, such as being there in the good and the bad and mutuality. Not only do they speak to any adult relationship, but they also don’t always feel to hold definitive truth. I do get their relevance and what they’re speaking to – to sustain any intimate adult relationship, there does generally need to be mutual intentional attention given to the relationship over time. But there can be major ebbs and flows in presence, support and capacity in any adult relationship for many reasons. There have been points where I or others have had nothing to give the other or haven’t been capable of mutuality, and yet in both circumstances the love of friendship remained. I also find the nuances of each relationship I’m in to be far more complex than any easy definition can describe. Like Mingus and brown, I urge us to question some of the binaries we have around adult relationships and resist the urge to define and fit them in a box. There often seems to be more variation amongst romantic relationships and friendships than between the two. 

It feels imperative to speak to the fact that romantic partnerships are privileged not only socially, but also politically and legally. And in being privileged, they leave those of us who either haven’t been fortunate enough to meet someone or who prefer to remain single, without certain rights and supports. For example, should I, as a single childless person, become sick and need assistance, a friend cannot get paid leave off work to care for me or I for them (as partners or family of origin can in my country). There can also be limitations around passing along pensions to friends should we die. It is also an entirely different discussion asking a friend to be our emergency contact, power of attorney or executor of our will than with a partner – something often taken for granted in those relationships. It’s been interesting too, to hear expressed time and time again how fearful people are to reach out to friends in an emergency. And I’ve also seen the exact opposite – where friends are the ones reached for and where incredibly touching levels of support are offered. Why such extremes? For those of us without partners (and some with), our friendships are often our family and our support, I would love to see a world that reflects this, The privileging of romantic relationships and the nuclear family cuts our web of support and isolates us in so many ways (and not only for those that are single). Any relational conversation – whether it be attachment, grief, shadow work or rights and legislation – needs to include friendship.

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 attention. I was recently driving home from a visit with a friend and listening to a podcast of therapists. 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.

My Mother(hood) Story

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, 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  – aren’t any less part of the story, but the part 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 pain, 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. And as much as I was attached to that dream, I was equal amounts fearful that it wouldn’t happen.

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. At the time, she had no idea what was happening to her. Like many, she thought she was having a heart attack. This was long before panic attacks were more commonly understood. 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 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 moved her to my small apartment and rented a room elsewhere. 

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. 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 – there were many times she would project her pain at me and unleash her anger in my direction. 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 challenges, all while dealing with her own trauma and mental health struggles. 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’ll have the relationship with them that you long for.

While abandonment trauma is fairly well known, its 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. 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. I also hadn’t met a person that I wanted to raise children with. 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 wasn’t until I got really pulled into the underworld that I got some deeper healing. I really don’t think we get to choose how or when we do our deepest healing, or to what degree we heal these places.

***

Shame can be 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 often tears of grief over not being a mother, but it wasn’t something that I felt like I could talk about. I had 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 like a betrayal towards my mom.

***

There are common narratives that I frequently come across for those who don’t have kids or around motherhood. The first is around choice. I grew up knowing about choice. I knew it was ok to be single and to choose that. I knew it was ok to not have children and to choose that. I remember watching an episode of Geraldo when I was home alone as an 8-year-old about single women who chose to have children on their own. That episode imprinted me with possibility. Choice was all around me. 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 for any number of reasons. Part of the problem with some of the discourse around choice, is we assume that it’s always there and available and that those who don’t attain whatever it is they wanted, failed in some way or didn’t want it badly enough. 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 with the financial and emotional responsibility). 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. Even if one could look at my situation and say there was some element of choice, it, doesn’t mean there hasn’t been great pain in what I gave up.

The second narrative is around sacrifice. This one is often 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. I’ve also felt like I needed to sacrifice my dream in order to move forward with my life. There are so many ways sacrifice can show up in our lives. Parenthood doesn’t have a monopoly on it. And I would question even thinking of it as something that sets us apart from others or as something that speaks to our goodness or worth as a person.

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.

My Green-Eyed Friend

My Green-Eyed friend

Why (I believe) we’ve got envy wrong.

Note: Envy and jealously are often used interchangeably. According to Merriam-Webster, historically, they both mean “to covet.”1 I’ve come to understand envy as meaning to want what another has and jealously as meaning fear of losing a relationship we have to another person, but I acknowledge it’s not clear cut. I use envy here because it’s a more resonate term for me. Green-eyed monster was a phrase from Shakespeare. I take some liberty using it, as the meaning in Othello (where it was first used) seems more aligned with the definition of jealousy I’ve given above.

