This week, I sent my kids back to school after having had them home since March. I thought I was ready. I thought I was calm and cool and in a place of acceptance, knowing that things were going to be strange and that they would, inevitably, have to flux. I thought I had obtained all the information I needed and was confident that everyone was doing the best they could given the circumstances.
After walking my boys to school in the morning, I had a few tears on my way back home. It was weird seeing the kids there masked up, all at different entrances than they otherwise would have been, waiting on teachers to escort them into the building. Our school has divided the kids into seven ‘cohorts’. These will be the small groups with whom my kids will move around the building all year. They will have recess with their cohort, along with lunch periods and even bathroom breaks. The idea is that crisis management will be simpler if the kids are in smaller groups. It’s as good a system as I think anyone could have come up with, given the circumstances.
I ended up having to go back to the school about an hour and a half later in the day in order to drop off the water bottles my kids had left at home. Any other year, I wouldn’t have bothered. The school has water fountains and my kids would have been okay. This year, however, the water fountains have been turned off, except for the lone bottle-filling station. I figured my kids were going to need some hydration, so I made the short trip back to the school. I was told to call so that one of the staff could meet me outside to grab the items as they are limiting visitors to the school as much as possible. Another good precaution.
When I arrived back at the school, I discovered there were two groups of kids outside with some teachers. One older group (likely grade 8s) and one group of littles (probably kindergarten or grade 1s). They were all masked up and paying keen attention to the teachers who looked like flight attendants giving safety instructions on a plane.
I started bawling.
School is every kid’s second home. They often spend more time in those halls than they do anywhere else. They should feel comfortable and safe there. This year, though, their second home is rife with a risk no one can see, predict or control. Their fellow students – their friends! – could be carriers of a virus that is highly contagious. Kids are required to wear masks when in common areas or when two-metre physical distancing isn’t possible.
The new reality my kids have to live with hit me like a tsunami. The unfairness of it all. The fact that they have to be cautious around people they should be able to be easy and comfortable with. The fact that they have to be resilient and flexible as advice and procedures change with each new bit of information that comes through. It overwhelmed me and I barely held it together long enough to hand off my kids’ water bottles to the staff.
When I got home, I let myself feel all the fear and helplessness and sadness and anger. As I did, my empathy kicked into high gear and I started thinking about all the parents, both past and present, who have had to send their kids to school amid all sorts of threats to their safety. The first Black parents who sent their kids to integrated schools. Indigenous parents who were forced to send their kids to residential schools. Parents of kids who are differently abled, gender non-conforming, not heterosexual, or who are new to the country and don’t speak the language. All the parents whose kids can be ‘othered’ and are at risk of enduring meanness and hate.
I let all that sit on my chest for a while, too. I held my privilege in my hands and acknowledged that because of the colour of my skin, the time and place I was born, and who my kids are, that this is the first time I have ever had to feel this kind of fear. I have never felt afraid sending my kids to school before, but there are others who feel this way all the time and for reasons far more nefarious than a virus that doesn’t discriminate and has no intrinsic morality in and of itself.
Holding Space isn’t just about being there for other people. It’s about being there for yourself and your own emotions, too. It’s about being there in the complexity of empathy, when your gut twists as you realize that how you’re feeling, while it might be unique to you in that moment, does not actually make you better or worse than anyone else. When you hold space for those moments when your unearned privilege slaps you in the face, like mine did yesterday, it can sometimes be a Herculean effort to move beyond the initial feelings of guilt and shame into a space where you recognize that you are being invited instead into a deeper, more complicated kind of love – both for yourself and for others.
This is the space where our Holding Space Foundation Program always hits the hardest. Those of us who have high empathy are often really, really good at caring for other folks. It’s what we do, often on instinct, and it’s a beautiful thing to offer people we care about. When we don’t know how to hold space for ourselves, though, we can get trapped in those initial amygdala responses when the BIG FEELINGS hit. Especially when they hit simultaneously, get mixed up in our empathetic responses and expose shadow stuff that we hadn’t anticipated.
It physically hurts me when those things happen. Even now, my chest aches and my eyes feel heavy and I kind of feel like I’ve been crying for hours even though that’s not what today looked like at all. Most of me wants to run as far away as I can from how I feel. I want to go find a Netflix show to bliss out on or some trashy novel to read so that I don’t have to feel like this.
But I know that none of those things will really help. These feelings are going to hang out until they’re done. What I am trying to do instead is, as Heather teaches, invite them into the main room of my heart and just be with them. Ask them what they need. Tell them they’re welcome to stay as long as they need, but that they’re not allowed to make me act in ways that would hurt others. Thank them for loving me and my kids by wanting us to be safe. Thank them for opening me up so that I can better listen to and love people who aren’t like me. Remind them that they’re not bad because they make me uncomfortable.
I also reached out and told other people what was going on in my head, in several conversations with friends, my husband, my parents and a few other folks who I trust to hold space for me. I even made myself do some processing on Facebook so that other people who might be feeling ALL THE FEELS right now would know that they’re not alone. I know how important it is for me to read things that normalize my experiences and in these weird days, I think that’s more necessary than ever.
My husband keeps saying that he could go for some ‘precedented’ times and I don’t disagree. These are strange days, all around, and, forgive my blatant plug here, but I think we could all use a honing of our Holding Space skills – both for others and for ourselves.
It always feels weird to brag on a thing that is kind of the basis of your income, but honestly, I don’t really know how else to do this marketing thing. The Holding Space Foundation Program is not just a throwaway course that can maybe help you a little in pockets of your life. It’s truly a paradigm shift and the THING THE WORLD NEEDS right now.
Look, yes, this program is what pays for my and Heather’s mortgages and food and blah blah blah, but truly, I would do this work for free if I could. In fact, I’m not taking a salary right now for as long as is necessary for our company to become financially fluid because it is just that important to me. And I’m not telling you that as a ‘humble-brag’ or for you to pity me or to guilt you into signing up, I’m telling you because I don’t know how else to explain in quantifiable terms what this work truly means to me.
It’s also weird being so passionate about something because I worry it starts to sound like we’re trying to build a cult or something and that’s not the case at all. Trust me, Heather and I talk about how anti-cult we are ALL THE TIME. We want to build a community, yes, but a community that is centred around the idea that we are all autonomous people who deserve to be free.
I know you don’t know me very well yet, but, if you did, you’d know that this is the point in our conversation where I start apologizing for proselytizing and begin to be self-deprecating about my passion. And then I immediately renege on those apologies and repeat everything I’d just said with even more fervour and tell you, again, that you should at least check out our program. See if it’s a fit for you and where you’re at. Apply for a scholarship if you can’t afford the whole thing. Sign up for the first two modules to see what you think. You can always add more as you go.
More people need to know how to do this stuff. How to be in the messes life hands us without falling apart or resorting to black-and-white thinking, both for ourselves and for each other.
Being each other’s people means learning how to be in those messes without bailing on each other or all the feelings that come with them.
Come learn with us. It’ll be worth it, I promise.