My Top 3 Not So Easy Steps to Raising a Daughter

When I was an angst-filled teen I remember a family member saying to my mother “It’s so much easier raising boys. I’d rather raise 10 boys than 1 girl.” I recall feeling rage, initially, which morphed into a kind of shocked surprise. I had no idea that girls, as a group, had a reputation for being difficult. I thought it was just me! Perhaps I wasn’t as alone as I had felt after all. Looking back on those cringe-worthy teen years, I suppose it was not surprising that one might think raising me was a tad more difficult than raising my brother. I snuck out of the house in the middle of the night to meet up with boys, got sent home from a junior high dance for being completely drunk, and so on and so on. When my parents suggested I should see a psychologist for my bizarre behaviour, I informed them indignantly that I was completely normal, which would be proven when my little brother started rebelling in the same way when he got to be my age (I think it was 14). Unfortunately, my hypothesis was flawed. My brother was a perfect child who grew into a perfect teen. He never got into trouble. Not once. (He may dispute that). So much for that!

When I discovered that I was pregnant four years ago, I knew that the little bean growing inside me was going to be a girl. She had to be. All of the first born children in my complicated family tree have been women. I was right. Now I have my own daughter (which still seems surreal). Dave, my partner in crime, is already preparing for her tumultuous teen years by practicing the line, “Go ask your mother.” Having worked with troubled teens for several years, I am well aware that many young women struggle at the age that I did, 13 or 14 (or in my case from 13-21). It seems to be a well-known phenomenon. Being one who handles anxiety by being as prepared as possible, I have developed a list. It mostly represents a blind hope that something I do now can help to inoculate her from the misery of being a teenage girl. Or at least make it slightly more bearable.

1. Encourage mastery

Mastery, in my experience, involves two things that are equally scary; failure and stepping out of one’s comfort zone. Some of the most important learning I have experienced, however, is when I was nudged out of my comfort zone. Even (maybe especially) as an adult, I think it is important for us to do things that scare the crap out of us. It helps us discover that we’re made of stronger stuff than we had thought, that we can master more than we thought possible.

I remember one moment distinctly when I was about 9 or 10 years old. I had been taking piano lessons since I was 5 and had been asked to play in front of the whole school. I had agreed without comprehending how terrifying it would actually be. I stood backstage waiting for my turn. I could feel my whole body shaking with anxiety. “What if I screwed up? Everyone would laugh. It would be the worst thing in the whole world. I can’t do it.” As those paralyzing thoughts were going through my head, I experienced something completely extraordinary. I can only describe it as another part of me appearing from within, rising up through my body and becoming me. This part was totally calm and confident. She knew, without a shred of doubt, that I would play beautifully. My body stopped shaking. I became totally focused, like I imagine athletes are right before the shot of the starting gun. I walked to the piano with confidence and I did play beautifully.

That part of me may never have appeared had I not needed her to help me navigate something new and scary. She has come to my rescue many times since and is the source of much of my confidence. As a result I encourage my 3 year-old daughter to try new things and to take risks (within limits of course). I do my best to encourage curiosity by providing opportunities to explore the world around us. Walks in the forest are adventures where anything can happen. At the playground I let her climb things that the worried part of me thinks might be too high. When she falls I hold her and soothe her, and when she’s ready, I encourage her to try again. I am there to offer small, barely perceptible assistance when she needs it, but not more; what Vygotsky called the “zone of proximal development”. The look on her face when she has mastered something difficult, all by herself, makes my heart soar.

2. Encourage generosity and gratitude

In a world that seems to be ever more focused on consumption, generosity seems old fashioned, like hand-written letters. I admit that I am not immune from its seductive power. Maya is an only child and I like to spoil her by buying her things. Part of it is likely guilt from working full-time. I want her to know how much I think about her when I’m not there. I tell myself that spoiling her now is inconsequential, as she won’t remember any of it, but the truth is that I am creating a set of expectations that will be difficult to break. Consumerism reminds me of addiction. It fills people’s feelings of emptiness, but it is a temporary fix. The good feelings that come from new things are illusory. There is no substance to them. I remember reading a study about people who were chronically depressed, helpless and hopeless. What turned their lives around was not consuming. It was giving; giving of their time to their communities. It gave them a sense of purpose, that what they did mattered. Their emptiness was filled up with something real, solid and lasting; generosity and compassion, which in turn led to self-confidence and a feeling of being connected to the world around them.

A definition of generosity that really challenged me was to be given something you coveted and to then immediately, with an open heart, give it away. I wondered if I was even capable of that kind of giving. There were possessions I had that I treasured and couldn’t imagine giving away, let alone with an open heart. So I decided to experiment with this. I had dolls that my grandmother had given me. She had died several years before and they were the only things I had left from her. The thought of something happening to them filled me with grief, as if I was experiencing her loss all over again. But the dolls were not her. If they all burned in a fire I would still have her memories, would still feel her love. I decided to give one of them to a friend of mine who would take good care of it. That act of giving was very powerful.

Giving invariable leads to feelings of profound gratitude from recognizing just how much we are given. I have often found that in encouraging myself to feel gratitude, to really feel it right into my bones, is the best antidote to depression. It opens my heart, helps me to understand how connected I am to the world around me, how much I am loved.

Even though Maya is not yet 3, and in the “mine!” stage, I try to encourage generosity. I try to involve her in daily routines like cooking and cleaning to show that we are a giving, helpful family. We put together care packages of her old clothes, books and toys and talk about how we are going to give them to the new baby and how happy the new baby will be to receive all of her things. Weeks later she will talk about how the new baby will be “sooooo happy” to have all of Maya’s clothes.

At Christmas Maya helped me wrap presents for my aunt’s mother, Old Gran. We talked about how much we hoped Old Gran would like them and how happy she would be to receive this gift from her. Maya was so excited to give her these presents. Every twenty minutes or so during dinner she would get down from her chair, walk to the Christmas tree, take them from under the tree and bring them to her. “We have presents for you Old Gran!” she would exclaim excitedly and with a huge smile. Even though she likes presents, I have yet to see that huge a smile on her face when she opens them.

Even mundane acts of generosity are important to acknowledge. During our dinners together I will make a point of thanking Dave (when I remember) for making us such a delicious dinner. Now Maya on her own will often say “Thank you Daddy (or Mommy) for making such a delicious dinner! It’s so yummy!” Of course it’s a daily commitment; she still demands things with a furious look on her face (I want JUICE!!!), we still have crying fits when she doesn’t get what she wants, and when she has opened her last present at Christmas or on her birthday she be disappointed that there aren’t more (“Are there more presents?”). It is a work in progress.

3. Encourage wisdom

Looking back on my youth I often marvel at the fact that I survived. I got myself into so many messes that it is truly by the grace of god that I made it through adolescence relatively unscathed. Since Maya has been born I have wondered, often, what I can do to help her through her own messes. How will I help her know who to trust and who not to? How do I help her embrace life to the fullest, but with awareness that there are people out there who may want to hurt her? The only thing I have been able to come up with is helping her to trust and honour her own wisdom.

One of the most difficult lessons in my own life has been to acknowledge and value my wisdom. There have been countless times where I have experienced intuition or a gut feeling and ignored it to my peril. In the aftermath I would wonder, “Why I had ignored my own knowing?” It has been a long process filled with successes and failures to learn to first recognize my knowing, and second, to give voice to it. I grew up in a time where children were supposed to be seen but not heard, although this was changing. The unfortunate consequence of that is that a child’s fledgling knowledge about themselves and the world around them is also silenced. It is in that silence that terrible things can happen.

