On Being a White Mama to Children of Color

It is not freedom or privilege to live in fear.

It is a confusing and complex experience to be the white mama of two mixed black and white young adult children in our country today. I am trying to figure out where I fit in in this culture war over skin color when I am white *and* I spent 23 years of my life nurturing two children of color with my blood, sweat, and tears. I would never ever say “not all white people,” that is not my stance. I am awake to and actively learning more about the atrocities of institutionalized racism. I will not diminish the realities of being a person of color in this country. I know we need to tear the whole system apart and build a new system where oppressed and marginalized people no longer exist. I know the pendulum needs to swing to voices of color. As I listened to Jesse Williams’ BET awards speech I thought “Hell Yes” with every line. When my daughter posted this morning that Beyonce’s Freedom performance gave her life, I thought “Yes, thank you for the powerful voices and stories of black women silenced for too long.” I am immensely grateful for these disruptive and brave black voices speaking on behalf of my babies and the community they are connected to by blood and history.

I just don’t know the best way to use my own voice as the white mama of children of color, whom I am connected to by blood and history. I desire to be respectful, and I desire the respectful recognition that myself and many other white mamas live in the same fear as mothers of color (there are people on both sides of the war who see our mixed children as an abomination), just as I am the mother of two queer children and fear for their lives for that reason, too (though I am also queer so that’s a whole other situation). I haven’t been able to write about it yet because Orlando frightened me so deeply, in a way I have not experienced before. I am scared for my brown skinned queer babies. My whiteness will not protect them. And I cannot, nor would I try to hide the target that queerness puts on their back. I taught them to wear their identities with pride.

I don’t believe respectful silence is the way because there are many mamas out there like me – black, white, and every other color – probably also wondering where we fit when we have already embraced the “other” by bringing them into our own body and giving them life. There really is no deeper embrace than that. Nor any more apparent fact against the concept of otherness. The fact that anyone still believes there is an “other” in 2016 boggles my mind. Whether you’re into science or religion (the core teachings, not the modern interpretations), both say we are the same more than we are different. There is no other. And yet our culture operates under the assumption of an other – that woman is other than man, black is other than white, queer is other than straight – and may kill my children based on this false assumption.

So I start using my voice here and now, perhaps imperfectly, by saying I am a both white woman and an angry, scared mama who is on the battlefield fighting for racial justice. I am a fierce ally for people of color, fighting on the side all of the mamas of children of color who know our culture has to do better by our babies. It is not freedom or privilege to live in fear, not for our children, and not for our mama hearts that all bleed red when they are shattered with the loss of a child.

The Heroine’s Journey: I am an Emotional Mountain Climber

540361_10201504920558445_1441567995_nI am struggling as I live between two opposing forces – the desire to build community with my son and his adoptive parents, and the desire to run as far as possible from the birth mother bruising of mine-and-not-mine every day. My heart is being pushed and pulled between conflicting needs, a daily wrestling match that leaves me emotionally exhausted and withdrawn.

I crave this family, the belonging, and the sense of purpose I have found here. And my heart aches daily as our son simultaneously cements his preference for Mommy and shifts toward the independence of toddlerhood.

Despite the perception in popular books and movies, the Heroine’s Journey looks different than the Hero’s. Women undergo journeys of awakening and self definition, but it is often an internal process that happens through our emotions and our intimate relationships rather than through confrontation with forces in the world. Heather Plett says that feminine rites follow a pattern of containment, transformation, and emergence (vs the masculine rites of separation, transition, and reincorporation). I am currently between containment and transformation, waiting for emergence to occur.

I have come to understand that I am an emotional athlete of sorts, an emotional mountain climber. Much like people who train to endure, and even enjoy, the growing pains and discomfort of intense physical adventures (marathons, surfing, skiing, etc.), I am trained to endure and enjoy the growing pains of seemingly unbearable emotional circumstances. The traumas that often damage and break other people are just added weight to the barbell my powerful heart can bench-press.

I experienced life as deeply emotional and profoundly painful from an early age. I score at least a 7 on the ACES test regarding childhood trauma, although there are many more traumas that aren’t listed. I also have an unusually deep capacity for empathy, meaning I feel other people’s emotions in addition to my own. Imagine what that is like when everyone you are a developing child/adolescent and everyone you love is suffering in a significant way. And I’ve worked to recover from Borderline Personality Disorder, also known as Emotional Intensity Disorder. I am running a lifelong marathon to maintain my sanity, emotional regulation, and the chance to thrive in a healthy family dynamic.

My Heroine’s Journey is a map of how to navigate the world with a raw and open heart. I don’t wear emotional armor to protect myself. I don’t know how. Instead, when I am too raw for exposure I hide in my bedroom, my sanctuary, away from people. I am not interested in fighting – not other people, not my own demons, nor the world’s evils. I am passionate about creating and nurturing justice, reconciliation, and belonging through acts of love and generosity. As part of my training, I strive not to turn words into weapons against others when I’m hurt and angry, whether beloveds or strangers. I’ve spent my entire adult life disarming the triggers that can transform my typical gentleness to verbal violence.

