movement, passage, or change from one position, state, stage, subject, concept, etc., to another; change
Every now and again, you meet someone whose work will totally change the way that you look at life.
About a month ago I received an email from Lisa introducing me to Sheryl, whose work she thought I might enjoy. Lisa actually included Sheryl’s phone # in her email, and after reading through Sheryl’s blogs I decided to giver her a call. We talked for almost an hour, and her words were so powerful to me and resonated so soundly that I knew that I wanted to share her work with all of you. Sheryl is joining Rhythm of The Home as a contributor for the next four editions, and she will be exploring the topic of transitions with children and families on a deeper level, but I asked her to join us here today to share how as both parents and people, we can honor the transitions that we all face. Her work seems so vital in creating communities, families and relationships that are positive and meaningful, and I hope that you will enjoy getting to know this incredible mama as much as I have.
The Circle opens. Welcome Sheryl
breaking something up.
The earth must be broken
to bring forth life.
If the seed does not die,
there is no plant.
from the death of wheat.
Life lives on lives.”
– Joseph Campbell, “Reflections on the Art of Living: A Joseph Campbell Companion,” p. 19
Tell us about your family
My husband and I have two sons: Everest, 5 ½, and Asher, 1. Four years ago, we moved from Los Angeles to Colorado (first Denver, then Boulder) with the hope of changing our quality of life and being able to spend more time together as a family. My husband is an artist and a computer animator and worked in Hollywood for twenty years. The move to Colorado has, indeed, allowed for much more time together even though it has brought different challenges. In fact, the transition from L.A. to Denver was probably the biggest transition of Everest’s life. He was two and it affected him deeply – but more about that later!
How did your work begin, and how has it flowed to your present focus?
My work officially began when I was studying for my Master’s in Counseling Psychology in 1996. I had to choose a thesis topic and I had always been fascinated with transitions. I started to research the wedding transition and quickly realized that there was virtually no information that helped women and men understand the emotional and psychological aspects of what happens when they transition from single to married. All of the books were about the planning and practical aspects of a wedding.
My program was at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara and it had a strong focus on depth psychology: Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Marion Woodman. The study of symbols and myths were central to the program. So my research began with the study of wedding mythology and moved into the transition in general.
The cornerstone of my work is based on the work of Dutch anthropologist, Arnold van Gennep, who published a book in 1960 called, “The Rites of Passage.” Through studying indigenous cultures around the world, he learned that they all pass through the same three stages regardless of the transition, and that they help their members move through transitions more successfully by containing them with time-honored rituals. The three stages are: rites of separation, liminal, and rites of incorporation.
In other words, if we’re talking about the wedding, we say that during the engagement, the bride or groom begins the process of letting go of and separating from her or his identity as a single person, which includes transferring allegiance from family of origin to spouse-to-be, grieving the end of singlehood, and exploring the fears and expectations of marriage. Stage two is the liminal phase, also known as the in-between stage, where we’re not quite single and not quite married. Liminal is a key word in understanding the framework of transitions. It’s that uncomfortable void or fallow period that we’ve all experienced when we’ve let go of the old life but haven’t quite stepped into the new identity or lifestyle. And the last stage is the spring, or rebirth, of the transition, when we establish our new identity and find our sea-legs.
The research that culminated in my master’s thesis eventually birthed my counseling business, Conscious Weddings, and the publication of my first book, The Conscious Bride. A few years later, I became pregnant with my son and so began the research for my next body of work, Conscious Motherhood. I had always envisioned that my passion for transitions would extend into every area of life, which is why I’ve been so excited to start my blog, Conscious Transitions. This blog feels like both the commencement and culmination of my life’s work.
What is the importance of honoring transitions in our life?
Transitions are breaking and renewal points in a human life. The events that trigger transitions – adolescence, onset of menstruation, leaving home, graduating from college, starting a new job, moving, leaving a job, getting married, buying a house, becoming a parent, losing a loved one, empty nest, (to name a few!) – carry the potential to either help us grow into a better version of ourselves or entrench our negative habits, thoughts, and attributes even further. When we approach transitions with accurate information, guidance, and rituals, we can walk through them consciously. When we’re left alone, which most of us are in this culture, we hobble through the transition and just try to get to the other side as quickly as possible.