When I was in grade 4 my science teacher, Mr. Alan, was overly friendly with the little boys in the class. He constantly brought them up to the front of the class and put his hand up their shirts to pat their backs, and patted them on the bum. He never called on the girls, despite me having my hand up to answer every question. I remember thinking that the way he touched those boys was not right. No other teacher did that. But instead of trusting that knowing and speaking out, I decided that my unease must be wrong. My mom and dad touched me like that and they are adults, Mr Alan is an adult, so it must be okay. My mother remembers me telling her that Mr. Alan didn’t like girls. I wonder if she had been curious about that statement, if she had asked me more about it, if he would have been caught sooner. One day when I arrived at school we were told that Mr. Alan was no longer a teacher, but not why.

I know that standing up and giving voice to one’s intuition is a scary prospect. It makes you vulnerable, the lone deer in a crowd of wolves. There is a reason that people don’t do it, that they conform to the silence. It takes courage to speak up, particularly when all you are relying on is the little voice inside your head or that feeling in your gut that is telling you that something is not right. I want to help Maya develop the courage it will take for her to trust and give voice to her own wisdom. I have already shut her down once, out of embarrassment. It was at the Christmas dinner at my cousin’s house. Their two boys are older than Maya and weren’t particularly excited to play with her. Dave and I spent a good chunk of the evening trying to lure her away from them and their toys that they didn’t want her wrecking.

At the end of the evening, when we were at the door getting our shoes and coats on to leave, Maya looked at my cousin Matt and his wife Tracey and said, calm as can be, “I don’t really like Matt and Tracy.” I was mortified. I told her sharply that she was being silly and to please stop it. She repeated herself, more forcefully. Tracy, bless her heart, said “If that’s how you feel Maya I think you should just go for it.” I could feel the discomfort, and heard Tracy’s dad jokingly tell Maya, who was 2 1/2, “that’s my daughter I’ll have you know!” I suspect he was only half joking. I just wanted Maya to be quiet. Instead, she used a version of a line I had used to try and explain why some kids won’t play with her. I would say to her “Some kids are friendly Maya and some kids aren’t. That’s just how it is.” Still calm, Maya held up her hands in an “I can’t figure it out” posture, and said to Tracy “Some people you like and some people you don’t.” And on that note, we left.

What bothered me later wasn’t the fact that she expressed herself, I was sure it was directed more at the boys, but the fact that I had done my best to silence her, purely out of embarrassment. I never did ask her more about it.

Since then I have made a conscious effort to ask more questions and to coax out her own knowledge into the open. When she asks her million “why” questions, I more often than not respond with “why do you think?” I encourage her to tell me stories, instead of me telling stories to her. I am trying to refrain from offering my opinions on her accomplishments, and instead invite her to explore her own opinions. It’s not much, but it’s a start.

I’m sure that as I ponder this question of raising a daughter more steps will come to mind. What are your thoughts? Your experiences? What have I missed?

Confessions of a Wannabe Writer

I have been meandering through my life reminiscing about dreams I had realized in my recent posts, which had started out as a public acknowledgment of my most sacred of dreams, to be a writer. Being a writer is by far the scariest of all of my dreams, as it is the most dear to my heart. I had felt, for the longest time, that I had the most to lose if that particular dream did not materialize. So precious was it, that I hid it deep down in my soul. I refused to acknowledge it, let alone take steps towards it. I actively resisted, like a toddler who refuses to put her shoes on so that you can actually get out the door and get to work on time. She senses your desperation to leave and squirms and wriggles and pushes until you are on the verge of a tantrum yourself.

There was no desperation in this dream of writing, however. It was not pinning me down, forcing me to put my damn shoes on. It was simply out there, in the universe, waiting patiently for my acknowledgment. Every now and then there would be a gentle nudge, a word of encouragement, like a hand reaching out, waiting for me to take hold. But, like a stubborn child, I would not.

The first gentle nudge of encouragement came in my first year of university. I hadn’t wanted to go. I was, to put it bluntly, a mess. Unbeknownst to my parents, who meant well when they pressured me to attend, I was in a very dark and terrible place. My unsophisticated attempts to get out of the deep pit I found myself in, by choosing the most self-destructive means possible, merely served to push me down further. I was too oppressed by this darkness to protest my parents’ wishes, and so I signed up for classes. In the bizarreness that was my mind at that time, I reasoned that my parents could force me to go to university, but could not force me to actually attend classes or learn anything. In high school I had managed to keep up my grades while writing out Pink Floyd lyrics in my classes, but this strategy proved to be not at all effective in university. I was flailing. I went to one exam having been to only one class. I wrote the exam in 15 minutes and left. I heard later that people had determined that I was either a genius, or had no clue what was going on. It was the latter; my first failing grade.

In one of my English exams I wrote a poem. This would not have been a problem had the exam not required me to compare and contrast two plays, only one of which I had actually read. Defeated and not even able to bullshit, I decided to perfect a poem I had been working on. My goal for this particular poem, and every poem I had written since I was 14 years old, was to make it as depressing as possible. I wanted the reader to feel every ounce of pain and hopelessness I felt.

It must have worked. My English professor called me into his office and requested that I see a counsellor. He was concerned about me. I’m not sure why this surprised me. Of course he would have thought the poem was a call for help. The last line, if I recall, said something like “she landed in death’s sweet arms”. Consciously, it was not; the poem was simply me not knowing how else to fill up the empty pages of my exam booklet. But I agreed to go to a counsellor nonetheless. As I left he told me that the writing was very good. He said that I should consider taking creative writing. I thanked him. I was secretly quite pleased, but of course, nothing more came of it. I didn’t sign up for creative writing. I could have. I had two years of general studies to complete before I was required to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, but writing was not even considered.

The counsellor was decidedly unhelpful, likely because I was a very unhelpful patient. She asked me all kinds of questions like “How can I help you?” which was met by my bewildered silence. Aren’t you supposed to know that? Isn’t that why I am here? I went once and didn’t return. I dropped out of university the following year.

To ensure that I was never in a situation again where someone would actually encourage my dream to be a writer, I decided never to show anyone my writing again. My writing was reserved for my private journals. In my recovery I felt compelled to write. It was as necessary as breathing. But when my first husband read my journal, I stopped writing all together.

There had been a few times where I had tried to write something, a story, the start of a novel. After one page I would tear it up and that would be that. Reading the words on the page was humiliating. They were absolutely terrible. Who did I think I was? It was pathetic. It was so devastating that I would it would be years before the next attempt.  It was “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron that invited me to start writing for myself again. But even though the entire book is devoted to people taming their creative demons, it wasn’t enough to coach my dream of being a writer to the surface. It stayed well hidden in the crevices of my heart, waiting.

I have come to believe that things happen when they should. If I did not feel compelled to honour this dream, then there was a reason. I have decided to trust that there is a wisdom that is guiding me. My job, simply, is to do my best to listen, to see and to feel the universe communicating its purpose for me. It is not always easy. There have been many a time I have requested a big booming voice telling me what I should do, what path I should take. Alas, I have never had the booming voice. My messages have been much more subtle, which can be crazy making at times.

