With International Women’s Day on the horizon, I am forced to have a deeper look at my self-identity as a fierce defender of women’s rights. Before my third child transitioned to a boy, I spoke of empowering women and gender equity until I was blue in the face. I purposefully worked with women clients and spent my dollars in women ran businesses. But having two sons today has opened my eyes to so much more than my own experience of “being a woman in a man’s world”.
Last month, my husband and I cuddled up with our two sons and fresh popcorn to watch the Grammy awards. My heart was warm and fuzzy when the opening included five powerful women—Lady Gaga, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Alicia Keyes, Michelle Obama, and Jennifer Lopez. They each spoke about what music meant to them, ending with “Tonight we celebrate the greatness in each other through music.” And then Alicia Keys said, “Who runs the world?” and I shout back to the television “Girls!” almost jumping out of my skin with fervor.
My youngest son quietly responded, “I don’t like feminism.”
My son. The offspring of the Wonder Woman idolizing, once Women Talk co-director, card-carrying feminist warrior just said he doesn’t like feminism?! I think my husband actually recoiled to save himself. But seriously, this taught me that I needed to not only define things for my son, but for myself as well.
Feminism is definitely getting a bad rap these days especially among Millennials and Conservatives with traditional gender role values. Some women born into a society that already allows the right to vote, own property, get a job and have access to birth control view feminism as an unnecessary plot to devalue and denigrate men. That is not what feminism means to me. While we are miles ahead of where we used to be, women still often earn less than men, hold fewer senior management positions, and own less of the world’s wealth. Compound all that by the fact that women are more likely to pause their careers to raise children and take care of aging parents. Compared with a man with no workforce interruptions, the average woman cumulatively has earned $1.06 million less by the time she hits retirement age. That’s an enormous wealth gap. That is why I am still a feminist.
This was where my conversation with my eleven-year-old son began. A fish doesn’t know it is swimming in water. My son, like most men, doesn’t know the privilege he enjoys. It is difficult for him to realize that at such a young age. I gave him the example of being allowed to walk to Seven Eleven alone, but I never would have let his sisters go alone in grade six. From his point of view, my son feels that he didn’t ask to be treated special, but more than that, he feels that he doesn’t matter when I celebrate women and girls. We are asking a whole new generation of fish to evolve and breathe air on land. Of course, there will be pain and push back for them! They were happy in the water, we dragged them out!
I am going to be very frank. When my third child came out as a transgender boy, I felt like he was crossing the aisle. I wanted a little feminist warrior working alongside me and I had a tiny bit of resentment that, by becoming a boy, he would enjoy the same male privilege as his younger brother. Privilege I never had. I’ve grown and changed quite a bit since he came out. Thank God! And this has also changed my view on the gender binary and gender equality. I hear what the anti-feminists are saying in terms of not wanting to denigrate men. We don’t need to make someone else wrong to make us right. This is not about right or wrong, good or bad, it has always been about the fact that everyone matters. So, I am changing my language. I now stand for gender compassion. Compassion for women who are striving to have access to all that matters most to them. Compassion for men who are learning to adapt to a new society where they may have to yield access. Compassion for gender non-conforming people who have a right to take up their own space too.
While I am saluting all of my women friends, sister, daughters on International Women’s Day, I am also sending love out to our men who are making an effort to shed their toxic masculinity and love to anyone who doesn’t identify with the prescribed gender binary.
It was meant to be a relaxing bookend to a glorious day. We headed to the hot tub right after dinner, our tummies full and my muscles loose from the heavy pour on my one glass of wine. Though the evening temperature was mild, we had played in the snow chasing moose for photographs most of the day and were ready to melt into the bubbling waters under the starry sky.
When we got to the hot tub, nine of the twelve spots were occupied by young, giggling, gossiping women and my hopes for a relaxing soak instantly vanished. I sat Anderson on my lap, so we could all fit. The young ladies decided to head to the indoor pool instead. I was relieved as they departed one by one and only two remained.
The girl who sat in the corner proceeded to explain why she would not leave the heat of the hot tub, “the pool is too cold, and my leg muscles cramp up. I need the heat.”
“I don’t like cold pools either,” I replied.
She avoided eye contact, though I sensed she was talking directly to me. “I have a disability, it’s hard for me to walk. I’m also small for my age but I’m going to be sixteen soon. I’m a Halloween baby. Well, actually, born November 1st. This bathing suit is a size 8 even though I’m almost sixteen.” She barely took a breath between each staccato sentence. Her hands fidgeted with the bead at the end of the tie of her bathing suit.