Let me give you an example: my work with Conscious Motherhood centers around the process through which the identity of mother is born. Nearly everything in our culture focuses on the how a baby is born and the practical needs of pregnancy and new motherhood: books about the size of your growing fetus/baby, what’s happening physically for you during pregnancy, what you supposedly need to purchase before your baby arrives. You know, the “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” genre of books. There are very few resources that help women understand what to expect emotionally and spiritually during pregnancy, birth, and new motherhood and how her identity is shifting, how her inner world is being turned on its head, how becoming a mother is nothing short of an internal earthquake and how can we support women through this tumultuous time? The answer is that we need to at least begin with accurate information. This starts with exploding the myths of perfect, blissful motherhood that surround the transition, beginning with pregnancy and continuing into the first weeks and year of motherhood. So if a woman experiences anything less than pure bliss, she wonders what’s wrong with her.
I worked with a Conscious Motherhood client last week who’s been feeling guilty and ashamed for twelve years because the first thought she had when she saw that positive pregnancy test was, “Oh my god, my life is over.” When I told her that the thought she had was normal, she started to cry from relief. Furthermore, I shard with her that the thought originated from her alignment with the archetypal elements of her transition where a part of her life was ending with the confirmation of her pregnancy: in that moment, her identity as non-mother died as her identity as mother was being born. This is a highly sensitive woman who has been beautifully aligned with her instincts throughout her life as a mother. It didn’t surprise me that her first thought in that life-changing moment reflected her attunement with the painful reality that part of her life was ending.
If she had been educated and conditioned with accurate information instead of the unilateral depictions of pregnancy bliss, she wouldn’t have felt so ashamed for so many years. Furthermore, because we’re more vulnerable during transitions than any other time in life, we’re more susceptible to the beliefs we form and the experiences we endure. Her initial thought upon her birth as a mother shaped her identity as a mother; in other words, the birth of her mother identity took root in unstable soil. She’s healing that now (it’s never too late to do the work of conscious transitions), but it’s heartbreaking to think that the unnecessarily carried this shame for so long.
You work with the transitions of married couples, new parents, and family transitions. Tell us a little about the transitions that each of these phases of life hold, and what is important to honor?
The nine most common areas of the wedding transition that should ideally be processed during the engagement are:
1. Separation from family of origin and friends
2. Grief from old losses and unfinished transitions
3. Letting go of attachment to singlehood–identity and lifestyle
4. Leap into adulthood
5. Liminality feelings
6. Experiences toward fiancé: anger, separateness, loneliness
7. Wedding day issues
8. What is a wife?
9. Fears about marriage and commitment
There are nine areas where women most commonly feel the losses inherent to the motherhood transition. In my work with Conscious Motherhood, I discuss how important it is to acknowledge these losses during pregnancy as much as possible, but that the grief doesn’t usually completely hit until after the baby arrives. Also, with each loss (or contraction) comes an expansion as we’re birthed into the mothers we’re meant to be. In our conversations around the motherhood transition, it’s particularly important not to lose sight of these expansions because sometimes the sacrifices can be quite overwhelming.
Physical Losses and Expansions:
1. Loss of Sleep – Well of Endurance
2. Loss of Prepregnant Body and Regular Exercise – Birth of a New Body
Identity Losses and Expansions:
3. Loss of Youth/Childhood – Well of Adulthood and Reliance on a Greater Source
4. Loss of Work-Self – Expansion of Work-Self
Relationships Losses and Expansions:
5. Loss of Undivided Time with Friends – Well of Perspective
6. Loss of Husband as You’ve Known Him – Birth of a New Marriage
Time Losses and Expansions:
7. Loss of Free Time (Unstructured Downtime, Spontaneous Emotional Releases) – Wells of Surrender, Perspective, and an Open Heart
8. Loss of Efficiency, Achievement, and Completion – Wells of Surrender, Perspective and Patience
Spiritual Losses and Expansions:
9. Loss of Control – Wells of Faith and Prayer
1. Becoming a family
2. Birth of a sibling
4. Teething – both growing new teeth and losing baby teeth
5. Baby to toddler
6. Starting school or deciding to leave school
7. Toddler to little boy/girl
8. Little boy/girl to big boy/girl (as the child individuates, the parents must learn how to let go)
9. Big boy/girl to adolescence
10. Onset of menstruation
11. Transition to manhood
12. Graduating from high school (empty nest)
13. Losing a loved one (family pet, friend, family member)
I’m sure there are many other family transitions that I’m leaving out. At the core of each transition, the parents’ challenge is learning how to let go gracefully and lovingly to help the child discover their individual identity. At each juncture, the parents’ identities shift and change as well: i.e. mother of a baby is a different identity than mother of a ten year old; mother of one child is different than mother of two, etc.