But, at long last, the dream to write has come out of hiding and has risen to the surface to take her first breath. There are several people who were instrumental in coaxing her out of hiding: my mother, Dave (my partner in life) and Jeremy (my old soul).  With their encouragement, I have decided to write this blog; my tentative first steps. I know that there are likely thousands upon thousands of people who have written blogs that think nothing of it. Their decision was likely not momentous, nor profound. But for me, it was. Writing this blog is honouring my most precious of dreams for myself.

Once surfaced, what has allowed this dream to truly take hold was the most sacred gift of my life, the gift of my daughter. She was the only thing I had ever truly prayed for. When I was told that she would never come, that my body would not allow it, I fell into despair. Why? Why? I asked the universe this over and over. And then, at the most unlikeliest of times, a shaman whispered to me in a vision that she was there, a little bean in my womb. Her birth reminded me, with such force it left me breathless, that life is both sacred and temporary. In the first weeks after her birth, the thought that something might happen to her left me with a dread that sent a slow wave of dark sludge through my body. This terrible dread was a constant companion. A car would drive towards us as I walked on the sidewalk and I would imagine that it veered off the road and hit us. I heard a noise at might and imagined that someone was breaking in and wondered how I would protect her. I was convinced that if she died, I would not survive it.

The waves of dread have faded, but the awareness of our mortality has not. I had her when I was almost 41. There is a very real possibility that when she is my age, I may no longer walk this earth. My blog started out as a way to keep our family who live far away from us connected to us. I would write about the cute things our daughter does and says. But it has turned into something else. It is a chronicle of my life, my hero’s (heroine’s) journey. It is the most sacred gift that I can give to my daughter. No matter what, she will have these stories to help guide her in her life.

So I would like to thank all of you who read these words and are sharing this journey with me. I am deeply grateful for your support, your encouragement, your letters, and your comments. It has had a profound impact on me.

Connecting with the Mystery

My theory of the mystery of life has developed from a myriad of sources, which I have pieced together like a mosaic; my version of spirituality I suppose. I read recently that people who define themselves as “spiritual” rather than “religious” are more prone to depression and anxiety. That makes sense to me. Religion, from what I have observed, provides many people with comfort. If nothing else, religion gives people answers to tough questions. For the really tough questions, the answer is simple; don’t question, have faith.

But for people who have abandoned organized religion, they must answer those questions themselves, create their own meaning of life and death. The really tough questions may remain unanswered, which can be quite disconcerting. The search for those answers can lead to a deep sense of isolation and despair. I remember one moment of despair as I realized how truly alone I was in the world. No one except me would ever really know me; it was impossible.

For those who have the courage to persist through that darkness, however, and discover their own answers, are rewarded with a deep and unshakable sense of connectedness and unity with the world that is beyond description. As I contemplated my loneliness and wept with despair, a simple truth came to me. I am both alone and not alone. It is true that no other human will ever really know me, but I chose to believe that the mystery of this world did, knew everything and accepted me anyway, and this belief was comforting.

I suppose I could have simply accepted religion into my life, as I seem to have come to similar conclusions. There are those who don’t need to take that difficult path to discover their own answers, who are content to simply receive the teachings that that have been passed down for thousands of years. I, unfortunately, am not one of those people. I have to do things the hard way. I must find my own answers.

My conclusions about the mystery and magic of life are not well defined, but they all come from trying to understand and make sense of my own life, and my own experiences with that mystery. I have concluded that there are questions that cannot be answered. They are too complex to understand (for my little brain anyway). They require faith.

I decided to take that leap of faith when I was 21 when I determined that my life was intolerable. I allowed myself to believe that this mystery was wiser and more powerful than me, but also, that whatever it was, it was also loving. I felt its compassion and its love for lowly little me, and I surrendered to it. I allowed it to direct my life. I am convinced that it was that experience that was crucial to the transformation I experienced. Through that surrender, the person that I am now was created. I remember telling my friend Pat that when I was a teen I was certain that I would die when I was 21. I had had a dream about it and it was so vivid that I was convinced that my death was imminent. I was positive of it. Knowing my history he looked at me and said “But Julie you did experience a kind of death at 21. You completely transformed.” He was right.

Although I surrendered my life to whatever this mystery is, it doesn’t mean that I don’t, on a regular basis, try to re-assert my will. I think of it as allowing someone else to drive. I have been driving since I was 14 years old, which means that I am a terrible passenger. When I look down the road that we are driving towards I have a tendency to panic and try to take the wheel. “What are you thinking going down THAT path??? We are certainly NOT going down that one!”

This is the panic I feel whenever I get close to my dreams. It is a peculiar type of fear that makes me feel like a small child. When I was young I was quite shy (no one believes this but it is true!). There was a period of time where I hated trying anything new. The thought of walking into a strange room, full of strange people and not knowing what was going on filled me with dread. My parents, being good parents, signed me up for all kinds of classes. At one point it was too much. They had signed me up for a diving class. I refused to go. I couldn’t bear the thought of it. Then my Dad did something I will never forget. He offered to take the diving class with me. All my fear drained away. I was in awe of him. My dad would be there. It would be okay.

I had that same feeling when I decided that I was really going to pursue my crazy dream of being a singer. There was a tiny part of me that desperately wanted to do it, but the greater part was completely terrified. I was sure that I had a terrible voice, that I would humiliate myself if I tried. My Dad wasn’t there anymore to hold my hand. It was up to me to face these fears, all by myself.

The pivotal moment was when I went to visit my friend Jeremy, one of my favourite people in the whole world. He is a musician and I often went to his house and listened to him play guitar. I could listen to him play for hours. I had felt for a long time that he and I shared a unique connection, one I had never felt with anyone else. It was like our souls were connected. I decided that I would sing in front of him. I swallowed my terror, grabbed the microphone, and allowed my voice to be heard. I closed my eyes and concentrated on the sound, trying to stay in key and infuse the words with emotion. When I was done Jeremy said, “That was great Julie. You have a great voice.” It was the moment of truth. I could believe him or not. I was the type of person that had a difficult time accepting a compliment, distrusting people’s assessment of my skill or their motives. I decided to trust him; trust that he would not lie to me, would not say this simply to be polite. I believed him.

This simple act had unexpected consequences and led to moments of synchronicity that Julia Cameron described in “The Artist’s Way”. I was working as a social worker for the government at that time. My office was a bizarre mix of personalities. On my first day of work no one knew I was arriving. My new supervisor was away. One of the women helped me find a desk and took me out for coffee, where she explained that the office was full of crazy people, so I was either with her and the sane ones, or with the crazy ones and I had better choose. Pronto. Later that afternoon I was told the same thing by one of the crazy ones. I became friends with one of the few sane people I found, Wendy. She was my refuge and I adored her. That office was the last place I would ever expect an opportunity to sing. But one day Wendy, out of the blue, asked me if I would be interested in singing backup vocals in her band. I am sure my mouth dropped open in shock. But I accepted immediately.

I went to audition not long after, and was completely nervous. Here I would discover if Jeremy really had lied to me. I started to sing and quickly looked for any signs of a wince or a cringe on any of their faces. I saw none and started to relax. After the audition they welcomed me to the band. I was ecstatic. We practiced every week and played three shows together. It was the most fun I had ever had. I felt like a little puppy dog who had just been let off the leash; I wanted to sing more and more and more. I was in love with the experience.

