Radical Acceptance: Living with My Birth Child is More than I can Bear

I am the First Work of My HeartAfter all my bluster about being an emotional mountain climber, sadly I am writing to tell you that our experiment in living together as a family is not working out. We decided this past week that we need to live in separate homes. We’ve been in a pattern of avoidance for awhile, then Mama Jen and I had our second falling out last week. We’ve come to acknowledge that there is just too much pain and intensity around our individual and collective processes – some of which have to do with the adoption and some that don’t – to be able to manage life joyfully under the same roof.  We are all hurting for our individual reasons and we are trying to take responsibility for each other’s feelings by avoiding conflict and the vulnerability of sharing our personal struggles.

I learned that Mama Jen is feeling more and more guilty about being happy with Lake because of my heartache, which is not ok. I need for my son’s Mommy to feel free to be happy with him. That’s the point of my giving her this gift, so that she can know the joys of motherhood. Unfortunately what she didn’t know, because I haven’t been talking about my process with her, is that I feel compersion and joy when I see and hear them happy together. I love when I hear him giggling when they play, or witnessing her teach and him learn. I devour the pictures and videos on the Facebook group. It’s only aspects of his behavior in wanting/choosing/calling her – and rejecting me – that get to me. Nothing about her behavior as a mother hurts me. She is an incredible mother. Far better than she gives herself credit for. Even with my extremely high standards for parenting, I couldn’t have wished for better. All I’ve wanted since I knew it was her child in my belly is for her to be happy in her motherhood.

We need to choose the most loving and kind way to move forward as a family and separating seems to be it. We agree on the reasons for separation – that there is too much pain right now and there are some irreconcilable difference in how we live in a home. No shame and no blame, at least not toward one another. There is already a sense of relief and a new lightness in our interactions because of this decision. We are still a family choosing love and generosity every day.

Chris and I are planning to find an apartment and cash out a small 401K account he had in Humboldt that will make moving easeful, as well as help Jen and Gaius so that everyone’s needs are met in the transition. They are hoping the landlords will allow them to find a new roommate situation so they can stay in this great house. We’ll come up with some arrangement for continued time as a family, as well as time for Chris and I to have Lake for sleepovers and other adventures.

For myself, I had the insight that an unconscious reason I made this choice is because it felt safer to continue being a mother and a woman overcoming adversity – two foundational pieces of my identity – than to start a happy new life with Chris in an empty nest without big emotional challenges to navigate daily. I healed the identity neurosis of Borderline Personality Disorder in my early 20’s by building my foundation on being a mother who puts my children first and being a survivor-artist who turns my suffering into meaning and beauty. Moving in with Lake continued to fulfill both of those identities for me in some ways. I’m not sure who I am beyond those identities and I need to figure it out for my own well being. I need both physical and emotional quiet in which to recover and heal from a life of continual emotional stress before I can bring both my best self and my best work into the world. I need to let go of being a mama and learn to be an Amma. I need to evolve into an writer-artist who turns suffering in the world into meaning and beauty rather than focusing on my own pain. I now see crafting a prescriptive memoir as a bridge between who I’ve been and who I’m becoming, discovering the parts of myself beyond mother and survivor, as well as establishing my “expertise” in self directed psycho-spiritual development so that I can support others in recovery from emotional and mental illness.

I have to admit I am struggling with feeling like a failure and fraud as a community builder, something I’ve been researching and talking about all year. I am not accustomed to failure. I wonder if I could have done better and if it would have made a difference. And I’m worried that I’m letting everyone down by being unable to make this work – Lake, his adoptive parents, the journalist who invested her time and art in us, Yahoo News that invested money in our story, and all the people who’ve been touched and inspired by us.

On the other hand I know that we are all deeply courageous, generous, and loving for having tried to do something most people imagine to be impossible. I pushed the edges as a birth mother allowed to have any relationship I desire with my child and I learned there is a limit to the intimacy I can manage with him and his adoptive parents without suffering too much pain over what I’ve lost. That isn’t a failure, it’s just my humanness.

Writing my memoir, crafting the Radical Mystic project, and transitioning into the identity of writer-artist-community-builder that I’ve been craving for as long as I can remember is going to take some time. I have healing and self work to do before I can focus on my work in the world. I need to build a new foundation of identity based on something other than motherhood and surviving trauma. While I will continue to write here regularly, I am going to stop being concerned about writing the right things in the right way to draw an audience, or platform building, or getting the memoir done as quickly as I can. I will make my art with the simple goals of understanding and expressing myself in this process of transition for now. If I touch others in the process, that’s an extra blessing.

I gave the first half of my adult life to being the center of emotional safety and belonging for my children. As a dear friend reflected to me, now I need to take this time and emotional freedom to give birth to and mother myself. I am in the middle of a life changing process of healing and redefinition. I am evolving as a woman, as a mother, and as an artist and now I am creating the circumstances in which I can thrive as all of these things. I need to know who I am becoming and find my new belonging before I can build community and nurture belonging for others.

I am relieved and heartbroken. I am excited and scared. And I am ever so grateful that I have a family who loves me and will hold me through this transition, no matter where we live.

*Image is an artist trading card I made several years ago – I am the First Work of My Heart. I’ll finally be living fully living into this truth.

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