I began wondering about this particular year of our life when I was still pregnant with our youngest daughter. Roughly six years ago, a few casual calculations were made during the dinner hour that left me wondering if this would be the exact year that I’d experience a midlife crisis. We determined then that this would be a year of unparalleled transitions as we’d send our oldest off to college, our third (who was our baby for the first eight years of her life) would start high school, and the life that was still forming in my belly would enter into Kindergarten.
I’m calling it The Big Shift. The dynamic of our family is shifting as greater independence is making itself more explicitly known on multiple fronts. The rhythms of our family are shifting as school schedules better align allowing more space for me to sort out and pursue vocational wonderings. The shift is understandably manifested in my body too – my final year before I hit the big 4-0 and all of a sudden my gray game is super strong. I’ve resisted dying my hair mostly because I feel more whole when my body tells the truth about my life. And the truth is – this year has aged me more than most.
When I anticipated this big shift way back then at our dinner table, I obviously had no idea the many twists and turns of life that we would encounter in the years ahead. These disruptive years involving a series of medical issues, a job loss and relocation, more medical issues, and even more medical issues have only increased the likelihood of my own midlife crisis. I have felt it approaching one wave of transition at a time. And the biggest of big waves (thus far) has finally arrived.
All of this shifting has felt relatively forced – forced by uncontrollable circumstances, forced by the passage of time, by the universe’s evolutionary mandate. I’m not someone who likes being forced to do anything so I’m trying to take some deep breaths every step of the way. Trying is the operative word in that last sentence. If left to our own devices, I’m not sure many of us would elect to grow, to change, to transition. It’s too awkward, uncomfortable, unsafe and unpredictable. So maybe this forcing of things is for our own good. Or maybe not. I guess it doesn’t really matter because whether I like it or not, my life is evolving. And my identity is shifting or expanding, hence the impending crisis.
As is often the case in seasons of uncertainty, I’m drawn to this practice of writing to illuminate my way, to find my way or illuminate my “self” perhaps. After a long hiatus, a retreat from releasing words out into the wild wild web (I mean the world wide web), I feel a writing surge coming on with ferocity.
But THIS is us right now…on the very cusp of the big shift.
There we were, the three of us sitting in Faith’s room coming undone together. A day of reacting, of crying, of hurting led us each to our own discoveries. Faith was the one first able to get at what was going on underneath the reacting, the irritation, the symptoms. When she started to name how different she perpetually feels from her peers, from the way things are or the way girl’s are supposed to be, and how she feels sick to her stomach when she thinks about such things, Bailey and I both found her there too. We were back in our own truth and in our own depth, instead of being relegated to our surface selves – the selves most notorious for revealing all the symptoms of the deeper wounds. The most common symptoms are exasperation and irritation at the world around us. Bailey echoed Faith’s sentiments on what we’ve come to refer to as high school girl culture and added her own disorienting and disillusioning experiences related to an event they both attended over the weekend.
Instead of trying to help guide them toward some sage wisdom or manufactured sense of empowerment in their individuality, I let my own tears begin to fall and do the painful work of receiving the greater truth that was coming to me in that raw moment. This was what I had feared most when I first wondered if I should ever have any children. How could I survive witnessing my own daughter(s) having to endure the torture that comes with being female in this world? Wow, I would think to myself, that’s a little dramatic, Shauna. And then I’d remember the darkest years. Years that followed the abuse. Years that followed the objectification and sexualization. The years of splitting. All the girl parts of me that were ever free enough to explore, to feel pleasure, to experience life subjectively were no longer allowed in public. And eventually they forgot how to be present in private too.
I swallowed whole some new illusions when I first turned to religion. I wanted to believe that I could somehow shield my children from the atrocities of a long standing societal system that perpetually objectifies one half of it’s members. If I could become godly enough, stay married enough, be the best and most holy mother to my children, gain wisdom enough, and heal psychologically enough to prevent the pattern of abuse from recurring then my children would be held together, protected somehow from the splitting I had experienced.
But here we were. Sitting together in the bedroom of my 16 year old feeling the impact. Because no matter how hard I have worked for the past 16 years at mothering to the best of my abilities, I could not shield them from the culture hell-bent on ravaging and devouring and splitting the lives of girls and women. And this fixation ruins boys and men too. But that topic is for another day, another post. Neither of my teens have stories of abuse. Neither of my teens have survived the complete fracturing of a family unit. Neither of them are even remotely as needy and starved for affection as I was when I was their age. I thought that if I did everything I could to ensure that they had very different stories from my own, that they would be spared from the pain. Relatively rational creature that I am, I knew they’d still have to encounter hard things, but I envisioned they’d be entirely unencumbered by the rules and expectations bestowed upon them the moment the doctor announced, “It’s a girl!”