But, as has happened before in my life, other things called to me. I had worked as a social worker for two years. It was stressful and often heartbreaking.  A career in child protection social work had an average shelf life of two years. I had just barely passed that mark. My dream career was to be a therapist. I saw myself having my own office,  with beautiful art on the walls, and helping people like I was at 21, helping them as my counsellor had helped me. The problems I would deal with would be manageable. That was the idea anyway.

There was only one program in Canada that offered the kind of graduate degree I was interested in. It was very competitive and only allowed 6 people per year. I applied and was accepted for a series of interviews. I flew to Guelph, Ontario for the interview. They offered me a spot a few months later. I accepted.

Although I was happy about the opportunity to further my career, I was not excited about the move. I had dreamed my whole life of living in Vancouver. After 8 years I still pinched myself, not quite believing I was really living there. I had never even wanted to visit Ontario. As I drove across the country to start a new life in Guelph, I was acutely aware of what I was leaving behind in Vancouver; friends, family, opportunities to sing and to act, and a city I was in love with. All I could do was have faith that I was on the path I was supposed to be on, and if I wasn’t, that I would be able to receive that message. It was a familiar anxiety, wondering if I was on the right path, whether I was listening to the mystery of the world or the sound of my own anxieties. Whatever it was, I was driving towards a new part of my life, having no idea where it would lead, but knowing that it would likely change everything.

Dream a little dream … Mid Life Crisis Part II

Life without dreams, I discovered at a young age, is a particular kind of hell. It is the kind of hell where all meaning is lost. Whether it is day or night has no significance, because they are both intolerable. There is nothing to look forward to, no point to existence. I had lived in that kind of hell in my early adulthood. I had dropped out of university after two tortuous years to work in the “real world” as a restaurant manager.  It didn’t take too many long nights of washing dishes to realize that my life pretty much sucked. I had no idea who I was. No clue what I wanted from life, or significantly, that you could want something out of life. More importantly, however, I didn’t know what life wanted from me. If this was all that life was, working at a moderately crappy job, going from terrible relationship to terrible relationship, than what was the point exactly? Before I would go to sleep I would quietly ask God to please take me back and let me start all over again. Hopefully the next time I wouldn’t be a massive disappointment.

The darkness and despair I felt was a signal, the discomfort meant to propel me to make drastic changes in my life. But change is, frankly, terrifying and I was having none of it. Instead I muddled around in the world, buying all of the self-help books I could find. I was searching for answers, but not too hard, because I was certain that the answers I found would be too difficult to bear. I had no doubt that if I were faced with the truth of myself, who I really was, it would suffocate me with its awfulness. It would choke me with shame.

I stayed in this uncomfortable ambivalence for many years. I was 21 years old, and miserable. Yet another boyfriend I had been madly in love was distancing himself from me. I could feel the desperation growing in me like a wild fire, needing to call him, needing to talk to him, needing him to know how I felt, needing to understand why. I knew that need would drive him away further, but it was fierce. I picked up a book instead, trying to make sense of this pattern of failed relationships. It was called “Leaving the Enchanted Forest” by Stephanie Covington. The only thing I remember is reading one line, and it almost knocking the breath out of me. I don’t remember it word for word, but the message was this: You cannot depend on others for your happiness. Your happiness is yours alone to create.

I had heard this probably millions of time before, but the words had always floated by and never really taken hold. This time, however, it shocked me with its truth. I realized that that was what I had been doing my entire life. I was only really happy if others (specifically a man) loved me. If he didn’t, I was deflated, absent, like all of who I was could escape with a simple exhale. With this appalling truth staring at me in the face, I decided that I would not be this woman any longer. I went to my room and looked at my phone. I knew that I needed help. I picked up the phone and put it down. I was crying with fear. I hung it up a second time. The third, however, was a success. The person who answered calmed me down, and I made an appointment. I was going to change my life.

I threw myself into recovery, determined to be honest above all else. I held nothing back. All of my shame came to the fore, and I realized, with relief, that it wasn’t powerful enough to kill me. With the help of others who witnessed all of it and accepted me anyway, I learned to accept myself. What I noticed, however, in this culture of recovery, is that many people who had been in recovery for years, were not really living. They were stuck in fear, always recovering. In recovery, their dreams came with a disclaimer.

“Please dream with caution as you are powerless and your dreams might be dangerous for your recovery. Don’t get too confident or sure of yourself. Remember. You are powerless over your (name addiction/weakness here).”

I noticed that recovery and survival were enough for many people. But it was not enough for me. I wanted to more. I didn’t want to just survive, I wanted to thrive. I had recovered my spirit and was eager to re-claim and discover who I was as a woman. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in recovery, attending meetings that reminded me of how powerless I was. I felt powerful. I wanted to taste life, to dive into its waters and learn its mysteries. I wanted to dream. I wanted adventure.

I decided to go on a vacation. It was my first real vacation while working as a restaurant manager. I was really excited because I had decided to go to Club Med for one simple reason, I had always wanted to learn to water ski. Growing up in land locked Calgary, Alberta had meant that things like water skiing had been out of my reach. It was a crazy dream I had had since I was little, and I was going to honour it. I picked a Club that had an abundance of water sports: scuba diving, sailing, water skiing. My mother, who has supported me throughout my life, and does still, gave me enough so that I could stay for two weeks. I was so excited.

I arrived in Mexico and threw myself into every activity. I water-skied every single day. I learned to sail. I took tennis lessons. I learned to scuba dive. I danced all night long. I met loads of people. The people who worked there were the friendliest people I had ever met and they came from all over the world. At the end of my first week it dawned on me. These people actually work in this place! This is their JOB. Every morning they wake up to go to work and this is what they see. This is what they do. This is AMAZING.

I realized something. I wanted this life. Just the thought of it felt delicious and dangerous.

When I came home I told my parents that I had made a major life decision. I am positive that they were hoping that I had learned that the “real world” wasn’t so great and I would go back to university where I belonged. When I had dropped out of university a few years before, it was with the promise that I would return. They had informed me, very seriously, that when people drop out of university they never go back. Dropping out of university, would, therefore, be the worst decision I could ever make. It would negatively impact the rest of my life. All of that potential from the brains in my head would be wasted. I dropped out anyway and promised that I would be the exception.

When I told them, instead, that I was going to be a scuba diving instructor and work for Club Med, I was prepared for my dad, especially, to lose it. I wasn’t disappointed. But strangely enough, when the shock wore off, they both supported me. Coincidentally the very first instructor’s course was just starting up in Alberta. If there hadn’t been one, I doubt I would ever have followed through. My parents paid for me to complete my training, which took about 9 months.

In my instructor’s class I found others, like me, who had become disillusioned with life. A few were lawyers.  What we all shared was the desire for something more from life than what we woke up to, day after day. We were all searching for what that something more might be. We all dreamed of waking up to beautiful sunshine and sandy beaches every morning. In the meantime, however, the actual training was brutal. My first open water dive was in a glacier lake outside of Banff, Alberta. The water was so cold we had to keep surfacing to warm up the regulators so they would work properly.

I dove in water that was in the process of freezing while I was in it. It was one of our last dives in Alberta, before we did our exam dives in British Columbia. It was about minus 30 degrees Celsius outside, even colder with the wind chill. We were all moving quite slowly, not really believing that our instructor, Don, would actually make us dive in water this freezing. After watching us dawdle for a period of time, Don called us together. Instead of a pep talk, he let us have it. “You people are the biggest whiny children I have ever seen! This is the easiest fucking dive you are ever going to do! Now get off your fucking ass and get in the fucking water!” We all stood frozen in shocked silence. We had never seen him lose control before. He had always been so happy and cheerful, in a used-car dealer kind of way.

