We’ve arrived at the end of a cycle in our family’s life. An essential and positive end, but an end nonetheless. And if there’s anything I’ve learned about endings in my nearly forty-nine years on this planet, it’s that they need to be grieved otherwise they manifest as anxiety, arguing and rupture. If we don’t move consciously toward the feelings embedded in transitions and contain them through intentional rituals, they move toward us by grabbing us by the ankles and dragging us into their unpleasant underworld.
What transitions are we in? Oh, so many. For it also seems that transitions often arrive in clusters, not just one but multiple endings and beginnings that collide to shift and grow us into our next stage of life. Within the last two months:
- Our 16-year old son got his pilot’s license
- He started public school online
- He got his driver’s license
- He started public school in-person two days a week
- Our 11-year old son started full-time school in person
- My husband started his second year of graduate school
I’ve watched as the emissaries of transitions have arrived: anxiety, yes, but also the emotions encased inside the anxiety: grief, relief, disorientation, fear, excitement, loneliness. I move toward these as best I can. Two days before Everest started in-person school last week, I wept both to my husband and my best friend: full-bodied, heartbroken, medicinal weeping as I grieved the homeschool lifestyle and identity that we’ve loved so much and has served us well. The grieving allowed me to see him off that first day as he drove himself to school and join him in his joy.
Before our kids started school at the end of August, I wrote a letter called “Dear Homeschooling Life…” and read it aloud to the four of us as we sat outside in the end-of-summer heat. I invited our kids’ grief to come forth as they witnessed my own tears. I created a ritual with the letter and sacred stones as the focal point so that whatever emotions they were experiencing could magnetize to the stones that they would carry with them into the world.
They’ve both expressed sadness many times. Several times at night as we snuggle before bed my younger son has said, “I miss homeschooling. I want to go back.” And I say, “Of course you miss homeschooling. We all miss things about it. But we can feel sad and also know that it’s time to move on. We had outgrown homeschool life and we all needed something more.”
It’s such an important lesson in life: You can both grieve what you’re leaving behind and know that what you’re stepping into is right for this stage. The grief is not an indicator that you’ve made a mistake or that you need to go back. Rather, it’s an indicator that it’s sad to leave behind an identity and stage of life, and this grief needs attention so that it can move through and make space for the joy.
Moving toward grief through ritual also highlights one of the basic premises of transitions that I often teach: the more we grieve on the front end before the transitional day – during the engagement, throughout pregnancy, while packing the boxes, before the birthday or the first day of school – the more we can celebrate the new beginning.
And it’s not a one-time experience; we don’t grieve once then neutralize anxiety and step into forever joy. When anxiety arrives for me now I utilize both the on-the-spot tools and the deep-dive practices that I teach.
For example, every time Everest drives anxiety sends me a catastrophic image (you know the ones ;)). I recognize that in those moment I have a choice: to feed the image and keep myself in an anxious state until he lets us know that he’s arrived safely at his destination (thank god for texting) OR to recognize that this is my worry-mind doing what it’s been habitually trained to do over thousands of years and instead choose a different pathway to strengthen in my brain.
Sometimes I fall by default into the first choice and find myself holding my breath until I receive the “I’m here” text. But more often I choose the second option and turn to my practices: imagining him surrounded by a bubble of light (I learned that from our dear neighbor who has watched our sons grow up and visualizes light around our son when he flies) and reminding myself that he’s a safe driver and it’s more likely than not that he’ll arrive safely at his destination.
I also imagine his joy at venturing out into the world on his own, for connecting with joy is more powerful than fear and when I tap into his joy, my own fear abates.
Another tool I use is putting my hand on my heart and saying, “I love him so much. Please keep him safe,” as I breathe into the wordless, boundless love I feel for him, reminding myself that embedded inside every intrusive thought and image is the fear of loss and that when we name the love and turn to gratitude we can dissolve the fear.
This fear of loss is brought into high relief during transitions, and I’m aware that the fear of him driving is bigger than a fear for his actual life: it’s emblematic of him becoming an independent adult in the world, one more way that he’s separating from us and charting his own course. How often I still see him as a baby, looking up at me with his big, blue eyes as we sat for hours on that bed in Los Angeles! How often I still remember how I grieved even then knowing that in eighteen years he would be off in the world. Here we are, sixteen years in, knowing that we only have a few years left where he’ll be living at home with us, where I’ll get to see him every day, tousle his head every night, hear about the details of his classes and the thoughts and feelings that traipse through his magical mind and sensitive soul.
I’ve watched anxiety try to take hold in other instances as well. As I was dropping off my younger son at school one morning and I watched him and the other kids putting on their masks, my heart filled with emotion: touched by the care that we’re taking of each other, sad that this is how my son is starting school for the first time in his life, grief that after eleven years of homeschooling and spending every minute of our days together I now won’t see him for the next seven hours. As I drove away, I felt a twinge of anxiety try to take hold as a fear-based covid-induced image entered my mind, but instead I breathed into all of the emotions that stem from the same place: Love. The love beyond words I have for my son; the love that we as humans have for each other; love for this life that is so precious and so fleeting.
