[A preview of my upcoming book, We Are One: How one woman reclaimed her identity through motherhood]
“Just don’t ever let your heart close,” I think, as I feel my heart closing, laying face-to-face with Sibe in bed.
Years ago, I read the book, “The Untethered Soul.” In the book, the author explains that if you want to expand your capacity to love, enjoy life, overcome your mind, and essentially reach enlightenment, you just don’t ever let your heart close.
At the time, I can remember being frustrated and confused by the simplicity of that advice. It didn’t seem like something you could control. In fact, most of the time, I wasn’t even aware of my heart closing until it was already closed. And even then, I didn’t see it as my heart closing; I just thought I felt bad, upset, angry.
But the heart opens and closes like an automatic door. When something happens, it triggers a censor to open it or close it. But if it’s closing and you don’t want it to, you can move closer, and it opens again. If you stay there and block the closing trigger, it stays open. You do have control, but it’s limited to your awareness of it.
And even when you are aware, it’s really hard to keep the trigger from triggering the censor to close. And sometimes, I find myself between two closing doors, planting my feet wide at the foot of each door, arms pressing outward, trying with all of my might to keep the doors to my heart open as they push inward.
My heart is closing in this moment because I’m feeling angry, misunderstood, invalidated, and wondering if I’ve just been gaslit. And more deeply, I know that I haven’t. Even more deeply, I know that I’m being defensive, that I know what Sibe is saying is true, and I don’t want to admit it. I can feel my ability to manipulate clawing its way to the surface. And while I’m fighting to admit that what Sibe is saying is true, I’m equally fighting off the desire (and almost masterful ability) to manipulate the perspective into such a confusing argument that we have no idea what we’re fighting about in the first place.
But I won’t do it. Maybe I can’t get my heart to stay open, but I’m sure as hell not going to drop a nuclear bomb on us. Believe it or not, I’ve worked very hard to be this bad at navigating emotional challenges.
But I’m still pissed. And I feel invalidated.
I tell Sibe this. He says, “Me too.” And we go to sleep.
The next morning, I woke up to hike. I knew there wouldn’t be any writing happening, so I did my best to just enjoy being in nature. The sounds of the morning forest faded in and out. One minute, I could smell the honeysuckle I was sitting next to, and the next, I was completely lost in thought and overwhelmed by the sinking feeling in my gut and the tightening in my chest. I noticed my own absence from my walk and tuned back in to smile at Opi as she tried to literally pull a tree out of the ground, burying her face under the water of the creek to get closer to the root.
One moment, I could hear the birds, and the next, my mind was racing around in circles trying to land on the truth. But the only place I would land was fear, anger and confusion.
I also knew the sinking feeling in my gut was created by a thought that I was avoiding, pretending I didn’t know it was there. I was thinking that maybe, long term, Sibe and I weren’t meant to be.
The next day, Sibe and I were sitting at the oyster bar down the street from our apartment. We were sitting beneath a speaker playing reggae music at a rustically-painted blue picnic table. I was drinking my favorite sparkling rosé and he was drinking his favorite IPA. Pepper was spilling ice cubes on the table, and Opi was drooling on my feet.
It’s unbelievable how terrible a marriage or relationship can feel one moment and how free, happy and loving it can feel the next.
We’d just spent three days in the emotional trenches. If the last three days were performed by contemporary dancers, it would begin with the female dancer cautiously but dramatically walking up to reach for the hand of her partner, who was posed, turned away from her. She would grab it, he’d turn toward her, and then rip his hand away as he slid back from her.
First, she’d collapse to the floor with her head in her hands, and then defiantly stand up as she threw her arms down and back. He’d beautifully, but aggressively, leap toward her, pounding the air with his fists. They’d both spin back and retreat, backs toward one another, and gracefully and full of risk, dive to the ground, face in hands. The man would slide across the ground backward to reach for her hand. She’d reach back, barely skim his fingers, and despite wanting so much to grab them, drag her hand away.
And they’d perform a beautiful and tortured dance filled with tricks, leaps and breathtaking moments of moves that would, without their practice, kill them. They’d fall away again, only to repeat it all with her reaching out, until they both collapsed, exhausted, onto the floor. Just as you thought the dance was over, they’d poetically roll toward each other and end in a loving embrace.
Across the picnic table, Sibe rested a hand on each side of his beer glass and said, “I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I can see what you mean. Why you feel too much responsibility. I can be needy, and I want a network for myself that’s more organic. But the combination of those things probably puts too much pressure on you.” I feel so relieved. “Also, you’re my favorite person. And mostly, I just don’t really want to hang out with anyone but you.”
The most relief came, though, when he said, “I’m just going to say this out loud. When we’re arguing like that, you turn into a different person. Even your face looks different. I can’t explain it.”
I can. I turn ice cold. It’s like a bank vault door closes inside of me. Behind that door is the fear of a child, catalyzed by deep shame, a feeling like I messed up everything and I can’t fix it. In my throat, enough tears to drown the room fight their way into my tear ducts. The kind of vulnerability that would melt both of our hearts and bring us closer together. But with precision and stealth, in an instant, I shut all of it down.
I don’t just close my heart; I surgically remove it from my body. All that is left accessible in that moment is anger. Piercing defiance. And he’s looking into eyes that are full of resentment and fierceness that say, “I fucking dare you to come near me.” Shielding a heart that’s begging him to come closer.
He continues, “When you look like that, in some ways, you look like a child. I can see it so clearly. But there’s another part of me that says, ‘Can I really be with a person like this?’”