I got dressed more quickly, but his reproach did not change the fact that I dreaded getting into that water. The air was so cold that steam was coming off of the water, even though it was at the point of freezing. As grumpy as I was, there was a sliver of hope. I had noticed that Don was almost a bigger wimp than me when it came to the cold.

As soon as I got to the bottom I started inhaling as deeply as I could, practically hyperventilating, so that I could use all of my air quickly and be forced to return to the surface. I didn’t need to. My hunch about Don’s ability to adapt to the cold was correct. He signaled to us to go up to the surface within ten minutes. We crammed into the back of someone’s van, trying to remove frozen solid gloves from fingers that could barely move. I would have glared at Don had I not been so grateful to be out of that water. 

After I passed my exams, and was certified as an instructor, I applied to work at Club Med. They called me within a few weeks. I flew to New York for an interview. A few weeks after that I was on a plane, leaving my life behind and flying to Sonora, Mexico, to work as a scuba diving instructor in Club Med.

I had dreamed a dream that was totally and completely mine. It was not my parent’s dream, not the women’s programmed “get married and have children” dream. This dream was utterly and entirely mine. And I had made it come true, with help of course. For the first time, I was excited by what life held in store for me. I had crawled out of the darkness that was my life for 21 years and emerged transformed by that experience. It was surrendering and connecting to something greater than me that allowed it to happen. I hadn’t defined what that was, hadn’t named it, and had no desire to. I simply felt a loving and compassionate presence in my life. That presence helped me to heal and encouraged me to have the courage to stand up for my life, for my dreams. It helped me believe that anything really was possible. I felt certain that whatever that presence was, it was partly responsible for me being there, on that plane, flying into the unknown possibilities of my life. I was incredibly grateful and excited.

Almost a decade later, at 30, I faced another existential crisis as I faced my own mortality. What helped me through it was recovering my dreams, dreams that were precious to me. One was acting, and the other, singing. I knew, from experience, that the key to recovering meaning in my life was to reach out for my dreams, to start a new adventure. I reached out to the universe to ask for help. Help this crazy rock star dream come true. And just like Julia Cameron warned in her book “The Artist’s Way”, there is a reason that people say “Be careful what you wish/pray for, it might come true.”

Stay tuned for the next installment

Mid life crisis Part I

It was when I turned 30 that it hit me: I actually had dreams. If I didn’t get off my ass and do something about them they would die with me, unrealized. It’s not like my dreams had any semblance of reality; rock star and famous actress were the two most prominent, but to my surprise, I discovered that they were very important to me. The time for protecting them was over. It was time to do something.  With my impending old age came a sense of urgency. I had to do something about them NOW. But what exactly?

I knew that the likelihood of becoming a rock star or famous actress was slight. Okay impossible. But the impossibility of the fantasy didn’t mean that I couldn’t honour the spirit of those dreams: I dreamt of performing. When I had been in high school I hadn’t taken drama, hadn’t joined the choir. Instead I took a full load of academic subjects and learned to play the flute. By the time I had enough spares to actually take drama my interest in school was replaced with an all-consuming awareness of boys, parties and music. I quit taking piano and flute lessons. I spent hours in my room listening to music with my mother occasionally entering my domain to tell me to turn it down.

I dyed my hair black, wore black makeup and black clothes. School bored me to tears. My grades started to slip. I spent most of my classes writing out Pink Floyd lyrics and writing poetry filled with angst. My teachers became concerned that I had mental health problems. They were probably right.

Now that I was turning 30, those dreams from my youth came rushing back, demanding to be heard. “How does one go about doing these things as an adult?” I wondered. I looked through the adult education pamphlets for the local college but there was nary a class entitled “How to be a Rock Star”. It was at that time that I first picked up Julia Cameron’s book “The Artist’s Way.” The book has twelve chapters; each with a weekly theme and exercises designed to help unleash one’s creativity and deal with the demons that can get in the way.

A repeated message in the book is the proverb “Leap, and the net will appear.” The readings, daily writing and weekly exercises taught me to trust that if I took a step towards my dreams the “how” would work itself out like magic. Jung called it synchronicity – the magic that happens when you reach out to the universe with your dreams and the universe responds with a series of coincidences that help you on your path. I decided to take the risk and reach out to the universe with my dreams of acting and singing. This is how the universe responded.

My friend Julie was doing her master’s degree in social work. She asked for my help with one of her school projects. She needed to film a session with a client where she would showcase her skills doing a particular type of therapy. I was to be the client.  I read from the script and tried to make it look as authentic as possible. The next week she told me that her classmates had raved about my performance; that I made it seem like a real session. She then pulled out a newspaper with an advertisement circled. A community theatre company in the North Shore had put out a call for auditions for the play “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” I could feel my heart skip with excitement. I had read the book and seen the movie. It would be too amazing for words to get a part. I looked more closely at the ad. It said that the audition would be “improv”. I had no idea what that meant. Julie, worldlier than I, explained that improv would mean that I would not read from a script. I would have to improvise. She insisted that I go to the audition. Synchronicity.

Julia Cameron talked about this exact situation in her book. She warned the reader that these experiences of synchronicity could be incredibly disarming. We don’t expect the universe to respond to our tiny little dreams knocking on the door. We expect to be rejected, to be ignored. When we aren’t, when the universe opens the door and hands us exactly what we have asked, most of us will run screaming. Knowing that fear was an expected response, I remembered my own mantra: there is no courage without fear. I wasn’t just scared. I was terrified to go to this audition. Who did I think I was? I had never acted in a play in my life, never taken a drama class. I had no idea what I was doing. But I was determined that fear would not take these dreams away from me.

With Julie’s encouragement, I decided to go to the audition. It was at a college in the North Shore. I had never been there. I had always been strangely petrified of getting lost at a big school. When I went to University the first time I would drop a class if it was in a building I wasn’t familiar with, rather than risk getting lost. After twenty minutes of driving up the wrong street, I realized that I was completely lost. I started to talk to myself; a sure sign I was in full-blown panic. “This is a sign that you shouldn’t be doing this! You are going to be late. This is terrible. Oh my God you are a complete idiot. Watch where you’re going!” The part of my brain that preferred not to die in a car accident tried to calm me down. I told myself that if I just made it to the parking lot, then I could turn around and go back home. I would be proud of myself just for getting to the parking lot. I finally found the parking lot and parked the car. I wasn’t even late. I sat in the car, trying to decide whether to turn around and go home or get out of the car. I could hear my heart racing. My hands shook. Every thought that raced through my brain told me to go the fuck home already.

Instead, I took the keys out of the ignition and opened the door. I immediately saw some young men walking towards the college. I was so panicked that I was sure they could tell, just by looking at me, that I had no idea what I was doing and should not, under any circumstances, be there. I was a fraud of the biggest order. They could probably smell my fear. I tried to shrink so that they wouldn’t notice me. Of course they came right up and started talking to me. “Do you have any idea how to get to the audition?” My mother’s training, so engrained it was instinctual, took over (thank God). I politely said, “I have absolutely no idea actually. I’m lost too.” I smiled. They started walking with me. “We’ll all find it together!” They were friendly and charming. I started to relax.