One of the primary challenges for people with Borderline is that we have difficulty living with opposing truths, called dialectics. The term’s dialectical means a synthesis or integration of opposites. This is why Dialectical Behavioral Training (DBT) is vital to recovery. Through my research I’ve learned that I consistently provide my own DBT by confronting opposing truths over and over, often on purpose, in order to learn how to regulate my thinking, feelings, and behavior in relationship. For instance, my experiences of polyamory required embracing the opposing truths of my desire for big open love and my abnormally strong fear of abandonment (another BPD trait). I could simultaneously feel compersion and jealousy. I could be deeply frightened and keep choosing love anyway.

Physical masochism is also a dialectic. I surrender my body to experiences of pain from someone who cares for me. Pain, pleasure, love, and fear usually weave together to carry me into ecstasy. But sometimes the physical pain gets wrapped up with my heart pain and I have an emotional release, where something that causes me deep heartache becomes more bearable as the pain is pushed through me with a flogger or a cane. This happened over the weekend when my fiance and I played a relatively mild BDSM scene,  the day after I read a memoir excerpt from a birth mother in an open adoption. Seeing myself in the mirror of her particular words and phrases brought my pain to the surface so that the slightest stimulus rubbed me raw and left me sobbing.

The emotional strength training I put myself through the last 20+ years gave me the ability to make an impossible choice – to give mommyhood to a beloved friend and  retain my place as a different sort of mother in my child’s life. I live the dialectic of mine-and-not-mine with my son every minute of every day. I feel the biological and emotional pull to be his mommy and I keep my distance to allow another woman to be the foundation of his safety and belonging. I ache because he favors her now and I am immensely grateful that I don’t often have to endure all of the hard parts (irregular sleeping patterns, tantrums, etc.).

I try to nurture connection and distance at the same time, both with my son and his adoptive parents. I truly crave the intimacy of chosen family and intentional community. I also choose to live with them because I desire to lighten the burden of full time parenting and help them afford a nice home in a good neighborhood with all of the related benefits. After so many years as a single mom, I don’t want our son’s parents to ever feel alone in their care and responsibility of him.  Yet as my relationship with our son shifts I become more withdrawn, spending less time with the family. I focus my attention on the parts of my life that aren’t so painful and complicated, like my relationship with my fiance and my book creation (and a good dose of television).

I am living in this family dialectic, navigating it mostly with grace, and yet I worry that I am not doing enough. I worry that I am not present enough, connected enough, or co-parenting enough. Because my work in the world is now focused on belonging, I am learning about the psychology of community and the practices that are required to keep community functioning in vibrant ways. Yet I refuse to act on these knowings with those closest to me because I am frightened of my own vulnerability. I don’t know how to be this raw with other people. In my journey to find emotional stability I have always lived in my own head – and bedroom – when in pain. It is how I contain myself, keep my emotions from overwhelming others. I have no idea how to be in this strange place I now live between love and pain in a home and intimate relationship with other adults.

Some days I feel like a fraud. Who am I to write about courage, connection, and community when I can’t yet find the strength to bring my own vulnerability to the table with those closest to me? I was able give a child from my body, I can give my work to support my family, and yet these past few months I can rarely share myself with them.

The focus of my self work these days is to hold myself in the same compassion and acceptance that I give others. I am working to stop beating myself up for falling short of my own high standards for conscious living and relationship. The truth is that to evolve from suffering a mental illness that will not allow opposing truths to living peacefully in a situation that is built of opposing truths is a significant accomplishment. It is in recognizing how far I have come these past 20 years that I  see I need to give myself patience. I am in the endurance race of my life. I will be living in some form of this dialectic with my son and his adoptive parents forever, whether or not I continue to live in the same home with them. I have plenty of time and safe space in which to build my emotional muscles with people who love me no matter what I bring to the table on any given day. I am already enough simply by choosing to be here and contributing in this home with this family.

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Image by Flickr Artist Christian Thompson

God as Beloved – God as Life

God GirlI am a God Girl. I heard this phrase one Sunday when I watched Alanis Morissette’s interview with Oprah. Alanis referred to herself as a God Girl. She’s loved God her whole life, no matter the shape of her spiritual path, just like me.

More and more I’ve been embarrassed – even ashamed – to talk about my relationship with God since leaving the church 20 years ago. Fundamentalism – in Christianity, Islam and Science especially – has ruined our cultural taste for God. We reject the dominant male God of the heavens. We don’t want to believe he would have so many rules and sit back to watch us suffer. We also reject the Goddess, because our culture is based in patriarchy. Then there’s the irrationality of believing in God. The more individualistic, rational, and materialistic our culture becomes, the more we distance ourselves from the possibility of God in any form. Labeling ideas and people as woo-woo has become our way of discounting the spiritual.