As often as I can, I let my eyes fill with the tears that live in the well of my heart and when I do the chatter of mind quiets and the aquifers of soul refill. This is how it goes with grief and love: they’re twin flames in the pocket of the heart, which means that in order to fully experience love we have to be willing to experience the full range of emotions that live in the heart. And we have greater access to these emotions during transitions.
As always in parenthood, their transitions initiate my own. The first day Everest drove himself to school was also the first time since becoming a mother that all three of my boys/men were away from the house in different locations. After staying in bed longer than normal and enjoying the silence in the house with tears weaving through my joy and relief, I got up and prayed a prayer of gratitude: first to the trees and land outside my bedroom windows that mother and hold me, then I prayed in each of my sons’ bedrooms. I said thank you for watching over them, thank you for guiding them to this moment in their lives. I sang and moved in the full-bodied expression of prayer I’ve learned from my tradition. I stood in their empty rooms, as if they had just left for kindergarten or college, and chanted through my grief and joy.
The praying, the ritual, the singing contained the emotion so that anxiety didn’t have to take hold.
What I’m left with is silence and stillness, and I’m basking in both, bathing in this liminal time, watching my dreams and psyche closely for guideposts in terms of what’s next for me. I’m entering midlife, my sons have launched in a new way, my husband is gestating his own next stage, and I… I’m not sure which direction I’ll go in. Many are calling. I wait and listen and rest. I sit amongst the raspberries with my sister bees buzzing their song around me. I watch the habit of filling my time with a creative endeavor – a book, a course, a post – and instead choose to lie in my hammock and watch the yellow leaves flutter down from the trees.
The next path will reveal itself. It’s hard not to know, and I move toward the discomfort of not knowing. I trust psyche enough to know that she’ll guide me. I ask the question I’ve asked every day since I entered the midlife portal at forty-four: How can I best serve? The path will become clear with time. For now, I only need to be in the silence of an empty house and full yard. At the beginning of this transition I dreamed that I was pregnant and would give birth to a baby girl in May. Just as my kids are in a 9-month cycle with their new school year, so I’m in a 9-month cycle with birthing a new aspect of myself. A young feminine will be born in May. Just like a pregnant woman, my only task is to nourish myself, rest, fill the waters in the well that have been depleted by these years of intensive parenting and homeschooling.
My husband and I are also in transition as we navigate this new stage of our married life together. This is the first time in sixteen years that our kids have been away from the house without us, and it’s shocked us out of parent complacency where the primary focus has been our kids and demanded that we look each other square in the eye. We’ve poured ourselves into our children these past sixteen years, both of us leading with the same intention: to make sure that our kids feel loved and secure, to attend to their needs and protect their sense of self so that they enter the broader world with their self-trust intact.
But this has come at a cost, for the attachment parenting model is meant to be done in community. With only two of us tending to their needs, our own needs and the needs of our marriage have fallen by the wayside at times. Between long-term breastfeeding, extended co-sleeping, homeschooling, and tending closely to the heightened emotional life of our two highly sensitive sons, we didn’t always prioritize each other. Luckily, with our strong friendship as the foundation of our marriage, we still like and love each other despite the insufficient love deposits in the marriage bank! Luckily, we’re both giddy with excitement that we can nourish our marriage in a way we haven’t been able to do because of the structure of our homeschooling life.
And so… here we stand on this gorgeous fall morning in October, on another threshold in our family life. Have we walked through this transition seamlessly? Nope. We’ve had plenty of the “arguing and rupture” that I mentioned at the beginning of this post. And I’ve come to see that that’s part of the equation as well. We’re so messy, us humans. And we’re messier because we don’t have the cultural rituals in place to help us cross over these transitions in community and with the guidance of the time-honored traditions from our ancestors.
So we do the best we can. We name. We grieve. And sometimes we argue (especially if you have a fiery personality, as several of us do in this family). But at the end of the day, when we meet each other at the dinner table or the breakfast counter, we look at each other and shimmer from the love that runs between us knowing that, as Alanis Morissette sings in Ablaze that “this cord is unbreakable… this bond, beyond unshakeable.”
The umbilical cords that tether us together will see our boys into their furthest endeavors, just as it’s seeing them into this one. Off into the world they go as my husband and I re-find each other, lighting up in each other’s presence, taking walks and planning special dates, knowing that it’s the love between he and I that birthed these boys and this magnificent life. Oh, how blessed we are.
Thank you, dear readers, for sharing so many of our transitions with us. Thank you for reading. Thank you for being the beautiful, sensitive, empathic beings that you are. May you cry and scream and shake and pray and sing and love yourselves across whatever transition you’re in right now, including the transition of life, always remembering that you’re being held, you are loved, you are a river of light, and that you’re never, ever alone. I love you all.