As parents, how should we be looking at the transitions that each of our children are going through daily, and honoring the gifts that these transitions can bring?
It’s astonishing how many transitions our children endure. I’ve been thinking about a blog post I’d like to write called “The Myth of Childhood Bliss” because we have this idea that childhood is so easy and carefree. It’s true that it’s supposed to be a time in life where others attend to our needs, but if you think about how much a baby and young child changes in their first sixteen years of life, it’s mind-blowing. When else in life do we grow two feet in the span of four years? When do we grow a whole set of teeth and then lose them? Just the changes that a baby endures in her first year of life alone is beyond anything we ever experience again. Since transitions activate feeling out of control, I can only imagine how out of control our kids feel a lot of the time.
We need to give parents a context for understanding these transitions and a language for articulating them. For example, I’ve been particularly aware lately of the transition my older son is enduring as he passes from little boyhood to bigger boyhood. This is not a transition that I’ve ever heard anyone talk about. I’ve read that 5 ½ to 6 ½ can be challenging, but there’s so little information about why it’s challenging. I’m watching him changing shape before my eyes. I’m watching him losing teeth and growing new ones. I’m watching him vacillate between regression into an almost infantile state to behaving with the maturity of a young man. I’m watching this restlessness in his body that no amount of exercise quells. These are the hallmarks of transition. And one of the only things that seems to ease his restlessness and physical/spiritual discomfort as he slowly sheds the skin of his little boyhood, grows a new skin, and finds his separate identity, is words. Sometimes when he’s whining and writhing in his body, I’ll try to help him identify what he’s feeling inside. I’ll ask, “Are you hungry?” No. “Are you tired?” No. “Are you uncomfortable?” No. “Are you feeling out of control inside?” Yes. I’m amazed that he understands what that means, but he does. His entire body relaxes when we can assign words to his experience.
Some transitions are daily transitions and some are major life transitions. Some of the significant transitions that we’ve helped our son through are: moving twice in two years, becoming a big brother, and losing a beloved cat. For each of these transitions, we’ve encouraged him to express his sadness and loss, given him words when he’s in the uncomfortable in-between (liminal) zone, and watched him blossom with new skills and resources on the other side.
Again, an example to flesh this out for you: becoming a big brother. Everest was four when I became pregnant with our second child. He had been an only child for a long time, so we knew that the transition would present challenges. At first he seemed okay. I think it takes a while for the reality of pregnancy to set in for a child. But around my second trimester, he started to say things like, “I don’t want a little brother. Tell him to go back to baby heaven.” Sometimes he would become quite emotional, crying and thrashing around on the bed. As hard as it was to hear him say this, I knew how important it was to make space for his difficult feelings. He was accurately and understandably expressing his fear and loss. I also felt the loss of my exclusive relationship with Everest, and I knew I needed to grieve that loss as much as possible before my baby arrived.
As always, I searched for rituals that would help contain his experience and facilitate his leap from only child to big brother; as always, I came up empty-handed. So, just as we had done when we moved, we created our own rituals. As we’re a book-loving family and have always derived comfort from books, we created books for Everest to concretize and offer words and images to help him make sense of these transitions. We talked, we read, we grieved. We watched Everest fall apart at various points in my late pregnancy and trusted that he would piece himself back together again, stronger than before. And sure enough, after his little brother arrived, he grew in leaps and bounds. Within two months of the birth, he was exhibiting independent behaviors that he had long resisted, including potty training. Asher’s birth was also Everest’s birth – and, of course, our birth as we transitioned from parents of one to parents of two.