The truth is that God is my Beloved. After researching many of the ways humans have tried to understand the Universe and our place in it – which is the basis of both science and religion – I have come to the conclusion that All is God. There is a union, a Oneness that binds everything that lives in the Universe as we understand it. And I am head over heels in love with that Oneness. This love motivates me to interact with the world as deeply and vulnerably as I can bear.

There is an underlying force, a sort of all-consuming hunger that compels me toward continual transformation as I deepen into intimate relationship with the Divine as Everything. It’s been there my whole life, as early as five years old when I prayed the salvation prayer to invite Jesus into my heart. I was born with a very conscious drive to evolve as a human and connect with the Sacred.

Somehow I always felt an intimate relationship to the Origin of Life. Although my perception of what the Divine is evolved over time, I never doubted the existence of a God, or that I am held by God, for one single moment of my life. In this way I have always known belonging.

I grew up Baptist and Pentecostal Christian. I experienced my first ecstatic states in the church as a teenager, “slain in the Spirit” the holy-rollers call it. I can’t explain what happened when I spoke in a language I didn’t understand, my cells buzzed with some kind of energy that made me shake or fall to the ground, and I felt infused by a love larger than myself. But that incredible high awoke a deep hunger in me for unitive and ecstatic experience. Whatever it was, it felt like powerful magic.

More importantly, my experience of God as Father counterbalanced the deep pain I felt from lack of relationship with my human fathers. My birth father disappeared before I was born. My adoptive father neglected to step in when life with my mother was both impoverished and insane. My stepfather was an alcoholic. Though I had two of these men in my life as a teenager, I felt abandoned. They chose their fear and addiction over being my protector and I suffered at the mercy of my mother’s mental illness and addictions because of it. Experiencing God as Abba Father, a sort of Daddy, helped fill that hole in my heart.

In college I recognized that there was more to the Divine than Christianity’s particular point of view. I studied comparative religions, psychology, consciousness theories, and quantum physics. I actively explored Buddhism, Shamanism, Paganism, and New Age spirituality. I shifted to a relationship with the Mother Goddess, which again provided something I needed interpersonally. As a young adult I finally came to understand my mother as a Narcissist. I painfully pierced the illusion that she was capable of holding safe space for me, even though that is a mother’s primary responsibility to her children. I turned to the Goddess for what I needed in a Mother.

I also experienced ecstatic (and highly erotic) states in solitary ritual, through mind altering substances, and through my explorations into sex, body rites, power exchange, and masochism (both physical and emotional). I became a kitchen witch (using my intuition to provide healing herbal concoctions for loved ones), a touch healer, a Tarot card reader, and I had some crazy magical relationships with others walking the edges of what we know about reality. All of these opened my heart and mind for brief moments to the glorious beauty of the Oneness that holds us. I found myself falling deeper and deeper in love with the God of Life, the energy that I can feel inside and outside of me when I transcend the illusion of separation.

Then God became impersonal. And intellectual. As I fell deeper into the rabbit hole of quantum physics, holographic theory, and the study of consciousness, God seemed more like an impersonal evolutionary energy rather than a being that I could share relationship with. I didn’t stop believing in the Divine, but I didn’t feel close to it. God became “The Universe” – a benevolent force with which I shared little emotional connection.

Until I embraced Mysticism. When I looked at the relationships that spiritual poets had with God, from St. John of the Cross to Rumi to Mary Oliver, I recognized my profound love for the Beloved in their words. Mysticism became my primary topic of study and my spiritual practice. Now it infuses all of my life.

I’ve come to believe everything in existence is infused with the God of Life, including you and me; thus I seek to connect with this Divinity in everyone I encounter and love. I strive to experience an intimate relationship with all of life. I believe approaching life and relationship this way helps me be the most loving and compassionate person possible.

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter to me if God exists in the ways we currently understand existence (we still have so much to learn). My faith in Something connecting Me to Everything made me whole despite a difficult life filled with pain and trauma. This knowing kept me from ever feeling entirely alone. My faith was even the antidote to thoughts of suicide, something common in sufferers of BPD. I have never wanted to die. I just wanted to stop hurting.

Believing in God gives me healing, meaning, purpose, and belonging.
I shouldn’t be ashamed of this, I should be celebrating it.

Which is ultimately what Radical Mystic is all about. My relationship to God as it evolved, and the psycho-spiritual work it inspired over the course of my life, lifted me out of poverty, trauma, and mental illness. Instead of following the path of my parents and my ancestors through abuse, addiction, neglect and crazy, I chose a different path. I am a God Girl.