We found our way inside and were given cards that told us what we would have to do in our improv. My card said that I was in labour with my first child but had not yet told my husband that the real father was not him, but a black man. My goal for the improv was to leave wherever we were and fly home. Good God. Normally, panic would have been delighted at yet another chance to make an appearance, but it was no match for the charm and friendliness of the men I was now talking and laughing with. By the time it was my turn for the audition I had never felt so at ease. I walked into the room and tried to remember everything I had ever seen about women in labour from television. When I was preparing, I had tried to picture how the scenario would unfold, with the little information I had. What I had pictured happening in my mind, however, was not at all how it unravelled with all of the characters together.  There was a point where my “husband” and the “nurse” were almost coming to blows, one trying to get me admitted and the other turning us away, saying the hospital was closed. I interrupted their argument with a contraction. Then I turned to my “husband” and begged him to take me home. I told him that I was so grateful for everything he was doing, but that all I wanted was to go home. I looked him in the eyes imploringly. I was tender. I think I even touched his cheek. Inside I was thinking, “He has no idea that he is about to be betrayed. Poor guy!” He stared at me for a minute and agreed. I will always remember his eyes in that moment. And then it was over. I never saw either of them again.

I don’t even remember the rest of the day. I was high from the adrenaline of that experience. I felt like I was floating. I found out later that one of the keys to improv is to say yes to whatever happens. Always say yes. The hospital is closed when you need to be admitted? Yes it is! Well can’t we take that helicopter right behind you? Of course we can! I thought that that was pretty good advice for real life too. Say yes to what life throws at you. At least at the end you’ll have a lot of good stories.   

The next day I got the call. They offered me a part. I was dumbfounded and thanked them profusely. It took me a few minutes to realize that the part I was going to play was Candy, the prostitute. My very first part, and I would play a lady of the night. What could be more perfect than that?

Stay tuned for the next installment!

My Quest – Part II of Taking a Leap of Faith

Julian looked me in the eyes but we did not speak. I knew he had no doubts that I would be able to do this. Another member of our group, a young man, had been talking for days about how he didn’t think he could handle three days in the wilderness. He was certain that he would panic and have to return to camp. I was shocked by his fear. He had always seemed overly confident in his abilities and slightly disdainful when people couldn’t keep up. I had never considered that I might give up and return back to camp. But I, unlike him, had learned how to appreciate my own company. It wasn’t the loneliness that worried me.

I met Julian’s stare and smiled. I didn’t say good-bye and I didn’t look back. I walked up the mountain feeling a mixture of calm and nerves. In my backpack was a small fleece blanket, a pair of rain pants and jacket, a small piece of rope, a carabiner, a journal, some incense and a lighter. That was it. No food, no water, no tent, no sleeping bag. My first task was to find a suitable location to spend three days in the mountains with no shelter.

Julian had told us how he had done his quest, years ago. The purpose was to rid one’s self of all distractions. No food, no water, little movement, little clothing, and no sleep. I wasn’t at all confident in my ability to purge myself of all of these comforts. The two I was certain I would need help with was staying awake and staying warm. As I walked up the hill I whispered “Please help me stay warm. Please help me stay awake.”

About halfway up the slope of the mountain I found a spot. It was fairly flat and sunny, but with some shade from the trees. I found some rocks and made my circle. One rock facing east, one south, one west, and one north. The circle was large enough to lie down in if I curled up in the fetal position. Once I stepped into the circle, I would not leave until Julian called for us all three days later. I would spend two nights on that mountain, sitting in that circle. I stepped in, sat down, and looked out over the prairies, my view for the next three days. I tried to prepare for the battles that lay ahead: the battle with my stomach who would want food; the battle with my throat that would want water; the battle with my body that would want sleep; and the battle with my mind that would want to give up.

I watched the sun move across the sky. It started in the east. I lit incense when it moved to the south and when it set in the west. When I tired of sitting, I stood up and sang the songs that Julian had taught us. My favourite was the warrior woman song. I sang it over and over. One of the elders had told us that this solo was a sacred rite of passage. When we returned from the mountain a part of us would be left behind to allow a new part to emerge. Traditionally it had been a child that would go alone into the wilderness, and return to the community as an adult. We had talked about what rites of passage we celebrate, officially or not, in our culture. Many of them were not terribly sacred; getting drunk, losing one’s virginity, getting a driver’s license, graduating from high school. For me this rite of passage was sacred. It was time for the part of me who was childlike and lived in fear to be replaced by the wise warrior woman. It was time for me to grow up.

When I stopped singing I sat down. I remembered what Julian had told us about how he handled the boredom; he sent a message of gratitude to every person he had ever met in his life. I started by thanking the mystery that is this universe, what they called Great Spirit or Creator. I thanked the people that were closest to me for all that they had done for me. As I did, tears streamed down my face. I felt so much love and appreciation. I sent messages of love to my grandmother who had died when I was a young woman and completely messed up. She had never seen me come out the other side, but I felt her presence at that moment. I thanked people who I had not seen in years. I thanked the people that had hurt me, for the truth was that I wouldn’t be the person I was without that suffering, and I was proud of who I was, who I was becoming.

Right before night fell I started to hear rustling in the trees and bushes around me. Julian had told me about pack rats in the mountains but I had never seen one until that night. They peered at me from behind the trees. They had a rat’s face, but a squirrel’s tail. They did not fear me at all. One of them ate the rope that was holding my backpack to a tree and stole my carabiner. I took a step outside of my circle to rescue my pack.

I had been wondering how the mystery of this world would help me to stay awake. Now I knew. Pack rats. As it got darker, they started to come towards me. I couldn’t believe it. They were trying to climb right up on me! I thought animals were supposed to be afraid of humans! I spent the next several hours on guard, waiting for them to come into my circle and then shooing them away. Bernard, a member of our group, had found a spot within hearing distance. Just as the pack rats started invading him space he heard me yelling frantically, “Shoo!!! Get away from me! Shoo!!!” He thought that was quite hilarious.

As the pack rats finally left me alone I looked up at the sky. There were millions of stars. They covered the sky with their brilliance. I was completely in awe and watched the moon and the stars slowly move across the sky for hours. I had never spent a night awake under the sky. It was magnificent.  As I watched I marveled at the fact that the moon, what the elders called “Grandmother”, had a direct influence on the rhythm of my body; my moon cycle. I had never really thought about that before, the impact something so far away had on the part of my body responsible for conception, for creating new life. I had never felt so connected to something in my life as I did to the moon that night. She was my grandmother. She was watching over me, protecting me. Even though it was the middle of the night, and I had only my small fleece blanket wrapped around my shoulders, I felt cozy under her gaze. I had heard later that they had been cold in the camp below, but I felt warm.

I lit my incense as the sun rose in the east. My body was taking notice of the lack of food and water. Their absence impacted me in subtle ways. At times I felt a strange kind of peace that I imagined one might feel when death was very near. I lay down with my knees bent. I smelt the leaves from the wild strawberry plants. It gave me comfort. What I felt most profoundly, though, was how the earth supported the weight of my body. Julian had talked to us about the Gaia principle, that the earth is an actual organism; mother earth. I felt that, the earth was cradling me. She was there fore me, nurturing me, there was nothing to fear. I realized that even though people may have let me down, abandoned me, hurt me, the earth would always be there. If I felt alone I could always seek connection and comfort the soil, the trees, the moon and the stars, the living world around me I had always taken for granted.