As parents, we use the word “transitions” a lot but we might not understand the deeper underpinnings at play for our children when they’re in transition. We say thing like “my baby is transitioning from two naps to one,” or my five year old is transitioning to a full day of kindergarten. We know that it’s hard but we might not understand why it’s hard and the stages that comprise the transition. Furthermore, we generally don’t understand that when one member of a family is in transition, it not only affects everyone but it’s usually a transition for everyone. So if a firstborn is starting school, this is letting go for the parents. As a mother, you might find yourself grieving the loss of time with your son or daughter. A younger sibling will also feel the changes on some level as the older sibling’s time at home is decreased. The lens through which we view our children directly affects our parenting. When we understand that a certain behavior may be connected to the emotions and sense of feeling out of control activated by a transition, it may help reduce our reactivity to the behavior and effectively guide our children to more solid ground.
Although I talk about transitions as if it’s a linear process, it’s not. While the majority of the grieving, separating, and letting go should ideally occur during the front end of a transition (before the move, during the engagement or pregnancy, before the kids move out of the house), there will always be layers of letting go that crop up afterwards. It’s important to breathe into these moments as they arise with acceptance and compassion so that the transition can continue to move through and the new identity and lifestyle can continue to grow on healthy soil.
For those of us who did not think much about transitions as we married or had children, how can we “go back” and honor that now?
It’s one of the beauties of transitions that it’s never too late to go back and do the work that didn’t occur. Thankfully, our identities and emotional experiences are fluid and ever-changing, which means they’re malleable and available for healing. The woman I wrote about earlier who carried shame for twelve years about her first thought when she learned she was pregnant is a perfect example. She said that when I told her that she was normal and, in fact, aligned with the reality of the transition, she could physically feel a weight lifted off her and her mother identity solidified.
A lot of the work around transitions takes the form of journaling. We need to give voice to our experience and for many people the most effective way to do this is through journaling. If you’re going back to a previous transition, you can ask yourself questions like, “What were the losses I experienced at that time that I didn’t allow myself to feel? What expectations did I carry into marriage and/or motherhood?” The categories I offer in question four can help inform the journaling.
Another beauty of transitions is that they activate unfinished transitions for your past. So if you’re moving, for example, you may become flooded with memories of your marriage or motherhood transitions, or another painful loss that you’ve endured. This is an excellent time to harness the energy activated by a current transition to heal past ones.
How can an online community like ours work to support the transitions that we all go through, and that need to be recognized?
I’d love to see more articles, blogs and videos about how people are navigating transitions. Online communities are such wonderful resources for support and information. I think there’s still quite a bit of taboo that needs to be lifted around being honest about how difficult transitions like getting married, becoming a mother, and family transitions can be. Even though we might consciously know that other people struggle, I think there’s still a very strong voice that lives in most mothers that says, “I must be doing something wrong. Everyone else seems to be doing fine.” While honoring and talking about transitions obviously isn’t a panacea for parenting or for understanding life, I do believe that it can help us tremendously to contextualize what a child – and we, as parents – might be going through.
For example, I remember when one of my best friend’s daughter started kindergarten last fall. My friend grieved for months, and she felt like she was the only one grieving. People might make brief reference to how hard the transition was for them, but our culture has a very hard time hanging out in that space of “hard.” The push is usually towards “get back on the horse and move on.” Her grief was so essential for her process of letting go; had she not consciously grieved, the feelings would have settled in her body and come out in other unpleasant ways. She felt very alone with her experience but imagine if she has been able to connect to an online community that was experiencing exactly what she was going through.
We need to be more honest about these normal life transitions. We need to trust that the more we allow ourselves to feel the difficult feelings, the more thoroughly we’ll be able to let go and welcome in the new growth and birth, whatever that may be.
What can we do globally to create a world that honors the transitions that we all go through, and that have to be recognized in order to create a more peaceful world?
