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Unmothered on Mother’s Day

I wanted to write this last weekend and didn’t. Every year on Mother’s Day I feel my mom’s absence, not because I remember how her voice sounded, or what she smelled like, or what her skin felt like. I don’t remember any of these things after 25 years. I only remember that I miss being mothered, even at 43. I think part of the reason why I feel her loss every year is because I am a mom myself and want to celebrate Mother’s Day just as a mom. And yet, every year my grief sneaks up on me and creates irritability and distraction.

My mental health is affected on these days, and while I know it’s to be expected, it bothers me nonetheless. I’m irritable and then feel guilty for feeling irritable, for not simply being grateful. Grateful for my family, my children and for my safety during a global pandemic. And I am grateful. But I’m also longing, longing to be mothered by own mom. Even in her all of her imperfections, all of her mistakes, all of her misfortune, I still have this longing for her. I doubt it will ever go away completely, it just continues to fade as the years go by.

My mom’s headshot, one of my favourites of her. Circa 1990

Perhaps if I’m lucky enough to live past 49, I will see my daughters graduate from high school, start their adult lives, support them in their education, value their choices, encourage them, help them to keep themselves safe and healthy. Things I didn’t have. I hope that when these days come, I will remember that supporting them is a privilege, that I don’t try to force what I want on them instead of listening to what they want. I hope that next Mother’s Day, my longing is a little less. xo Janet

Dropping out of my Ph.D. saved my life

I like to say on this blog that my midlife crisis started three years ago, which is essentially true, but the fact of the matter is, I’ve been in crisis most of my life. The the real flame out started in 2001 when I started a Ph.D. program. I went back to Vancouver after very successfully finishing a Master of Arts in Sociology at Queen’s in 2001. I hadn’t taken a break from academic work since after my Mom died in 1995, a huge mistake. So after an honours BA at UBC and a Masters at Queen’s, I decided to move back to BC which was a huge mistake.

Saying that my trauma was triggered the minute I got off the plane is an understatement. I think I had a massive panic attack that lasted about 2 years. You think I may be exaggerating but I’m not. Genuinely not kidding, it lasted 2 years when I fled the province with Meg by car.

I started the Ph.D. program with the highest of hopes. I wanted to be an academic and I thought I would be a good one. I really did. But I couldn’t deal with my trauma, be in Vancouver, I was completed burned out from overworking myself and I flamed out. But let’s go back to what I think happened and then, with almost twenty years perspective, maybe did happen.

I started in 2001 and it seemed like it was going well. I had no idea what fresh hell awaited me – the people were competitive, the city was cold as hell (both the weather and the people) and I had no idea what I was doing there. But I faked it, sort of. My supervisor whom I gone to work with could clearly see me flaming out in my first year because she didn’t like my work and didn’t hold back in telling me. She told me on a weekly basis how truly terrible it was for someone in a downward depression/anxiety/shame spiral was super helpful.

But she didn’t know about the spiral and I didn’t tell her. In fact, I couldn’t tell anyone. I was so afraid and ashamed about having depression that I didn’t think I could be a Ph.D. student and be diagnosed with a mental illness. It was pretty dark and being in a doctoral program was soul crushing. I think the most mentally healthy of people suffer as doctoral students. The sole purpose of these programs is to strip students down. To make them prove their scholarly worth. To try to push every piece of ego out of their work, as has been done to them. It’s not only dehumanizing, it’s unconscionable.

So every time someone has asked me about doing a doctoral program, I’ve advised them against it. And not because I hold a grudge against the program or that I spent years feeling like a failure because I couldn’t finish it, it’s because I genuinely believe it’s not worth it. Very, very few people who get Ph.D.s these days get a full-time, tenure track jobs. That’s the golden carrot they dangle in front of you when you do a doctoral program. And it’s far too elusive these days to be worth the struggle. I’d love to hear from people who had a good recent experience with a Ph.D. program, it would make me believe more in the sacrifices required.

With 20 years hindsight, I can see that I was so unwell even before I got to that program. And going back to Vancouver, after being away from the pain and trauma for two years, was a huge mistake. I could feel the mistake in every bone of my body and I didn’t listen to it. I refused to listen to the voice that told me not to be there, to pull the plug. If I had known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have done the Ph.D.program, I wouldn’t have gone back to Vancouver and I could have started my healthy life a lot earlier than I did. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to get my shit together. But you all know what they say about hindsight. If you have the opportunity to listen to the voice that tells you, don’t do this, just tune in, just for a minute. It may pivot your life in ways that are a lot healthier. xo Janet

Being shamed for emotional reactions is a powerful motivator

Credit: @frizzkidart

Kids grow up with a view of the how emotional responses are suppose to work just by watching their parent or parents or primary caregiver(s) respond to the world around them. They also understand how to emotional responses are supposed to work by how their caregivers respond to them. Children want to know if their emotional responses are a) acceptable and b) normal. Being shamed for having emotional responses as a kid is a sure fire way to teach children not to: show emotions, connect with their emotions, and/or that they are a freak for having a normal emotional response to something stressful, sad or upsetting.

So, if we take this logic into adulthood, what do we get? Disconnection, lack of empathy for self and others, a fundamental belief that we are somehow different or inherently flawed/unfixable. We suppress or repress our emotion, we bury them in food or alcohol or other quick hits, we have difficulty being vulnerable or connected to others, even those we love the most. It’s a shame cycle that isn’t pretty – I have difficulty expressing my emotions because I have an built-in shame response about doing this, people view me as lacking the ability to connect or be vulnerable, I feel more shame for being defective or broken in some way. Rinse and repeat.

What do we do then as adults when this is happening? Can I think my way out of this? Yes and no in my experience. The first thing I did was learn about the range of human emotions and that these are totally normal for me to express. Sounds weird but it’s true. Second, I learned from my therapist that we’re all flawed and fallible, that’s being human, and that this is, also, totally normal and ok. Third, I learned that when I default to an emotional response that isn’t functional or rationale (extreme worry, anger, frustration, etc), that I can write down the story I have in my head about what is going on and work it through. What does that mean? In cognitive behavioural therapy, therapists use things called “thought records”. It sounds weird at first but once you do them on paper a couple of times it gets pretty easy to start doing it in your head. I do these in my head a lot when I have anxiety or when I’m really frustrated by something. I’m not an expert on CBT, a therapist or a source of advice on thought records but if you want to learn more, go here.

I have found that there are tools and resources that help me when I’m in a shame spiral, particularly when it comes to feeling guilty, anxious or getting angry/frustrated about something. Shame is something we learn as a kid in so many different ways and all of it comes with trauma. But we can unlearn the shame we feel and respond differently. We can work through the trauma and the thoughts or mental scaffolding we have built up around it. This is a way through, not away from, tough stuff emotionally. Keep leaning into the fear of being emotional exposed and you’ll find it’s not so scary after all. xo Janet