Every once in a while, I hear something that sends me on a rant. More often than not, these rants are initiated by some kind of new age or pop psychology messaging that feels so unquestioned, unhelpful and possibly even unintentionally harmful. Discourse around envy is something that can get me railing, with it being perhaps one of the emotions our culture seems to really get wrong and not be terribly skilled at both being with or talking about. Envy has long had a bad rap. There is no emotion we make bad more than envy, and often we don’t even realize we’re doing it. Not only is it one of the seven deadly sins in the Catholic religion, but apparently, its presence speaks to our emotional health (or lack thereof) and our qualities as a relational being. I’ve frequently come across statements such as “healthy people don’t have envy,” “good friends don’t envy their friends,” or had someone say to me, “I’m such a bad person, I feel envious.” There is also a common narrative that gets expressed around envy: it’s a negative, destructive emotion; the antidote is gratitude and it points to something we need to take action on. I don’t pretend to know everything about envy or share everyone’s experience of it, but I’ve found envy to be both more complex than this narrative, and far more normal, innocent and even benevolent.

Chances are, if there’s a discussion on envy, it’s immediately spoken of as a negative emotion. Take a podcast episode I was recently listening to. The podcast is 3 Jungian analysts exploring various themes, and in this one, they happen to be discussing envy. Not only did they follow the narrative outlined above, but the first example they provided was of a person keying his neighbour’s car because he’s envious of it. A rather extreme example to start with, one that immediately links the emotion with destructive behaviour. This isn’t to say that this doesn’t happen and isn’t worthy of speaking to, but most things in their extreme can be harmful, even so-called positive emotions (if you’ve been on the receiving end of toxic positivity, you may know what I’m talking about). Envy can be a powerful, painful, uncomfortable and challenging emotion, but by focusing on an extreme behaviour, there is the immediate linking of it with bad. Not only does it risk the association with bad, but it (and the person experiencing it) risk being pathologized (remember, healthy people don’t have envy!). By making envy bad, we shame it and push it into the shadows. We increase the risk that it becomes more subtly and psychologically destructive both to ourselves, and in the biting remarks or energy we project towards others.

Envy can be experienced in so many ways about so many things and the way it impacts us will be individual to the aspects of life that present a challenge for us. I’ve felt envy over many things – from a promotion or trip, to a friend group and sense of humour. Most of these haven’t been that challenging – envy rises and falls, but other envy was much more challenging. For years, I felt overwhelming shame for all the envy I felt for my friend’s partners, children and family life. I knew their lives weren’t perfect and had their difficulties, but I longed desperately for children and a family of my own and felt so left out of what everyone was experiencing – this had been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember. What made it even more challenging was living in a world that says family is everything, there’s no greater love than the love you can have for your children, or in which there are frequent proclamations to family that go “without you, this (win, achievement, award etc.) means nothing.” And yet, I was not supposed to feel envy, and when I did, it was a marker of my lack of health and wellbeing and spoke to my character as a person and as a friend. It was an impossible situation. The shame and sense of badness was the worst part of the experience. We can project the pain of envy outwards and/or inwards. Not that I’m innocent of never projecting it towards others, but I mostly directed the pain of it towards myself. My view of myself was that I was horrible and wretched for experiencing envy. For me, the story of badness and shame was far worse than the actual feelings and experience of it. 

Gratitude did nothing to alleviate either the envy or the shame. I’ll be honest, sometimes I want to throw gratitude out the window and stomp all over it. This isn’t because I don’t think it’s important, but because I don’t think it’s always the answer. Sometimes, it really is and provides a necessary and powerful balm. Other times it’s not, and it may not even be accessible. For years, when I was struggling with the worst of my envy, I kept a gratitude journal. The problem was, it felt like a mechanical, robotic exercise. I had no emotional connection to it and I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t connect. I was intellectually aware of the blessings in my life, but knowing wasn’t making my pain any less. It was actually making it worse because it wasn’t having the effect everyone was telling me it should have and it wasn’t taking my envy away. And then, by some grace and a beautiful ayahuasca journey, my heart opened and I was filled with a profound feeling of gratitude. I’m not always connected with this feeling, but it continues to remain accessible and impactful for me. It has also, NOT, taken away envy. What it does do, is help me keep perspective. What if the ask of maturation is to learn to hold the complexity of being both grateful for all the blessings in our life AND allowing envy for those things we long for but don’t have? All while doing our best to not beat ourselves up and/or to project our pain onto others? 