This is a huge but important question! Central to the philosophy of transitions is honoring the feminine principle. I use the word feminine in the archetypal sense, meaning the energies of being, slowness, stillness, emotional as opposed to the masculine principle of efficiency, productivity, action, rational thought. Both men and women carry the feminine and masculine principles. Our culture – and most of the so-called “developed” world – favors the masculine principles. We’re about doing things quickly and efficiently. We’re about productivity and action. We’re about rational thought. There’s nothing wrong with the masculine principle; on the contrary, it’s essential to access these qualities when necessary. But we’re grossly out of balance.
This is where honoring transitions enters the picture. When we honor a transition, we have to slow down. When we slow down, we drop into our bodies where our emotions live. When we acknowledge and process our emotions, we become kinder, more compassionate, and more spiritually evolved human beings. Anything that increases our capacity for compassion will naturally create a more peaceful world.
I’ve written several blogs about my commitment to unplug my computer for a twenty-four hour period. This has become my fallow time, my liminal zone where I can replenish away from the virtual world. This simple act slows me down and brings me into alignment with the natural pace of life, nature’s pace which is also the pace of transitions. One of my best friends said to me the other day, “I love your blogs on unplugging. You should start a revolution.” Imagine if everyone unplugged for twenty-four hours! Imagine how the effect that one simple act would have on our energy resources, both literally and spiritually. When we honor the transition of a week, we recognize that there’s an arc to the week where we’re productive and in the world, and then we start to retreat back into ourselves until we slow down in the liminal stage of a self-imposed Sabbath.
Honoring transitions also brings us into alignment with nature. The framework of transitions follows the four seasons, so when we’re actively working with transitions we’re more attuned with the natural world. Anything that connects us more deeply to nature will have positive global effects.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, when we honor transitions we’re able to parent our children with more compassion. Instead of viewing an emotional breakdown as a “temper tantrum”, we might examine her stage of growth and realize that she’s in a transition. Holding the three stages in mind creates a roadmap for every transition our children pass through, from teething to sleeping, growing from a baby to a toddler, a toddler to a little boy or girl, then a big boy or girl, an adolescent, and a young adult.
Our world would change dramatically if we guided girls through the transition of becoming a young woman, physically instigated by the onset of menstruation. Our world would change dramatically if we had meaningful rituals that guided young boys across the terrifying terrain of becoming a man (what we refer to as adolescence.) Our culture has no framework, rituals, or vocabulary in place that can help us help our children transition through each stage of their development. It’s such a glaring hole in our culture and the ramifications are immense. Most of us arrive at adulthood without a clear sense of who we are and what it means to be an adult. We arrive on the shores of our twenties carrying the unfinished transitions and withheld grief of our childhood inside. Our identities are fractured because the transitions were fractured. At the core of transitions is a framework that helps to create more whole and healthy people.
Across history, how have most of the major life transitions been honored by other cultures, and how are they still honored?
All indigenous cultures and many non-Western cultures have and currently honor transitions the same way: through guidance, mentoring, and time-honored rituals. Where a Kota woman of the Nilgiri Hills is taken to three special huts during the first three months of motherhood, we pride ourselves when we can move through the change as if nothing has changed. We often hear statements like, “She worked through her entire pregnancy” and “She went back to work after just six weeks” from boasting husbands, proud that their wives are able to handle it all and that a baby is only a minor and temporary disruption. A Kota woman understands in the marrow of her bones that she is not the woman she was before. We imagine that during her pregnancy and those first critical three months of motherhood she received guidance and said prayers to help relinquish the old life and blossom into the full beauty of a mother. Westerners, on the other hand, receive the message that we must try to retrieve what was lost – the prepregnant body, the job, the sex life, the friendships, the lifestyle – instead of grieving the losses and welcoming in the possibilities of something new.
While the rituals differ from culture to culture, they always follow the three phases of transition – separation rites (letting go), liminal (in-between), rites of incorporation (new beginning) – thus successfully guiding each and every member of society into their next stage of life.
Thank you to Sheryl for taking the time to share her thoughts and work with us, and thank you to all of you for stopping in.
You will also find her first article for Rhythm of The Home when the Summer edition launches on Tuesday, June 1st.