Rod and the boys stayed silent and turned towards each other almost to create a bubble around themselves from the onslaught of conversation. They didn’t speak because the girl’s silence was never held for more than a millisecond.
The girl continued to tell me about her family—a family constellation that sounded very familiar—a step-father and a biological father, cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents from the step-father side of the family, and her mom, the one who bought her the size 8 bathing suit. They had a family tradition of spending Thanksgiving in Jasper every second year, and in Banff on the opposite years.
A wise woman had recently challenged me to engage in curiosity and be in conversation with someone I would normally avoid, and this situation was certainly the case. Not only because all I had wanted was quiet time relaxing with my family, but also because the girl in the corner of the hot tub reminded me of all that was inside of me that I tried to run away from my whole life. Being from a broken home, being the different one in the family, not wanting to make eye contact because I always thought people could see in my eyes all the shame I carried from my past. But I also knew the pain of being silenced, of having so much to say but terrified of telling the truth. We fill the silence with inconsequential fluff. Don’t stop talking too long or someone might ask you the question you don’t want to answer, the one that will break your life open.
So, I sat in the one-way conversation with the girl in the corner and compassionately let her fill the silence that she dreaded as much as I once had feared, and sometimes still do.
The stress and trauma of the last two years have calmed enough for me to finally take a few deep breaths and heal my heart. Of course, this is not something that is done in a day, as much as my strategizing, achievement-driven, forward-focused self would prefer. No, this is a long, deep, and emotional process and it’s not going to be something I get to tick off my to-do list.
I have been feeling exceptionally tired and my mood has been low for the greater part of two months, so I decided to book an appointment with a Naturopath. Part of her intake form asked about the most recent, top five, stressful events. I knew I was in trouble when I wrote out my list.
January 2017 My husband was diagnosed with colon cancer
February 2017 My third child who recently came out as transgender was suicidal
April 2017 My oldest child relapsed in her mental illness and drug addiction
May 2017 My mother passed away suddenly and unexpectedly
October 2017 My youngest child was diagnosed with a lifelong autoimmune disease
I threw in a 6th for good measure… I had major surgery in November of 2017 followed quickly by the flu three weeks into my recovery.
I met with The Naturopath in her corner office overlooking the beautiful autumn colors on a walking path along the Bow River. We discussed the list and all my symptoms and we’re doing blood tests and exploring the physical implications, of course, but the biggest takeaway I got from the Naturopath was what she found during some muscle testing. She said my Heart Chakra needs work. She explained that I am hyper-focused on tasks and work, and that I need to learn to trust others with my heart again, to acknowledge my fear of more disappointment in relationships, my fear of being let down yet again, and my fear that getting close to someone may add more stress and demands on my time and energy.
She had just met me, yet my body told her the story of my life. She mirrored for me exactly why I felt desperately lonely. And, she was 100% right.
This is how I cope with stress, the way I coped my whole life in my dysfunctional childhood, as an ICU nurse, and with every challenge as a mother: shut down all emotions except anger, lock them up inside, be cool and composed on the outside, and focus on the solution. The role I assume is the strong one, the responsible one, the fixer. I don’t do warm and fuzzy in a crisis, and I have been in crisis so long that I don’t remember what warm and fuzzy feels like.
How has this affected my kids, my husband, and my sister all dealing with their own level of grief? Do they know that I shut down to survive and not because I don’t love them?
I had started making friends when I moved to Calgary, mostly in the context of being an entrepreneur, but I have retreated from all of them on some level. I was ashamed of how crazy my life had become, I didn’t feel like I had deposited enough in the friendship bank after knowing these women for such a short amount of time to justify requesting a withdrawal yet. And I had nothing in me to give to them if they had a crisis of their own. I was ashamed of my need when I spent a lifetime being the caregiver. Ironically, I know many of these women would step up and show up if I asked, but I just can’t bring myself to ask, so I continue on with this façade that tells everyone that I’ve got my shit together and deal with my lonely broken heart alone in the dark.
Make no mistake, this is all my responsibility. This is not a convoluted cry for sympathy or a manipulative way to make others feel bad or sorry for me. I am responsible for the choices I made under stress and I am responsible for the choices I make to heal today.