That night as I was fighting off the pack rats who were determined to eat the very clothes I was wearing, I heard something crashing through the bush towards me. I froze. I was sure it was a bear. Traditionally part of the purpose of the vision quest was to meet one’s spirit guide, an animal. I had hoped that mine would not be a pack rat. Although I thought that having a bear for a spirit guide would be incredibly cool, I prayed that it was not a bear running straight for me. I looked up and out of the trees came a gigantic buck. He stopped only a few feet away. I held my breath. He lifted his head and antlers and I could see his breath. He was majestic. Right at that very moment a packrat, sensing my sudden lack of vigilance, took the opportunity to jump and landed right on top of my head. I fought a scream but it was too late. The buck leaped back into the forest and was gone. I savoured that moment when it felt like the buck and I were the only two beings in the entire world. It felt important somehow, and I wanted it to sink into my bones, my blood, become a part of me.

The next morning I lit my incense as the sun rose in the east. I was impatient for Julian’s call. The second I heard him I packed up my things and walked back to camp, where a feast awaited us. The young man who was sure that he would not make it, had returned to camp the first night and kept watch over the fire that they kept burning the whole time we were in the wild. I returned from the mountain a woman. I may not have rid myself of all of my fears, but I had a powerful ally. My warrior woman had awakened. She is the one who helps me to fight for my dreams. Over the next years of my life I needed her fierce encouragement, for reaching out for my dreams has been both the scariest and the most rewarding thing I have ever experienced.

Stay tuned for the next installment!

Aside: The solo is offered as part of the adult programming at ghostriverrediscovery.com out of Calgary, Alberta.

The Story of Maya’s Birth

Image

People’s reactions to learning that I was planning on having a natural birth varied. A lot of people thought it courageous (read naive) to choose to endure that kind of pain. I had heard the horror stories about the intense pain, seen the women on television blaming their husbands as they screamed in agony. It did not look like a lot of fun. I was admittedly anxious about the pain.

I was intentionally choosing the more difficult path. Why? There were several complex and inter-related reasons. One was that I wanted to be fully present for every second of Maya’s birth. I wanted to feel all of it. I did not want any barriers the first second that I met my daughter and I worried that any drug to help with pain would have the side effect of impacting my awareness, my perceptions. The second was that the alternatives scared me more, notably the big ass needle they insert into your spine if you choose an epidural.

The most influential reason, however, was that I had long ago made a commitment to myself to use my life to answer the question that most plagued me: Who was I really, when it came down to it? What was I made of? The period of time in my life where I explored this answer most deeply was when I spent four months living in the wilderness and learning about the traditional practices of the first peoples of the area surrounding the Canadian Rocky Mountains. It was a pilot program called “Guiding Spirit” which was offered once during my undergraduate degree. When I read the pamphlet describing it, I couldn’t believe it. It was like someone had constructed a course based on exactly what I had wanted to learn. It was described as a program to create “renaissance youth workers” able to use wilderness skills, experiential education, and aboriginal traditional practices to help at risk youth.

I spent four months of the summer of 2000 living in a tent with a group of people I likely would never have met. There were people from all over Canada, Innu from Labrador, First Nations from Western and Eastern Canada, Metis, and non-aboriginal people like me. One of the premises of Guiding Spirit was that you cannot teach something you have not learned yourself. Asking people to change meant asking them to face their own fears. Therefore there were several opportunities for us to face our own deepest fears; to learn profound lessons about ourselves. The invitations were there, but it was up to each person to decide whether or not they would accept it.

The purpose of exposing us to wilderness adventures was that the wilderness offers unique opportunities for self-discovery and change. It is very difficult to hold on to one’s masks and shields in the wild. Stripped of all of your defenses, you are faced with the reality of who you really are. Once “naked”, Guiding Spirit utilized traditional healing practices like the sweat lodge, and modern practices like mindfulness meditation and yoga, to help us rebuild and reclaim our preferred selves.

Over the first two months, we had been doing progressively longer and more difficult hikes in the wilderness. They were often brutal. As I took step after step, hiking up these ridiculously high mountains, I started to notice some unpleasant things about myself. When the hikes got difficult, the thoughts rolling around in my head became incredibly whiny and vile. “I hate this, this is so stupid! Why did I sign up for this? I wish I was home. I can’t do this. It’s too hard. Why doesn’t anybody care? I bet no one would even notice if I just stopped. No one likes me. I’m fat. I’m disgusting. No one loves me. I hate this.” I didn’t like the person that was reflected in those thoughts. She was filled with fear and despair. It disturbed me that this was a part of who I was.

During one meditation session those same thoughts intruded in on my focus. The thoughts became more and more bizarre and alarming. I started to wonder if this really was me. If it was, did that mean that I was crazy? Unstable? Or worse, a terrible human being? It was right at this moment that one of our guides said “Remember, your thoughts are not your self. Your thoughts are not your self.”

“My thoughts are not me? Oh thank GOD!” I thought with relief. From that point on, I became more aware that I was separate from my thoughts and my emotions, including my fears, anxieties, depression. They were not me. Knowing this was crucial because it allowed me just enough separation from my thoughts and feelings to be able to decide whether or not to claim them as my own. I was able to look at my fear of the pain of birth with a degree of detachment. I observed my anxiety and fear with curiosity, but did not let them decide for me.

There was one particular time in Guiding Spirit that was pivotal to my decision to have a natural birth. We had completed two of the four months and were about to embark on two very challenging wilderness trips that would last many weeks. To mark the passage from the first phase to the next, we were to do a “solo”, which is a version of a traditional vision quest, where young men and women would go alone into the wilderness for four days as a rite of passage into adulthood. Our solo would last three.

We could choose how challenging we wanted the solo to be. I decided that I would make mine relatively easy. I would sacrifice food, and once that was decided, I gave it no more thought. As the solo was approaching the other guide sat down with us. His demeanor was serious. I sat up taller and paid attention to what he was saying. He said that he had heard that many of us were treating the solo as a kind of camping trip. I have never forgotten his next words. “I know that some of you are here to learn deep lessons about who you are, what you are meant to do in this world. But if you want to learn those lessons, you will have to challenge yourself. You will have to push yourself beyond where you are comfortable going. It is your choice, but you cannot learn the lessons you are here to learn without facing your deepest fears. ” His challenge to us was both gentle and stern.

“Damn him!” I thought. He was right. And worse, he saw right through me. I was the one who had said most vocally that I wanted to learn who I really was at the core. What was I made of? I was obsessed with movies where the main character faced a pivotal moment where being a hero could mean certain death. Would they retreat and save themselves or take a stand knowing it may mean their death? Which was I? How would I know this if I had never faced my own fears? The solo was an opportunity to find out. Only then would I discover the profound lessons I had committed to learning.

And so it was with childbirth. It scared me. No matter how many people you talk to, you cannot know what it will be like. But what I did know is that I had faced my fears before and prevailed. Women all over the world since the beginning of time had given birth and survived. I had their collective wisdom and courage to rely on. I knew that the contractions were temporary; a few minutes at most. Then there would be relief: a small, delicious break. I felt confident that I could withstand any pain for those few minutes.

I also knew that it was the fear of pain that was the real enemy. Fear would speak to me and try to chip away at my resolve, just as it did during my most difficult times in the wilderness. “You can’t do this, it’s too hard. It’s too painful. You won’t be able to bear it.” I would need to prepare for this. I learned that there would be a time that I would be vulnerable to give in to that voice. Importantly, when I reached the point that I wanted to give up, it also signified that the end of the labour was near, and the pushing would begin. I knew that it was at that moment where I would need Dave and our doula’s support the most. I knew I would likely not be strong enough.