The idea that friends don’t envy friends seems like unrealistic BS to me. It’s a sentiment that once again makes people bad for an emotion running through them, instead of respectful of something they’re wrestling with. Recently I was telling a friend that I was thinking of moving to a different city where I could afford to buy a house. She doesn’t know whether owning a house will be in her future. We’re both comfortable with challenging emotions and she was honest that if I bought a house, envy was one of the feelings she may experience. I told her I get it and don’t need her envy to be any different. If she isn’t able to celebrate with me the way other friends may be able to, that’s ok too. One of the downfalls of envy that they point to on the podcast is that envy can cause people to withhold support for others. It’s heartbreaking when we want to support others, but for any number of reasons, are unable. I don’t want to downplay the possible heartbreak, but I also don’t know that we’re always supposed to be able to support others for the simple fact that we can’t. I don’t know that I will ever go to a baby shower again. It may seem unsupportive to some, but it’s a decision I’ve made in support of self-care. The decision isn’t really about envy, but it may be perceived by some in that way and I’m ok with that. 

I’m also not convinced that envy always points towards something that we need to do or make happen. There are times where this is true and it provides an opportunity for clarity and direction. In the podcast episode, one person spoke of feeling envy towards someone who wrote and published a book. She knew this was something she wanted for herself and was working to bring this to fruition. There may be many times that envy directs us in this way, but the truth is, there are things we’ll feel envy around that we won’t be able to do anything about. There is nothing for me to do around my children envy. Suggestions to adopt, volunteer, become a big sister, develop relationships with my friend’s children are frustrating and are not the answer. There are some things that doing something, actioning something will not remedy. Not everyone is going to be able to do everything that they want or have everything they want, despite their deepest longing and a culture that says anything is possible. Action is not always possible, realistic or accessible.

I had two meaningful experiences that speak to there being nothing to do. In each one, I was sitting with someone who admitted her envy to me, and this in turn, gave me the courage to admit mine. In the first situation, I had co-facilitated a group with a woman. Someone in the group had spoken about how she and her friend were taking time away from their families to celebrate 25 years of friendship. The woman I co-facilitated with admitted feeling envious when she heard this. Her best friend had passed 5 years earlier and she was never going to have the opportunity to share an experience like this with her. I admitted to her that I also felt envy after hearing this. I longed for my friends to take time away from their families and to put some time and energy into our relationship, but that wasn’t something that was either possible or shared. With the other experience, a friend shared that she felt envy for the twenty-somethings in a trauma support group who were getting the tools and help in their young age that she was now only getting in her 50’s. I resonated with this envy. I wish I knew in my 20’s what I know now and what if learning it at that time would have allowed me to have children? There’s no turning back the clock. There was nothing to be done in any of these experiences of envy. The power in both situations wasn’t in any action we could take, but in sharing our envy with each other. In a conversation on loneliness, Bayo Akomolafe tells of being with a group in India who gathered to share their jealously2. He said that in doing so, they moved it out of the internal isolated experience of the individual and into shared communal experience creating a less isolated shameful experience – something he called “withness.” That’s exactly what this sharing did for me – the sharing of envy without needing it to be any different made it less shameful, less potent, less isolating.

As I sat with these experiences, I also realized that if there was anything for any of us to do, it was to grieve. Grieve for moments with friends that won’t come to be. Grieve for time lost that we can’t get back. Grief is how we reckon with our heartbreak and with lost dreams. Envy seems to be a feeling that can be born out of grief. It seems to be a mix (in varying degrees) of fear, powerlessness, longing, sorrow and anger. What if envy is our biological response to reckoning with parts of life? With feelings of loss, being left behind or left out. Now, when envy arises, I know there’s some kind of longing and sorrow pulling at my heart, maybe even some anger that needs to be expressed. 

We learn many stories around what life is supposed to be like. Life, as I learned it, was not supposed to include envy, and for years it meant I was failing. My teacher would say that whatever we were struggling with wasn’t our failing, but our assignment. What if envy is just part of our assignment as a human being, however unpleasant it may be? What if we learned that envy is a normal human emotion and we focused our conversations on normalizing the experience, sharing our experiences of it and discussing skills and tools to work with it? What if envy is possibly here to serve not only as part of our reckoning, but also as a teacher? Envy can serve many purposes in our lives and perhaps one is to deepen our humanity. Envy helped me learn to have compassion for myself and others, to have mercy and humility where we’re limited. It helped me build capacity and tolerance for uncomfortable emotions and sensations, and helped me learn to not identify with emotions. It helped me befriend and develop a kinder relationship with my imperfections. Where envy once felt to be my failing and my foe, it has now become my heartbreak, my teacher and my friend.

1 https://www.merriam-webster.com/grammar/jealous-vs-envious

2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0BG6yGJ2_Zc

Mastered

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Single, Solitude and Alone

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