This is a precautionary tale for anyone who is hiding behind a mask and dealing with a broken heart in silence. It doesn’t get better on its own. We have to take the steps to trust and love again. This is also an apology. I am sorry for not fully showing up in relationships, for not asking for help, for not revealing my true essence and for not seeing, and being with, your true essence. I swear I know how to do this, I know how to love and be loved. If you can be patient with me while I get my heart back online, I look forward to nurturing and trusting true friendships again.
I was speaking on the phone to a business colleague as I packed my bag for a six-day retreat in the Canadian Rockies with Eckhart Tolle. “I’m actually nervous about this trip. I’m worried about leaving my business behind for six whole days and I’m worried about the money I am spending because I’m not sure this is going to do anything for my business.” In fact, I was so nervous about going away on this trip that my stomach swiftly kicked out my lunch before I got into my car to make the two-hour drive to Lake Louise.
I didn’t know what to expect. It had been 10 years since I read A New Earth, and though I swear it changed my life when I read it, I could only recite some platitudes from its passages. I didn’t remember it’s essence anymore. I racked my brain wondering why I signed up for this in the first place only to recall the year from hell I had last year and how much I needed self-care just to live another day.
I awkwardly stood in line for the opening talk and found a seat in the third row. The foundation leader came on stage to say that the room was filled with almost 700 people from 40 countries, to which I looked behind me to realize the size of the crowd. We dutifully turned off our cellphones—my link to my business and my children—and on walked Eckhart, slowly, purposefully, fully present.
I, too, slowly, purposefully became still. Fully present. Connected to my essence.
I remembered instantly how Eckhart Tolle changed my life, and I instantly found that peace again.
Over the five days that followed I met Fran, a mother of 9, who imparted her wisdom onto me when I said I wished I could give this awareness we learned on retreat to my children, to which she replied, “you never want to be so awakened that your children don’t struggle and grow.” That hit me like a brick and was exactly what I needed to hear.
I also met the beautiful and enigmatic Claudia. A spiritual goddess in her own right that allowed me to be adventurous and free as we acted as mirrors for each other’s life lessons. She introduced me to a Thai artist and musician and a former Thai monk, and I introduced them to Moraine Lake. I also got to meet successful conscious business owners which also served as a lesson for what I can do differently in my own business.
I won’t even attempt to write the lessons Eckhart taught us into a blog. Do yourself a favor and read The Power of Now and A New Earth. I will give you a short passage from my notes on Creativity because it is relevant to my biggest A-ha from this retreat.
“Creativity is the act of creation that comes from our connection to source. We receive it fully formed and are often overpowered with the insight, invention, music, and art. Creation needs a vehicle, the power needs to manifest into this world, and after many hours of practice you eventually are no longer the dancer you are being danced, you are no longer the writer you are being written.”
Why was I so nervous to go on this retreat? Because it meant that my overworking, artificially busy life might change, most importantly my ego was going to be challenged and die a little. I no longer identify so strongly with my business, my role as a mother, and my self-construct that was cutting off my connection to my true essence.
My big revelation came with regards to my intention with writing my next book and its underlying message. It has gone from being about my unspoken grief raising a transgender child to about how raising a transgender child has transformed me and brought me closer to my deeper true self, just as he dares to be his true deep authentic self. The book is writing itself and writing me.
I’m now back home and much more present to my children, much more present to my clients, and much more present in my writing. Though I am purposefully living in the present moment, I can assure you that I will not wait another eight years to recharge and attend another Eckhart Tolle retreat.
They say death is the great equalizer because regardless of your income, nationality, gender or age every human being still has that one thing in common: we all die. But illness is not an equalizer, neither is the dignity we show to the ill or to their exhausted and overextended caregivers and families.
I once lived in a community where there was a boy with a very rare and debilitating disease who fought for his life. Both he and his mother were often covered by the local news highlighting his condition and their determination to beat the odds. It was a feel-good story. Fundraisers happened on a regular basis, the local radio celebrities and sports teams got involved, networking events and small businesses all pitched in to help fund experimental treatments far from home. He passed away at the age of 17 this past month and it was all over the local news and in the newspaper and all over social media, celebrating his heroic battle with an outpouring of love for a mother who never left his side.
In that same community, one of my closest friends was a foster mom to a boy with a rare and debilitating disease who fought for his life the whole 16 years that she got to raise and care for him. They were not in the news because of confidentiality issues. There was no news coverage, no community uproar, no sports teams getting their pictures taken with him. There was a rally by a local network of small businesses to get a very necessary wheelchair accessible minivan. That’s it. This amazing boy made it to the age of 18, he walked across the stage to a high school diploma, celebrating every precious milestone. His passing devasted my close friend who had to learn to live again outside of the caregiver role. There were no news articles about his passing, no citywide call for support for a grieving mom.