But here we are. The truth is that my daughters, because of the sheer fact that they are in fact my daughters – descendants of this particularly hyperaware and ridiculously sensitive and perceptive human they call mom, they had no choice but to swallow the red pill. So they see life as it really is. They see all the rules. All the masks. All the denial. All the pain. Much of the horror. They hear the stories of blow jobs and anal sex from 15 and 14 and sometimes 13 year old girls who claim its their best form of birth control. They ask if it’s even possible for a girl to orgasm in either scenario and then they are even more confused as to why sexuality for their peers is about being objects and not subjects. They feel split too – between who they really are and who they would need to be to fit in with their peers. They feel the poison all around them and they see their friends drinking it freely because it’s all that they have known. They even know that some of the poison seeps into their skin because it’s in the air all around them. It’s on the walls of their high school. It’s even in our house because their mama drank from the poison for much of her early life and she’s 37 and still trying to purge the toxicity. It’s on their screens. It’s in their music. We are all choking on it all the time. And my girls and I…we know it. And it feels unbearable and overwhelming sometimes. We feel powerless much of the time. And it feels painful all of the time.
It’s true. We have a 16 year old in the house now. I haven’t been able to write much about what that feels like as a mama. The words are still trying to find their way to the page. But I wanted to share the words I was able to share with her this last week on her special day.
You are 16 today. When I take in the breathtaking beauty of your now almost-adult-face, I see all of those earlier and squishier versions of that very same face too. I see the very same eyes that captivated a room when you first came out to greet us. I see the playful toddler who loved to dance and sing the Barney theme song (Lord have mercy). I see the three year old grin that could fill an entire room with it’s hint at mischief. I see the observant four year old who always took in everything and everyone around her. I see the six year old who’s heart broke when you discovered and then attempted to remedy how the world could be crueler to some than others. I see the nine year old that was profoundly impacted by the very human pressure to perform and be perfect. I see the 11 year old girl who started to recognize her own capacity as an athlete. I see the 13 year old who began to experience the complexities of relationship with the opposite gender. I see the 15 year old who endured an enormous amount of loss and transition all while facing the frustration of having a physical body that can be fractured.
And here you are at 16. I know you are as anxious as you are excited about approaching adulthood and the responsibilities that come with the freedoms. I know that when you look around the world today you are often confused and disheartened. But YOU, my daughter, are braver than you have yet to realize. And you bring more light into this fractured world than you have yet come to believe.
Lately I have imagined that there is this ticking clock looming in the background of our relationship. It’s as though a part of me believes that my time as your mother somehow ends when you turn 18. Yes, I know – it’s a little nutty. But I’m sure that’s not shocking. Maybe every mama feels this way while her heart is racing to catch up with the metamorphosis of her daughter rising into womanhood. Sometimes I think my relationship with time is more complicated since that day three and a half years ago when we all wondered if my clock had run it’s course. So I am daily reminding myself that what we have is today. And today you are 16. And we are both here to witness this moment right now. You know your mama loves words, and so I wanted to mark this day with some very intentional words. I want to bear witness to you and the woman you are becoming with each passing year.
Just a few weeks ago we sat together and watched the Democratic National Convention declare Hillary Clinton as the first female nominee of a major party for the 2016 presidential election 96 years after women won the right to vote. In one of the introduction speeches, actress Meryl Streep mentioned two characteristics that all notable women throughout history possess: GRIT and GRACE. You, daughter, know something of these words too.
GRIT is the stuff of fierce women. You’ve had it since birth. And thank God because you will need it still in the journey to come. Sometimes life is going to kick the shit out of you. I know you have seen this already – but I assure you, the shit will continue to fly. Harnessing grit isn’t about becoming hardened or learning how to fight back. It’s about learning how to still STAND even when life tries to knock you down. It is about toughness, but not the kind of posturing of strength we see so often today. It looks more like a sticky, grainy, gritty resolve than it does any form of violence. It’s about holding on to who you are and claiming your value in the face of a culture or system that at times will attempt to diminish your worth. It’s about always knowing and declaring that you matter because you are not because of what you may or may not ever do in this world. Grit is the stuff of real women who stand against a world that tells them they’re never enough. So grit is necessary to stand in your own two feet and fill up your share of space in the world.
GRACE is the stuff of honorable women. It’s about how you move through this life, how you see yourself and how you see those around you and beyond you. Grace is knowing that you are worthy and so is EVERYONE else. And I really mean EVERYONE else. Even those who live as though they’re not worthy. It’s about accepting your limitations and not believing that they diminish your light. Living with this kind of grace is as much about offering it as it is about knowing it deep within yourself. It is the place I’ve seen you return to time and time again. May you continue to know GRACE and be GRACE as you move through your life.
Beyond your GRIT and the embodiment of GRACE, there is something else that has carried your heart through hard times and planted your feet on scared ground. My dear, you’ve been able to embody a spirit of GRATITUDE. I first saw it in your four year old eyes as you would often take in the beauty of those Colorado sunsets. This one word, really this one posture toward the universe has been my own life raft many times over. Choosing to employ a lens of gratitude even when it felt impossible never failed to lead me to the well of a life force larger than any heartache I’ve ever encountered. And I’m not talking about a contrived, shallow, dishonest sentiment here. No. not. that. I’ve heard it said many times that when tragic things happen, we should look for the helpers. When dark things happen, look for the light. Not because the helpers remedy the harm. Not because the discovery of the light means the dark no longer exists. But we must hold space to see both the good and the bad. The practice of gratitude helps us see. all. of. it. I love that even as a young girl, you’ve always been profoundly moved by the beauty of this natural world. May that kind of awe extend always to all of life and all it’s complexity and creativity.
So on this day, your very sweet 16 indeed, I give you these words and reflect back to you the light you bring forth day by day.