By Catherine DiMercurio
Sometimes we undervalue the gift of safe spaces.
Sometimes I think the only thing I did right as a single parent was to offer a safe space for my kids to raise themselves. That is, of course, an exaggeration on a couple of levels. But it speaks to what I told my eldest upon their graduation from college this past weekend. Kids have good instincts, and they seek and need agency. Sometimes trusting our children and getting out of their way is the only way. Obviously it isn’t always the answer. But in they years after my divorce, a lot of things happened to me, and one of them was that anxiety created a sense of hypervigilance. It led me to think about emotional safety a lot, especially about how to provide it to my kids during a difficult transition to our new family structure. With my child’s recent graduation from college, I witnessed, reflected on, and admired who they are and how they have grown and become more and more themselves over these last few years. I hope, at the very least, that I played a role in helping them feel safe and loved and cared for along their journey.
As parents, we work toward where I find myself now—being ancillary in our children’s lives. On a day-to-day basis, our presence is not needed for our older children to function and flourish in the world. It isn’t that they don’t turn to us, and it isn’t that they don’t feel emotionally connected to us, but their lives are their own. When problems arise, they may or may not ask us for advice, they may or may not even tell us there is a problem. They are simply living and handling things. This self-sufficiency is what we have striven for as parents. I’ve always had a sense since my children were very little that everything I did was in preparation for them to leave me. Yet, living on this side of it is a strange and emotional time.
When your child graduates from college it is inevitable that you reflect on your parenting. It is impossible to not recall the first day of preschool and kindergarten, all the ups and downs of middle school and high school. The day you helped them get the dorm room set up is etched on your heart, the way you drove away and left them there, thinking, as you did when you dropped them off at preschool, is this right? This is what people do? We walk away now?
For divorced families, when you think about your child’s upbringing, there is a Before and After. Inevitably you will wonder if you got things right, on either side of that line. Each situation is different. For me, as a single parent I felt as though I was constantly trying to figure out how to make what had been fractured feel whole and safe and enough again.
It occurs to me that after years trying to make my children’s lives feel that way, I am now trying to make my own life feel that way. Whole and safe and enough. With each milestone the kids achieve, with each further step they take into their own lives and futures, I am left with increasingly stark reminders of what I need to do for myself.
My own childhood was populated with a crowd of siblings and two parents who are still together. College was full of roommates, boyfriends. Not long after, I was married and soon after, having children. After the divorce I tried soothing the loneliness of single parenting with relationships that ultimately could not be parlayed into something long-term. Each time something ended, as hard as it was, as disappointing as it was that it didn’t “work out” the way I had hoped, parenting, in many ways, was easier. Flying solo, I was able to try and tune in more effectively to what my kids needed.
But now, I have the time and space to focus wholeheartedly on myself. Yet I have had very little practice trying to figure out how to make that whole and safe and enough scenario happen by myself and for myself.
I’m getting closer, but I’m still not there. And I wonder, too, are we ever truly there? I haven’t even been able to articulate it as a goal until recently. Since I’m always thinking about the future, worrying about it, I imagine scenarios. If I decide I’m okay, if I’m whole and safe and enough on my own, does that mean I’m closing the door on a future with someone? Or is that mindset what actually opens the door to the “right” relationship? I’m thankful to friends who help me consider these ideas, who remind me to spend some time in right now instead of always trying to fill in the blanks ahead.
Sometimes I mentally catalogue when I felt the most whole and safe and enough so I can try and recreate it. There was usually someone by my side. Can I not remember feeling that way when I was alone, or did it never happen? It is easier to remember the times I did not feel that way, far easier to remember the events that left me feeling fractured and unsafe and inadequate. I have spent a long time trying to stop feeling hobbled by heartbreaks. This is precisely what this time is for, this time I have to myself right now. It is a time not only to heal from all the past hurts but a time to reassess how I look at myself.
When was the last time you looked at yourself in a way that freed you from context? How do we see ourselves when we remove all the filters of what we do, who we’re related to, who we live with, who and what we’ve lost?
Of course those things are all huge parts of who we are but there’s a self in there who is the one doing all the adapting to all the things that happen to us. I wrote a poem once, called “Minnows.” It opens like this:
Do we learn to love
The way fish learn to swim
Or the way we learn to fish?
There are things we begin to teach ourselves out of instinct, about how to know and love ourselves. These ideas are soon enhanced and/or undercut by other external lessons. Sometimes I think the more we know of the world, the less we know of ourselves.
Sometimes, we are in relationships that are collaborative and supportive and allow us the space and care to help us to know ourselves better. These might be romantic relationships, familial ones, or friendships. And sometimes, we are in relationships that take us further and further away from ourselves. Usually when we’re in them we are not thinking about them in such terms but when we’re out, it all becomes clearer. And of course, some relationships morph from the former to the latter, and it’s hard to tell what’s happening. I wish I’d understood the importance of this distinction sooner. But I’m learning. The more I learn about myself, the more I understand how hollowing it is to be in relationships where I am becoming less of who I am instead of more. It is this knowledge that soothes loneliness when it strikes: at least that isn’t happening.
I often think of this chapter as a rebuilding one, as if I’m putting myself back together, reconstructing, improving. But maybe it is one more characterized by paring down, unwinding, unlearning. Maybe it is just remembering how to be a sleek little minnow learning how to swim.