These words relieve me to hear. Because I’ve felt his abandonment in these moments. It somehow feels like a relief to know it was real.
Regardless of the things you say, don’t say, or outright lie about, your relationships are a function of the truth. Not the truth you tell yourself, lie about, or want to see. They are a function of the truth that exists.
And the truth that had been existing for us is that deep down, we both had an exit plan.
When I was sitting by the creek with Opi the morning before, I noticed my mind trail back years to a conversation I had with my coach. “Take leaving off the table. It’s just not an option.” In that moment, I noticed how freeing it felt to actually bind myself to our commitment to each other by removing the possibility of an exit. It was freeing because it instantly gave me the courage to wade into this dark, confusing and very painful space with Sibe.
I shared with Sibe that I could feel him thinking that, when I was in that vaulted space. And that it removed the emotional safety from the conversation, the conflict, and the relationship. I also admitted that I was thinking the same thing when I was in the park the morning before.
Here, several years after we made the commitment for the first time — which was several years after we got married — we made the commitment for the second time. Seal off the exits. We’re not leaving.
It’s amazing how choosing confinement actually creates expansion. As long as we both had an exit, fear of us not working out prevented both of us from seeing and really hearing the pain that our favorite person on the planet was feeling… and feeling because we were causing it.
The decision to seal off the exits held us in place long enough for our egos to dissolve and really see what the other person was trying so hard to communicate. “Love me more.”
It’s hard to love someone, even your spouse (especially your spouse?), when you feel attacked and invalidated by them. Something I truly believe is that the complaints your spouse has about you are always right. They can feel you more deeply than you can see yourself. Which is one of the reasons it is so hard not to get defensive when they come to you saying things like, “You only love me for who I can be,” or, “You rely too much on me.”
For this same reason, your partner is probably the person who is most able to help you evolve. The problem is, they only see the reason, rarely the path. It’s less like, “If you opened your heart instead of shutting down, you’d get the very thing you’re looking for from me.” And more like, “You turn into a child when we fight.”
This is the trick. You must be willing to hear the second message to gain access to the first one. And your (at least my) ego will fight that to the death.
I believe staying in love and expanding in your capacity to love each other across your life means self(ego)-annihilation.
The part of me that wants to deny his accusations (observations?), defend myself against them, and deflect and distract the conversation back to his flaws, is my ego. And she will fight to stay alive. Nothing is too precious or valuable to her to concede for. According to her, everything can go down in flames before she will say, “Hmm, maybe you’re right.”
Lately, I’ve been struck by the old saying, “You’re the worst version of yourself with the people you love the most.” It’s so common that I miss how absolutely awful it is. I’m pretty sure it’s my ego’s daily affirmation.
Sibe is not just my husband. He’s my best friend, the person I want to spend the most time with, all of my time with. He’s my favorite person on the planet. But I treat him horribly at times. And we leave each other, emotionally and energetically, through mental exit plans, in our hardest moments.
But today, we’re in a different space. Sibe walked in from work, kissed me on the cheek, and said, “I’m so grateful for you today.” Our apartment is notably lighter.
The night before, even angry and upset and hurt by each other, we still loved to put Pepper to bed together. It’s part of her routine, too. And while we were laughing with her, it was almost like we were excluding each other from our individual laughter with Pepper.
Tonight, as we read her a book, the room is completely different. I’m sitting on our big, grey-upholstered rocking chair with Pepper on my lap. Sibe is sitting on the floor, back in between my knees. Pepper’s chubby baby feet are resting on each of his shoulders, only reaching to his ears, which she is pulling (and occasionally clawing) with her impossible-to-trim baby nails. She’s inspecting them and occasionally eliciting a very real, “Ow!” from Sibe. He’s reading a book about bears to her in Dutch, and Opi is dropping her stuffed bone — covered in drool and most of the stuffing spilling out of a hole she bit in the top — into his lap to throw, trying to get in on the action.
Tonight, our laughter is shared. It feels like we’re reconnected. But not in the sense that we’ve returned to where we were before. It feels like we’re a millimeter further.
We both know that we’ll lose consciousness again. We’ll get angry, feel misunderstood and invalidated again, somewhere in the future. But right now, we feel a little closer and a little safer to meet that, with our exits sealed.
After three days of dancing, we held on, at the most exhausted moment. Right as you’d think the dance was ending, we clumsily rolled toward each other and fell back, into an even more loving embrace.
“We Are One” available Fall 2021. Get early access and be the first to know about preorder bonuses and excerpts.
This book is not about motherhood. It’s a book about identity. It’s a book about using life’s unexpected circumstances as a lever to open you up to the most authentic, alive, powerful version you can create yourself to be. In my case, motherhood.
Motherhood, for those of us for whom it was never in the cards, can do no less than shift the tectonic plates of your being. In the process, it can feel like it levels the life built upon them.
Embracing this will rock you, shake you to the core, and catalyze an expansion that would swallow the life you left behind whole — and allow you to live the full richness of life, heal the deepest parts of you and emerge anew, not redesigned, but renovated. Brought back to your true essence to create magic in your life in a way that you never anticipated, and arguably, could not have accessed without this massive ‘disruption.’
Our culture teaches us that it’s about balance. Finding time for yourself, making sure you take care of your own needs.
I call bullshit. Balance isn’t going to cut it. While logistics play a major role in the daily challenges of parenthood, for the kind of women this book is written for, it’s not about time management.
It’s about energy management, soul management. It’s not about balancing your checkbook and budgeting your time, it’s about creating a radical shift in who you are. Shedding your old identity and shifting who you are at the deepest, most expansive level.