How many people are there that suffer horrible diseases and die without fanfare? How many mothers have buried their children this month without a citywide outpouring of love? I can’t help but see the inequity. I don’t think that it’s fair that a child who dies from cancer somehow matters more than a child who dies from Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis. Every time I see a fundraiser for a particular individual or their family I can’t help but see how unfair it is that one gets what everyone needs and deserves.
I know the media has its own agenda for showing us sensational stories that move us. I know they can’t show us every human being that is fighting a disease on the news every day. But as a society, maybe we each need to go up to someone who is suffering and tell them that we see their battle, we hear their cries of pain, and their time on this earth, no matter how long or short, matters. Maybe instead of sending $25 to a GoFund Me campaign we can adopt a family with a critically ill member and sit with them as they battle every day for dignity.
I know one thing for sure, we all want to be seen, heard, and know that we matter. All of us. So how can we as a society make sure that every single one of us feels that? How can we make love the great equalizer?
I dedicate this to my friend, Kim. I see your grieving, I hear your pain, you matter.
Have you ever been enthralled by a leader’s energy and completely wrapped up in their brilliance that you ultimately start to lose a little bit of yourself? There seems to be a safety in being in service to someone else’s vision that can blind us to what we are missing out in our own lives.
This Could Be You
I’m going to tell you the story of one friend whose name I have changed. Know that I have seen this happen to many other women. Too many. In fact, I think we’ve all taken on this role to some degree at some point in our lives.
Sally is new on her entrepreneurial journey. Her kids are in school full-time now and she is ready to redefine her career with the freedom of working from home. One day, she takes a workshop with a modern-day guru—a female Tony Robbins, Gabriel Bernstein, Brene Brown, Susan Evans, Martha Beck type person. She is completely in alignment with their mission to change the world and the way they go about it, so she signs up to be a certified teacher of their program. Invests money in their training and immerses herself in their system. This is all well and good. These people have amazing insights and methodology to share and there’s a lot of benefit to the world to practice what they preach. She’s found her calling.
The Handmaid Trap
Problems start to arise when Sally doesn’t take what she’s learned and make it her own. She doesn’t become the star in her own life. Instead, she is the servant to the star, teaching for the star, using the star’s name on all her handouts, following the star’s rules of conduct, living within the limits of the branding. And, inevitably, resentment starts to slowly seep into Sally’s heart. But the resentment makes her feel guilty because she owes so much to this guru who taught her everything and exposed her to so many opportunities, to say anything about the limitations of servitude would be biting the hand that feeds her.
Without even realizing it, sometimes the guru sets the handmaid up for failure by having her so dependent that the handmaid can never leave. But, if and when she does leave, it is not a smooth goodbye. There is an incestuous network around the star and Sally knows she has to unplug from that whole entourage as well if she is going to make it on her own.
I know some servants who stay in the handmaid role forever, I know some who leave one guru and move on to another, but Sally managed to break free and rebrand and make a name for herself. She went within and did a lot of soul searching and work on herself and eventually became a thought leader in her own right. Shining like a brilliant star, weary of employing handmaids.
Writing as a Handmaid
As a writing coach the handmaid energy comes up most often when I see someone who has written several chapters in several anthologies but has not yet dared to write her own book. I also sometimes have clients come to me for help with their stand-alone book, finally ready to break free, but waver and choose to pull out of our engagement because they decided instead to invest in a trip to serve alongside their guru at a retreat or a conference. But mostly, I have clients who just need a little extra help when writing their book to realize that they have original and important messages of their own and they don’t need to be quoting today’s other gurus. It can be difficult at times to find a balance because as women we thrive in collaboration and community, but community should never be at the expense of being your true self.
Becoming the Star
Part of my life’s mission of giving women a voice involves holding up a mirror to the handmaid and asking her to see the star inside of her. I want all women to know that we are all born with a unique gift for this world and to put it to use. Sometimes our life’s purpose is to end a cycle of abuse as we raise our kids, sometimes we are here to offer amazing services or products in a career or as an entrepreneur, and sometimes we are here to lead by example and impact people we will never even meet in a way that might change their life.
And so, I offer to you now, check-in with yourself and see when you might be living in the handmaid energy with some relationships and explore how you can make a change. Be true to your calling and rise up!