Our birth plan was as few medical interventions as possible. When it got to the point that I was ready to give up, Dave and our doula were instructed to take over for me, no matter how much I pleaded, to support my commitment to the plan I had made when my resolve was strong. I may hate them at that moment, but that I would thank them later, just as Ulysses instructed his crew to tie him to the mast of his boat, over his protests, to help him withstand the sirens’ call, whose song was so seductive that it lured sailors to their deaths. In my mind, the offer of drugs to ease my pain was the sirens’ call.

The contractions started at about 9:00 p.m. the night before Good Friday. They were completely erratic. Twenty minutes apart, then five, then fifteen. Dave was certain they were Braxton Hicks (false contractions). I was not so sure.

At 10:00 p.m. he was ready for bed. As he was getting under the covers he said, “Just wake me up if they get stronger. I’m sure it’s a false alarm.” I gave him “the look”; the “are you fucking joking?” look. He quickly got out from under the covers. We phoned our doula at about 11:00 p.m. She suggested taking a bath. If the contractions stopped, it was likely pre-labour. If they didn’t, we were in for a long night. I had a bath and the contractions became more regular. I realized that this was really happening. Holy shit!

I followed the instructions of my 1970’s natural birth book and lay down on our bed, in as comforting a position as I could. I focused all of my energy on relaxing every muscle in my body, to allow my body to do its work. Dave rubbed my back and my legs and murmured gentle words of encouragement, just as we had practiced. He was perfect. I settled into my body and focused on my breathing, and on being as relaxed as I could. At 2:00 a.m. our doula arrived. Within an hour the contractions were only a few minutes apart. We decided we should go to the hospital. The book had warned us not to go to the hospital if I was still relatively calm and relaxed, which I was, as that was a sign that I was not yet at the next stage. But the contractions were so close we ignored the book and left for the hospital.

When we arrived we had to wait for the labour room to be ready. We told the nurse we were having a natural birth. She responded by saying that she was required to inform us that an epidural was an available option. She explained it in detail, and then asked if I wanted an intravenous. I did not. The books I had read suggested that this first of many possible hospital interventions had the potential for a domino effect, leading to more and more interventions, with the end result an increase in the chance of needing a caesarean section.

When they checked me I had dilated only three centimeters, and my contractions had slowed right down. I was sure I had been further along. The damn book was right! My labour, which had gone so swimmingly at home, slowed right down in the hospital, which I was told happened often.

When we finally got our room, Dave and I settled into the work of getting me through the contractions, which was a kind of pain I had never experienced before and can’t even begin to describe. Not unbearable, but definitely unpleasant. As the intensity increased, I started to rely on Dave more and more to help me get through them. As I felt them coming on I would face him, put my arms around him and lean on him. He held me weight and together we would rock from side to side, our weight shifting from one foot to the other, until they subsided. It would have looked like romantic slow dancing if you ignored my groans. As they got more severe I would almost throw him from side to side and was quite irate if he wasn’t rocking “properly”.

Dave was amazing. I could not have done this without him. I completely depended on him to get me through this and he did not let me down. Our doula was also incredible. She was our “birth coach” and she was masterful at coaching Dave, helping him to be a support to me. Everyone was so encouraging. I think Dave and I both needed those messages “You’re doing great. You can do this. We’re so proud of you.” I felt like Dave and I were children starting our first day of school, half excited and half terrified. Our doula and all of the medical staff were our parents, telling us how great we were doing.

There came a point where the nurse assigned to us wanted to hurry us along. It had been hours and I had only dilated to 6 centimetres. I didn’t want to be “sped up” just for the sake of it, but I was getting tired. I allowed them to break my water and then we waited to see if that would help. It didn’t. The nurse said she had an effective and natural way to get me fully dilated. I agreed, but was completely unprepared for it. She had me lie on my side with my legs curled up. When the contraction came she squeezed me into a foetal position. While I had, until then, maintained composure, at that point I lost all decorum. Dave said that my screams sounded like I was being tortured. I was a panicked animal clawing at the rails of the bed, trying to grab on to Dave’s hand, trying to escape that pain. There was no escape. This was when I was ready to give up. I was spent. I said “I can’t do this anymore.” The nurse asked if I wanted anything for the pain. My wonderful Dave, just as we had planned, immediately said (quite forcefully I might add) “No we talked about this. She doesn’t want anything.” “Damn,” I thought, “I taught him too well!” But I was proud of him. He was my rock. I could count on him.

As much as I hated this nurse and her sadistic torture methods, it did work. After the third contraction, accompanied with my blood curdling screams, I felt a compulsion to push. I was fully dilated and ready to go. By this time I had been in labour for about 14 hours and was exhausted. I closed my eyes and rested.

All of a sudden our room was filled with doctors and nurses, all scurrying around, preparing for the actual birth. The contractions were totally different now – there was an undeniable need to push. The doctor checked me and discovered that Maya’s head was not facing up. Without any warning, he reached up and shifted her. Another blood curdling scream, but it was over in seconds. The nurse, ignoring my screams, looked at him in awe, telling me “He is just SO good. A magician!”

They put a mirror by my feet so that I could see Maya’s head crown. After one push I could see her head. I couldn’t believe it. I had closed my eyes for the final, huge push, the doctors and nurses screaming at me “You can do it just one more! Don’t stop now you can do it!” I didn’t get to see her, but felt her slither out of my body as her head and shoulders were finally freed. I did, unfortunately, look at the mirror after that, which I do not recommend, particularly if the sight of blood makes you queasy. “Can someone please move that mirror? You are going to traumatize me!” The doctors were amazed that this was my first birth, as she was born in a half an hour after the first push.

I could still feel the weight in my belly, while they took Maya to wrap her up. When the placenta was delivered I finally felt relief. It was glorious. A belly with nothing in it but intestines again! Praise the Lord! Then they put Maya on my chest. I was so stunned that she was actually born that I didn’t even notice that they had wrapped her. I had wanted us to bond skin on skin. Dave was weeping uncontrollably. Maya, on the other hand, didn’t make a sound. I had thought that babies normally cry when they are born, but Maya was curiously silent. She lay on my chest, calmly looking up at us. I had expected her to look rather alien like, after being squished through the birth canal, but to me she looked relatively un-squashed; a beautiful little baby. I was so in awe that I completely forgot to count her little fingers and toes.

The nurses took her to weigh her. She was 6 lbs and 9 ounces and 18 inches long. Our doula had to remind us to take photos. Dave tried to focus the camera through his tears. When they brought her back to me our doula tried to get her to breast feed, but Maya wasn’t interested. She just looked up at us and us at her. We were all mesmerized. When we got into the room we would be in for the night, we tried to breast feed again. This time she latched on with no problem and started nursing. I couldn’t believe that I had this perfect little baby in my arms, and it was my own body that was providing her with sustenance. It was surreal. The love I felt for her was beyond words. I was so grateful. I thanked the universe, and the mystery that is our world, for this tiny miracle; this perfect little baby. I was her mother.

It was then that Dave and I realized how utterly exhausted we were; and, more importantly, that our lives were magnificently, and forever, changed.

Our first family photo minutes after Maya's birth

Our first family photo minutes after Maya’s birth